Football is that kind of sport which offers its viewers the chance to witness true instances of beauty.
Very few sports can offer the level of beauty, of sheer genius so alien to the average human's sensibilities that it seems almost plucked from thin air.
Sure, a Federer forehand or a Tendulkar drive come close, but football fans will attest to the fact that few instances in sport can get a multitude of tens of thousands of people to simultaneously rise to their feet in rapturous applause--muffled only by their disbelieving "oohs" and awe-struck "aahs"--the way a dribble can.
Any self-respecting list of the greatest dribblers we have ever had the privilege of witnessing will include the British heroes of the 50s and 60s, Sir Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Manchester United legend George Best.
Brazilian legends Garrincha (The Joy of the People, as he was called, is considered the best dribbler ever) and Pele (the most complete player of all time) will feature very high on the list. Quickly moving through the decades, and the magical talents of Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Michael Laudrup, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, we arrive at the year 2013, present day.
This article takes a look at the five best dribblers in the world today, and discusses the magic of their abilities with a football and what makes them greater than their contemporaries.
It would be prudent to include that although the absence of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo will no doubt anger many readers, the writer's reasons for leaving them out will be justified if you consider the fact that--while they are excellent footballers with great skill--they rely more on their pace and physicality than their dribbling skills to get past players.
Thus, with no offence intended towards either the two players or their fans, they are left out of this list of the five greatest dribblers of today.
5) Eden Hazard, Chelsea & Belgium
Hazard was just 16 when he was first scouted by then-Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez, and grabbed the collective attention of the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City when he won the UNFP Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award in in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and followed them up by winning the senior award at the end of each of the next two seasons.
It was always going to be a matter of time before the winger made the move from France to one of Europe's powerhouse clubs.
The former Lille winger couldn't have made a better start to his Stamford Bridge career, terrorising opposition wingers with his trickery, deft changes in direction and explosive bursts of pace, providing five assists (two of which include penalties he earned after defenders tackled him illegally, unable to keep up with his skilful directional changes) in his first three league games.
Hazard proved his ability to cut in from the left flank and run rings around defenders, either playing intricate one-twos with the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar, or taking on opponents himself.
Boasting a very strong "weaker" foot and a low centre of gravity, Hazard has everything that he needs in order to improve on his skills with the ball at his feet over the next few years, and his explosiveness will be put to good use by Mourinho's counter-attacking style of play. While Hazard is already a great footballer, expect him to get better.
4) Franck Ribery, Bayern Munich & France
With all the focus on Bayern Munich's Dutch winger Arjen Robben, their plethora of talented midfielders and prolific forwards, people sometimes tend to forget just how good a player Franck Ribery is.
In an era where the sensational Lionel Messi has exercised a firm stranglehold on all of the major individual awards on offer, Ribery's only major international award was a position in the UEFA Team of the Year 2008. This takes a lot of attention away from a truly magnificent footballer.
Predominantly operating on the left wing, Ribery wastes no time in getting into one-on-one situations with the opposition right-back, and his mazy runs, quick touches and great technique make him a fearsome player to come up against when he is on song.
Capable of squeezing out of the tightest corners, the fleet-footed Frenchman has established himself as the world's second-best left winger (after Cristiano Ronaldo).
While most dribblers are great at scoring and creating goals owing to their skill and ability to get into great positions on the pitch, Ribery's statistics at Bayern Munich are quite tremendous, as the winger has amassed a scarcely believable 120 assists and 80 goals in 237 games for the Bavarian giants. Ribery is a massively under-appreciated winger with enormous skill.
3) Santi Cazorla, Arsenal & Spain
All great players have a stronger foot they rely on during games. Sure, a right-footed player may learn to become good at taking left-footed shots, but would that player then become two-footed? Not quite, some would say.
Not like Santi Cazorla is, the rest of us would say. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a player anywhere in the world who is as two-footed as the diminutive Spaniard. And as this list will suggest, I also struggle to think of better dribblers.
Over the course of the 2012-2013 season, the Premier League has feasted on the jaw-dropping skills of the former Villareal and Malaga midfielder, and has cheered at his every dummy, dribble, flick on and through ball.
Part of the era of stunning Spanish midfielders, Cazorla boasts the ability to shuffle the ball between his feet like very few others can, and his low centre of gravity allows him to change direction in an instant, and invaluable asset that he has time and again used to perfection to dodge the challenges of Premier League players (players who have probably never played against someone with his skill and dribbling ability).
