With 2021 coming to a close, it’s time to celebrate the best that men’s soccer had to offer over the past 12 months of riveting club and international action. Below, we count down the top 10 footballers of the year.
Honorable mentions: N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Pedri (Barcelona)
10. Romelu Lukaku
Club: Chelsea | Age: 28 | Position: Striker
Lukaku restored his place among the game’s best strikers in 2021, leading Inter Milan to their first Serie A title in a decade with 24 goals and 11 assists in the Italian top flight. To put that into perspective, only one other Serie A player reached double digits in both categories last season. But Lukaku was the entire package, leaving defenders for dead on the counterattack, crossing in balls from out wide, holding up play with immovable strength, and plundering the penalty area for goals. Chelsea paid £97.5 million to re-sign the Belgian star in the summer, making him the second-most expensive signing in Premier League history.
9. Cristiano Ronaldo
Club: Manchester United | Age: 36 | Position: Forward
While debate rages about his ability to play in a pressing system and whether or not Manchester United were misguided in signing him, Ronaldo simply continues to deliver goals and rack up accolades. The Portuguese forward broke numerous records in 2021, including becoming the all-time leading scorer in men’s international football. He’s undeniably – and understandably – a lesser force than he was at his peak, but Ronaldo still finds the net with frightening frequency. The top scorer in Serie A last season, he’s already reached double figures in just 19 matches since rejoining the Red Devils. Say what you will, but he can still produce, particularly in key moments.
8. Ruben Dias
Club: Manchester City | Age: 24 | Position: Center-back
There was a sense of desperation in how Manchester City signed Dias two days after a 5-2 home defeat to Leicester City early in the 2020-21 campaign, but the Portuguese defender had a transformative effect on Pep Guardiola’s side. He helped City to 15 clean sheets in his 32 Premier League appearances, led the top flight in blocked shots and clearances, and completed the second-most passes in the division. He’s simply obsessed with the art of defending. “It gives me pleasure to make the other team feel powerless,” Dias said in January.
7. Mohamed Salah
Club: Liverpool | Age: 29 | Position: Forward
Salah isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. After being labeled by some as a one-season wonder, the Liverpool star came roaring back this year. He scored at a rate similar to his record-breaking 2017-18 campaign when he broke Alan Shearer’s single-season scoring record. Despite a dip in goals after setting the new Premier League mark, the Egyptian king has re-established himself as one of the world’s best players this term by netting a league-leading 15 goals in 19 matches.
6. Erling Haaland
Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 21 | Position: Striker
Haaland has set lofty standards for himself. He scored two or more goals on 18 occasions in 2021, finishing the year with 41 in 43 appearances in all competitions for Borussia Dortmund. He’s averaging nearly a goal per game, and he’s doing it on a team that’s struggled to compete both domestically and in Europe. He’s the true heir to Ronaldo’s throne, a throwback center-forward with a singular focus and ruthless efficiency in front of goal. Haaland’s served his apprenticeship and is looking as ready as ever to make the leap to megastardom.
5. Kylian Mbappe
Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 23 | Position: Forward
Some players would’ve struggled to pick themselves up after such a disappointment. Mbappe wasted two big chances in extra time before he missed the decisive penalty in France’s shootout defeat to Switzerland at the European Championship. But he ensured that was merely a blip as he racked up 49 goals and 22 assists over 66 matches for club and country in 2021. Mbappe finishes the year as a more mature player and appears destined for a huge move to Real Madrid in the summer.
Club: Chelsea | Age: 30 | Position: Midfielder
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Yes, Jorginho is an excellent penalty taker. He converted 12-of-14 spot-kicks in 2021 and turned in the deciding penalty kick in Italy’s shootout win over Spain at Euro 2020. Yes, he’s an excellent passer, but he isn’t Gareth Barry with penalty-taking prowess. Jorginho protects the backline and kick-starts sweeping moves that result in goals. He anchored Chelsea’s midfield this year, particularly when N’Golo Kante was out injured, and won the Champions League title a month before winning the Euros with Italy. Jorginho wasn’t a passenger, either, having played an astounding 73 times for club and country in 2021.
3. Karim Benzema
Club: Real Madrid | Age: 34 | Position: Striker
Now that Benzema is out from under Ronaldo’s shadow, the Real Madrid forward is finally getting the recognition he deserves. After playing a prominent role in Real Madrid’s push to win La Liga last season, France manager Didier Deschamps surprisingly rewarded the 34-year-old with his first call-up in years. The prolific striker finished behind Lionel Messi in scoring in each of the last three seasons, but Benzema appears on his way to picking up his first La Liga scoring title after more than a decade in Madrid.
2. Lionel Messi
Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 34 | Position: Forward
Messi hasn’t hit the dizzying highs we’re accustomed to since his sensational move to Paris Saint-Germain – just give it some time – but don’t let that obscure what was yet another exquisite year for the iconic Argentine. He led his country to a Copa America triumph, finally getting that King Kong-sized weight off his back, and extended his own record by capturing a seventh – if contentious – Ballon d’Or. He was the top scorer in La Liga last season, holding together an otherwise rotten Barcelona team that relied on him to do everything; it’s no coincidence Barca has totally fallen apart in his absence. Leading that hopeless side to a Copa del Rey title should have been impossible, but not for Messi.
1. Robert Lewandowski
Club: Bayern Munich | Age: 33 | Position: Striker
Lewandowski obliterated numerous records in 2021. He surpassed Gerd Muller’s 49-year-old mark of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga campaign with a 90th-minute tap-in on the final day of the 2020-21 season. Lewandowski then demonstrated his continued brilliance by achieving an all-time high of 43 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year. For many, he should’ve beaten Messi to the Ballon d’Or. “I am like good wine, and I hope to become even better,” he warned in September.