Teamwork is a universally valued quality in football, but it can mean different things to different people. It can mean running for each other, like the clip that went viral recently of Atletico Madrid’s players sprinting to stop a counter-attack like their house was on fire. It can simply mean pressing as a unit, or passing to a better-placed teammate, or making the kind of overlapping run that hurts just to make a defender follow you down a rabbit hole. 

To Carles Puyol, teamwork meant all of those things and none of them. To him they were really just the consequence, the natural product of something deeper and more visceral that bound his Barcelona generation together. His was not a team but a family, and his teammates became not competitors fighting for places but allies working for the same prize.

“I arrived at La Masia aged 17, which was a bit older than some of the others like Iniesta and Xavi,” Puyol says. “I learned so much there which had an impact on the rest of my life. We lived alongside each other, and even though it was different ages we were one group, all fighting for the same objective – to reach the first team of Barcelona. So between us we all needed to help each other.  

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“What was taught first and foremost was respect to others, and a sense of togetherness, of empathy. These values translated beyond football. It was such a tight-knit community, it was so small we were living in each other’s pockets. I felt a sense of brotherhood. We always helped each other, and we still do.” 

Puyol is sitting in a small corporate box looking over Espanyol’s stadium in Barcelona, decked out in black jumper and jeans with ringlets of that supreme mane bouncing off his forehead. Espanyol was once enemy territory, but today he is enjoying the visit, leaning over the side to watch the Danone Nations Cup – the closest thing to a World Cup for kids – on the pitch below, of which he is an ambassador. “I wish I could have played in this tournament when I was younger,” he says. “I started a bit later, but I would have loved to represented my country at this age, to travel and to play.”

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1/81 The Century countdown

This week, The Independent is counting down the 100 greatest players of the 21st century. We will be revealing 20 players per day, today revealing the players who placed 100-21.

2/81 100. Yaya Toure

A brilliant midfielder who had everything: skill, tenacity, power, goals, energy. His defensive capabilities brought him to the fore at Barcelona before his attacking prowess made him such a weapon for Manchester City. He won two Ligas, three Premier Leagues, one Champions League, captained Ivory Coast to the Africa Cup of Nations and was African Player of the Year four times. LO

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3/81 99. Harry Kane

His raw statistics are simply phenomenal. 130 Premier League goals for Tottenham Hotspur, in just 186 appearances. 27 in 42 for England. Twice a Premier League Golden Boot winner. A World Cup Golden Boot winner. Tottenham’s talisman. England’s captain. And still just 26 years old. In 10 years’ time, expect to see Kane in the top 20 of a similar list. LB

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4/81 98. Daniele De Rossi

A ferociously competitive and combative midfield hard man, who made over 600 appearances for his beloved Roma and over 100 for his national team. A complete midfielder, who could in one passage of play win the ball, race forward and either release a team-mate with a pinpoint pass or score himself. And do not be fooled by his combustible reputation: in 2016, he placed his treasured World Cup winner’s medal in the coffin of Pietro Lombardi, Italy’s kit man at the tournament. LB

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5/81 97. Bastian Schweinsteiger

The meticulous German orchestrated Bayern Munich’s midfield to eight Bundesliga titles and a Champions League, making over 500 appearances for the club. He was also one of the leaders in Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning campaign and carried an aura in the centre of the pitch few players can claim to have replicated. TK

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6/81 96. Vincent Kompany

It’s difficult to define his importance to both Manchester City and Belgium but it’s safe to say he was one of the most important players of a generation. There may well be a handful of technically better centre-backs but his intangibles were vital to the culture at club and country where there was not a legacy of winning previously. JR

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7/81 95. Karim Benzema

One of the few strikers on this list who can truly claim to be the complete forward, able to play wide or central, deep linking play or on the shoulder of the last defender, with the ability to sniff out scrappy goals and score beauties too. His medal haul speaks for itself, and he is approaching 300 career goals. But for his strained relationship with the French national team, he would have scored even more. LO

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8/81 94. Sol Campbell

The heartbeat of Arsenal’s defence in the Invincibles season, a double-winner in 2002 and a mainstay of the England team for almost a decade, Campbell is one of the defining defensive figures of the Premier League era. TK

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9/81 93. Pepe

One of the great villains of the game but a nasty, hard centre-back that would be very high on any great striker’s list of defenders he least wanted to play against. While his grit and determination stand out, nobody lasts a decade at the Bernabeu without possessing exceptional quality, with three La Liga titles (which has eluded the club since his departure) and as many Champions Leagues, Zinedine Zidane would be wise to acquire a similar player now. JR

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10/81 92. Edwin van der Sar

The four-time Premier League winner made over 300 appearances in England and made an enduring habit of thriving under pressure, winning the man-of-the-match award in Manchester United’s Champions League final victory in 2008. TK

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11/81 91. Arturo Vidal

Only the finest players in the world enjoy long and fruitful stints at clubs such as Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Il Guerriero has matured into a splendid holding midfielder, aggressive and dominant in the middle of the pitch but equally as effective arriving late into the box to complete attacks. A hero in his native Chile, for his role in the 2015 Copa América victory. LB

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12/81 90. Angel di Maria

A key player in the glorious Real Madrid side that won La Liga in 2011/12 and the Champions League two seasons later. Widely considered a flop when he left Manchester United after only one miserable season, but the Argentine completely reinvented himself at Paris Saint-Germain, the starring attraction in one of the most expensive squads ever assembled, containing the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani. LB

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13/81 89. Diego Forlan

A figure of fun in his early Premier League days at Manchester United, Forlan went on to have the last laugh with a stellar career both internationally with Uruguay and in Spain, where he racked up goals for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, twice winning the European Golden Shoe. LO

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14/81 88. Radamel Falcao

In his pomp Falcao was probably the best striker on the planet. In a prolific four-year spell playing for Porto and Atletico Madrid he scored 142 goals in 178 games, and had injuries not hindered his career there is little doubt that Colombia’s record scorer would be much higher up this list. LO

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15/81 87. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Has excelled in a thoroughly mediocre Arsenal side for two seasons now, scoring at a rate better than a goal every other game in a side that has struggled since the departure of Arsène Wenger. But it is primarily for his achievements at Borussia Dortmund that he makes this list. He scored close to 150 Bundesliga goals for that wonderfully attacking team – including 31 in one season – winning the Bundesliga Player of the Year and Top Goalscorer awards. There have been few strikers as rapid or as decisive in front of goal in the last two decades. LB

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16/81 86. Robin Van Persie

One of the best left foots in Premier League history graced two of its most revered clubs, becoming a star at both Arsenal and Manchester United. The Dutchman had a penchant for the spectacular but suffered with injuries, and it is a sign of what could have been that in the two Premier League seasons he played more than 30 games, he won the Golden Boot in both. LO

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17/81 85. Carlos Tevez

A real pest of a striker who thrived in the hottest atmospheres and regularly overcame adversity. He scored plenty too, 116 league goals in eight seasons with United, City and Juventus (who probably all enjoyed prime Tevez), but it was the way he would trigger his teammates by forcing the first mistake or sparking counterattacks that really made him such an invaluable player. JR

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18/81 84. Gaizka Mendieta

The midfield maestro could control games and decide them too, and was at the heart of the brilliant Valencia team which reached back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001. He became one of the most expensive players of all time when he switched to Lazio, but he would never again reach the heights that made him a legend at the Mestalla. LO

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19/81 83. Virgil van Dijk

The defensive talisman cast a spell of leadership over Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League-winning side and went the entire campaign without being dribbled past. Few defenders have carried such an overarching influence on any side in recent memory. TK

