In the noughties, we were treated to two World Cups (2002 and 2006) and three European Championships (2000, 2004 and 2008).
A number of the best players of the world, such as World Cup winners Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, picked up where they left off in the previous decade.
You’ll find such legends of the game in both this list and our selection of the best international players of the 90s.
In the list below are a few new faces that made their mark on the international stage during the 2000s – and what fine players they were.
32. GIANLUIGI BUFFON
You could put the great Italian down in many a ‘best of all time’ list, but he was at his peak in the 2000s. Juventus made him the most expensive goalkeeper ever in 2001, and he played a key role in his country’s success at the World Cup five years later, keeping five clean sheets in Germany.
31. ROBERTO CARLOS
With legs as thick as tree trunks, no one hit the ball as hard as the Brazilian, one of the game’s greatest ever full-backs. It made the former Real Madrid man a danger from anywhere up to 40 yards, although a lot of his best work was done up and down the flanks.
30. PAVEL NEDVED
Pavel Nedved was the first name on the Juventus team-sheet for most of the 2000s and although he didn’t win any silverware at international level, he was the star of the show during the Czech Republic’s run to the semi-finals of the 2004 European Championship. A true all-rounder, there wasn’t much he couldn’t do with the ball at his feet.
29. XABI ALONSO
Spain has produced some of the best passers of the ball the game has ever seen. Former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso could unlock any defence, but he was also tough in the tackle and very dangerous from just outside the box. He was an integral part of the Spain team that dominated the late 00s and early 2010s.
Cafu did what every young player dreams of doing in Brazil – he hoisted the famous Jules Rimet trophy aloft, when captaining his side to glory at the 2002 World Cup. The classy defender, who read the game better than most, played every minute of every game in Japan and South Korea.
27. OLIVER KAHN
There were times when the German shot-stopper was simply impenetrable. He was a rock during his country’s run to the World Cup final in 2002, and he finished in the Ballon d’Or top three twice in a row at the start of the decade. Loud and alert from minute one, his list of world-class saves is endless.
26. DIDIER DROGBA
The Ivorian was unplayable for long periods of his decorated Chelsea career, a menace in the air and a goal-scoring machine. The battling striker scored 164 goals in 381 games for the London club, where he achieved legendary status. He represented the Ivory Coast between 2002 and 2014, scoring 65 times.
25. WAYNE ROONEY
When Wayne Rooney burst onto the international scene at the 2004 European Championship, he had the world at his feet. His trophy-laden career at Manchester United was not mirrored on the international stage, but the English striker would often be the man to get his country out of a hole, and he scored 53 times for the Three Lions.
24. FABIO CANNAVARO
The Italians went into the 2006 World Cup with no real stars. That Gli Azzurri went all the way was down in no small part to their reliable captain, who organised and ordered his team to glory. The former Juventus centre-back earned 136 caps for his country, making him one of Italy’s most-capped players.
23. DAVID VILLA
David Villa was ruthless in front of goal, and Spain’s top-scorer at Euro 2008, which set La Roja on their way to world domination. The speedy striker was most deadly at Valencia, where he was a constant threat on the last line of the defender and a master of one-on-ones.
22. PAOLO MALDINI
Paolo Maldini was a Rolls-Royce of a defender, the type of which come along just once in a generation, at most. He made his debut in 1985 and was still bossing games at the end of the 2000s. The stylish defender ruled the world with Italy in 2006 and, quite frankly, for much of his career.
21. LUIS FIGO
Luis Figo’s playing career had finished long before Portugal won the European Championship in 2016, but on the few occasions his country did go deep in international tournaments, it was the former Barcelona and Real Madrid man doing the damage, normally down the wings. They didn’t come much easier on the eye than the original Galactico.
20. JOHN TERRY
Despite being one of England’s “Golden Generation” who failed to win a trophy on the international stage, Chelsea legend John Terry can probably be excused from the list of players who didn’t fulfil their potential during that period. He was a defensive rock and a leader, a good-old-fashioned centre-half who left everything out on the pitch.
19. CARLES PUYOL
The no-nonsense Spaniard was the rock at the heart of the great Barcelona sides of the 2000s. A one-club man, the powerful centre-back was equally reliable for his national side, helping Spain to end their long wait for silverware at Euro 2008, after which they entered a period of dominance.
18. THIERRY HENRY
If there was a list for the ‘most graceful ever footballers’, Thierry Henry, who earned legendary status at Arsenal, would have to be on it. He would glide past defenders as if they weren’t there, and his finishing ability was second to none. He made well over a hundred caps for France and scored 51 goals for Les Bleus.
There’s a case to be made that no one has ever struck the ball more sweetly with their left foot than Rivaldo – it was a very dangerous weapon. Combined with a range of mesmerising skills, it made the former Barcelona striker one of the most feared players on the planet.
