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Ten best players of the decade

Whittling the best footballers of the decade down to just ten representatives was something of an arduous, if enjoyable, task here at Soccernet towers. But, following plenty of arguments, rolling of eyes and whistles of disbelief we eventually settled on the final ten...

• Soccernet and ESPN Classic users voted Zinedine Zidane as the player of the decade in our online poll. You can see Zizou in action during the 1998 World Cup on ESPN Classic at 19.40 UK on Tuesday (SKY 429 and Virgin Media 533)

Gianluigi Buffon

At £32.6 million Gianluigi Buffon remains the world's most expensive goalkeeper and while many baulked when Juventus recruited him for such a hefty price-tag in the summer of 2001 he has since proven his considerable worth for both club and country, culminating in World Cup triumph in 2006.

The Italy international had already won the UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana before switching to Juve and upon his arrival in Turin helped his new club to scoop the scudetto in his debut season. Buffon kept his firm grip on the Serie A title for the following three campaigns, only to have the last two stripped away due to the calciopoli scandal. Demotion to Serie B followed and while many Juve stars deserted the club, Buffon remained to help the Bianconeri win Serie B and return to the top flight.

Still only 31-years-old, Buffon has won everything in the Italian game and was a major part of the Italy side that won the World Cup in 2006 - enjoying a 453-minute scoreless streak and conceding just two goals (one an own goal and the other a penalty) during the tournament. His personal accolades include the UEFA award for Most Valuable Player and Best Goalkeeper.

Steven Gerrard

The Liverpool captain may not have single-handedly won the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan as legend has it, but he was certainly the main protagonist as the Reds fought back from 3-0 down in Istanbul. The Englishman's drive, commitment, and no small amount of skill, pulled the rest of the team along and that night in the Turkish city epitomises him as a player.

The England international has been the lynchpin for his hometown club for most of the "Noughties" and he has rarely let them down; scoring crucial goals at crucial times. Regarded as one of the finest midfielders in Europe he has won almost every domestic honour in the game, only the Premier League title eludes him. His limitless energy, creative drive and impressive goalscoring record from midfield means he could walk into almost any team in the world.

He has been a regular nominee for the Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year award, but he is yet to get his hands on the highly-coveted individual award.

Thierry Henry

It may seem odd to suggest this Barcelona treble-winner was at the peak of his powers at Arsenal but that just proves the exceptional standards the French striker has maintained. Henry spearheaded Arsene Wenger's team from 1999 to 2007, scoring a club record tally of 226 goals in 380 games as the Gunners twice won the Premier League title and a few other baubles along the way.

The £10.5 million former Juventus forward helped Arsenal go through the entire 2003-04 Premier League season unbeaten, scoring a highly impressive 30 goals in 37 league appearances and was named both PFA Players' Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year. He joined Barcelona in 2007 and in his second season in La Liga fired the Catalan club to an amazing trio of trophies: the league title, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League.

Henry's trickery, pace and eye for a spectacular goal have also brought considerable success on the international stage. He was France's top-scorer as Les Bleus claimed the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 and has surpassed the great Michel Platini as his countries all-time record goalscorer. What more can you want?


Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite's football career was nearly over before it began. At 15-years-old he fractured a vertebra when jumping from a springboard into a pool. Kaka credits God for his recovery and is more than happy to reveal his famous "I belong to Jesus" T-shirt following his numerous goal celebrations. The 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or winner is now one of the best players on the planet.

As a teenager, his skilful distribution and shooting prowess made him an immediate hit at Sao Paulo, where he scored 30 goals in two seasons, and in 2003 AC Milan paid what club owner Silvio Berlusconi described as "peanuts" to take the graceful 6'1" playmaker to Serie A. In Italy, Kaka really started to shine, winning the Scudetto in his debut season and playing a pivotal role as Milan won the Champions League in 2007. In the summer of 2009 Florentino Perez paid a then world record fee of €68.5 million to make Kaka the first superstar singing of a new galacticos era.

He has worn the famous yellow strip of Brazil on more than 70 occasions, scoring 26 goals, and bagged a World Cup winners medal in 2002, despite only playing 25 minutes against Costa Rica. Kaka failed to shine in a struggling Selecao at World Cup 2006 but his dazzling ability with the ball is expected to play a starring role at South Africa 2010.

Paolo Maldini

Despite hitting the age of 30 before the decade had even begun Paolo Maldini remained the outstanding defender of the noughties and only called time on his distinguished career in the summer of 2009, having made over 800 appearances for AC Milan. If Maldini were to put his medals on the table it would have to be reinforced; the defender has won 27 club titles, eight of those in the past ten years.

Often described as an 'exquisite' defender, Maldini brought a certain grace to the destructive art and in his younger days wasn't shy of galloping down the wing to augment the Rossoneri attack. The former Italy captain learned his trade playing alongside probably the best defender of them all, Franco Baresi, so it no surprises that he went on to such great achievements. His timing in the tackle, allied with an enviable ability to read the game allowed Maldini to prolong his career, switching from left-back to centre-back.

In 2003, he lifted the European Cup as captain of Milan exactly 40 years after his father Cesare, another great defender in the club's history, accomplished the same feat. Paolo added another Champions League title in 2007, when Milan beat Liverpool in Athens, and when he retired in 2009 the club he had served for 25-years retired his number 3 jersey as a mark of respect.

