It takes some of us back to when we were kids. From the moment we could count, some of us liked ranking things, whether it was toy cars or stuffed animals. It wasn’t something you could measure, necessarily. You could come up with whatever criteria you chose, you could build rational arguments and, generally, there were no wrong answers.
Ranking footballers, to some degree, is a similar exercise. Or, rather, there are wrong answers — pick Jesse Lingard over Lionel Messi, and someone will remind you that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts — but there aren’t necessarily right ones. You know the wrong ones when you see them. But equally, when you’re dealing with players at or near the very top, you can generally construct whatever argument you like and make it persuasive.
In some ways, this is one of the aspects that sets this game apart from many other sports. There aren’t that many objective metrics you can employ. Numbers are few and far between: It’s really just goals and assists, at least for those living outside of the analytics bubble.
These are team efforts. You can count the number of times Chrissie Evert beats Martina Navratilova, and vice versa, but in football it’s never David De Gea vs. Manuel Neuer. There are 20 other guys on the pitch, not to mention the fact that these guys play with different teammates against different standards of opposition.
Would Robert Lewandowski score more or fewer goals if he turned out for Dijon instead of playing for Bayern? You can argue either side. He’d be playing in a supposedly weaker league. Then again, he’d have substantially worse teammates, and he’d be on a team that attacks a lot less.
You can’t easily filter out these factors, though some try. And so we go by the “eye test.”
If you’re a regular visitor to this website and live in a place with electricity and/or an internet connection, you’ve probably seen all 100 players on this list at some point. The problem is here, too, your information is imperfect. Even if you’re some obsessive fan living in a basement and watching Wyscout all day, every day, there would be plenty you’d miss, assuming you spend a reasonable number of hours each day on sleep, personal grooming and meals.
And even if you did have a kitchen and a bathroom lined with monitors — and survived on four hours of sleep a night — you’d still only be watching on TV. Which, when it comes to evaluating players, is still a little bit like watching a football match through a hole in the wall: It’s not a substitute for seeing them in person.
Right-Backs | Centre-Backs | Left-Backs
Central Midfielders | Attacking Midfielders | Wingers
Forwards | Strikers
The fact of the matter is the vast majority of us will, at most, watch a couple of games a week in person and maybe another dozen on TV. And that’s pretty much maxing out over the course of seven days. The rest we get through highlights, and highlights frankly tell us little or nothing about defenders and midfielders, while distorting what keepers and strikers do.
But that’s OK. In fact, in some ways that’s the beauty of it. We can dispense with science here, instead of recognizing (and embracing) that emotion and personal preference play a huge part.
We have our favorites, and how they become our favorites varies from fan to fan, and we have the guys we simply don’t like. Some of us value technique above all else. Others covet athleticism. Some prefer consistency. Others seek fleeting moments of magic.
We all have our benchmarks. We all have our prejudices. We have imperfect knowledge.
And that’s what makes this exercise worthwhile.
It’s not just that our inputs are far more limited than we’d like (or need) them to be; it’s just that each of us weigh these inputs differently. Greatness means something different to each of us. In a sense, when we compile our personal version of these lists, it often says more about us than it does about the names on the paper or blinking on the screen.
As for the FC100, it’s the result of a vote among ESPN FC writers, experts and regions to determine the top 100 in the game right now. Our ballot breaks things down by position to more accurately reflect the top performers all over the pitch, not just the ones who dominate the headlines.
You can choose to read these lists and get angry because somebody is at No. 9 rather than at No. 5. You can spot biases and prejudices and preferential treatment, and maybe you’ll be right, because we’re all human and we live with this every day. You can lament the need to rank, separate and segregate, rather than simply appreciating greatness in all its forms.
Or you can do something a bit more constructive. You can make your own list and, perhaps, compare it with a friend’s. Maybe even have a conversation about it.
And it might just be fun, like the fun you had when you were a kid.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.