Who's Next? The 8 Players Who Could Soon Replace Ronaldo And Messi
As Cristiano Ronaldo raised the the Ballon D'or on Monday, thus being crowned the best player in the world, again, you could almost hear the yawns coming from every soccer fan around the world.
Different year, same story.
For the past seven years, the famous award has been shared between just two players: Ronaldo and his Barcelona rival Lionel Messi.
Over the course of those seven years, no one has really come close, either, to cracking the small group of elite players that the two stars have created.
In fact, the discussion for who the 3rd best player in the world is has long been much more of an interesting debate.
That's how much of a sure thing Ronaldo and Messi have been over the years. But for however many records they've beaten, there's one opponent they'll eventually have to submit to: father time.
Ronaldo turns 30 next month, and Messi will be 28 after the end of the season.
They're just young enough that you can practically rule out any players around their age from taking the duo's crown, but just old enough that you could turn an eye to the future in anticipation of an heir apparent.
With that eye wide open, here's a look at eight players, and one wild card, under the age of 25 who could soon replace Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi atop the world of soccer.
Paul Pogba - Juventus & France
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There may be no time like the present to start paying closer attention to Paul Pogba.
The 21-year-old has surged into 2015 with a bang, having scored a sublime goal this past weekend to help Juventus earn a win at Napoli for the first time in 18 years.
Pogba's contribution on that day only continued the trend of his playing a big part in big matches while helping fully restore Italy's biggest club.
Since arriving at Juve as a 19-year-old, the French national team star has won two successive Serie A titles. Individually, the midfielder was recognized this past summer with an award for the best young player at the World Cup in Brazil.
A player blessed with the rare combination of physical power and technical skill, Pogba's legend is furthered by the fact that he controversially left Manchester United when he felt he wasn't getting enough playing time.
That the move has worked out for him, when it rarely does for others, only underlines this fact: He is the real deal.
Neymar - Barcelona & Brazil
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After an underwhelming first season with Barcelona during the 2013-14 campaign, Neymar lived up to all the hype at the World Cup as he carried Brazil to the semi-finals.
It was only an injury that kept him from an attempt at completing the sports story of the year, which, of course, would have been winning the tournament for the host country.
But whereas he was on fire in Brazil, even seriously hurting his back hasn't kept him from bringing the heat back to Spain.
The 22-year-old has scored 17 goals in 21 matches for Barca this year, already surpassing his total of 15 for last season; the fact that he has predominantly played in his favored left wing position has certainly catalyzed his improved performances.
Thomas Müller - Bayern Munich & Germany
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Thomas Müller is not the fastest player.
The forward is neither the strongest nor the most skillful, but he just might be the smartest amongst the young stars of this era.
Müller just knows what to do, where to do it, when to do it and, most importantly, how to do it more than anyone else.
The German's Fußball IQ and ability to read the game is simply in a completely different dimension.
That's probably why former New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry advised that kids should watch Müller over Messi and Ronaldo.
The French legend said:
He doesn't do stepovers, but when he has to perform, he performs. He does what the game asks him to do.
Eden Hazard - Chelsea & Belgium
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Like any great running back on this side of the pond, Eden Hazard possesses an almost unfair amount of agility and strength to go with his low center of gravity, all of which make him nearly impossible to tackle cleanly.
His ball-handling skills are a thing of beauty and his passing is gradually approaching a world class level.
As the English Premier League's reigning Young Player of the Year, and in the midst of a season that sees Chelsea ready to challenge for a Premier League and Champions League trophy, Eden Hazard's stock is only going to rise higher.
Gareth Bale - Real Madrid & Wales
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If Gareth Bale truly is worth the $129 million that Real Madrid paid for his contract rights before the start of the 2013-14 season, half of that value must be down to his match-winning ability.
Bale always had the blazing speed and athleticism, but once he gained the power to single handedly win games through sheer moments of brilliance, he became worth watching as a superstar.
His game-winning, spectacular run-and-goal in a cup final against Barca last year underlined that ability.
With Ronaldo turning 30 next month, Bale is nicely poised to ease himself into the Portuguese's place as the star of the team in the coming years.
Thibaut Courtois - Chelsea & Belgium
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At 22 years of age, Thibaut Courtois is a shoe-in to one day reach the hallowed best-goalkeeper-in-the-world status.
While serving on loan at Atletico Madrid for the past three seasons, Courtois won trophies in each of them, producing big save after big save along the way as Atleti cemented itself as a top five club in Europe.
Now he has replaced the steady hands of Petr Cech at Chelsea, a team that is getting back to its old dominant ways.
Meanwhile, he is also the no. 1 keeper for Belgium, at a time during which the country is witnessing a golden age of young talent, like Hazard, rise through its ranks.
All of that should ensure that Courtois remain in the brightest of spotlights for the next coming years, which will give him plenty of time to prove himself as, potentially, the world's best player.
Mario Götze - Bayern Munich & Germany
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Götze has already accomplished so much.
At the age of 22, the attacking midfielder has already won three Bundesliga titles in Germany, been to a Champions League final and scored a World Cup-winning goal.
The craziest things about all of that? There's definitely so much more to come.
Götze may be at a club that employs a legitimate handful of players who command just as much attention as he does, but as long as he finds a way to become the man amongst the many men at Bayern, he should see his star continue rising to limitless heights.
Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben aren't getting any younger, but Götze will definitely get better.
James Rodriguez - Real Madrid & Colombia
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It all happened so fast. Rodriguez came, saw and conquered at the World Cup before riding his impressive performances in Brazil to a quick transfer toward Real Madrid.
Since moving to the Spanish capital, he has not disappointed either and while his place at Madrid ensures that he will have a shot at winning just about every club trophy imaginable each year, it's his role with Colombia that might really bring him to the mountain top.
In Brazil, Rodriguez gained fame as a classic no. 10, the playmaker for a Colombia side that regained its old flair.
It all had a throwback feel to it, and made James' story that much more compelling.
Between his journey with Madrid, the 2016 Copa America Centenario and the 2018 World Cup, James will have more than enough opportunities than most to prove that he is the best.
Wild Card: Alexandre Lacazette - Lyon & France
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Lacazette is having a coming out party for the ages, with this season providing his first legitimate crack at superstardom.
The winger has scored 19 goals in 20 Ligue 1 matches so far this year for Lyon, who lead the French league, ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the mega money stars of Paris Saint-Germain.
If the 23-year-old leads Lyon to their first title since the club's historic seven-peat of the 2000s, while continuing to score goals at his current pace, he will be taken even more seriously, perhaps as a wildcard for a place among the world's top superstars.
As for how good he is now? Well, his club president was straightforward in answering that question:
Jean Michel Aulas told French publication Le Parisien:
What's the name of the Welshman at Real Madrid? I think Alexandre is a lot better.