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20/81 82. Hernan Crespo

One of the finest finishers of a generation but perhaps his best quality was his movement; particularly in the box, where nobody was more lethal at finding a yard of space and punishing opponents. Strong and an aerial threat, he was perhaps unfortunate to follow Gabriel Batistuta with Argentina, otherwise he would have been appreciated even more. Certainly as talented as Sergio Aguero and with perhaps more composure in the biggest occasions – an underrated player. JR

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21/81 81. Rio Ferdinand

A gem of a centre-back, who was perhaps ahead of his time, right now he would be even more valuable due to his versatility to thrive under any manager, no matter the philosophy or style of play. Became a real winner and leader at United and formed one of the greatest partnerships in international football history alongside John Terry with England – who should have obviously achieved much more with such an outstanding foundation to their team. JR

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22/81 80. Toni Kroos

A metronome in the middle, one of the finer passers in the world of football and the beating heart of a number of very successful sides, not least the World Cup winning Germany side of 2014. Four Champions League crowns as a key cog for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid underline his quality, but if you are to criticise it is that there have always seemed to be others doing more around him. HLC

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23/81 79. Juan Roman Riquelme

A traditional No 10 who was unhelpfully branded the ‘new Maradona’ when he began setting the Primeira Division alight with Boca Juniors. His £10m move to Barcelona in 2002 did not exactly go as planned – with another talented Argentine poised to write himself into club folklore instead – but Riquelme made a success of himself in Spain with Villarreal under Manuel Pellegrini. A true artist who shone in an advanced playmaker role, before dropping deeper into midfield as his ageing legs lost their pace. LB

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24/81 78. Thomas Muller

Muller has popped up with important goals for Bayern Munich and Germany throughout his career. The gangly forward has scored nearly 250 goals combined for club and country, which has helped Bayern to eight Bundesliga titles and a single Champions League and Club World Cup. Muller will not be the last player to excel with Bayern and Germany, but he may well be the last sort of his type of player, placing the importance of timing and occupying space above all else in the game. KV

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25/81 77. Mohamed Salah

The ‘Egyptian king’ has turned into one of the most feared forwards in world football since joining Liverpool from Roma in 2017. After a torrid time at Chelsea, Salah’s second spell in England brought about a Premier League history as he netted a record 32 goals in 36 league games. The outright Premier League top scorer in 2018 and the joint winner last season, no longer is anyone laughing at the £35m Liverpool paid for him over two years ago. KV

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26/81 76. Diego Godin

The kind of defender every one wants on their team and no one wants to come up against. Godin is tough, utterly committed and completely fearless, and at the peak of his powers when Atletico Madrid won La Liga he was probably the best defender around. LO

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27/81 75. David Silva

A midfield maestro capable of playing the game at his pace; speeding up and slowing down while painting a picture amid the frantic action in Premier League games. Silva has never been flustered and can always be relied upon to stand up in the most opportune moments, a cornerstone of the Manchester City era and a candidate for their best ever player, despite the money lavished on various other superstars. JR

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28/81 74. Eden Hazard

Such quality in tight spaces and an almost unrivalled ability to dribble at pace, Hazard is capable of true magic, with his best Premier League seasons propelling Chelsea to two titles, and earning . There have been more fallow years, of course, but at his best Hazard has been magnificent, including in helping Lille to Ligue 1 glory in 2010-11. HLC

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29/81 73. Cesc Fabregas

The fulcrum of Arsene Wenger’s side following Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium, Fabregas combined vision with genuine goalscoring ability to establish himself as one of the world’s most well-rounded and exciting midfielders. Trophies commensurate to the playmaker’s ability to precisely pick out forwards’ runs more often that not did not come in north London, but two Premier League titles with Chelsea after his dream move to Barcelona failed to live up to expectation were just rewards for the midfielder. Nevertheless, he still won La Liga and the Copa del Rey while in Spain, and was part of the squads that won the 2008 and 2012 Euros as well as the 2010 World Cup. KV

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30/81 72. Deco

A player at home in any era who blossomed under Jose Mourinho not once but twice. At home at No 10 Deco effortlessly controlled games for Porto and latterly Chelsea as a key cog in two of the Special One’s greatest sides. BB

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31/81 71. Lilian Thuram

Enjoyed the best years of his storied career right at the very start of the 21st century, after he moved from Parma to Juventus in a double transfer, along with Gianluigi Buffon. Went on to form a formidable defensive partnership with Igor Tudor as well as Fabio Cannavaro, before a late career swansong at Barcelona. He also won the European Championship with France in 2000. An imperious defender, who now works tirelessly fighting against racism in football and society. LB

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32/81 70. Nemanja Vidic

Warrior. Tough as any Premier League centre-half, totemic at times and a pillar of consistency for Manchester United. Indomitable in the air, his partnership with Rio Ferdinand is perhaps the best English football has seen this century, contrasting in styles but with an innate understanding of each others’ abilities. Superb leader to boot. HLC

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33/81 69. Marcelo

The Brazilian is well renowned as one of the best attacking fullbacks in world football, and has been one of Real Madrid’s most consistent performers for a number of years. Arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu as a nervous 19-year-old, Marcelo has lived up to his reputation as Roberto Carlos’ successor at both club and international level, as likely to whip a cross in as he is to audaciously hammer one in from outside the penalty area. Often sporting a smile off the field, Marcelo’s trophy record makes for pleasant reading having experienced four consecutive Champions League victories as well as four La Liga and Club World Cup titles. KV

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34/81 68. Ryan Giggs

While it can be argued his most captivating moments came before the turn of the millennium, Giggs’ longevity was remarkable, never truly fading from the first team at Old Trafford as the brighter sparks came and went. Evolved as football evolved, from teenage tearaway to cultured crosser as the legs slowed. Seven post-2000 Premier League titles, a PFA Player of the Year award and the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year. HLC

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35/81 67. Antoine Griezmann

A very modern forward, adept anywhere across the offensive line and a true team player, always ready to defend from the front. But it is ultimately for his ability in front of goal that he secures his place on this list. A revelation at Atlético Madrid and as equally important to the world champions: Griezmann was the top goal scorer as France finished as runners-up at Eurp 2016 before playing a starring role in their triumph two years later in Moscow. LB

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36/81 66. Clarence Seedorf

Seedorf enjoyed great longevity throughout his career divided into two decades. The latter of which, spent in Italy, easily earns his place here after gliding across the pitch for AC Milan, shining bright in Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond to collect two Champions League titles – clinching four in total and becoming the only player to win the competition with three different sides. JR

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37/81 65. Wesley Sneijder

Sneijder won league titles in Spain, Italy, Turkey and his native Netherlands, as well as the Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, and built a stellar international career to become the most capped Dutch player of all time. But the lasting memory is simply of his natural grace on the pitch, gliding over the field before bursting into life to change any game in an instant. LO

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38/81 64. Gabriel Batistuta

A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, Batistuta is one of the best strikers ever to have graced Italian football. He remains Fiorentina’s top Serie A goalscorer, having spent the majority of his career in Florence before moving to Roma where he finally clinched the title. He is the only footballer ever to have scored a hat-trick at two separate World Cups. LO

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39/81 63. Fernando Torres

A captain of Atletico at 18 El Nino was destined for greatness ever since his formative years. While he may never have hit those heights for long enough his Liverpool career where he tortured the very best, notably Nemanja Vidic at Old Trafford, saw him comfortably become the most feared No 9 on the planet. Add in a world crown and two European titles and you have a player who more than earns his place here. BB

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40/81 62. Ruud Van Nistelrooy

