Top 50 players: 10-1
Our summer countdown comes to a climax as Eurosport-Yahoo! crowns the best footballer in the world - Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
1- Lionel Messi (Barcelona / Argentina)
Messi hails from Rosario in Argentina but has spent nearly a decade in Barcelona and been adopted as an honorary Catalan because, well, wouldn't you want to claim him as one of your own?
When he joined the club, the 13-year-old Messi's feet did not even touch the ground when he sat on the bench, but some jaw-dropping performances hinted at potential that has now blossomed into full-blown greatness.
Like Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi is lightning quick, skilful, strong and knows how to find the back of the net from wide positions.
Unlike the Portuguese, however, he is almost universally loved, and received a standing ovation from some Real Madrid fans during the 6-2 Clasico demolition at the Bernabeu in May.
While Ronaldo demands that the team fits around his genius, Messi works for the collective good and will happily use his skills to showcase the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Thierry Henry if the situation demands it.
Still just 22, Messi was inspirational in 2008-09, dazzling with the ball as he hit 23 sumptuous goals in La Liga to regain the title from Real Madrid; he chipped in with six in the Copa del Rey and added nine more in a victorious Champions League campaign.
The little man somehow evaded Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to score a towering header in the European final in Rome; a signature moment that encapsulated Barcelona's superiority over Manchester United, and Messi's over Ronaldo. Until next year...
Click the links below the photo to review the top 50 in full, and to read why we picked the players we did as we address your criticisms!
2- Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid / Portugal)
Many might take issue with the reigning World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or coming in at number two, not least Ronaldo himself. But the Portuguese has just slipped behind you-know-who over the last season. In his desperation to repeat the 42-goal haul of 2007-08, Ronaldo's final campaign at Manchester United saw him grow increasingly selfish and petulant. On the plus side, he still impressed enough for Real Madrid to shell out a world record £80 million fee. Ronaldo excels in almost every technical and physical department - he is strong, fast, two-footed, absurdly skilful, great in the air and possesses a dipping, swerving shot that continues to make goalkeepers look foolish. Still just 24, he could have another decade at the top. If he rediscovers his enjoyment of the game in Madrid, the unofficial title of world's best footballer is his for the taking.
3 - Fernando Torres (Liverpool / Spain)
The best striker in the world. Torres was plagued by hamstring problems for much of last season, but when he played he was absolute dynamite. No other out-and-out front man provides such a combination of electric pace, sublime technique (that feint he does to dribble past opponents is so gorgeous you'd let it marry your sister) and unerring finishing. Best of all, he can be used effectively in any attacking system; sitting on the last defender's shoulder looking to beat the offside trap, lurking close to goal as a fox in the box, or playing as a target man with his back to goal. Oh, and he scored the goal that won Spain's first major trophy for 44 years.
4 - Xavi (Barcelona / Spain)
UEFA's player of Euro 2008 is the technically supreme fulcrum for both Barcelona and Spain, and his international form nudges him just in front of Gerrard. Always available and, equally, always able to find a team-mate, Xavi is also one of the consistently effective deliverers of a dead ball. Proof that in an age of increasingly tall, muscle-bound athletes, there is still room for the little guy. One Spanish commentator has taken to calling him "Xavi Humphrey Bogart", because he always plays it again. Which, in its own laboured way, sums up his importance for both club and country.
5 - Steven Gerrard (Liverpool / England)
No other Premier League side has a single player as indispensible to their cause as Gerrard. You can bemoan the Roy of the Rovers 'blood, sweat and guts' cliches all you like, but the fact is that time and again the Liverpool skipper drags his team up to another level. Last season, that level was the Anfield side's first credible title challenge in years. He even looks to have finally found his place in an England shirt. One pundit's recent observation that he has "the style and speed of a professional boxer" perfectly encapsulates the England midfielder's all-action approach.
6 - Kaka (Real Madrid / Brazil)
There are few players who have ever made the game look as easy as Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite. It may not have been a vintage year for Kaka, but he still scored 16 times in Serie A before he signed up for the Perez 'project' at Real Madrid in this summer's most exciting piece of recruitment by the club. Ronaldo beats defenders with pace and strength, Messi runs with the ball stuck to his feet like a player in a Play Station game, but Kaka glides effortlessly past opponents with an elegant grace that you might describe as divine.
