Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been the standout performers in the world of football over the last decade and a half. The duo exercised a duopoly of sorts over the Ballon d’Or, football’s biggest individual prize, winning it 12 times between 2008 and 2021.
Messi and Ronaldo touched levels of performance and consistency that we weren’t used to seeing. As a result, several world-class players who looked to threaten their dominance ran out of steam in the process. Those players ended up being largely overshadowed by the overachieving pair.
But who are those players who were almost on par with Ronaldo and Messi during their prime? They may not have been able to sustain those levels for an extended period of time. But they did leave a mark and left us having to pick our jaws off the floor on many occasions.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at five players who were the third best in the world sometime during the last decade.
#5 Thomas Muller (Germany/Bayern Munich)
Thomas Muller has been phenomenal for club and country in the past decade and has enjoyed an illustrious career. He is one of the most intelligent and versatile footballers on the planet and continues to be world-class despite crossing over into his 30s.
Muller was particularly effective for Germany on the big stage. After earning up a call to the national team in 2010, he finished the 2010 FIFA World Cup as its top scorer and won the Golden Boot. Muller was also named the ‘Best Young Player of the Tournament’.
Four years later, Muller led from the front in Germany’s 2014 World Cup triumph. He scored five goals and picked up the Silver Ball on that occasion. He is the most successful German footballer of all time with 30 trophies.
The assist king of Europe has also had an extremely illustrious club career. He has won 10 Bundesliga titles, two Champions League titles, two FIFA Club World Cups and six DFB-Pokals.
#4 Gareth Bale (Wales/Real Madrid)
On sheer natural talent and ability alone, Gareth Bale deserves a seat right next to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Despite enjoying a stellar career, it’s hard for football fans to look at Bale and shake off the feeling that it could have amounted to so much more if not for the injuries.
After turning heads during his time with Southampton, Bale burgeoned into one of the most ruthless attackers in the Premier League at Tottenham Hotspur. He picked up the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award twice, in 2011 and in 2013 before copping a move to Real Madrid on a then club record deal worth €91 million + add-ons.
Bale was an instant hit at the Santiago Bernabeu, playing a crucial role in their Copa Del Rey and UEFA Champions League triumphs in 2014. The Welshman asserted his dominance on the big stage once again two years later as he helped Real Madrid to another Champions League title in 2016.
He scored a brilliant brace after coming off the bench in the 2017-18 Champions League final against Liverpool. Bale’s pace, quick feet and incredible shooting ability made him one of the greatest attackers in the world.
Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Bale became part of one of the deadliest attacking trios in the modern game, popularly known as the BBC. He has won four Champions League titles, two La Liga titles, three FIFA Club World Cups and one Copa Del Rey with Real Madrid.
#3 Antoine Griezmann (France/Atletico Madrid)
For an extended period of time in the last decade, Antoine Griezmann was the third best footballer in the world after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He arrived at Atletico Madrid in 2014 from Real Sociedad. He went on to play a huge role in helping the Rojiblancos establish themselves as one of the best teams on the continent.
Since the La Liga Best Player Award was introduced in 2008-09, only Griezmann was able to pip Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to the honor until the 2018-19 campaign. He picked it up in the 2015-16 season, which had one of the tightest La Liga title races in recent times.
Griezmann was a standout performer for France in their run to the final of Euro 2016. He won the Silver Boot as the second highest goalscorer in the tournament as France won the FIFA World Cup in 2018. He also picked up the Bronze Ball, awarded to the third best player in the tournament.
Griezmann is a man for the big occasion and he has so often delivered when it matters most. He was named the Man of the Match in the 2018 FIFA World Cup final against Croatia. Griezmann also won the UEFA Nations League with France last October.
#2 Neymar Jr. (Brazil/Paris Saint-Germain)
Neymar Jr. was arguably the biggest name in football after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the past decade. He rose to prominence with his mesmerizing displays for Santos, winning the South American Footballer of the Year Award in 2011 and 2012.
He was subsequently roped in by Barcelona in 2013 where he linked up with the great Messi and Luis Suarez. In Catalonia, Neymar slowly blossomed into one of the greatest players in the world. He formed arguably the most lethal attacking trio in the history of football alongside Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, known as the ‘MSN’.
Neymar was a joy to watch on the football field with his incredible tricks, flicks and inventiveness. He was the next best thing since the Ronaldinhos and Ronaldos of Brazil. Neymar was unstoppable in his prime and won the continental treble with Barcelona in the 2014-15 season before picking up the domestic double in the next one.
The Brazilian international then went on to become the most expensive player in the history of football as he signed for PSG on a deal worth €222 million in 2017. He guided PSG to the final of the Champions League in the 2019-20 season but fell just short of glory.
Neymar has also been one of the best players to have worn the storied yellow shirt of Brazil. He is the country’s second highest goalscorer with 71 goals to his name. At the peak of his powers, Neymar finished third in the Ballon d’Or race in 2015.
#1 Luis Suarez (Uruguay/Atletico Madrid)
Luis Suarez was arguably the greatest striker of the 2010s. He is one of the most well-rounded strikers of all time. Suarez was comfortable with the ball at his feet. He could run rings around defenders, was excellent at link-up play and could finish with the calmness of a saint.
‘El Pistolero’ tore up the Premier League with Liverpool and won the European Golden Shoe in 2014, scoring 31 goals and providing 17 assists in 37 appearances. In doing so, he equalled the record for most goals scored in a 38-game Premier League season, which has since been beaten by Mohamed Salah.
Suarez then signed for Barcelona that same year on a deal worth €81.72 million. He turned into an absolute phenomenon in Spain and helped Barcelona win the continental treble in his first season at the club. He then beat Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to the Pichichi Trophy and the European Golden Shoe in the 2015-16 campaign.
Not only was Suarez the leading goalscorer in La Liga that season, but he was also the leading assist provider. Simply put, the consensus is that Suarez outperformed his otherworldly peers that season.
The Uruguayan international was forced out of Barcelona in rather detestable fashion in 2020. But he made them pay by joining Atletico Madrid and becoming their top scorer as they won the La Liga title in the 2020-21 season.
In his illustrious career, Suarez has won five La Liga titles, one Champions League title, four Copa del Reys, one English League Cup and one FIFA Club World Cup. He also won the Copa America with Uruguay in 2011.