The past decade has been by far the most successful time in FC Barcelona’s illustrious history. In the ten years, the Catalan club won La Liga five times and the Champions League three times. While Barcelona’s eternal rivals Real Madrid were fairly considered the best club of the XX century, there’s little doubt that, so far that the XXI century has belonged to Barcelona.
Barcelona must thank this unprecedented success to the magnificent players who donned the hallowed Blaugrana jersey, some of whom are among the finest talents in the history of the game.
Ranking the ten best Barcelona players of the past decade isn’t an easy task and a consensus in opinion is pretty hard to be reached at; but these lists are always highly subjective. The players are ranked not according to their talent, but to their overall contribution throughout the decade. TheHardTackle looks at 10 such key players.
10-Rafael Marquez (2003-2010)
Is Rafa Marquez more talented than Gerard Piqué? No. But Piqué has only been around for three years, while Marquez spent eight very solid seasons at Camp Nou. While Piqué is likely to be among the best players of the next decade, it’s Rafa who makes the cut here. Finding a partner for Carles Puyol was one of the hardest tasks Barcelona faced this decade. The less said about the likes of Patrick Anderson or Christanval, the better. In Rafael Marquez the Catalans finally found their man.
Despite being highly underrated even by some sections of Barcelona supporters, Marquez was undoubtedly great. He excelled both as a centre-back and sometimes as a defensive midfielder, and was an integral member of the 2006 double-winning team. He lost some influence under Pep Guardiola, but was still as reliable as ever and played a role in the sextuple-winning side. He left Barcelona in the summer 2010, having won 12 titles in his seven years at the club and become a part of the club’s history.
Another very underrated player. In his prime, Deco was one of the very best midfielders in the world and he had a stellar career at Barcelona. After his transfer to Barca, many speculated that Deco would just play the second fiddle to Ronaldinho. However, he was much more than Ronaldinho’s sidekick – he was a world beater in his own right. Frank Rijkaard once said that Deco was a barometer of the team’s condition – when Deco played well, Barcelona prospered, when he struggled, Barcelona suffered.
Deco was at Barcelona from 2004 to 2008 and he was the main playmaker of a team that won two leagues and a Champions League.
8-Victor Valdés (1995-?)
If finding a partner for Puyol was a hard task, finding a reliable goalkeeper was even harder (just remember Dutruel, Bonano, Enke et al). Until Victor Valdés came along, that is. The 29-year-old Catalan became an undisputable starter back in 2003, and while he used to be a bit error prone, he’s become one of world’s best keepers now, saving Barcelona on numerous occasions and garnering the admiration of those who once doubted him. He was won the Zamora trophy for least beaten goalkeeper in the Spanish league on four occasions, which further highlights his quality.
Valdés joined La Masia in 1995 and has been at Barcelona ever since. At 29, he’s still relatively young for a goalkeeper, which means that we’ll be seeing a lot of Victor Valdés during the next decade, where he’ll try to add even more accolades to his already stellar career.
7-Andrés Iniesta (1996-?)
It might seem a bit harsh to some to rank the hero of Stamford Bridge as low as seventh on this list. However, as great as Iniesta has been since 2008, there are players whose overall contributions so far have surpassed his. Needless to say, Iniesta is only 27, at the peak of his career and will certainly further establish himself as a Barcelona legend in the years to come.
While he’s always been very promising player, Iniesta only really became one of world’s best players under Pep Guardiola in 2008/2009. He would be a Ballon d’Or winner by now if not for his teammate Lionel Messi, the greatest player of this generation, who piped him to the award last year.
Iniesta and Xavi form what’s widely considered the best midfield duo on the planet, a partnership that has been the foundation of Barcelona and Spain’s success in the last few years. Even though he rarely scores, Iniesta scores when it matters the most – no Barcelona supporter will ever forget his miraculous goal at the Stamford Bridge.
6-Samuel Eto’o (2004-2009)
The Cameroonian striker scored 130 goals in 200 matches at the club, including goals in the 2006 and 2009 Champions League finals and several goals against Real Madrid, making him the eighth top scorer in the club’s history.
He left the club in 2009 under somewhat dubious circumstances, and he’s still sorely missed by most Barcelona fans. He’s undoubtedly a legend of the club.
Rivaldo was a fabulous player, a true genius and a personal favorite. As far as talent is concerned, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho are the only Barcelona players of the past decade who can give Rivaldo a run for his money. He’d certainly be ranked higher if he hadn’t left so early in the decade.
The fact that Rivaldo was at Barcelona in a period of crisis at the club might give the wrong perception of his ability and overall contribution, but make no mistake – at the beginning of the decade, Barcelona were basically a one-man team. That man was Rivaldo; he was the only reason Barcelona continued to qualify for the Champions League.
His most famous performance is perhaps the hat-trick against Valencia. On the last day of the 2001 season, Barcelona needed a win to earn a Champions League spot and Rivaldo put on one of the best individual performances in football history – three fantastic goals. The third goal is widely regarded as one of the greatest goals ever in a combination of importance and skill.
