Over the course of sports history, very rarely have people come to a consensus on anything.
Lionel Messi, though, is different: everyone agrees that he’s the best player in the world right now and is well on his way to becoming one of the best of all time.
Except, just maybe, he isn’t. Let’s put on our contrarian hats and consider the other players who could conceivably be compared to Leo.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid, 27
Look, Cristiano Ronaldo’s a dick. He preens, he dives, he jumps around like a peacock on MDMA. But hidden beneath all these layers of theater is ridiculous football talent. The good Ronaldo — the other one’s fat now — won the FIFA World Player of the Year Award in 2009 and finished second to Messi for the 2011 FIFA Ballon D’Or. In 2010-11, his 40 goals for Madrid set the record for most in a single La Liga season. And this season, he only trails Messi by one. Stronger than Messi, yet still lightning fast, he’s one of the best athletes in the world.
3. Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona, 32 and 27
Messi might not even be the best player on his team. Midfielder Xavi deserves plenty of credit for constantly supplying Messi with the beautiful passes he turns into goals. Having around the constantly roaming Iniesta, who can play any position on the pitch, doesn’t hurt either. Known for their uncanny understanding of each others’ movements and style, Xavi and Iniesta belong on this list together, but make no mistake: separate, they would still dominate their respective environments. Also, after 2010, they have something Messi doesn’t: a World Cup.
4. Wayne Rooney, Manchester United, 26
Wayne Rooney’s 26. Seriously. It makes more sense when you learn that he scored his first Premier League goals before his 17th birthday. As the best English player, Roooney deserves a spot on this list just for argument’s sake; the Balding Bulldog tears defenses apart better than nearly anyone else in the world — except maybe Leo.
Also: HE’S ONLY 26. I thought the dude was 30, at least.
5. Thiago Silva, AC Milan, 27
Defenders deserve to be in this conversation as well, and few come as complete as Thiago Silva. The Brazilian is currently recognized as the best center back in the world, and he’s captaining his club in Serie A. Expect him to be one of the pivotal players in Brazil’s lineup in 2014.
6. Mesut Ozil, Real Madrid, 23
Ozil’s one of the few players in Messi’s age range who can also be mentioned in this conversation. After breaking out at the last World Cup as one of the standouts on a strong German side, Ozil was almost immediately acquired by Madrid to spell Kaka. With Kaka frequently fighting injuries, Ozil received an increasing amount of playing time and didn’t disappoint, combining excellent ball control with great field vision and a strong shot.
Oh, and a German coach once called him Germany’s “own Messi.” So there’s that. Plus, he has a strange resemblance to American writer Paul Auster.
7. Robin van Persie, Arsenal, 28
The Giant of Arsenal has been having a humongous season this year. How big, you ask? Well, he’s got 26 of Arsenal’s 58 goals on the year, and the Dutchman currently leads the EPL in scoring — six ahead of Rooney. Although he’s battled injuries and inconsistencies in the past, van Persie seems to have finally hit his stride since appearing in the 2010 World Cup Final, and it looks like he should be able to maintain it as long as he stays healthy.
8. Iker Casillas, Real Madrid, 30
Comparing a striker to a goalkeeper is stupid, and I’m not doing that, not really. But when we’re talking about the best players in the world, we’d be remiss not to mention a goalkeeper, and Spain’s captain is the best of the lot. (Yes, another, Spanish player; have you watched them play recently?) Casillas blanked the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup Final and has the second-lowest goals-against average in La Liga this season (he’s faced 20% more shots than Valdes, Barcelona’s keeper and possessor of the lowest GAA).
9. Luis Suarez, Liverpool, 25
Thanks to a hotly contested accusation of racism and his generally unpleasant, hyperaggressive demeanor, Luis Suarez has become one of the most notorious heels in football. This hatred stems also from the damage he does to opposing squads; the Uruguayan famously handballed his nation to victory against Ghana in 2010, and he was the player of the tournament in the 2011 Copa America. For Liverpool, he has been deadly when active, displaying a preternatural ability to turn corners and create in traffic. If he can mature and continue to develop as a player, Suarez doesn’t really have a ceiling.
10. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern Munich, 27
As controlling as any player, Schweinsteiger dictates the pace and movement of his squad, whether it’s the German national team or Bayern. Particularly since Michael Ballack fell off, Schweinsteiger has emerged as a giant in the midfield, and he also has a deadly long-range shot that means a defense needs to close on him as well as fill his passing lanes.
Reminder: NONE OF THESE PLAYERS ARE ACTUALLY BETTER THAN MESSI. But they’re as close as anyone gets.