Rui Vieira/Associated Press
Who is the best player at every age in world football?
B/R took on this peculiar but entertaining task to bring you the answers, starting at age 16 and moving all the way through to 40.
The selection process is as simple as it should be: The player picked is the outright, current, best player at that age right now, taking into account a healthy balance of form and overall class.
We’ve added honourable mentions for some ages in the form of “other candidates” for picks that brought about dilemmas, but not for all—some picks were just automatic.
Rayan Cherki, Lyon
16 years old
Cherki is a true star of the future. At 16, he’s already made his senior bow in Ligue 1 and both French cups, plus he was even given 15 minutes off the bench in the UEFA Champions League when 2-0 down against Zenit St. Petersburg.
A nifty, tricky wide player, his ball manipulation and close control is already incredible. Cherki has a perfect first touch, exceptional weight of pass and game-breaking vision.
Eduardo Camavinga, Rennes
17 years old
Not all of these selections are as straightforward as Cherki, and we’ve reached our first dilemma with just the second pick.
Measuring Camavinga, a ball-hoovering defensive midfielder, against Ansu Fati, a sparkling young goalscoring wide man, is very difficult. But we’ll give the edge to the former after what was a better 2019-20 campaign.
Camavinga’s already the sort of stabilising, consistent presence many top clubs want and need. He’ll start weekly for a Champions League side in Rennes next season, and if things go as suspected, he’ll probably start weekly for a different Champions League side the season after!
Other candidates: Ansu Fati, Jude Bellingham
Peter Powell/Associated Press
Mason Greenwood, Manchester United
18 years old
This was a straight shootout between fellow Premier League breakthrough stars Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka.
Saka’s excelled in four different positions this season and shown new strings to his bow by the month, but Greenwood’s special ability in three things that are extremely important—finishing, unpredictability and speed—mark him out as the more dangerous and impactful player right now.
Spare a thought for those defenders trying to figure out which way to show Greenwood, knowing both his left and right foot are cannons. He’s going to be unstoppable for a long time.
Other candidates: Bukayo Saka
Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich
19 years old
The progress Davies has made this season has been close to unfathomable.
In September 2019, he was a young, hopeful winger trying to figure out how to crack an XI that contained Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman in his spot. In July 2020, he’s an undisputed starter at left-back—and a game-changing one at that—already elevated to elite status within his position group.
He attacks with venom and defends astutely; his entire game is underpinned by the sort of ferocious speed few—if any—can match. A gem.
Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund
20 years old
Timing has stitched Erling Haaland up here. Had this article been written just a few days earlier, he’d have claimed the 19-year-old slot no problem.
But he turned 20 on Tuesday, pitting him against team-mate Jadon Sancho, and it’s a battle he loses by a hair.
Sancho hit 20 goals and 20 assists in all competitions in 2019-20, showing the world how devastating he can be in multiple ways, but also how consistent he is. It’s why he’s being talked about in close to €100 million terms as a potential blockbuster transfer, per B/R’s Dean Jones.
Other candidates: Erling Haaland, Matthijs de Ligt, Joao Felix, Vinicius Junior
Thibault Camus/Associated Press
Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain
21 years old
No debates necessary here. There’s plenty of talent aged 21, much of it shining at top teams on the biggest stages, but none come close to Mbappe.
He’s developed into a goalscoring machine, a one-man wrecking ball for defences who utilises speed, directness and an unerring finishing ability to snap opponents in two.
The Frenchman has won the league title in each of his four professional campaigns so far, plus a FIFA World Cup (in which he truly starred) and a healthy haul of cups. Keep this up and he’ll be one of the most decorated players of all time.
He’s no longer a potential world-class player; he is a world-class player, one who probably ranks among the five best footballers on this planet.
Lautaro Martinez, Inter Milan
22 years old
Perhaps the closest-run pick in this list is at 22, and the lengthy list of other candidates below illustrates how much strength this age group has.
Lautaro Martinez, who edges Marcus Rashford for the pick, is your prototypical 2020 forward: potent, quick, extremely hardworking and plays with a real intensity. He can run in behind or drop to receive, works well in a partnership but can cut it up front on his own too.
