Age is just a number – and we can prove it.
Whether they’re in the full flush of youth, at the peak of their careers or see middle age on the horizon, the 20 individuals below don’t use their years as an excuse.
We’ve picked out the best players in world football for every age between 18 and 37. Some decisions were dilemmas, while a couple of categories were surprisingly light on world-class talent.
18 – Vinicius Jr (Real Madrid)
A breath of fresh air during an otherwise stale season at Santiago Bernabeu. The kid from Flamengo was called up to the first-team following a smattering of matches with Castilla, and routinely showed up his more experienced team-mates with pace and panache.
He is far from the finished article, just the two La Liga goals suggest as much. But the statistics come second to the eye test. If Zinedine Zidane nurtures him correctly, not even the sky will be his limit.
Honourable mentions: Rodrygo (Real Madrid), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea)
19 – Matthijs De Ligt (Ajax)
Birth certificate says he’s a 19-year-old, but he plays like a 29-year-old. De Ligt will forever be known as the teenager who captained Ajax to an improbable Champions League semi-final, and within seconds of an appearance in Madrid.
The Juventus, PSG, Barcelona (and every other club’s) target is certainly not infallible, with his recent gaffe against England in the Nations League a reminder of that. However, it’s difficult to remember a centre-back so accomplished at such a young age.Honourable mentions: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Joao Felix (Benfica)
20 – Kylian Mbappe (PSG)
There is some seriously scintillating talent aged 20 and under at the moment and Mbappe is the king of those wonderkids. World Cup winner, closing in on 100 senior goals, already involved in a €200 million-plus transfer …
The only black mark against his name may prove difficult to remove. Until he leaves PSG, there’ll be questions over what kind of legacy he is creating in a markedly inferior Ligue 1. He’s got time on his side, though.
Honourable mentions: Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
21 – Marcus Rashford (Man United)
The first faintly controversial choice, although of current 21-year-olds there is not a heap of star power to choose from. Rashford’s 2018/19 campaign was average, with just 13 goals to show for it despite his new-found status as Manchester United’s premier No.9.
In his defence, he was run into the ground by a dysfunctional team – indeed, he’s played 152 games and been involved in a World Cup over the past three seasons – and careful handling of his career by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be needed to ensure he doesn’t fizzle out.
Honourable mentions: Luka Jovic (Real Madrid), Eder Militao (Real Madrid)
22 – Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona)
What a great get by Barcelona. His performances in the Champions League knockouts for Ajax alone could, and should, have added tens of millions to his price tag, but the Blaugrana had snapped him up for a rather reasonable €75m by January.
World-class deep-lying central midfielders are the rarest commodity in football. De Jong has in-built satellite navigation as a passer, can extricate himself out of almost any situation with his dribbling abilities and his intelligence is off the charts. With De Ligt, a key part of the Dutch renaissance.
Honourable mentions: Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Arthur (Barcelona)
23 – Leroy Sane (Man City)
Manchester City possess a surfeit of riches, but there’s little wonder they’re trying so hard to keep hold of a wantaway Sane. The Germany winger has reportedly fallen out with Pep Guardiola and has been batting his eyelashes at Bayern Munich, who have had a bid rejected.
Despite his reduced minutes due to the falling out, he made the most of his time on the pitch last season – 14 goals and 14 assists from a combined 25 starts in the Premier League and Champions League. The problem is he has the best 24-year-old in the world for competition on the left …
Honourable mentions: Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Rodri (Atletico Madrid)
24 – Raheem Sterling (Man City)
Sterling has been hounded by malicious sections of the British media for so long that it’s remarkable to think he is still only 24. The perception of his character has blossomed in tandem with his production on the pitch, as Guardiola is set on wringing out every ounce of talent in him – and you suspect there’s more to come.
He hit a career-high 25 goals for City in all competitions last season and has found his shooting boots for England, too, after being roundly criticised for his lack of goals at the World Cup. Pace, agility, finishing. Try and stop him if you can.
Honourable mentions: Bernardo Silva (Man City), Jose Gimenez (Atletico Madrid)
25 – Harry Kane (Tottenham)
Alan Shearer’s Premier League record of 260 goals seemed forever out of reach until Kane came along. His streak of netting at least 20 league goals since 2014/15 came to an end last season, but only through injury.
The England captain was peripheral during the Champions League final as a consequence, but his status as one of, or perhaps the very best, striker in the world is undiminished. If Spurs replenish their squad, they will have a sustained chance of winning trophies with him at the tip of their spear.
Honourable mentions: Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Andrew Robertson (Liverpool), Aymeric Laporte (Man City)
26 – Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)
Paul Pogba is not on this list for one reason only – Jan Oblak. He has inched ahead of the competition to be regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, including the 26-year-old Alisson.
According to understat.com, Atletico Madrid outperformed their expected goals against tally in La Liga by 12-and-a-half. In essence, they ‘should’ have let conceded 41 or 42 goals rather than a miserly 29, which was almost all down to Oblak. The Slovenian’s release clause sits at a tantalising €120m. Will a team eventually pull the trigger?
Honourable mentions: Paul Pogba (Man United), Alisson (Liverpool), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)
27 – Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
The ’27’ generation is stuffed with brilliance, as you’ll see in the honourable mentions. However, none of them can truly claim to be the clear best player in their respective positions, and after the season Van Dijk had, it’s hard to argue he isn’t the foremost centre-back in the world.
A statistic that neatly summarises his impregnability is that no player has completed a dribble past him in his last 64 Liverpool appearances. With him and Alisson now marshaling the Liverpool backline, it has been transformed from calamitous to a colossus.