Cazorla's ability to use either foot to dribble, pass and shoot make him a unique player, and people who have watched him operate as the creative fulcrum of the Arsenal team will attest to his fantastic dribbling abilities.
The other four players on this list are predominantly dependant on their stronger foot, but what makes Cazorla special is that he can use either foot to find a way out of the tightest situations.
Premier League teams have often assigned two defenders the role of marking Cazorla, but he just seems to be able to shuffle past players with veritable ease thanks to his immense dribbling talent. Cazorla is a truly beautiful footballer to watch.
2) Lionel Messi, Barcelona & Argentina
Lionel Messi can do everything that any other footballer on Earth can. He can shoot, he has great vision, he can go past players on his own (more about that in a second), he can bring team-mates into play. He hardly ever gets injured, he is a leader, and he can change games with a single flash of individual brilliance.
But if there's one thing about the four-time Ballon d'Or winner that truly sets him apart from the rest of the footballing fraternity, it is that he can run faster with the ball than without it. This a truly unique talent, and the understanding of this nearly unheard-of ability will not sink in unless you watch the ethereal Messi at work.
His acceleration when he receives the ball makes him almost impossible to stop, either by hook or crook. He can glide past players, shrugging away challenges of every level of ferocity as if he were swatting a fly.
Despite his being completely one-footed, it really is impossible to catch Messi when he is running at full tilt. Blessed with an extraordinary sense of vision, a low centre of gravity and the ability to take the deftest of touches on the ball, Messi is a brilliant dribbler.
Over the last few years, Messi has astonished audiences around the world with his ability to run rings around defences with long mazy runs past three, four, five players. What makes Messi's dribbling abilities all the more obvious is the fact that he is playing in a Barcelona team that has been painstakingly tailored to suit his needs.
When Messi starts on a dribble from midfield, the likes of Pedro, Alexis, Tello and now Neymar know exactly where to be to help the genius on his way past the flailing challenges of helpless defenders nipping at his ankles, and to provide the finishing touches to the moments of sheer magic that the talismanic Messi manages to create on a regular basis. The 26-year-old really is a remarkable dribbler, but when it comes to the best in the world today, there can be very few arguments.
1) Andres Iniesta, Barcelona & Spain
The man is, quite simply, a genius. In most cases, when Iniesta is in possession, he's already beaten the first defender, such is his skill with the ball. I've mentioned the ability to find a way out of tight situations that is an inherent requirement of every good dribbler, but Iniesta is the undisputed master of getting out of seemingly irretrievable situations with one skilful dummy or dizzying slalom around defenders whose presence is rendered insignificant by his skill.
The Spaniard is blessed with perfect ball control, vision (he can thread passes through the eye of a needle, with seemingly no effort at all), balance-something you need when surrounded by up to five defenders, pressing in from every direction--and fleet-footedness, and is perhaps the perfect player for Barcelona's pass-and-move style of play. Gifted with incredible footballing intelligence, Iniesta is at times a ghost on the pitch, impossible to catch, always a step ahead of challenges, waltzing away from danger at the very last moment.
The balding wizard has rightly been compared to legendary playmakers of days gone by, and the lasting comparisons between him and his childhood hero Michael Laudrup (a player whose signature trick - the Laudrup shuffle - involving the transferring of possession of the ball from one foot to the other very quickly, thus inviting and avoiding a tackle--Iniesta has all but mastered) are absolutely justified.
Perhaps the most accurate indicators of the intellectual sophistication of Iniesta's style of play would be the nicknames by which he is referred to, namely El Illusionista (The Illusionist) and El Cerebro (The Brain).
Even in the early days in his career, it was always apparent that Iniesta would go on to become fantastic, technically accomplished footballer, but few would have predicted that he would go on to reach the heights he has, both during and after Pep Guardiola's revival of the tiki-taka style of football at Barcelona. Iniesta truly is the epitome of footballing grace.
So there you have it, a list of five supremely talented technicians of the modern game. Lionel Messi is already one of the greatest ever, Andres Iniesta is considered to be the best midfielder in the world, Eden Hazard has been tipped for greatness by none other than Zinedine Zidane, and Franck Ribery and Santi Cazorla have established themselves as truly remarkable dribblers.
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