No wonder Barcelona see him as an heir to Luis Suarez’s throne, as B/R’s Dean Jones reported in April.
Other candidates: Marcus Rashford, Merih Demiral, Ismael Bennacer, Houssem Aouar
Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona
23 years old
We haven’t quite seen the best of Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona just yet, but you don’t have to scroll too far back in your minds to remember what the peak version of him looks like—and it is some player.
He can dictate quick pass-and-move sequences, carry the ball through the lines and transition a team from defence to attack in seconds. We’ve seen flashes of it at the Camp Nou, and we need to see more of it, but the impact he’s capable of having no other 23-year-old can match—though Rodrigo Bentancur isn’t far off in second.
Other candidates: Rodrigo Bentancur, Joe Gomez, Ruben Neves
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press
Timo Werner, Chelsea
24 years old
Had Leroy Sane played more than 24 minutes of football in the last year, he might well have been the pick here. At peak levels, he’s the best 24-year-old on earth, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen it.
Replacing him as the pick is Timo Werner, who, fittingly, is replacing Sane as the Premier League’s electric, pacey German presence on the pitch too.
With a 34-goal season under his belt as he heads to Chelsea, expectations are sky-high, but so are his confidence levels. His former coach Jesse Marsch gave the B/R Football Ranks podcast some insight into Werner’s mentality and psyche, and it wouldn’t surprise if he scores for fun in his debut campaign in England.
Other candidates: Leroy Sane, Julian Brandt
Joshua Kimmich, Bayern Munich
25 years old
This season’s move to central midfield is the key to Joshua Kimmich pipping a star-studded cast to this selection.
It’s always been obvious he’s a high IQ football player, but the level to which he can control, dictate and solidify has become even clearer now he’s been moved (back) into a No. 6 role at Bayern Munich.
He offers both a defensive platform in midfield and a class touch on the ball, while strikes like the one that decided Der Klassiker (and with it the Bundesliga title, pretty much) in June provide evidence of his penchant for the odd spectacular strike.
Other candidates: Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes
Paulo Dybala, Juventus
26 years old
It’s taken longer than expected, with more than his fair share of growing pains mixed in, but Dybala has emerged as one of football’s leading attackers and is now the type of presence Juventus can build around.
He’s stepped up and scored a series of important or go-ahead goals in 2019-20, several of them epic strikes from distance, and has managed to keep the Old Lady’s attack flowing even when the team as a whole have struggled to find peak rhythm.
Dybala beats off competition from a variety of position groups to claim the title of best 26-year-old, with Harry Kane running him closest but dropping to second after only just re-finding some of his own form.
Other candidates: Harry Kane, Aymeric Laporte, Fabinho
Paul Pogba, Manchester United
27 years old
Football’s return has given us the chance to savour the sight of Paul Pogba on a football pitch again—and what a sight it is.
He glides across the turf with ease, and both his passing range and threat on goal from range constantly have defences on red alert.
Bruno Fernandes’ excellent form alongside him has captured international attention, but Pogba’s been about as good as the Portuguese.
Other candidates: Alisson Becker
Christophe Ena/Associated Press
Neymar, Paris Saint-Germain
28 years old
Neymar’s remarkable 2019-20 campaign has vaulted him back into the conversation for world’s best player, having dipped out of it only really because of an injury-plagued couple of seasons.
When a player is out for lengthy periods it can be easy to forget just how good they are, meaning we can be wowed and thrilled all over again as they turn on the style and skill.
Neymar’s been irresistible all season and had started to show some real maturity, offering up pivotal performances in the most important games—something he did regularly at Barcelona but hadn’t delivered to the same extent in France.
Other candidates: Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah
Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City
29 years old
Hands up if De Bruyne edging towards the 30-mark took you by surprise? Perhaps it’s his baby face, perhaps it’s something else.
That breakthrough season at Wolfsburg happened age 23, having lost time in the depths of Chelsea’s squad. In an age where we’ve become accustomed to 18-year-olds assuming important first-team roles at elite clubs, that’s late.
His five years at Manchester City have been magnificent, so much so that there’s a pretty strong argument that he’s one of the best five players in the world right now.
