The Mambo is pretty partial to a list. Indeed, a recent post discussed In Bed With Maradona’s ‘The 100’ project and now, with the faintest whiff of flogging a dead horse, our attention has been alerted to The Guardian’s run-down of the game’s Top 100 footballers. In such a climate, fully expect a stinging riposte to all those album-of-the-year countdowns that neglected to recognise the brilliance of Hatcham Social and Shrag’s latest records next week. Still, for now please try to contain any excitement for that enthralling prospect as focus falls upon The Guardian’s run-down. Now, naturally this type of thing is inherently subjective (with the debate of what constitutes ‘the best’ particularly difficult to define) yet whilst the IBWM selection encouraged intelligent debate, there is perhaps a detectable trace of cynicism in the newspaper’s selection designed to provoke comment and tempt tribal rage. Nonetheless, drawing from an 8-strong panel of respected international journalists (as well as Paul Doyle, Daniel Taylor and the shamelessly pro-Brazil Fernando Duarte) leant the concept certain credibility even if the underlying motivation may have been to attract cheap traffic with pretty minimal effort.
Teasingly revealed through a series of instalments, the opening offering provided ample insight into the horrors that would await. Collated from each correspondent’s voting for their personal top 30, the lower-rankings would present that there is at least 1 paid, professional sports writer insistent that Southampton substitute Emmanuel Mayuka; disgraced, declining John Terry and Victor Wanyama, Celtic’s powerful yet prosaic destroyer inhabit a plane reserved for the global game’s foremost figures. Of course, the caveat for Mayuka’s presence is surely that he spearheaded the attack for a Zambia side that triumphed at last winter’s African Cup of Nations but in reality, the standard of that tournament has been receding in recent editions as the all-conquering Egyptian team are undone by advancing years and traditional powers such as Cameroon and Nigeria continue to struggle in producing noteworthy creative talent. At club level, Mayuka’s goalscoring record with Swiss side Young Boys was prolific enough to pique interest from Premiership newcomers without ever really promising the burgeoning of top-tier talent. The overwhelming memory of Terry’s 2012 is his classless exuberance in celebrating a triumph his senseless sending-off threatened, committed under the toxic shadow of a criminal trial for racist abuse. Wanyama’s flimsy credentials were cast during an evening in which he completed a meagre 16 passes against Barcelona during an admittedly famous upset.
Quite what criteria saw Mayuka ranked at the expense of Antonio Di Natale or Roberto Soldado remains mystifying; there are facts, there are opinions and there is drivel. The latter camp is further filled by Wanyama’s listing despite oversights for outstanding midfielders such as Claudio Marchisio, Ilkay Gundogan and Jérémy Toulalan whereas Terry appears to only be there in a crass, puerile attempt to spark vitriolic bile from Liverpool and Manchester United supporters perturbed by his presence and the omission of their iconic veterans. Instead however, it is followers of AS Roma who should feel most aggrieved at the disregard for their iconic, veteran captain with Francesco Totti’s enduring genius making his marginalisation misguided. Still, in the context of a selection that hasn’t been especially kind to Serie A (notwithstanding Edinson Cavani’s hugely generous top 10 ranking), Totti’s expulsion is perhaps unsurprising.
The upper echelons were predictably less contentious; Lionel Messi’s self-evident singularity guaranteeing his justified billing as the world’s universally-agreed top talent with Cristiano Ronaldo’s profile and fevered lust for recognition cementing his status as (distant) runner-up. The composed, cerebral chemistry of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández was always likely to secure top 5 finishes for both, whilst Radamel Falcao’s unparalleled poaching and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s destruction of England have made their always -evident abilities fashionable enough for such exalted placing. More dubious however, were the heights afforded to Cavani and Yaya Touré. The former’s prolific goalscoring and eternal transfer window speculation mask a game based largely on sheer will and boundless stamina, with his often ungainly international showings seeing that few of his countrymen would rate him higher than strike partner Luis Suárez, who ranked only 21st. Touré’s rare marriage of rugged physicality and finesse marks him as the embodiment of all the British often mistakenly associate with footballing excellence but his class and especially his consistency is continually over-played. Although clearly not to the extent of Mayuka’s indefensible inclusion, there is perhaps a hint of tokenism in Touré’s elevated standing, as though Africa must be represented in the list’s top 10 despite the fact that such things often go in cycles and the continent is not currently producing players worthy of such status. Perhaps 5 years ago Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien would have held legitimate cases for being in such company, just as 20 years ago ‘Golden Generations’ from Romania and Bulgaria could have expected a presence in the top 100 but both nations are entirely absent from the contemporary countdown.
Similar frustration presents itself in reluctance to rate burgeoning talent. Places for Didier Drogba, Diego Forlán and Javier Zanetti can largely be viewed as ‘life-time achievement’ nominations, with the former a scorer of a paltry 5 league goals last season before opting for the opulent riches of Chinese semi-retirement whilst the latter, although relentlessly dependable, probably owes his selection to a dearth of credible full-back contenders and past glories, yet those with opposing career trajectories are shunned. Stephan El Shaarawy, perhaps the Italian game’s outstanding performer this season, languishes in 59th place, just as James Rodríguez, in spite of being perhaps propelled by rumours of an imminent lucrative move, comes in at 59 whilst at 13, Neymar is the only member of the top 20 aged under 24. Serie A starlets Erik Lamela and Stevan Jovetic miss out, as do young Spaniards Iker Muniain and most notably, the gloriously gifted Isco; a star of the present Champions’ League campaign to a far greater extent than Wanyama. Technically, all 4 are elite players whose market value would surely far exceed that of many drafted into The Guardian list whilst Fernando Llorente, Muniain’s team-mate last season’s wonderfully fluent and inventive Athletic Bilbao side, is also neglected. Admittedly, the Spanish striker’s suffered from the contract dispute which has effectively confined him to 6 months of inactivity, yet although available Mario Balotelli has made a comparably limp contribution but nonetheless figures at a ludicrously lofty 67.
Arguably, little weight should be afforded to such a list; as stated it was in all likelihood intended to do little more than encourage hits and end-of-year debate. Nevertheless, the flawed manner in which rankings were determined has created a list awash with absurdities. Can a convincing argument genuinely be made for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang being a finer forward than Robert Lewandowski? One failed at Milan whilst the other is one of Europe’s most widely-coveted attackers and as such Aubameyang’s promotion can only be explained as another legacy of the vastly over-stated importance of the Nations Cup, where he impressed for unfancied Gabon. Naturally, a certain bias towards the Premier League is also detectable. Although both impressive performers, it is by means certain that Marouane Fellaini or Moussa Dembelé would have featured had the list been complied overseas. Similar sentiment applies to Paulinho’s position at the foot of the feature; would he have figured without compatriot Duarte’s presence on the panel? The issue surrounding interpretation of ‘the best’ provides further ambiguity. Inevitably, the higher reaches will feature a preponderence of offensive players as understandably, flair and creativity are generally favoured over more subdued attributes but maybe at 16, Thiago Silva’s position as the leading placed defender is indication of a skewed understanding of definition of the criteria. Still, for all the myriad flaws, it was heartening to see heady rankings for widely-vilified Mambo favourites Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez. Of course, we’d have rated both higher but confirmation that their talent is eclipsing their (largely unfair) notoriety is forever welcome.