Suarez, Modric, Xavi, Pirlo and the other top central midfielders in history

Luka Modric has been crowned Goal 50 winner for 2018, so where does the Real Madrid and Croatia ace rank among the greatest centre-mids of all time?   We chose our list based on a player's overall quality for both club and country, trophies won, big-game performances, consistency and longevity.

We only included players who generally featured and excelled regularly in either a two-man or three-man central midfield. Midfielders who mostly played further up the pitch were not considered.

Therefore, the likes of Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane and Zico were not selected by our writers, Carlo Garganese and Mark Doyle.

Graeme Souness

As brilliant as he was brutal, Graeme Souness was the complete midfielder. He both scored and created goals. 

The Scot was also one of the toughest, most uncompromising players in football history – a man who once broke the jaw of an opponent, Movila of Dinamo Bucharest, for having the audacity to beat him with an audacious piece of skill.

Souness wasn't a man who made many friends on the pitch. He wasn't even universally popular among his Liverpool team-mates but he commanded respect.

A pure winner, the former Reds captain won five league titles and three European Cups during his six-year spell at Anfield. As former team-mate Alan Hansen once mused, "Among midfielders, Graeme was the king."

Roy Keane

Roy Keane was such a troubled character that questions over his temperament regularly overshadowed his talent. He clashed with opponents and team-mates throughout his career on account of an insatiable thirst for success that proved both a blessing and a curse.

Just like his manager at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson, he demanded nothing less than 100 per cent commitment from himself and those around him. As a result, he effectively became United's on-field boss.

Keane and Ferguson would later fall out, resulting in an acrimonious exit, but not before the Irishman had lifted seven Premier League titles and one Champions League.

The Corkonian missed the final of the latter through suspension but, as Ferguson was at pains to point out, their treble-clinching triumph in Barcelona in 1999 would not have been possible without Keane, who produced a Herculean performance in the semi-final second-leg win over Juventus in Turin.

“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field," the Scot enthused. "I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."

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Paul Scholes

Former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solksjaer once joked, "Paul Scholes is not the quickest, he doesn’t run the most, he never wins a header, he can’t tackle but he’s our best player!"

Few of his old colleagues would disagree. David Beckham, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs all consider the diminutive Scholes the greatest talent they ever played alongside.

They also all claim that his range of passing was so complete that he was never on the losing side in any possession drill in training. He was a serial winner in competitive games too, though.

Scholes was a pivotal part of 11 Premier League title-winning teams, while he also lifted the European Cup twice, so even though he may not have been a big talker during his playing days, his record certainly speaks for itself.

Luka Modric

 Luka Modric has been one of the most consistently brilliant performers in world football since joining Tottenham 10 years ago. 

However, it has been at Real Madrid where he has gone to a whole other level, playing a pivotal role in the Blancos' unprecedented run of three consecutive Champions League titles with his mix of industry and inspiration.

His crowning glory, though, arguably came in Russia during the summer, when he claimed the Golden Ball as the World Cup's best player after leading his beloved Croatia all the way to the final.


Roma turned down the chance to sign Zico in 1980 in order to buy Falcao and the whole world laughed. They weren’t laughing for long, however, as Falcao soon showed himself to be arguably the most complete midfielder in world football during the early 1980s.

Falcao was like a general on the field, brilliant tactically and technically, and was nicknamed the ‘Eighth King of Rome’.

He won the Scudetto in 1983 and lost in the final of the European Cup a year later, while he also excelled for Brazil, playing in their legendary 1982 World Cup team alongside the likes of Socrates, Eder, Cerezo and Zico himself.

Indeed, he scored a stunner in the classic 3-2 defeat to Italy during that tournament in Spain.

Gianni Rivera

The original ‘Golden Boy’ of Italian football, Rivera made his Serie A debut for hometown club Alessandria at the age of just 15. This prompted Milan to snap him up and in the next 19 years, he won three Scudetti and two European Cups among a host of other honours.

A magnificent midfield playmaker with brilliant vision and intelligence, his display in the 4-1 European Cup final victory over Ajax in 1969 is regarded as one of the best individual performances of all time. It led to him winning that year’s Ballon d’Or.

At international level, he often shared the limelight with Inter superstar Sandro Mazzola, but he played his part in Italy winning their first and only European Championship on home soil in 1968, while he scored the winner in the epic 4-3 World Cup semi-final victory over West Germany in Mexico two years later.

Andres Iniesta

One of the most universally respected players of all time, Andres Iniesta combines class with consistency, an extravagantly gifted talent who always delivered in the biggest games for Barcelona and Spain.

As former club-mate Ivan Rakitic once said of the game's humble hero, "If you don't like Iniesta, you don't like football." 

Blessed with remarkable vision, wonderful control and terrific dribbling skills, Iniesta was a key component in two different treble triumphs with Barca (2009 and 2015), as well as Spain's run of three consecutive major tournament wins (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012).

 Luis Suarez

In the early 1960s, Luis Suarez was not only the best midfielder in the world, he was the best – and most expensive – player in the world. He was on the Ballon d’Or podium four times, winning the award once.

Suarez was the deep-lying playmaker for Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter team that won successive European Cups, the creator and the brains of a brilliant team.

Fittingly nicknamed ‘The Architect’, Suarez’s vision and passing helped Spain to the Euro 1964 title, while he was also a star for Barcelona, winning two Liga titles.


Barcelona and Spain's remarkable period of sustained success around the turn of the decade would simply not have been possible without Xavi, the elegant playmaker that made both teams tick.

His vision was as astounding as his ability to control the tempo of the game. There was no pass that he could not make. He simply saw the game like nobody else.

"If football was a science, Xavi would have discovered the formula," Jorge Valdano once reasoned.

"With a ball at his feet, no one else has ever communicated so intelligently with every player on the pitch."

Andrea Pirlo

When Gianluigi Buffon heard that Juventus had signed Andrea Pirlo, he exclaimed, "God exists!" 

Certainly, his arrival in Turin felt a lot like divine intervention, as the free transfer from AC Milan – who had won two Champions Leagues during his time at San Siro  – immediately transformed a team coming off the back of consecutive seventh-placed finishes in Serie A into serial Scudetto winners.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pirlo, though, was the fact that he was as great as he was cool, a player of substance as well as style. 

“I don’t feel pressure," he once wrote. "I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, 9 July, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. 

"In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup."

Lothar Matthaus

How good was Lothar Matthaus? Well, Diego Maradona considers him "the best rival" he ever had. 

Matthaus enjoyed a remarkably long and successful career, going from winning the European Championship in 1980 as a 19-year-old to being crowned Footballer of the Year in his native Germany exactly two decades later. 

By that point, the Bayern Munich and Inter icon had converted himself into a sweeper thanks to his fantastic vision and reading of the game but, during his peak years, he was a box-to-box midfielder – arguably the best the game has ever seen. 

Indeed, he was the driving force behind West Germany's World Cup win in 1990, scoring four goals along the way, which resulted in him being awarded the Ballon d'Or.



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