Other candidates: Virgil van Dijk, Eden Hazard
Toni Kroos, Real Madrid
30 years old
Thomas Muller’s 2020 resurgence made this a tough one; his whopping 21 Bundesliga assists this season underline the fact he has returned to peak creative form.
But Toni Kroos edges it, as you can point to something of a bounce-back season for him too. He re-found top form and led a Real Madrid midfield that mixed steel with silkiness in just the right amounts.
His passing range and variation remains unrivalled, he’s offering more in a defensive capacity than he ever has in a Madrid shirt and he’s scored some truly incredible goals over the past year.
Other candidates: Thomas Muller
Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich
31 years old
The news that no Ballon d’Or will be awarded in 2020 will come as a blow to many, but no player should be more irked than Robert Lewandowski.
His 21 goals this calendar year—and 12 in 10 behind closed doors—had him in pole position for the award in many a fan’s view. His form and all-round game shined so consistently that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may genuinely have been in trouble had it come to picking the winner.
At the very least, he’ll console himself with yet another domestic double at Bayern Munich, then try to make it a European treble in July.
Other candidates: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Michael Sohn/Associated Press
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid
32 years old
Karim Benzema’s always been an excellent player, but it feels like he’s reached new levels of genius.
He carries the Real Madrid attack, with his clever movement and passes allowing it to function. He’s also added far more goals to his game over the last two years—a development that has made his overwhelming brilliance impossible to ignore.
From no-look backheel assists to volleyed goal of the season contenders, he’s shown it all behind closed doors and led Real Madrid to a title.
Other candidates: Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Alejandro Gomez, Josip Ilicic
Lionel Messi, Barcelona
33 years old
This was the easiest pick of the lot. If you think Messi is the world’s best player, you obviously think he’s the best 33-year-old too!
Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid
34 years old
The 34-year-old version of Sergio Ramos might be the best we’ve ever seen.
He has been a driving force in this La Liga title win, converting penalty after penalty and performing the defensive side of the game about as well as he ever has too.
He’s in incredible physical condition and possesses the sort of winning determination and mindset every captain should have.
Other candidates: Luka Modric, David Silva, Manuel Neuer
Marco Alpozzi/Associated Press
Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus
35 years old
Like with Messi, one of the first things that happened in construction for this piece was a quick search to verify Ronaldo’s age, then his name was jotted down. No other candidates considered.
Branislav Ivanovic, Zenit St Petersburg
36 years old
By far the weakest age group is 36, but they can still put forward a legitimate candidate in Branislav Ivanovic.
His days as a rampaging, marauding right-back are long gone; now he’s a permanent centre-back—a position he could always play, so the adjustment hasn’t been tough—and he’s anchoring a defence that acquitted itself fairly well in the 2019-20 Champions League.
Other candidates: Paolo Guerrero, Jeremy Mathieu
Dani Alves, Sao Paulo
37 years old
From a dearth at 36 into another tough decision at 37. If you thought we’d hit the barren part of the spectrum, think again.
Dani Alves may be closer to 40 than 30, but he’s still some player. Playing at a good level for Sao Paulo and having starred at the 2019 Copa America with Brazil, he feels the right pick ahead of Franck Ribery—who is still class but continues to endure injury issues that prevent him from gaining full steam.
Other candidates: Franck Ribery, Pepe
38 years old
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 38 years old. It can be difficult to believe it when you see how flexible and supple he still is, but it’s true.
He remains in top form and bringing his patented confidence/arrogance back to Milan, where he has helped transform the mindset of the club and spark a remarkable run of form that has taken them from bottom half to Europa League contention in Serie A.
Other candidates: Joaquin
Emre Belozoglu, Fenerbahce
39 years old
Somehow, Emre Belozoglu is still going.
At the ripe old age of 39, he continues to play at a decent level, offering a veteran hand in midfield for one of Turkey’s iconic clubs, Fenerbahce.
Ricardo Oliveira, Atletico Mineiro
40 years old
With six minutes played in the Copa Sudamericana in 2020, Ricardo Oliveira qualifies for our final pick at age 40.
His lengthy career has spanned three continents, where he saw particular success in Spain and the United Arab Emirates, and is now winding down in his native Brazil.
All statistics via WhoScored.com