Perhaps the most natural poacher in the countdown, Van Nistelrooy ended his career with better than a goal every two games and churned out far more through his peak years with PSV, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Most notable was his brilliance at the highest level, three times finishing a season as the Champions League’s top scorer. Disputes with Dutch managers hindered an international career that might have propelled him higher up this list. LO

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41/81 61. Claude Makélélé

Few on this list can say they redefined their position but the little French magician did just that. The Makelele role will go down in the annals for any player with any defensive nous whatsoever, but few since have boasted the football intelligence and positional discipline of the man who coined its name. A player far beyond his era. BB

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42/81 60. Sergio Aguero

An unbroken streak of relentless goalscoring, spurring Manchester City to four Premier League titles, adapting his game to suit Pep Guardiola’s style and resisting the challenges of a fleet of world-class temporaries, the Argentine may yet end his career as the greatest striker in English history. TK

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43/81 59. Cafu

Well over a decade on from his retirement anyone even close to resembling a serviceable right-back is still known as the English, Scottish or Welsh Cafu, a testament to a glittering career where he redefined what was expected from his position. A dynamic, attack-minded full-back he was also an esteemed leader and captained his country to the World Cup with typical class in 2002. Anyone remembered as one of Brazil’s greatest players is more than worthy of this list. BB

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44/81 58. Miroslav Klose

Only Marta has scored more goals in World Cups than Klose and his supreme record at international level with Germany is what sees him earn his place here. The archetypal target man famously rarely scored from anywhere other than inside the box, but he made the 18-yard area his own in a storied career that saw him score more goals for Germany than anyone before or since. BB

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45/81 57. Kevin de Bruyne

A maestro and marshal at the heart of Manchester City’s midfield, the Belgian is one of the most inventive, tactically astute and well-rounded players to grace the Premier League. He has won back-to-back league titles, an FA Cup and a raft of individual awards and only injuries have prevented him from casting his influence further. TK

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46/81 56. Henrik Larsson

The Swede scored pots of goals for his home town club, Helsingborg, in his early years, and never really stopped until he retired back at his boyhood team. In between he ventured away to write history with Celtic, win the Champions League with Barcelona and even make a memorable cameo at Manchester United. His pinnacle was the season after he broke his leg, when he returned so determined to make up for lost time that he won the European Golden Shoe. LO

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47/81 55. Xabi Alonso

If Roger Federer was a footballer he might have been something like Xabi Alonso: majestic, composed and precise, playing with a wand while barely breaking a sweat. Liverpool fans still adore him and so does everyone else. He was understated, bar those halfway line goals, and that was part of his charm, redefining what a holding role player could be, and he won it all: Champions League, La Liga, Bundesliga, European Championships and the World Cup. LO

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48/81 54. Dennis Bergkamp

The player who brought the Premier League to the height of technical grace and artistry, the Dutchman was synonymous with moments of unthinkable ingenuity and other-worldly touches as he pulled the attacking strings in both Arsenal’s 2002 double-winning campaign and the Invincibles season. TK

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49/81 53. Gareth Bale

Bale’s professional career started terribly, suffering a major winless streak at Tottenham, but once he began winning he barely stopped. His transformation from tentative full-back to galavanting winger brought him to the Premier League’s attention, and his destruction of Maicon at the San Siro introduced him to the world (and probably erased Maicon from this list, come to think of it). Three back-to-back Champions League wins later, including one of the great European goals, and it is safe to say the boy from Cardiff has come a long way. LO

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50/81 52. Gerard Pique

Over a decade at the heart of Barcelona’s defence and undoubtedly one of the game’s greatest ball-playing centre-backs, the Spaniard has won everything on offer: eight LaLiga titles, three Champions Leagues, countless cups as well as being a leader in both World Cup and European Championship successes. TK

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51/81 51. Robert Lewandowski

One of the greatest goalscorers in Bundesliga history after a decade spent between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, the Polish striker has won seven league titles. His CV might not be as rounded, having spent his entire prime in Germany, but 60 goals in 110 international games are a testament to his unfaltering consistency. TK

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52/81 50. Javier Zanetti

A dominant player with great longevity and versatility. His selflessness, workrate and positional intelligence allowed him to lift a mostly dysfunctional Inter side over the years. But then Jose Mourinho offered a system that could capitalise on Zanetti’s legs and reliability; the treble clinched his legacy in a 19-year spell in black and blue. JR

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53/81 49. Didier Drogba

While there have been better goalscorers few knew how to pick their moments better than the great Ivorian. At his dominant peak few could touch him as one of the game’s ultimate big-game players. The star of Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League win Drogba remains beloved by Blues fans for two title-winning spells while Jose Mourinho still regards him as one of the best he worked with. Truly the King. BB

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54/81 48. Michael Ballack

A proper box-to-box midfielder who would revel in the big games; dominant in the challenge at the heart of the pitch and in either penalty area. A prolific goalscorer given his supreme passing and selfless work, Ballack inspired Bayer Leverkusen to the Champions League final in 2002, before three doubles in four years with Bayern and then four major honours with Chelsea, as well as another Champions League final. JR

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55/81 47. Oliver Kahn

An imposing figure between the sticks, Khan was an intimidating opponent for strikers, making them freeze for just enough time to offer himself enough time to narrow the angles and wipe out danger. A legendary figure with Bayern, inluding six Bundesliga titles in the last 20 years, he would also emerge as a leader for Germany and their runners-up finish at World Cup 2002 before a more calculated strategy saw Die Mannschaft become world champions. JR

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56/81 46. Ashley Cole

A rarity as England’s one true really world class player, Cole was the planet’s premier left-back for nigh-on a decade. A title winner with Arsenal and Chelsea it will perhaps be the FA Cup where Cole leaves his indelible mark where he lifted the world’s oldest trophy a record seven times. A key player in two of the Premier League greatest-ever sides Cole will be remembered as one of the real standouts of his era. BB

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57/81 45. Pavel Nedved

A thrilling wide player able to slice opponents open with darting runs inside and clever movement to give and receive in and around the box. A Ballon d’Or winner with Juventus and the spark for a tremendous Czech Republic side who should have won Euro 2004. JR

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58/81 44. N’Golo Kante

Just quietly doing his job to an outstanding level, Kante inspired Leicester to do the unthinkable, not only enabling a two-man midfield – but doing so alongside Danny Drinkwater on his way to his first Premier League title. Bigger things would await him at Chelsea, where he grabbed another title, and then with France, as he starred in their second World Cup triumph. Not just the finest midfield destroyer in a decade, but with quality and endless stamina to go box-to-box, as he proved under Maurizio Sarri, proving a lot of people wrong in the process. JR

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59/81 43. Kylian Mbappe

The youngest player in this list, with barely a career to call upon, and yet already he has demanded a place in its upper echelons. It is not just that he has scored relentlessly for Monaco and now PSG, winning the title in every season of his career to date, or even that he played such a key role in France’s World Cup triumph. It’s that Mbappé is doing things other footballers don’t do, cutting through teams from one box to another with the ball glued to his feet, retiring defenders as he goes. Surely he will be near the very top of this list in a few years’ time… LO

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60/81 42. Alessandro Del Piero

A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, Del Piero was one of the finest all round forwards Italy has ever produced. As gifted at making goals as he was at scoring them himself, Del Piero retired as Juve’s all-time appearance and scoring leader and a six-time Serie A champion. Oh and he won the World Cup too. BB

