In football terms, few would argue that the 21st century has so far belonged to Spain. The national side has risen from the ranks of perennial under-achievers to become undeniably the dominant force in the international game, winning the European Championship and World Cup tournaments in succession.
European football fans have drooled over the sublime technical skills of Spanish clubs featuring stellar line-ups of home-grown talent mixed with modern greats of the game. Catalan giants FC Barcelona developed a side which has not only won every possible major honour in club football, but they’ve done it with the kind of entertaining style and flair which will ensure their place as one of the great club sides of all time.
The dominance which these two teams have inflicted on the beautiful game is evident in the media shock waves created when either side suffers a rare loss. But to pin the hopes and fears of Spanish football purely on Barca and the national squad would do a huge disservice to La Liga.
The league goes from strength to strength, producing the best players on the planet at an alarming rate. During the current century, seven champions league finalists have come from Spain’s La Liga, including 5 winners – more than any other country. And those who still believe the English Premier League is the best in the world would do well to note the large amount of Spanish players, considered among the most talented in the league but who could not even break into the first team during their La Liga careers.
So with all that in mind, we’ve put together a list of our top 10 La Liga players of the 21st Century. Enjoy!
10. Iker Casillas
Captaining both club and country to major titles is an incredible feat for any player. As a goalkeeper it’s an even more outstanding achievement. Intelligent, speedy, shot-stopping master Casillas has proved time and again why he’s rated as one of the best keepers in the world, if not the best.
9. Juan Riquelme
Before his agonising 2006 penalty miss which sent Arsenal to the Champions League final instead of Villareal, Argentinian midfield maestro Riquelme had been playing arguably the best football of his entire career in Spain. A major influence in Villareal’s record third place La Liga finish in 2005, the magical playmaker scored a career-best 15 goals and earned a FIFA World Player of the Year nomination.
Fans poured into stadiums to see the skills of a young Brazilian unlike anything seen before. Tricks were nothing new in football. Tricks during a game which actually led to chance after chance on goal, were a revelation. Ronaldinho’s style, skill and accuracy seemed to be propelling him to the list of true all-time greats before a dramatic off pitch meltdown spelled the beginning of the end for his La Liga career.
One of the few players to have moved directly between giants and fierce rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Portuguese holding midfielder’s trophy list is a fitting tribute to his endless talent and work rate. Perhaps best remembered as the linchpin of Real Madrid’s ‘Galactico’ era, Figo finished his career in Spain with four La Liga titles, two Copas del Rey, three Supercopas de España and a Champions League winners medal to his name.
6. Roberto Carlos
Often touted as the best left-back of all time, the Brazilian defender actually started his career as a forward. Known for his stunning free kicks as much as for his sturdy defending, Carlos played over 300 league matches for Real Madrid, scoring 46 goals in the process. Add to that, four La Liga titles and three Champions League trophies and there’s no debate he’s earned his place on this list.
5. Andres Iniesta
A product of Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy, Iniesta made his first-team debut in 2002 and within two years became an integral part of one of the most successful club sides in history. His vision and passing along with his partnership with fellow midfielder Xavi provides the spark which sets stadiums alight. Utterly irreplaceable, Iniesta is class through and through.
117 goals in 164 La Liga appearances. Need we say more? Oh, go on then. Scoring 34 goals in 37 La Liga games during his first and only season with Barcelona, El Fenomeno burst on to the world stage and transferred to Internazionale where his time was blighted by injury. When Real Madrid brought the striker back to La Liga for a second spell, sales of shirts bearing his name broke all records. Two World Cups, a La Liga title and a joint-record three World Player of the Year awards are the highlights of a wonderful career.
3. Lionel Messi
Wonderkid does not even begin to describe this once-in-a-lifetime player. His breathtaking skill on the ball have left the world’s best defenders scratching their heads. The only player alive who can tell his opponent which way he’s going get past them, and then pull it off with ease. With the list of honours to his name it’s easy to forget that the boy’s still only 24 years old. And that’s the only reason the little genius does not top this list.
2. Zinedine Zidane
Along with Ronaldo, the French midfielder is one of only three players ever to have won the World Player of the Year award three times. After joining Real Madrid for a then record transfer fee, Zizou led the ‘Galacticos‘ to La Liga and Champions League titles, at the time becoming one of a select few ever to have won league, Champions League, European Cup and World Cup titles. One of the most skilful players ever known, Zidane’s passing and control were unrivalled during his relatively short La Liga career.
Quite simply one of the best players on the planet. Vision. Skill. Flawless control. Pinpoint passing. Xavi has it all. Having burst through the Barcelona youth academy, the Spain international has spent his entire footballing life at Camp Nou, creating countless goals and almost never relinquishing possession. In a career spanning the entire 21st century so far, the Spain international has won every possible major honour for club and country. In our opinion, neither side could have achieved even one of those feats without him.