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 Posted by Gabriele Marcotti
Jun 11, 2014

As #WorldCupRank concludes, time for the real fun to start

OK, so it's simple water-cooler stuff. Idle, endless conversation fodder of the "Who you got, A or B?" variety. But that doesn't mean you don't learn something when you get a gaggle of ESPN contributors -- writers, editors, analysts and producers -- from several dozen countries together and ask them to rank the best players at the World Cup.

We all react differently. But presumably nobody is surprised at the top two, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. You can debate the order, I suppose, but not that these two are head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

We are blessed to live in a special time. We are witnessing these two at their peak and are able to speak of them in the same breath as Diego Maradona and Pele, Johan Cruyff and Eusebio, Alfredo Di Stefano and Franz Beckenbauer. But already at No. 3, things get a bit more controversial. (Remember, this is a rank of players we'll see at the World Cup -- or expected to see, sorry Franck Ribery and Falcao -- which means no Zlatan Ibrahimovic.)

Andres Iniesta? Great player, no doubt, but does he really belong ahead of Luis Suarez or Neymar or Yaya Toure?

That's when personal preference comes in. And maybe personal criteria. Mine? I imagine a giant pickup game where I have the third pick overall (Messi and Cristiano are gone) and I want to choose the best guy available. I worry about chemistry and filling in the spots around him later.

"Who's the best" is an eternal debate in any sport, and soccer's no different. Now they'll all be in Brazil this summer.

That would steer me toward Suarez for the simple reason that it's very difficult to divorce Iniesta from his natural habitat at Barcelona or with Spain. We know how good he can be with a stellar supporting cast; we just don't know what he would be like if he had to carry a side the way Suarez has done at times with Liverpool and Ajax.

Of course, you can apply a similar argument to Neymar, though maybe in reverse. At Barcelona, where he has to share the stage with Messi (and Iniesta), he's less dominant than with Brazil -- or than he was at Santos. So does playing with great players help you? In some cases, yes; in others, maybe less so. That's what makes this whole exercise so subjective and prone to different interpretations.

There's a bias toward attacking players, too, and it's perhaps understandable. Thiago Silva is the only defender in the top 20, and he clocks in at No. 12.

It may be that often it's more difficult to assess what primarily defensive players -- be they holding midfielders or centre-backs -- contribute. They don't show up on "SportsCenter" highlights. Football doesn't have the equivalent of a basketball big man swatting a ball out of the paint or a defensive end steamrollering an opponent to punish a quarterback.

- #WorldCupRank: See our full Top 50 countdown

Indeed, when you do get gaudy defensive plays -- a last-ditch block or goal-line clearance -- it's usually because somebody has gambled or there has been a defensive breakdown elsewhere. Great defenders -- and, in the modern game, it makes sense to bracket holding midfielders alongside them -- rarely leave their feet.

So how did Silva's fellow defensive players -- Phillip Lahm (22), Vincent Kompany (31), Sergio Busquets (40), Dani Alves (44), Daniele De Rossi (45), Gerard Pique (47) and David Luiz (50) -- get on the list?

Except for Alves (who is primarily an attacking force), it's mostly on reputation. There's nothing wrong with that; it's something you build week in, week out. When your work is generally unseen -- and, yes, the best ones are generally unseen -- that's how you do it.

It also means goalkeepers get similar treatment, though unlike defenders, they do provide highlight-reel material. There's no argument with Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois being first and second among keepers; you wonder, though, if to some degree the other two on the list, Iker Casillas and Gigi Buffon, didn't benefit somewhat by what they did in years past.

Because that's the other bit with which you struggle. Ribery at 5, Xavi at 8, Robin van Persie at 13, Wayne Rooney at 14, Bastian Schweinsteiger at 16, Radamel Falcao -- who hasn't played since January -- at 19 ... Are these guys in the top 20 for where they rank right now? Or are we projecting what they might do at their best?

There's no correct way to do it. It's a personal choice.

Thiago Silva is the highest-ranked defender though it's clear that attackers are generally rated higher in such ballots.
Thiago Silva is the highest-ranked defender though it's clear that attackers are generally rated higher in such ballots.

The other thing that's obvious is that if you want to be on a list like this, it matters where you play. Except for Falcao, De Rossi and the Liverpool trio of Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, every single player in #WorldCupRank also appeared in the Champions League this season. Two-thirds belong to teams who reached the Elite Eight in the game's premier club competition.

To some degree, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: The best players will gravitate toward the best teams. But it should also provide food for thought. The European game is as top-heavy as it has ever been in terms of wealthier clubs cornering the market for talent. The gap between the 1-percenters and the next tier down (let alone the little guys) is as big as it has ever been.

Is that a concern? Would some of these players rank as highly if they performed to the exact same level, albeit for mid-table sides? All issues worth considering.

In the end, let's treasure this top 50, because they are special players. Let's also open the floodgates of debate over the guys who were overlooked (I'm sure there will be plenty in the comments below) and the guys who would be on it but for the fact that their nations failed to qualify.

Let's realize that whom you pick and how you rank them -- particularly once you're outside Messi-Ronaldo territory -- probably says more about you, what you value and what you're exposed to than it does about the players themselves.

And maybe let's revisit this in five weeks' time, after they've strutted their stuff on the biggest stage of all.

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