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61/81 41. Alessandro Nesta

One of the very best in a long tradition of Italian defenders, but Nesta was different. He was never rushed, never angry, never desperately lunging for the ball. Instead he would glide across the pitch and pickpocket unsuspecting victims with a smile, and before they knew it he was gone. At Lazio and then AC Milan he won everything including Serie A, the Champions League, and the World Cup, but winning Serie A defender of the year four times in a row from 2000, in an era of defensive excellence, tells you just as much about Nesta. LO

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62/81 40. Patrick Vieira

Remains the gold standard for box-to-box midfielders after dominating the Premier League as the lynchpin of perhaps the greatest side ever to grace it. A complete player Vieira was a class above from the outset with his departure from north London leaving a hole that is still be filled. BB

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63/81 39. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

What can you say about Ibrahimovic that he hasn’t already said about himself? A supreme goalscorer across almost countless leagues his otherworldly natural talent is perhaps only surpassed by his larger than life ego. Though a Champions League crown still eludes him he will one day leave a legacy few can match. BB

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64/81 38. Roberto Carlos

The Brazilian arguably transformed what a great full back could be, incessantly roaming forwards, forming a wing to every attack, most notably during his time at Real Madrid. Arguably his greatest years came before the Millennium, but La Liga and a World Cup title still followed. But, perhaps, that’s helped by the allure to one of the most astonishing goals ever scored. TK

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65/81 37. Rivaldo

His dazzling best may have come just before the new millennium, but his trophy haul since the year 2000 is remarkable. He played a leading role in Brazil’s World Cup success in 2002 before an extremely profitable stint at AC Milan, during which he won the Champions League, Super Cup and Coppa Italia. And then there are the individual performances. His stunning hat-trick for Barcelona against Valencia in 2001 has yet to be surpassed, and is unlikely to be. LB

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66/81 36. Roy Keane

Sir Alex Ferguson once described Keane as the embodiment of his winning attitude on the pitch and that is all the more appropriate because, if the great manager is the figure to have influenced the Premier League more than anyone, Keane is the player to have psychologically influenced the Premier League more than anyone. That really isn’t an exaggeration, not when you consider his longevity, the number of titles he won and his absolutely key role in all of them. MD

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67/81 35. John Terry

A divisive figure elsewhere Terry remains Chelsea’s favourite son after a trophy-laden near two decade run with his boyhood club. The living, breathing, life and soul of the Roman Abramovich era Terry was perhaps the best pure defender of his generation with his blend of physical gifts allied with a superhuman will to win making him nigh on unmatched at his peak. BB

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68/81 34. Paul Scholes

He was never the star of Manchester United’s side, more the quiet conductor in the shadows, anchoring the midfield, flitting passes back-and-forth, flying into buzzsaw challenges. The Englishman was the anchor of 11 Premier League title-winning sides, a feat bested only by fellow ‘Fergie fledgeling’ Ryan Giggs. TK

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69/81 33. David Villa

One of the most clinical forwards of his era Villa will be remembered as one of the key figures of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side. Equally as adept up front as he was out wide he went on to replace the great Raul with the Spanish national team going to become the top scorer in their history as well as being pivotal to the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 wins. BB

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70/81 32. Iker Casillas

The man known simply as San Iker began life with Real Madrid as a nine-year old before going on to make 725 appearances for Los Blancos in a storied and success-filled career at the Bernabeu. The all-time appearance leader for Spain to boot Casillas has won every major club and international title he has participated in as a player. An all-time great. BB

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71/81 31. Franceso Totti

A true oddity in modern football, the near-cult-like Italian spent 25 years at Roma, playing almost 800 games and scoring over 300 goals, as well as featuring in Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning side. Perhaps the last true one-club man at one of Europe’s elite clubs. TK

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72/81 30. Arjen Robben

A mercurial talent who never truly settled in the Premier League, but for a short spell as Chelsea won the title. The flying Dutchman could turn passive possession into danger in a flash with his exceptional control when running at speed. Injuries plagued his time in England with spells at Real Madrid and Bayern establishing himself as one of the greats of his generation. JR

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73/81 29. Wayne Rooney

We all knew he was going to be special from the moment he stunned David Seaman from distance as a 16-year-old, ending Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run. A move to Manchester United followed, where he won five Premier League titles, eclipsed Sir Bobby Charlton to become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, and formed one of the most fearsome strike forces ever seen alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. A modern great. LO

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74/81 28. Raul Gonzalez

A prolific natural finisher and one of the greatest Spanish players of all-time, somewhat overlooked due to the riches of talent that quickly followed at Barcelona, Raul was the incisive tooth in six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues. He has made more appearances for Madrid than any other player in history and, until the arrival of Ronaldo, their highest goalscorer. TK

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75/81 27. Manuel Neuer

The towering Neuer has raised the bar for what is expected for modern shotstoppers across the globe. Widely considered to be the best goalkeeper of his generation Neuer has won the Bundesliga seven times, a World Cup once and even has a German word, Reklamierarm (the arm of objection), named after him. A modern great. BB

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76/81 26. Paolo Maldini

Genuinely world class for more than two decades Maldini is remembered as one of the finest defenders in history. A right, centre and most notably left-back 25 trophies in 25 years for his boyhood club see him regarded as perhaps the greatest player in Milanese history. Upon his retirement in 2009 his No 3 shirt was retired in his honour. BB

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77/81 25. Dani Alves

Possibly the greatest full back in history, and the evolution of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian won six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues, before leaving for Juventus and then PSG, adding league titles with both. The complete mould of defence and attack, under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, he remained untouchable for almost a decade. TK

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78/81 24. Carles Puyol

A true titan of centre-backs, the Spaniard was the fortress at the base of Barcelona’s defence, an ever-present rock in six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues. His influence loomed just as large on the international stage, leading Spain to a European Championship and World Cup. TK

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79/81 23. Frank Lampard

A midfielder with the goalscoring record of an elite-level striker. Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer, he hit 22 in a single season in 2009/10, netting a grand total of 147 Premier League goals. Incredibly versatile, deployed everywhere across the midfield in Chelsea blue, before enjoying an unexpectedly profitable Indian Summer at Manchester City. TK

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80/81 22. Luka Modric

Rarely seen in a Ballon d’Or winner it’s possible Modric remains somehow underrated with his consistent class perhaps overshadowed by the headline-grabbing achievements of those around him. A veritable genius with the ball at his feet the Croatian combines workrate with wizardry with one of the most creative football minds we’ve seen. An integral role in four Champions League wins sees his legacy as a real and lasting star already cemented. BB

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81/81 21. Samuel Eto’o

Extraordinarily prolific for so very long: his electric early form at Mallorca saw him earn a move to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, where he scored 130 times in just 199 appearances. Pep Guardiola took his game to another level in the 2008/09 season, before successful stints at Inter Milan, Anzhi Makhachkala and Chelsea. No player has won the African Player of the Year award more times. Only the second player in history to score in two UEFA Champions League finals. And the first player in history to win two European continental trebles. LB

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1/81 The Century countdown

This week, The Independent is counting down the 100 greatest players of the 21st century. We will be revealing 20 players per day, today revealing the players who placed 100-21.

