10. Mario Balotelli [Milan and Italy]
Obviously. The only problem with Balotelli is that his performances on the pitch are no longer as sensational as his antics off it, and even those have been wilfully exaggerated for years by hit-chasing reporters and editors.
These days, Balotelli is simply really good at football. That’s fine, but he was a lot more fun to watch when he was throwing his shirt on the floor and storming down the tunnel, or taking it upon himself to give a reluctant referee no option but to send him off by committing about six yellow card offences. He still supplies fireworks occasionally – ahem – but largely seems to have settled down. It’s a shame.
9. Arjen Robben [Bayern Munich and the Netherlands]
Truth be told, it was a bit disappointing to see Arjen Robben score the winner in the 2013 Champions League final, primarily because it brought to an end one of football’s funniest losing streaks.
Possessing huge talent, a penchant for histrionics and a very watchable style of play, Robben could have been up there with Lionel Messi as the defining player of this era, having had golden chances to score winners in a World Cup final as well as two other Champions League finals.
Instead, he missed each of his gilt-edged gimmies, threw any number of strops and finished on the losing side of every major decider in which he played before Bayern’s victory at Wembley on 25 May. Most amusing of his failures was the 2012 Champions League final: despite taking an unbelievable fifteen shots, including a penalty kick, Robben somehow contrived not to score and Bayern lost. His face after the game was priceless.
8. Mesut Özil [Arsenal and Germany]
This one doesn’t really need explaining, does it? It says everything that a dullard like Wayne Rooney could see how special Özil was within a few minutes of seeing him for the first time. He’s so graceful I strongly suspect he could make washing up look balletic. He’s certainly done something I thought impossible and single-handedly transformed Arsenal into a genuinely good team.
If the Gunners do somehow win the title this season, it will basically be down to the arrival of Özil. That’s pretty heartening when you consider that for the last few years all the mainstream media has said is that Arsenal need to add more steel. How splendid it would be for them to climb back to the summit of English football by throwing more flair into the mix instead.
7. Sergio Ramos [Real Madrid and Spain]
First, Ramos was entertaining for his defending, which left head-scratching viewers wondering exactly what his interpretation of the word was. Then it was the red cards and casual violence, usually arriving with uncanny punctuality. You could be watching a Madrid game in which they were losing, turn to a companion and say “Sergio Ramos is going to get sent off in a minute” and he would almost immediately leather someone and receive his marching orders.
Then, perhaps most enduringly, Ramos started taking penalties. In 2012, he took two: one was up there – literally – with the worst ever taken; the other, an ice-cold Panenka, immediately ranked among the best. In the 2013 Confederations Cup final in Brazil, with the score at 3-0 to the hosts, he shanked a spot-kick wide with Torresian incompetence. All in all, mad as a box of frogs.
6. Andrés Iniesta [Barcelona and Spain]
Don Andrés is so entertaining he has achieved a feat that people with far greater means could never come close to doing over thousands of years: uniting the people of Spain. Every week, be it home or away, the crowd watching Iniesta comes together in a unanimous display of applause and affection.
Of course, scoring a World Cup-winning goal will go some way to earning that level of adulation but it’s hard to imagine a player as talented and successful as Cristiano Ronaldo receiving weekly standing ovations, despite trying exponentially harder to get them. Indeed, Iniesta doesn’t crave popularity, which is partly why he has it. He’s a symbol of entertainment in its purest, most recognisable form: ability.
5. David Luiz [Chelsea and Brazil]
He looks like Sideshow Bob, attacks like Diego Maradona and defends “like he’s being controlled by a ten year-old on a PlayStation”. All of this makes him extremely watchable. Every time you think he’s lost his tendency to do something completely inexplicable and cost his team a goal, he does something completely inexplicable and costs his team a goal.
In a way it’s a shame that David Luiz gets so much criticism: firstly, because he’s among the very best technical centre-backs around; secondly, because football without the occasional injection of total insanity would be considerably poorer as a spectacle.
4. Luis Suárez [Liverpool and Uruguay]
First things first, Suárez is an incredible footballer. What elevates him to fourth in this list is that he has become a consistently incredible footballer. He regularly used to skin four defenders before spooning the ball into the Mersey, but he now he dribbles past them and scores with ease. He finished last season with a total of thirty goals and there was barely an ugly one among them. Despite missing the first five games of 2013-14, he is currently third in the Premier League top scorers’ chart.
Were it not for the fact that so much of what Suárez brings to the game ranges from ‘unsavoury’ to ‘genuinely despicable’, he would be even higher on this list. While controversial incidents are to modern football as enormous crashes are to motorsport – and as good as bankable currency on this list – there’s no acceptable justification for racial abuse or attempted cannibalism, no matter how unbelievable they were to see live on television.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimović [Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden]
It seems unthinkable that Martin O’Neill was once widely applauded for stating that Zlatan was “the most overrated player on the planet.” Thankfully, the tables have since turned: PSG’s talisman is one of the most admired footballers around, while the free-spending, hoofball-endorsing, blame-deflecting Ulsterman sits on football’s equivalent of the dole.
It’s quite likely that if the career showreels of every footballer ever to have played the game were compared and scored, then Zlatan’s would come out on top. I imagine Aron Ralston had an easier time deciding to amputate his own arm than I’d have trying to choose my favourite Ibrahimović goal.
Of course, there’s much more to Zlatan than consistent brain-melting brilliance: notable extracurricular exploits include karate-kicking his own team-mate in the head in training, and asking a pitchside reporter during a live television interview: “what the fuck are you looking at?”
2. Lionel Messi [Barcelona and Argentina]
Unlike most of the other players on this list, Messi’s never going to do anything outrageous or unfathomably stupid, but he’s still the best player ever to set foot on a pitch and that counts for something. No other footballer has ever guaranteed entertainment in the form of goals in quite the same way. That he does so with such artistry and humility is a bonus.
The world’s journalists ran out of superlatives to describe the Argentine years ago and he still has the best part of a decade left in the game. If you haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to Camp Nou to see him, make it a priority. You won’t be disappointed.
1. Arturo Vidal [Juventus and Chile]
I once described Vidal as ‘something resembling Michael Essien on speed’. I would like to take this chance to revise that description: Arturo Vidal is more like a cross between Bryan Robson, Genghis Khan and Mr Bean. The Chilean has been breaking new ground in the category of all-action-dynamo-cum-ruthless-killing-machine-cum-pratfall-victim for a few years now but 2013 may have been his most entertaining yet.
The unique attraction of watching Arturo Vidal is that you can be absolutely sure something will happen – you just never know what it will be. Usually he’s just relentlessly effective, making more tackles, fouls and passes, taking more shots and covering more kilometres than anyone else on the pitch. He will then augment that fundamental centrality to the game by doing one or more of the following: scoring the perfect penalty; making a tackle so violent that a memorial service is held for his victim before play is restarted; hacking up a foot-deep divot in the area and then demanding a penalty.
Okay, so he’s not as brilliant as Messi, as breathtaking as Zlatan or as basically offensive as Suárez, but no-one else combines the three attributes so perfectly or comes up with the goods so regularly. Although awareness of his entertainment value has been growing since he joined Juventus, Vidal remains one of football’s least appreciated treasures.