Who’s the Best Football Player in the World?
© AP Photo / Christophe EnaPSG's Lionel Messi, left, celebrates with PSG's Kylian Mbappe after scoring his side's third goal during his Champions League soccer match between Paris Saint Germain and RB Leipzig at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021
© AP Photo / Christophe Ena
With Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo struggling to replicate the form that landed them eleven of the past twelve Ballon d’Ors, the question of who is the best player in the world has never been more open.
Looking across Europe’s five big leagues, there are five worthy candidates to join Messi and Ronaldo in the discussion of the best player in the world. In Germany, Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland have scored at will.
In France, Kylian Mbappe has cemented himself as the best young talent in the game. In Spain, Karim Benzema has made Real Madrid fans forget about Ronaldo. And in England, Mohamed Salah has treated fans to a goal of the season on a near-weekly basis.
While other players have produced at incredible rates to begin the season, this group has the track record and current production to warrant the discussion. The best player in the world exercise has also always skewed towards attackers. Bossing the midfield may be important, but goals change games. Without further ado, let’s answer; who is the best player in the world?
The case for Mohamed Salah
The clear-cut answer to the Premier League player of the season is Mohamed Salah. Through eight matches he has scored seven goals to go along with four assists. He has the most goal involvements in the league and is third among all players in the big five European leagues.
Salah’s dominance has not been confined to England. He has five goals in three Champions League matches, as well. All told, between the Premier League and the Champions League, Salah has 12 goals and four assists.
Somehow the statistics don’t do him justice. In back-to-back weeks, he has produced a candidate for the goal of the season.
There is no one in England doing more than Salah in the attack. His finishing has been on fire, his passing decisive, and his dribbling brings back memories of Maradona. The Premier League averages fewer goals per game than both the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, which makes his goal contribution tally all the more impressive.
The case for Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi has been the consensus best player in the world for almost a decade. Some have argued that Ronaldo is better, but the statistics, and the eye test, have always pointed to Messi being the best.
He is a wizard on the ball, but the magic seems to be fading with age. In limited game action, he has failed to score in the Ligue 1, but he has managed three goals from three champions league matches.
Even as Messi’s speed has declined, his dribbling, passing vision, and ability to score remain elite. After having an attack built around him at Barcelona, it’s not surprising that Messi is having a hard time finding his footing, by his standards, at Paris Saint-Germaine.
There’s a chance that Messi goes on a tear and reminds everyone that he is the best player the planet has ever seen, but there’s also the chance that age has finally caught up to him.
Right now, Messi is in the conversation for best player in the world based on reputation, not production. However, there’s a good chance that could change soon.
The case for Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo has spent the past decade and a half battling Messi for the coveted title as the best player in the world. Ronaldo, due to his media and marketing savvy, has built a massive fanbase that steadfastly believes he’s the greatest player on Earth.
His statistical production has been immense, and, unlike Messi, he has had little trouble bagging goals in a new situation. Ronaldo has scored three goals in both the Premier League and the Champions League.
However, Ronaldo’s decline is evident to anyone who watches him with clear eyes. He’s still one of the best goal scorers in the world, but his ability to create goals for others and beat defenders off the dribble has waned in recent years.
Ronaldo is a one-trick pony, but that trick remains the most important trick in the sport. Ronaldo will stay in the best in the world conversation because of his goal tally and his reputation, but, at 36, he’ll have to settle for one of the best in the world.
The case for Robert Lewandowski
Robert Lewandowski deserves all the praise. Over the past two seasons, he has scored 51 goals in 38 Bundesliga matches. Last season he broke the single-season goals record with 41 and did it in only 29 matches. Lewandowski is doing things that only Messi and Ronaldo have done.
This season he has 15 goals and one assist between nine Bundesliga and three Champions League matches. If it wasn’t for the Ballon d’Or being canceled in 2020, it’s very likely that Lewandowski would be finalizing his case to be the first back-to-back winner who is not named Messi or Ronaldo, since Marco Van Basten in 1988 and 1989.
The only real caveat in Lewandowski’s case is that the Bundesliga is the highest goal-scoring league of Europe’s big five leagues. Even with that small caveat, he’d challenge for the Golden Boot in any league.
The case for Kylian Mbappe
Kylian Mbappe has been so good for so long, that it’s hard to remember that he has yet to turn 23. His combination of pace, dribbling ability, shooting, and passing make him the most unstoppable player in the world. When Mbappe gets going, there is nothing a defense can do but pray.
As great as Mbappe is, his stats this season have seen his role shift. His five goals and five assists in Ligue 1 indicate that he’s being asked to create more than he is to finish. With Neymar and Messi as teammates, that’s no surprise.
There’s a good chance that Mbappe takes the mantle of best player in the world and holds it for a decade. He has been ever so slightly beneath his usual standards this season, however, that he has left the discussion open for others.
The case for Karim Benzema
What Karim Benzema is doing in La Liga is simply astonishing. La Liga is the lowest goal scoring environment out of Europe’s top five leagues, yet he leads everyone in domestic goal involvement, with 16. Throw in his two goals in the Champions League and Benzema, and he is statistically the best player in the world.
Benzema spent much of his career at Real Madrid being overshadowed by Ronaldo, but since the latter left ahead of the 2018-19 season, he has been one of the world’s best center forwards.
Benzema’s statistical track record is not quite up to the standards of the competition, but this season he is pacing the field. If he’s able to keep this level of production up over the course of a season, it could go down as the best non-Messi or Ronaldo La Liga season of the 21st century.
The case for Erling Haaland
The final man on this list is also the youngest. Erling Haaland is the only real challenger to Kylian Mbappe for the world’s best young player. Just 21, Haaland has spent the past three seasons averaging over a goal per game in the Bundesliga and Champions League.
What makes his production even scarier, is that he is getting better every season. When Haaland first joined Borussia Dortmund, he offered more than a bushel of goals. Now, he is setting his teammates up like one of the world’s best playmakers.
Haaland has nine Bundesliga goals and four assists in only six matches. His 13 domestic league goal involvements are second only to Karim Benzema. His 2.17 goal involvements per 90 minutes are the best in Europe’s top five leagues.
Haaland’s production, like Lewandowski’s, must be viewed in context however, as the Bundesliga is such a high goal-scoring environment.
The best player in the world, right now, has to be Robert Lewandowski. His goal scoring is historic and he’s leading Bayern Munich on a scorched earth campaign through Germany and the Champions League.
Karim Benzema’s production has been out of this world, but it’s unlikely to last. If it wasn’t for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Lewandowski would have been viewed as the best player in the world years ago.
His goal-scoring exploits are second to none, which is why he’s the best player in the world. Perhaps he should change his name to Lewan-goal-ski.