2/81 100. Yaya Toure

A brilliant midfielder who had everything: skill, tenacity, power, goals, energy. His defensive capabilities brought him to the fore at Barcelona before his attacking prowess made him such a weapon for Manchester City. He won two Ligas, three Premier Leagues, one Champions League, captained Ivory Coast to the Africa Cup of Nations and was African Player of the Year four times. LO

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3/81 99. Harry Kane

His raw statistics are simply phenomenal. 130 Premier League goals for Tottenham Hotspur, in just 186 appearances. 27 in 42 for England. Twice a Premier League Golden Boot winner. A World Cup Golden Boot winner. Tottenham’s talisman. England’s captain. And still just 26 years old. In 10 years’ time, expect to see Kane in the top 20 of a similar list. LB

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4/81 98. Daniele De Rossi

A ferociously competitive and combative midfield hard man, who made over 600 appearances for his beloved Roma and over 100 for his national team. A complete midfielder, who could in one passage of play win the ball, race forward and either release a team-mate with a pinpoint pass or score himself. And do not be fooled by his combustible reputation: in 2016, he placed his treasured World Cup winner’s medal in the coffin of Pietro Lombardi, Italy’s kit man at the tournament. LB

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5/81 97. Bastian Schweinsteiger

The meticulous German orchestrated Bayern Munich’s midfield to eight Bundesliga titles and a Champions League, making over 500 appearances for the club. He was also one of the leaders in Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning campaign and carried an aura in the centre of the pitch few players can claim to have replicated. TK

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6/81 96. Vincent Kompany

It’s difficult to define his importance to both Manchester City and Belgium but it’s safe to say he was one of the most important players of a generation. There may well be a handful of technically better centre-backs but his intangibles were vital to the culture at club and country where there was not a legacy of winning previously. JR

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7/81 95. Karim Benzema

One of the few strikers on this list who can truly claim to be the complete forward, able to play wide or central, deep linking play or on the shoulder of the last defender, with the ability to sniff out scrappy goals and score beauties too. His medal haul speaks for itself, and he is approaching 300 career goals. But for his strained relationship with the French national team, he would have scored even more. LO

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8/81 94. Sol Campbell

The heartbeat of Arsenal’s defence in the Invincibles season, a double-winner in 2002 and a mainstay of the England team for almost a decade, Campbell is one of the defining defensive figures of the Premier League era. TK

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9/81 93. Pepe

One of the great villains of the game but a nasty, hard centre-back that would be very high on any great striker’s list of defenders he least wanted to play against. While his grit and determination stand out, nobody lasts a decade at the Bernabeu without possessing exceptional quality, with three La Liga titles (which has eluded the club since his departure) and as many Champions Leagues, Zinedine Zidane would be wise to acquire a similar player now. JR

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10/81 92. Edwin van der Sar

The four-time Premier League winner made over 300 appearances in England and made an enduring habit of thriving under pressure, winning the man-of-the-match award in Manchester United’s Champions League final victory in 2008. TK

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11/81 91. Arturo Vidal

Only the finest players in the world enjoy long and fruitful stints at clubs such as Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Il Guerriero has matured into a splendid holding midfielder, aggressive and dominant in the middle of the pitch but equally as effective arriving late into the box to complete attacks. A hero in his native Chile, for his role in the 2015 Copa América victory. LB

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12/81 90. Angel di Maria

A key player in the glorious Real Madrid side that won La Liga in 2011/12 and the Champions League two seasons later. Widely considered a flop when he left Manchester United after only one miserable season, but the Argentine completely reinvented himself at Paris Saint-Germain, the starring attraction in one of the most expensive squads ever assembled, containing the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani. LB

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13/81 89. Diego Forlan

A figure of fun in his early Premier League days at Manchester United, Forlan went on to have the last laugh with a stellar career both internationally with Uruguay and in Spain, where he racked up goals for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, twice winning the European Golden Shoe. LO

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14/81 88. Radamel Falcao

In his pomp Falcao was probably the best striker on the planet. In a prolific four-year spell playing for Porto and Atletico Madrid he scored 142 goals in 178 games, and had injuries not hindered his career there is little doubt that Colombia’s record scorer would be much higher up this list. LO

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15/81 87. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Has excelled in a thoroughly mediocre Arsenal side for two seasons now, scoring at a rate better than a goal every other game in a side that has struggled since the departure of Arsène Wenger. But it is primarily for his achievements at Borussia Dortmund that he makes this list. He scored close to 150 Bundesliga goals for that wonderfully attacking team – including 31 in one season – winning the Bundesliga Player of the Year and Top Goalscorer awards. There have been few strikers as rapid or as decisive in front of goal in the last two decades. LB

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16/81 86. Robin Van Persie

One of the best left foots in Premier League history graced two of its most revered clubs, becoming a star at both Arsenal and Manchester United. The Dutchman had a penchant for the spectacular but suffered with injuries, and it is a sign of what could have been that in the two Premier League seasons he played more than 30 games, he won the Golden Boot in both. LO

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17/81 85. Carlos Tevez

A real pest of a striker who thrived in the hottest atmospheres and regularly overcame adversity. He scored plenty too, 116 league goals in eight seasons with United, City and Juventus (who probably all enjoyed prime Tevez), but it was the way he would trigger his teammates by forcing the first mistake or sparking counterattacks that really made him such an invaluable player. JR

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18/81 84. Gaizka Mendieta

The midfield maestro could control games and decide them too, and was at the heart of the brilliant Valencia team which reached back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001. He became one of the most expensive players of all time when he switched to Lazio, but he would never again reach the heights that made him a legend at the Mestalla. LO

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19/81 83. Virgil van Dijk

The defensive talisman cast a spell of leadership over Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League-winning side and went the entire campaign without being dribbled past. Few defenders have carried such an overarching influence on any side in recent memory. TK

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20/81 82. Hernan Crespo

One of the finest finishers of a generation but perhaps his best quality was his movement; particularly in the box, where nobody was more lethal at finding a yard of space and punishing opponents. Strong and an aerial threat, he was perhaps unfortunate to follow Gabriel Batistuta with Argentina, otherwise he would have been appreciated even more. Certainly as talented as Sergio Aguero and with perhaps more composure in the biggest occasions – an underrated player. JR

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21/81 81. Rio Ferdinand

A gem of a centre-back, who was perhaps ahead of his time, right now he would be even more valuable due to his versatility to thrive under any manager, no matter the philosophy or style of play. Became a real winner and leader at United and formed one of the greatest partnerships in international football history alongside John Terry with England – who should have obviously achieved much more with such an outstanding foundation to their team. JR

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22/81 80. Toni Kroos

A metronome in the middle, one of the finer passers in the world of football and the beating heart of a number of very successful sides, not least the World Cup winning Germany side of 2014. Four Champions League crowns as a key cog for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid underline his quality, but if you are to criticise it is that there have always seemed to be others doing more around him. HLC

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23/81 79. Juan Roman Riquelme

A traditional No 10 who was unhelpfully branded the ‘new Maradona’ when he began setting the Primeira Division alight with Boca Juniors. His £10m move to Barcelona in 2002 did not exactly go as planned – with another talented Argentine poised to write himself into club folklore instead – but Riquelme made a success of himself in Spain with Villarreal under Manuel Pellegrini. A true artist who shone in an advanced playmaker role, before dropping deeper into midfield as his ageing legs lost their pace. LB

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24/81 78. Thomas Muller

Muller has popped up with important goals for Bayern Munich and Germany throughout his career. The gangly forward has scored nearly 250 goals combined for club and country, which has helped Bayern to eight Bundesliga titles and a single Champions League and Club World Cup. Muller will not be the last player to excel with Bayern and Germany, but he may well be the last sort of his type of player, placing the importance of timing and occupying space above all else in the game. KV

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25/81 77. Mohamed Salah

The ‘Egyptian king’ has turned into one of the most feared forwards in world football since joining Liverpool from Roma in 2017. After a torrid time at Chelsea, Salah’s second spell in England brought about a Premier League history as he netted a record 32 goals in 36 league games. The outright Premier League top scorer in 2018 and the joint winner last season, no longer is anyone laughing at the £35m Liverpool paid for him over two years ago. KV