Honourable mentions: Neymar (PSG), Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
28 – Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
This age is fiercely contested too, but Real Madrid‘s new signing is behind only Lionel Messi and a motivated Neymar as the shiftiest attacker in world football when on song.
During a topsy-turvy season in which Chelsea were often hamstrung by Maurizio Sarri’s dogma, the Belgian still produced his statistically best campaign with 18 goals and 17 assists across all competitions, and delivered the Europa League trophy in a stunning swansong. Given Premier League defenders kick him for fun, it’ll be a treat to see him in the less physical La Liga.
Honourable mentions: Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
29 – Miralem Pjanic (Juventus)
Undoubtedly, and bizarrely, the weakest of the peak ages given that this is the stage where most players should be storming through their prime.
That’s not to put down the abilities of Pjanic, however, who continues to be one of the most overlooked midfielders in Europe. His profile may rise under new Juventus boss Sarri, who will be enamoured by his range of passing and ability to spark quick transitions from defence to attack. If all goes to plan he should mirror Jorginho, but more a Napoli-plus version rather than his sometimes sluggish showings with Chelsea.
Honourable mentions: Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
30 – Marco Reus (Dortmund)
This decision does not come without a degree of uncertainty given the choices on offer, but anyone who watched Reus light it up for Borussia Dortmund last season will likely concur.
The German is almost single-handedly keeping the unfashionable No.10 position alive, simultaneously pulling the strings and supplying the strikes with his Bundesliga haul of 17 goals and eight assists last season. If not for some Dortmund brain fades at the back, his efforts would have snatched the league away from perennial winners Bayern Munich.
Honourable mentions: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets (both Barcelona), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
31 – Sergio Aguero (Man City)
With any luck next season, Aguero will be sitting pretty in second on the Premier League’s all-time scorers list. The Argentinian, currently on 164, needs 24 more goals to oust Man United legend Andy Cole as the only man behind Alan Shearer – while only 12 more is required to hunt down Thierry Henry and become the highest-scoring foreign player.
Regimes past, and now Pep Guardiola, have continued to bolster City’s attack but Aguero endures, even though it was assumed Gabriel Jesus would have supplanted the veteran striker by now. While his top speed is on the decline his agility in the box remains panther-like, and his finishing just as deadly.
Honourable mentions: Angel Di Maria (PSG), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
32 – Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Does anything else need to be written? What little the Argentine has lost physically has been kicked into irrelevance by his – somehow – increased playmaking abilities for Barcelona.
Not only is he getting even better as a creator, but he scored his most goals for five seasons in 2018/19 (51) and can now add free-kick taking to his otherworldly abilities. Champions League debacles aside, so far it looks as if his fourth decade will suit Messi very nicely indeed.
Honourable mentions: Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Edinson Cavani (PSG), Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)
33 – David Silva (Man City)
His status as Manchester City’s greatest-ever signing grows stronger with every passing year. While his minutes must be managed with more restraint into the autumn of his career, it is indicative of how important he remains to Guardiola that he started all nine of their Champions League outings last season.
The Spaniard, heading into the final year of his contract at Etihad Stadium, is almost certain to leave in 2020, having stated his desire to play for hometown club Las Palmas before he retires. Expect more twinkle from his toes next season before he passes the baton to City’s great academy hope in 19-year-old Phil Foden.
Honourable mentions: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
34 – Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
While everyone else is experiencing sharp physical decline into their mid-30s, Ronaldo is posting photos of his chiselled body on social media. Who needs pace when you’ve got such power?
Ronaldo’s first season at Juventus wasn’t jaw dropping as a whole, but there were still numerous moments where chins were picked off floors, not least the hat-trick that inspired the improbable comeback against Atletico Madrid. Then, of course, there was the treble against Switzerland in the Nations League semi-finals. CR7 fans need not worry about his advancing years – there’s still plenty more to come.
Honourable mentions: Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Samir Handanovic (Inter Milan)
35 – Andres Iniesta (Vissel Kobe)
Out of sight, but never out of mind. Few fans are clued up on the J1 League, but barely a week goes by without a video snippet of Vissel Kobe involving the Spaniard popping up on the internet.
He never really needed pace to dribble past defenders – only the art of deception – and he remains a player who would be welcomed into almost any squad in world football. We’re due for a mind-bending moment later in the summer as Kobe play … you guessed it, Barcelona.
Honourable mentions: Arjen Robben (unattached)
36 – Fabio Quagliarella (Sampdoria)
It took Quagliarella two decades to score 20 goals in a single league campaign. When all was said and done he had scored 26, bagged Serie A’s Capocannoniere for top goal-scorer and earned a recall to the Italy squad – yes, at 36 years of age.
Justice has been done. For years, Quagliarella was tormented by a rogue policeman who accused him of unspeakable crimes. His persecutor was sentenced to five years in prison in 2017, and it is no coincidence that his jailing has coincided with Quagliarella’s purple patch at Sampdoria. Long may it continue.
Honourable mentions: Franck Ribery (unattached), Dani Alves (PSG)
37 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
Any accusations that Ibrahimovic has merely set himself up for a nice final earner in America are way off the mark. The ever-improving Major League Soccer is of course still no match for the top European leagues, but plenty of big names set up camp over the pond before suffering a mighty fall.
Not Zlatan. Despite having to reconstruct his knee two years ago, he was no spring chicken then, either, the Swede has lived up to the arrogance/self-confidence that compelled him to buy a full-page advert in the LA Times adorned simply with the words ‘you’re welcome’ when he signed in 2018. 33 goals in 39 games and plenty of material for his highlight reel has followed.
Honourable mentions: David Villa (Vissel Kobe)