16. MIROSLAV KLOSE
Despite being a goalscoring legend for club and country, Miroslav Klose sometimes doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Perhaps it’s because he was more of a no-frills number 11. The stats don’t lie, however. He scored an incredible 16 goals across four World Cups, netting 71 times in 137 appearances for Germany.
15. ALESSANDRO NESTA
Alessandro Nesta has to go down as one of the most naturally gifted defenders of all time. Anyone who played alongside this Rolls-Royce of a centre-back must have been better for it. He won just about everything, including two Champions Leagues with AC Milan and the biggest prize of all, the World Cup, in 2006.
14. ANDRIY SHEVCHENKO
Andriy Shevchenko is regarded as the finest player to have played for Ukraine since independence from the Soviet Union. His goal-scoring ability made him a top target throughout Europe, but it was at AC Milan during the early 2000s where he established himself as one of the best strikers of his generation.
13. ASHLEY COLE
Not many players can claim to have kept Cristiano Ronaldo in their pocket during their career, but the Arsenal and Chelsea left-back did a job on the Portuguese on more than one occasion. His combination of speed and a fantastic reading of the game made him one of the best full-backs in the world for long periods of the 2000s.
12. SAMUEL ETO’O
Widely regarded as one of the best African players of all time, Samuel Eto’o won two Africa Cup of Nations titles with Cameroon in 2000 and 2002, and found the net 56 times for his country. Watching the Barcelona forward bear down on goal at the Camp Nou was a terrific sight – and there was normally only one outcome.
11. ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a player you simply couldn’t take your eyes off. Scrapping and puffing his chest out one minute, smashing a volley into the top corner the next, the Swede was pure box office. He couldn’t quite inspire his country to glory, but he was adored by the yellow army all the same.
10. LIONEL MESSI
Lionel Messi was a decent footballer in the 2000s, of course, but he was super human in the 2010s. Before finally tasting World Cup glory, as was his destiny, he was made to endure some frustrating periods for his country. It never seemed to affect his performances for Barcelona, where he won everything and scored against everyone.
9. ANDREA PIRLO
Andrea Pirlo could break a team’s heart in a fraction of a second with one of his trademark defence-splitting passes. The Italian playmaker wasn’t quite in the same class as Zinedine Zidane, but he wasn’t far off it, with that same unerring ability to find time and space. His passing often bordered on outrageous.
8. RIO FERDINAND
England’s Rio Ferdinand was the perfect centre-back – he was quick, he was aggressive, and he read the game beautifully, so well that he rarely looked troubled. A leader for club and country, the Manchester United star represented his country for 15 years, playing in three World Cups and winning 81 caps.
R9 ended the 1990s shrouded in mystery over what really happened that night in Saint-Denis, France. Four years later, he scored both goals in the Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Germany. He ended up with 15 World Cup goals to his name. On his day, injury free, the explosive striker was simply unstoppable.
6. CRISTIANO RONALDO
For many, the Portuguese showman was the most complete striker of all time. The man from Madeira was just warming up with his step-overs at Manchester United in the 2000s, but even before writing himself into the history books at Real Madrid in the 2010s, he was incredible. A true genius and goal-scoring machine.
Xavi was one of the orchestrators of Barcelona’s pass and move game, and a style of play that wore many a top side down. The Spaniard’s metronomic retention skills formed the bedrock for Barcelona’s successes under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola. The schemer was equally destructive for his country, especially at Euro 2008 when Spain tiki-taka’d their way to glory.
4. ANDRES INIESTA
The silky Spaniard was simply too clever and too slippery in his pomp – teams just couldn’t keep him quiet. Just when you thought it was impossible to love the game any more, Andres Iniesta, a Barcelona great, would produce a deft pass, a moment of magic that no one else could.
The Brazilian was blessed with the perfect combination of balance, speed and power, assets that made him the world’s greatest player between 2005 and 2007. Football was easy for the boy from Gama, especially passing; he could split a defence in the blink of an eye, as he did for the opening goal in the 2005 Champions League final.
2. ZINEDINE ZIDANE
The Frenchman’s international career came to a sad ending in 2006, when he planted his head into the chest of Marco Materazzi’s in the World Cup final. Did it affect his legacy? It’s an incident no one will ever forget, but he’ll also be remembered for being one of the game’s best, and most successful, ever players.
For some players, the fancy tricks and outrageous skills didn’t always come off, but for the World Cup-winning Brazilian they so often did – and on the biggest stages. He’d do his ball-juggling, nut-megging and no-look passes with the biggest of grins, and embodied everything Brazilian football should be. David Seaman was not a fan.