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26/81 76. Diego Godin

The kind of defender every one wants on their team and no one wants to come up against. Godin is tough, utterly committed and completely fearless, and at the peak of his powers when Atletico Madrid won La Liga he was probably the best defender around. LO

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27/81 75. David Silva

A midfield maestro capable of playing the game at his pace; speeding up and slowing down while painting a picture amid the frantic action in Premier League games. Silva has never been flustered and can always be relied upon to stand up in the most opportune moments, a cornerstone of the Manchester City era and a candidate for their best ever player, despite the money lavished on various other superstars. JR

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28/81 74. Eden Hazard

Such quality in tight spaces and an almost unrivalled ability to dribble at pace, Hazard is capable of true magic, with his best Premier League seasons propelling Chelsea to two titles, and earning . There have been more fallow years, of course, but at his best Hazard has been magnificent, including in helping Lille to Ligue 1 glory in 2010-11. HLC

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29/81 73. Cesc Fabregas

The fulcrum of Arsene Wenger’s side following Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium, Fabregas combined vision with genuine goalscoring ability to establish himself as one of the world’s most well-rounded and exciting midfielders. Trophies commensurate to the playmaker’s ability to precisely pick out forwards’ runs more often that not did not come in north London, but two Premier League titles with Chelsea after his dream move to Barcelona failed to live up to expectation were just rewards for the midfielder. Nevertheless, he still won La Liga and the Copa del Rey while in Spain, and was part of the squads that won the 2008 and 2012 Euros as well as the 2010 World Cup. KV

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30/81 72. Deco

A player at home in any era who blossomed under Jose Mourinho not once but twice. At home at No 10 Deco effortlessly controlled games for Porto and latterly Chelsea as a key cog in two of the Special One’s greatest sides. BB

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31/81 71. Lilian Thuram

Enjoyed the best years of his storied career right at the very start of the 21st century, after he moved from Parma to Juventus in a double transfer, along with Gianluigi Buffon. Went on to form a formidable defensive partnership with Igor Tudor as well as Fabio Cannavaro, before a late career swansong at Barcelona. He also won the European Championship with France in 2000. An imperious defender, who now works tirelessly fighting against racism in football and society. LB

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32/81 70. Nemanja Vidic

Warrior. Tough as any Premier League centre-half, totemic at times and a pillar of consistency for Manchester United. Indomitable in the air, his partnership with Rio Ferdinand is perhaps the best English football has seen this century, contrasting in styles but with an innate understanding of each others’ abilities. Superb leader to boot. HLC

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33/81 69. Marcelo

The Brazilian is well renowned as one of the best attacking fullbacks in world football, and has been one of Real Madrid’s most consistent performers for a number of years. Arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu as a nervous 19-year-old, Marcelo has lived up to his reputation as Roberto Carlos’ successor at both club and international level, as likely to whip a cross in as he is to audaciously hammer one in from outside the penalty area. Often sporting a smile off the field, Marcelo’s trophy record makes for pleasant reading having experienced four consecutive Champions League victories as well as four La Liga and Club World Cup titles. KV

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34/81 68. Ryan Giggs

While it can be argued his most captivating moments came before the turn of the millennium, Giggs’ longevity was remarkable, never truly fading from the first team at Old Trafford as the brighter sparks came and went. Evolved as football evolved, from teenage tearaway to cultured crosser as the legs slowed. Seven post-2000 Premier League titles, a PFA Player of the Year award and the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year. HLC

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35/81 67. Antoine Griezmann

A very modern forward, adept anywhere across the offensive line and a true team player, always ready to defend from the front. But it is ultimately for his ability in front of goal that he secures his place on this list. A revelation at Atlético Madrid and as equally important to the world champions: Griezmann was the top goal scorer as France finished as runners-up at Eurp 2016 before playing a starring role in their triumph two years later in Moscow. LB

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36/81 66. Clarence Seedorf

Seedorf enjoyed great longevity throughout his career divided into two decades. The latter of which, spent in Italy, easily earns his place here after gliding across the pitch for AC Milan, shining bright in Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond to collect two Champions League titles – clinching four in total and becoming the only player to win the competition with three different sides. JR

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37/81 65. Wesley Sneijder

Sneijder won league titles in Spain, Italy, Turkey and his native Netherlands, as well as the Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, and built a stellar international career to become the most capped Dutch player of all time. But the lasting memory is simply of his natural grace on the pitch, gliding over the field before bursting into life to change any game in an instant. LO

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38/81 64. Gabriel Batistuta

A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, Batistuta is one of the best strikers ever to have graced Italian football. He remains Fiorentina’s top Serie A goalscorer, having spent the majority of his career in Florence before moving to Roma where he finally clinched the title. He is the only footballer ever to have scored a hat-trick at two separate World Cups. LO

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39/81 63. Fernando Torres

A captain of Atletico at 18 El Nino was destined for greatness ever since his formative years. While he may never have hit those heights for long enough his Liverpool career where he tortured the very best, notably Nemanja Vidic at Old Trafford, saw him comfortably become the most feared No 9 on the planet. Add in a world crown and two European titles and you have a player who more than earns his place here. BB

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40/81 62. Ruud Van Nistelrooy

Perhaps the most natural poacher in the countdown, Van Nistelrooy ended his career with better than a goal every two games and churned out far more through his peak years with PSV, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Most notable was his brilliance at the highest level, three times finishing a season as the Champions League’s top scorer. Disputes with Dutch managers hindered an international career that might have propelled him higher up this list. LO

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41/81 61. Claude Makélélé

Few on this list can say they redefined their position but the little French magician did just that. The Makelele role will go down in the annals for any player with any defensive nous whatsoever, but few since have boasted the football intelligence and positional discipline of the man who coined its name. A player far beyond his era. BB

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42/81 60. Sergio Aguero

An unbroken streak of relentless goalscoring, spurring Manchester City to four Premier League titles, adapting his game to suit Pep Guardiola’s style and resisting the challenges of a fleet of world-class temporaries, the Argentine may yet end his career as the greatest striker in English history. TK

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43/81 59. Cafu

Well over a decade on from his retirement anyone even close to resembling a serviceable right-back is still known as the English, Scottish or Welsh Cafu, a testament to a glittering career where he redefined what was expected from his position. A dynamic, attack-minded full-back he was also an esteemed leader and captained his country to the World Cup with typical class in 2002. Anyone remembered as one of Brazil’s greatest players is more than worthy of this list. BB

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44/81 58. Miroslav Klose

Only Marta has scored more goals in World Cups than Klose and his supreme record at international level with Germany is what sees him earn his place here. The archetypal target man famously rarely scored from anywhere other than inside the box, but he made the 18-yard area his own in a storied career that saw him score more goals for Germany than anyone before or since. BB

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45/81 57. Kevin de Bruyne

A maestro and marshal at the heart of Manchester City’s midfield, the Belgian is one of the most inventive, tactically astute and well-rounded players to grace the Premier League. He has won back-to-back league titles, an FA Cup and a raft of individual awards and only injuries have prevented him from casting his influence further. TK

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46/81 56. Henrik Larsson

The Swede scored pots of goals for his home town club, Helsingborg, in his early years, and never really stopped until he retired back at his boyhood team. In between he ventured away to write history with Celtic, win the Champions League with Barcelona and even make a memorable cameo at Manchester United. His pinnacle was the season after he broke his leg, when he returned so determined to make up for lost time that he won the European Golden Shoe. LO

