The Champions League reached an exciting conclusion at the weekend, after which the Bleacher Report sports website produced a list of the 250 best players to grace football’s top cup competition (that’s what Americans are calling it) in the 2013-14 season.
Like any list, and there are a few around at the moment, the actual placings and fine decisions involved in this one will provoke argument, but let that pass for a moment. The players selected are probably right, even if the actual order can be disputed. The top three, in case you are impatient to know, has Cristiano Ronaldo at No1, followed by Luka Modric and Lionel Messi, so no real surprises there apart from Spurs fans continuing to wonder why their club ship out good players (Gareth Bale made No22 in the list) and bring in mediocrities.
Perhaps that will change under Mauricio Pochettino, but that’s a question for the new season and at the moment we are pondering the last one.
How many English-qualified players made the list, do you imagine, given that this country supplied four clubs to the competition and all of them reached the knockout stages? Obviously you will not be expecting a high number here, the dearth of homegrown talent at the highest level of English football has been a well-documented source of concern for some time now, but this is the way the rest of Europe (and the world beyond) sees us – and the situation might be worse than you think.
The answer is 13. Even with the three Welsh players in the top 250 (Ryan Giggs at 181, Aaron Ramsey at 29 and Bale) that means the British mainland would struggle to form a team with a Premier League-sized bench. And of those 13 Englishmen, one is Ashley Cole, who has just retired from international football, and either side of him are Michael Carrick and John Terry, whose England days appear to be over.
The only English player in the top 50 is Gary Cahill, at 38, perhaps on the basis that Chelsea went further in the competition than anyone else from the Premier League, while Manchester United’s struggles under their new manager might explain why Wayne Rooney only reaches No57. Given that Didier Drogba made it to No58, that has to be a little worrying, as does the fact that among the top 10 most prominent English performers in Europe this season were Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Frank Lampard.
James Milner finds himself in at 166, which sounds reasonable enough, yet his team-mate Martín Demichelis, who finished the domestic season strongly but hardly covered himself in glory in the Champions League, is 20 places higher at 135.
Everyone knows that the secret of the Premier League’s success is to showcase exciting foreign players in exciting games, with barely a thought for the cost or the damage done to the quaint old habit this country used to have of producing its own footballers, but the formula is clearly having little impact on the Champions League.
Sergio Agüero (16) and Eden Hazard (18) are the only English-based players to make the top 20, though it is of course fair to point out that Ronaldo and Modric played significant parts of their careers in this country before joining their present clubs, and Diego Costa (5) might be linking up with Chelsea some time in the future.
Just ahead of a World Cup, the international aspect of the top 250 Champions League players makes interesting reading. The top 30, for instance, could be considered around the best in the world at the moment, once allowance is made for individuals such as Luis Suárez or Steven Gerrard, who were not in Champions League competition last season.
One definition of the much abused term “world class” is to imagine a team that the Earth might put together to take on another planet, in the unlikely event of football being found elsewhere in the universe; another is to imagine a play-off between two teams drawn from the best players currently known. But for a few positional aberrations and the occasional absence through injury or non-qualification, the top 30 players in the Champions League would normally be a good place to start looking.
This is not to say the Bleacher Report’s top 30 is the definitive selection, just that it is a handy basis for discussion. A total of 15 nationalities are represented, and England doesn’t get a look in.
As might be expected in a season which produced an all-Madrid final, Spanish players are the best represented, with no fewer than seven players in the top 30, with Brazil (4) and Argentina (3) also showing up well.
More damningly for England, four players from Germany made the top 30, along with single-player representatives from Portugal, Croatia, Sweden, Holland, France, Uruguay, Belgium, Poland, Chile and Serbia. That’s quite a long list, when England considers itself such an important and influential part of the football world, but the most galling bit has been saved until last.
Wales are not only represented, they have two players in the top 30 in Bale and Ramsey. Fully deserved too. So well done Wales. World Cup aspirations or not, England must try harder.