The genesis of the ESPN FC 100 lies in recognizing specialists and trying to compare apples and apples in a way others do not. The fact of the matter is football skews towards those who attack, who score and who exist in the final third. Football awards and rankings follow suit.
We can’t help ourselves. We are obsessed with the guys who score the goals and the guys who make the passes that lead to goals. It’s some primal thing and we live in a world of highlights geared towards that end. A center-back’s headed clearance or a midfielder’s crunching tackle aren’t made for bite-size consumption, let alone a guy clogging a passing lane or tracking back intelligently.
That’s why 12 of the 23 men on FIFA’s Player of the Year shortlist (or “The Best,” as they now call it) are attackers of the sort who score plenty of goals. Guess who else is over-represented. Yep, goalkeepers: There are three of them. And it’s probably not a coincidence that this is a position that also lends itself to highlight reels and social media sharing.
That’s why we do this differently. We split players into categories that reflect not just basic positions — right-back, winger, etc. — but what they do on the pitch. N’Golo Kante and Kevin De Bruyne are both midfielders, but what they do and how they fulfill that role is very different. It’s an imperfect exercise; that’s the nature of the game.
Not all positions are equally influential at every club, but the main goal of the FC 100 was to consider that successful teams are essentially machines and as such, the big gears, lesser cogs and grease that keeps them turning all deserve recognition.
You’re bound to quibble and dispute some of the categories and some of the players. That’s fine. That’s what you get when you have 22 guys occupying a single pitch and given the dynamic, multi-faceted nature of the game. Managers tweak and tinker with the best players seemingly able to adapt to what’s asked of them.
Unlike many other sports, very few situations repeat time and again and, with them, the reactions of the players. That’s part of the appeal.
We made our survey as broad as we could within the ESPN family, drawing upon writers, pundits, ex-professionals, editors and producers. We called upon people on six different continents, among those who bring you regular content. Some will watch two dozen games a week, others fewer, but the love of the game is constant throughout.
What did we find? Players from bigger clubs get more love. Reputations sometime endure even after performances flag, yet the fact that nearly one-third of the men on our list (including managers) weren’t there last year bears witness to the game’s enduring ability to renew itself year after year.
As I said, there’s plenty with which to disagree, from the categories themselves to the rankings within them. That’s partly the point. Having spent two decades reporting on the game and being around scouts, managers and players, I guarantee you that if you took the 10 best coaches in the world (whether you think it’s the 10 on our list or not) and asked them to rank the best in the sport, you’d find they would disagree among themselves too.
That’s the other big takeaway from this. The game is global and our ranking is too. But that also means we have breadth but not that much in terms of depth. Bigger teams in bigger leagues get the most exposure and while there are superb players outside the power leagues, they don’t always get the attention they deserve. It’s just a fact.
Read it. Get angry and call us names, if you like. But please, along the way, remind yourself of some of the talent on this list and maybe take a moment to appreciate what football and the players who make it what it is bring to your life.
The ESPN FC 100 is, above all, a celebration of these guys. Not just the cover stars but the ones who toil to make them look good.
And once you’re done celebrating, feel free to tell us what you think. We can take it.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.