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47/81 55. Xabi Alonso

If Roger Federer was a footballer he might have been something like Xabi Alonso: majestic, composed and precise, playing with a wand while barely breaking a sweat. Liverpool fans still adore him and so does everyone else. He was understated, bar those halfway line goals, and that was part of his charm, redefining what a holding role player could be, and he won it all: Champions League, La Liga, Bundesliga, European Championships and the World Cup. LO

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48/81 54. Dennis Bergkamp

The player who brought the Premier League to the height of technical grace and artistry, the Dutchman was synonymous with moments of unthinkable ingenuity and other-worldly touches as he pulled the attacking strings in both Arsenal’s 2002 double-winning campaign and the Invincibles season. TK

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49/81 53. Gareth Bale

Bale’s professional career started terribly, suffering a major winless streak at Tottenham, but once he began winning he barely stopped. His transformation from tentative full-back to galavanting winger brought him to the Premier League’s attention, and his destruction of Maicon at the San Siro introduced him to the world (and probably erased Maicon from this list, come to think of it). Three back-to-back Champions League wins later, including one of the great European goals, and it is safe to say the boy from Cardiff has come a long way. LO

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50/81 52. Gerard Pique

Over a decade at the heart of Barcelona’s defence and undoubtedly one of the game’s greatest ball-playing centre-backs, the Spaniard has won everything on offer: eight LaLiga titles, three Champions Leagues, countless cups as well as being a leader in both World Cup and European Championship successes. TK

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51/81 51. Robert Lewandowski

One of the greatest goalscorers in Bundesliga history after a decade spent between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, the Polish striker has won seven league titles. His CV might not be as rounded, having spent his entire prime in Germany, but 60 goals in 110 international games are a testament to his unfaltering consistency. TK

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52/81 50. Javier Zanetti

A dominant player with great longevity and versatility. His selflessness, workrate and positional intelligence allowed him to lift a mostly dysfunctional Inter side over the years. But then Jose Mourinho offered a system that could capitalise on Zanetti’s legs and reliability; the treble clinched his legacy in a 19-year spell in black and blue. JR

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53/81 49. Didier Drogba

While there have been better goalscorers few knew how to pick their moments better than the great Ivorian. At his dominant peak few could touch him as one of the game’s ultimate big-game players. The star of Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League win Drogba remains beloved by Blues fans for two title-winning spells while Jose Mourinho still regards him as one of the best he worked with. Truly the King. BB

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54/81 48. Michael Ballack

A proper box-to-box midfielder who would revel in the big games; dominant in the challenge at the heart of the pitch and in either penalty area. A prolific goalscorer given his supreme passing and selfless work, Ballack inspired Bayer Leverkusen to the Champions League final in 2002, before three doubles in four years with Bayern and then four major honours with Chelsea, as well as another Champions League final. JR

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55/81 47. Oliver Kahn

An imposing figure between the sticks, Khan was an intimidating opponent for strikers, making them freeze for just enough time to offer himself enough time to narrow the angles and wipe out danger. A legendary figure with Bayern, inluding six Bundesliga titles in the last 20 years, he would also emerge as a leader for Germany and their runners-up finish at World Cup 2002 before a more calculated strategy saw Die Mannschaft become world champions. JR

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56/81 46. Ashley Cole

A rarity as England’s one true really world class player, Cole was the planet’s premier left-back for nigh-on a decade. A title winner with Arsenal and Chelsea it will perhaps be the FA Cup where Cole leaves his indelible mark where he lifted the world’s oldest trophy a record seven times. A key player in two of the Premier League greatest-ever sides Cole will be remembered as one of the real standouts of his era. BB

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57/81 45. Pavel Nedved

A thrilling wide player able to slice opponents open with darting runs inside and clever movement to give and receive in and around the box. A Ballon d’Or winner with Juventus and the spark for a tremendous Czech Republic side who should have won Euro 2004. JR

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58/81 44. N’Golo Kante

Just quietly doing his job to an outstanding level, Kante inspired Leicester to do the unthinkable, not only enabling a two-man midfield – but doing so alongside Danny Drinkwater on his way to his first Premier League title. Bigger things would await him at Chelsea, where he grabbed another title, and then with France, as he starred in their second World Cup triumph. Not just the finest midfield destroyer in a decade, but with quality and endless stamina to go box-to-box, as he proved under Maurizio Sarri, proving a lot of people wrong in the process. JR

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59/81 43. Kylian Mbappe

The youngest player in this list, with barely a career to call upon, and yet already he has demanded a place in its upper echelons. It is not just that he has scored relentlessly for Monaco and now PSG, winning the title in every season of his career to date, or even that he played such a key role in France’s World Cup triumph. It’s that Mbappé is doing things other footballers don’t do, cutting through teams from one box to another with the ball glued to his feet, retiring defenders as he goes. Surely he will be near the very top of this list in a few years’ time… LO

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60/81 42. Alessandro Del Piero

A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, Del Piero was one of the finest all round forwards Italy has ever produced. As gifted at making goals as he was at scoring them himself, Del Piero retired as Juve’s all-time appearance and scoring leader and a six-time Serie A champion. Oh and he won the World Cup too. BB

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61/81 41. Alessandro Nesta

One of the very best in a long tradition of Italian defenders, but Nesta was different. He was never rushed, never angry, never desperately lunging for the ball. Instead he would glide across the pitch and pickpocket unsuspecting victims with a smile, and before they knew it he was gone. At Lazio and then AC Milan he won everything including Serie A, the Champions League, and the World Cup, but winning Serie A defender of the year four times in a row from 2000, in an era of defensive excellence, tells you just as much about Nesta. LO

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62/81 40. Patrick Vieira

Remains the gold standard for box-to-box midfielders after dominating the Premier League as the lynchpin of perhaps the greatest side ever to grace it. A complete player Vieira was a class above from the outset with his departure from north London leaving a hole that is still be filled. BB

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63/81 39. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

What can you say about Ibrahimovic that he hasn’t already said about himself? A supreme goalscorer across almost countless leagues his otherworldly natural talent is perhaps only surpassed by his larger than life ego. Though a Champions League crown still eludes him he will one day leave a legacy few can match. BB

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64/81 38. Roberto Carlos

The Brazilian arguably transformed what a great full back could be, incessantly roaming forwards, forming a wing to every attack, most notably during his time at Real Madrid. Arguably his greatest years came before the Millennium, but La Liga and a World Cup title still followed. But, perhaps, that’s helped by the allure to one of the most astonishing goals ever scored. TK

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65/81 37. Rivaldo

His dazzling best may have come just before the new millennium, but his trophy haul since the year 2000 is remarkable. He played a leading role in Brazil’s World Cup success in 2002 before an extremely profitable stint at AC Milan, during which he won the Champions League, Super Cup and Coppa Italia. And then there are the individual performances. His stunning hat-trick for Barcelona against Valencia in 2001 has yet to be surpassed, and is unlikely to be. LB

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66/81 36. Roy Keane

Sir Alex Ferguson once described Keane as the embodiment of his winning attitude on the pitch and that is all the more appropriate because, if the great manager is the figure to have influenced the Premier League more than anyone, Keane is the player to have psychologically influenced the Premier League more than anyone. That really isn’t an exaggeration, not when you consider his longevity, the number of titles he won and his absolutely key role in all of them. MD

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67/81 35. John Terry

A divisive figure elsewhere Terry remains Chelsea’s favourite son after a trophy-laden near two decade run with his boyhood club. The living, breathing, life and soul of the Roman Abramovich era Terry was perhaps the best pure defender of his generation with his blend of physical gifts allied with a superhuman will to win making him nigh on unmatched at his peak. BB