7 - Michael Essien (Chelsea / Ghana)
Essien cost Chelsea a monster £24 million four years ago, and how he has repaid that fee. During his time at Stamford Bridge, he has been deployed in defence, as a wing-back and even behind the strikers in addition to his trademark midfield enforcer position, and has filled each role with aplomb. Guus Hiddink may have taken much of the credit for guiding Chelsea to their late-season revival, but the Dutchman will have counted his blessings when Essien returned from long-term injury in March. A mighty physical specimen who can also score the odd vital goal too.
8 - Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal / Russia)
During Euro 2008, Arshavin was that rarest of animals in the modern game; an exceptionally-talented, fully-formed forward that not too many people had seen play. That Arsenal lured him to the Premier League after he had looked Barcelona-bound was nothing short of a coup, even if it was greatly facilitated by the Russian flying himself in on deadline day. His four-goal haul at Anfield has already assured his place in the heart of every Arsenal supporter, and the knowledge that he will be with the Gunners from the start of next season is a cause for excitement for all football fans.
9 - Wayne Rooney (Manchester United / England)
Ever since his stunning winner for Everton against Arsenal as a 16-year-old, Rooney has carried the hopes of every England fan on his broad shoulders, and Fabio Capello's side is certainly a lesser team whenever he is not in it. Rooney's skill, power and tireless support of erstwhile club team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo over the past two seasons have played a major part in yet another vintage era for Manchester United, and he can look forward to an even more pivotal role next term. Three Premier League titles and a Champions League winner's medal is an exceptional haul for a player who is a) English and b) still only 23.
10 - Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Barcelona / Sweden)
What with Samuel Eto'o coming in at number 11, we now have scientific fact that a place among the world's 10 best footballers is worth £40 million plus a season of Alex Hleb. Ibrahimovic's languid style might have earned him a few critics, but to be perfectly honest it is their loss. The Swede is a joy to watch, boasting the skill and poise of a ballet dancer with the physique of a bouncer. Was Serie A's top scorer last season with 25 goals, and could go on to even greater things with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi supplying him with chances.
HOW IT WORKS
We have selected the best players in the world and will be counting down from 50 to one throughout the summer. Every day until Friday, August 7 we will reveal the next player on the list, along with the reasons why we rate him.
HOW WE MADE THE LIST
The list, obviously, is subjective. All the number-crunching in the world will not tell you whether Gianluigi Buffon is better than Samuel Eto'o. Their functions are so different it is like trying to decide whether you prefer an orange or a tin opener.
We basically picked the team using the playground system. If all the players in the world were lined up and you had to pick them to play a match, in what order would a 'team captain' select them?
Our fictional playground captains are not trying to build an actual team, they are just picking the best player available. So there is no effort to balance players from every position.
In our estimation, good attackers win more matches than good defenders. They are the ones who command the big transfer fees, they are the ones who people pay to watch, and they are the ones who win the individual awards.
So we make no apology that the list is weighted in favour of attacking midfielders and strikers. No matter how much you admire Jamie Carragher's contribution to Liverpool, you would never say he was a better or more important player than Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres. The list reflects this.
Form is crucial. There are players who missed out on a top-50 place who might have been in the top 10 last year, but have seen their stock fall either through injury or poor form. There is no doubt Ronaldinho is a stunningly talented player, but we could not say - on current form - he is one of the 50 best in the world.
Age is irrelevant. Players are judged entirely on their current ability, not their potential. A 35-year-old is not marked down because he is at the end of his career, and an 18-year-old does not get extra credit because of the player he is expected to become. Only one thing matters - how good is the player now?
THE PLAYERS WHO MISSED OUT
Whittling the world's best players down to a final list of 50 required us to make some tough decisions. All of the following players came close to making the cut but, for one reason or another, were discarded:
Emmanuel Adebayor, David Beckham, Dimitar Berbatov, Antonio Cassano, Gael Clichy, Ashley Cole, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs, Gonzalo Higuain, Vedad Ibisevic, Philipp Lahm, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucio, Diego Milito, Joao Moutinho, Andrea Pirlo, Sergio Ramos, Ronaldinho, Marcos Senna, Wesley Sneijder, Dejan Stankovic, John Terry, Carlos Tevez, Francesco Totti, Rafael van der Vaart, Ruud van Nistelrooy.