Lionel Messi

Given Messi's meteoric rise to fame with Barcelona it's easy to forget that the pint-sized Argentinean actually made his debut for the Catalan club back in 2004. And it was apparent even before taking to the pitch against Espanyol in October of that year that he was special talent. After leaving the youth ranks of Newells Old Boys in search of a club that could pay for expensive medical treatment to combat a hormonal problem that affected his growth, Barca took one look at Messi and decided to foot the bill.

The 2009 Ballon d'Or winner, and FIFA World Player of the Year shoe-in, has already repaid the club three times over and dazzled world football with his incredible dribbling skills and unerring accuracy in front of goal along the way. Many Argentinians have buckled under the label of 'the new Maradona' but Messi has risen to the challenge and his myriad supporters even expect him to surpass El Diego.

Despite being only 22-years-old Messi has already won the Spanish League on three occasions and the Champions League twice. The most remarkable thing about those considerable triumphs is that Messi was not just part of a great team that swaggered its way to victory, he was the main man in the best team in Europe. The 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United was even billed as Messi v Ronaldo. The little forward inevitably came out on top, even scoring a rare headed goal in the final.


Ronaldo Assis de Moreira's star may have waned towards the end of the decade, but at his brightest, with Barcelona, he outshone everyone. After making his initial mark with Gremio the tall, lanky and wonderfully skilful Ronaldinho was snapped up by PSG in 2001 and began to make his mark in European football.

Despite clashing with PSG manager Luis Fernandez over his party lifestyle the attacking midfielder still found time to dazzle the Parisian fans, develop his repertoire of freekicks and showcase the "jogo bonito" brand of football that had Manchester United and Barcelona fighting for his signature in 2003, after winning the World Cup with Brazil in 2002.

At the Camp Nou the €32,250,000 signing used his elastic footwork develop the "double drag" and "scoop turn" tricks as his increasingly creative assists, and no shortage of goals, fired Barca to the Liga title in 2004/05, and landed him with the FIFA World Player of the Year - an award he won again the following year. A Champions League and Liga double in 2006 probably marked the zenith of Ronaldinho's career; he is now struggling for form at AC Milan.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Legend has it that Manchester United's players were so impressed when facing a young Ronaldo in a friendly against Sporting Lisbon in 2003 that they convinced manager Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him up. £12.24 million was enough to take the winger to Old Trafford, where he won everything there is to win during six-years with the English club.

Three Premier League titles and a UEFA Champions League title later Ronaldo signed off at the Red Devils with a 42-goal season; an incredible feat which prompted Johan Cruyff to claim that the Portugal international was better then United legends George Best and Denis Law - high praise indeed. His searing pace, quick feet and trademark dipping, swerving freekicks made the forward virtually unstoppable and landed him the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year award during his final season.

Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez paid a world record £80 million to take Ronaldo to the Bernabeu in 2009 and such has been his impact that Los Blancos have faced accusations that their star-studded line-up depend too much on the inspirational performances of the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, who is now one of the most recognizable footballers in the world.


It is easy to forget that the original Ronaldo, O Fenômeno (The Phenomenon), had already established himself as one of the most prolific strikers in world football before that other character came along. With two FIFA World Player of the Year awards already under his belt the Brazil international added a third - a feat only Zinedine Zidane has achieved - at the start of the decade.

At the 2002 World Cup Ronaldo led Brazil to their fifth title, his second, scoring against every opponent except England along the way, including two strikes in the final, as he bagged the Golden Boot award and equalled Pele's record of 12 career World Cup goals. Following early success at PSV, Barcelona and Inter in the 90's Ronaldo, like so many other stars, moved to Real Madrid in 2002 and he proved he still had the pace, guile and thunderous shot of world-class predatory striker as Los Blancos won two La Liga titles, with the Brazilian smashing in an amazing 83 goals in 127 Primera Division matches from 2002-2007.

It may surprise some that a slightly more portly version of the Ronaldo that was given a standing ovation by Manchester United fans after his hat-trick knocked the Red Devils out of Europe in 2003 is still plying his trade at Corinthians, where he scooped the 2009 Brazilian league title, the 22nd trophy of his career, scoring 12 goals in 20 games. He still has hopes of making the 2010 World Cup.

Zinedine Zidane

Once in a generation a player comes along who seems to take football on to a new level and at the beginning of the Noughties that man was Zinedine Zidane. He had of course being wooing crowds at Cannes, Bordeaux and Juventus prior to his 2001 world record €78 million transfer to Real Madrid in 2001, not to mention winning the odd bauble with France

In 1998 Zidane scored twice in the World Cup final as Les Bleus won football's most prestigious trophy and began the decade by winning Euro 2000. Already a double scudetto winner with Juventus, Zidane added the Champions League in his debut season with Real, scoring a spectacular match-winning volley against Bayer Leverkusen to prove once again he was a man for the big occasion. A Liga title quickly followed.

Famed for his unerring ability to keep possession and faultless distribution, at 6" 1' Zidane also had physical presence that helped him dominate games, and a competitive streak that sometimes got him into trouble. During the 2006 World Cup final he headbutted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in what proved to be his final game of football. But if nothing else, it was a memorable end to a career for a man whose name sits comfortably with those of Pele and Diego Maradona.


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