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68/81 34. Paul Scholes

He was never the star of Manchester United’s side, more the quiet conductor in the shadows, anchoring the midfield, flitting passes back-and-forth, flying into buzzsaw challenges. The Englishman was the anchor of 11 Premier League title-winning sides, a feat bested only by fellow ‘Fergie fledgeling’ Ryan Giggs. TK

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69/81 33. David Villa

One of the most clinical forwards of his era Villa will be remembered as one of the key figures of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side. Equally as adept up front as he was out wide he went on to replace the great Raul with the Spanish national team going to become the top scorer in their history as well as being pivotal to the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 wins. BB

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70/81 32. Iker Casillas

The man known simply as San Iker began life with Real Madrid as a nine-year old before going on to make 725 appearances for Los Blancos in a storied and success-filled career at the Bernabeu. The all-time appearance leader for Spain to boot Casillas has won every major club and international title he has participated in as a player. An all-time great. BB

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71/81 31. Franceso Totti

A true oddity in modern football, the near-cult-like Italian spent 25 years at Roma, playing almost 800 games and scoring over 300 goals, as well as featuring in Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning side. Perhaps the last true one-club man at one of Europe’s elite clubs. TK

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72/81 30. Arjen Robben

A mercurial talent who never truly settled in the Premier League, but for a short spell as Chelsea won the title. The flying Dutchman could turn passive possession into danger in a flash with his exceptional control when running at speed. Injuries plagued his time in England with spells at Real Madrid and Bayern establishing himself as one of the greats of his generation. JR

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73/81 29. Wayne Rooney

We all knew he was going to be special from the moment he stunned David Seaman from distance as a 16-year-old, ending Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run. A move to Manchester United followed, where he won five Premier League titles, eclipsed Sir Bobby Charlton to become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, and formed one of the most fearsome strike forces ever seen alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. A modern great. LO

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74/81 28. Raul Gonzalez

A prolific natural finisher and one of the greatest Spanish players of all-time, somewhat overlooked due to the riches of talent that quickly followed at Barcelona, Raul was the incisive tooth in six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues. He has made more appearances for Madrid than any other player in history and, until the arrival of Ronaldo, their highest goalscorer. TK

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75/81 27. Manuel Neuer

The towering Neuer has raised the bar for what is expected for modern shotstoppers across the globe. Widely considered to be the best goalkeeper of his generation Neuer has won the Bundesliga seven times, a World Cup once and even has a German word, Reklamierarm (the arm of objection), named after him. A modern great. BB

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76/81 26. Paolo Maldini

Genuinely world class for more than two decades Maldini is remembered as one of the finest defenders in history. A right, centre and most notably left-back 25 trophies in 25 years for his boyhood club see him regarded as perhaps the greatest player in Milanese history. Upon his retirement in 2009 his No 3 shirt was retired in his honour. BB

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77/81 25. Dani Alves

Possibly the greatest full back in history, and the evolution of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian won six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues, before leaving for Juventus and then PSG, adding league titles with both. The complete mould of defence and attack, under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, he remained untouchable for almost a decade. TK

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78/81 24. Carles Puyol

A true titan of centre-backs, the Spaniard was the fortress at the base of Barcelona’s defence, an ever-present rock in six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues. His influence loomed just as large on the international stage, leading Spain to a European Championship and World Cup. TK

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79/81 23. Frank Lampard

A midfielder with the goalscoring record of an elite-level striker. Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer, he hit 22 in a single season in 2009/10, netting a grand total of 147 Premier League goals. Incredibly versatile, deployed everywhere across the midfield in Chelsea blue, before enjoying an unexpectedly profitable Indian Summer at Manchester City. TK

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80/81 22. Luka Modric

Rarely seen in a Ballon d’Or winner it’s possible Modric remains somehow underrated with his consistent class perhaps overshadowed by the headline-grabbing achievements of those around him. A veritable genius with the ball at his feet the Croatian combines workrate with wizardry with one of the most creative football minds we’ve seen. An integral role in four Champions League wins sees his legacy as a real and lasting star already cemented. BB

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81/81 21. Samuel Eto’o

Extraordinarily prolific for so very long: his electric early form at Mallorca saw him earn a move to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, where he scored 130 times in just 199 appearances. Pep Guardiola took his game to another level in the 2008/09 season, before successful stints at Inter Milan, Anzhi Makhachkala and Chelsea. No player has won the African Player of the Year award more times. Only the second player in history to score in two UEFA Champions League finals. And the first player in history to win two European continental trebles. LB

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Puyol holds more than a passing interest in the next generation. Earlier this month he made headlines after turning down a role as Barcelona’s director of football, and one of the factors behind his surprising decision was that he is so immersed in other work like this. Next week he is unveiling his next big project, an online platform teaching parents and kids the importance of sport to their mental and physical wellbeing.

“This was not the right moment,” Puyol says of Barcelona’s approach. “Perhaps one day, but I am developing other projects. I firmly believe in education through sports, that you can learn empathy, resilience, the skills to face adversity.”

You could understand a reluctance to get back into the football world. After retirement, Puyol had spent time working alongside Barca director Andoni Zubizarreta, but was forced to resign when Zubizarreta was suddenly sacked. More recently he watched as his old teammate Victor Valdes was sacked as Barcleona’s U19 coach, too. “I’m not sure of the reasons why Victor was fired, but it is not easy working with the young teams of Barcelona. People focus on results but we need to focus on training our young players.”  

Carles Puyol: ‘It was so tight-knit, we were living in each other’s pockets’ (Getty)

After leaving the Nou Camp he set up a football agency with his former teammate Ivan de la Pena. They built some traction, signing players like Marc Batra and Carles Alena to their books, but they also came into conflict, not least with Barcelona themselves after the talented youngster Eric Garcia’s departure for Manchester City. Ultimately Puyol stepped away because he didn’t enjoy it.

He almost left Barcelona himself as a young player. Barcelona had a settled defence and accepted an offer from Malaga, but when he saw his friend Xavi making his debut, Puyol resolved to stay and fight. He did just that, and never left, taking the captaincy aged 25 as he built an extraordinary career. Did he have to learn leadership, or was it something instinctive?

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“Everyone is born with their own personality, which grows as you grow,” he says. “Everyone has their own personal flair, and captaincy was what felt natural to me. Football gave me a sense of values. In life I have always wanted to go further and be better.” 

He still watches football just as intently as he watches the games on the pitch below him. In Virgil van Dijk, who beat Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the Uefa Player of the Year award, he sees some familiar traits. “Van Dijk is one of the best in the world. He is the complete defender, always calm, a great player. The spotlight usually goes to the strikers, so it is nice to see a special defender get deserved recognition.

“It’s true that in recent years Messi for me is the best, and it’s difficult to compare to him because to me he’s the best player in history. We’ve also had Cristiano who’s a great player. And the two have always been there, and few players have had the opportunity to win an individual trophy, Having these two players in this era, he’s doing an excellent job and I’m very happy for him.”

With that, Puyol heads off to his ambassadorial duties. Later he kicks off the boys’ final in front of thousands of fans, and at full-time he comforts the distraught young Spanish player who missed a penalty in their deciding shootout against Mexico. For now at least, Puyol has more to give the next generation than the current world of football.

The Century

This week, we are counting down the 100 greatest players of the 21st century, revealing 20 per day until the winner is announced on Friday.

We asked 10 of our football writers to select 50 players, with each pick awarded points contributing to a final score.

Join us throughout the week for a wide selection of exclusive interviews and features, as we celebrate the best players of the last 20 years.



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