In six years at the club, Rivaldo scored 130 goals, became Barcelona’s best ever scorer in Europe (he has since been surpassed by Lionel Messi) and clearly established himself as one of the most gifted footballers ever to don the blaugrana jersey.
4-Carles Puyol (1995-?)
Carles Puyol is hands down the best Barcelona defender of the decade. Defenders came and went during these 10 years, Puyol was the only constant presence. The La Masia graduate has been one of the world’s best defenders for a long time and even today, at 33, he’s an undisputable starter and captain of Pep Guardiola’s Dream Team.
He might be the least technically gifted player in this top 10, but his role in the team is vital. He’s the captain, the leader and he wears his heart on his sleeve. Xavi Hernandez and Gerard Piqué have referred to Puyol as the most important member of the team. Piqué’s performances notably suffer when Puyol is not by his side, shouting orders and keeping him focused.
Puyol is the only player in football history to captain three different Champions League-winning squads (2006, 2009 and 2011). If he can remain healthy, he has every chance to add to this already impressive tally.
Now is where it starts to get tough. Most people won’t agree with Ronaldinho being only ranked third and it is understandable. You could make a case for Ronaldinho being the greatest Barcelona player of the past decade, but in our opinion, there are two other players, who deserve it more.
That said, in his prime at Barcelona Ronaldinho was one of the most talented and exciting players ever to kick the ball. He joined Barcelona in 2003 and quickly became a fan favorite, even if his first season didn’t bring any title. He was the leader of a supremely talented Rijkaard-led side that started this period of Barcelona dominance. From 2004 to 2006, Ronaldinho was head and shoulders above any other player on the planet. While Deco, Eto’o, Puyol et al. were extraordinary footballers, it’s fair to say that Barcelona wouldn’t have been European champions without the mercurial Ronaldinho. It can be said that Ronaldinho’s arrival turned around the fortunes of the club.
But his final two years at the club were plagued with all kinds of problems, and he didn’t exactly leave the club covered in glory. Especially in his last year, he was notoriously unprofessional and off form. Still, even that can’t overshadow his legendary status at Barcelona; not only did he lead the club to glory after a period of crisis, but he also mentored his successor – Lionel Messi.
2-Lionel Messi (2000-?)
“This award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona. Since he began to come and train with us and we knew we would go down this path. Someday I will explain that I was at the birth of one of the footballing greats: Leo Messi.“- Ronaldinho upon receiving the 2006 Ballon d’Or
What? No Ronaldinho or Messi in first place? Yes, that’s right. That said, there’s little doubt in our mind that the next decade is Messi’s and it’d be a huge surprise if anyone performed better than him in the 10s.
But this decade has been quite spectacular as well. Leo Messi became a first team regular in 2005-2006 at the tender age of 18. Six years later, he’s only 24 and he’s already the third best scorer in the club’s history, the best in European competitions, not to mention that he has won five leagues, three Champions Leagues and several individual accolades, including two (soon to be three?) Ballon d’Ors. Messi is arguably the greatest player of his generation and already a club legend.
He joined in 2000 when he was 13, as Barcelona were the only club, who accepted to pay for his expensive treatment to a hormone problem. The rest is, as they say, history. Messi is already considered one of the greatest footballers of all-time and still has another decade in front of him to cement his status among the greats. Unless something very unexpected happens, he’s likely to break all sorts of club records. He’s also likely to become the Champions League’s best ever scorer in a few years.
Despite all these amazing exploits, though, there’s one player, who deserves to be named the greatest Barcelona player of the decade, even more than Leo.
Xavi joined La Masia in 1991, and after 20 years of loyal service he doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. The Rivaldo-led team, the Ronaldinho-led team and the Messi-led team only have two things in common: Puyol leading the defense and Xavi pulling the strings in midfield and controlling everything Barcelona does while going forward.
Xavi has won everything there is to win in football, both with Barcelona and Spain. At Barcelona, he has won six leagues and three Champions Leagues, playing a key role in all these triumphs.
As humble as he is, Xavi would like you to believe he’s just a cog in the Barcelona machine, but anyone who knows a little about football knows that’s not true. Xavi is the heart of the team, the one who makes everything tick. He’s one of the best passers in the history of the game and one of the best players in the world today. He’s only started to collect the individual accolades he deserves after 2008; better late than never, although, like some other legendary players, he’ll probably never win the Ballon d’Or.
The most impressive thing about Xavi is that he’s 31 now but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, his fitness is surreal to say the least. You see 24-year-olds struggling to play 50+ games season after season, yet Xavi makes it look easy. And most of the time he still covers more distance than anyone else on the pitch. He has a contract until 2016 and it seems safe to assume he’ll be around at least until then, to further add to his accomplishments and cement his status as Barcelona’s all-time appearances record holder (638 so far, only 26 behind Migueli).
Xavi’s career has been so impressive that even pro-Real Madrid Marca columnists were forced to admit that he’s the best Spanish player in the past 40 years. According to us, he’s also the greatest Barcelona player of the past decade!
– Manuel Traquete.
Follow Manuel Traquete on Twitter @Manueltraquete