Golazo 100, men's soccer players ranked: Cristiano Ronaldo among stars appearing as the countdown hits 40-21

Week two of CBS Sports’ Golazo 100 brings with it some of the biggest names in football history as we unveil those ranked 40-21 in our inaugural attempt to find the best mens player in football (a similar ranking of the women’s game will be dropping with the Summer Olympics). 

Multiple Ballon d’Or winners are in Monday’s grouping, in addition to several of the most successful players in Champions League history. It isn’t just established stars in our top 40 however, this group includes more than one player who has burst onto the Premier League stage over the past two years, establishing themselves as one of the brightest young talents in the sport. There’s still plenty more to come in our rankings over the coming days, on Tuesday we will drop the first part of our top 20 before Wednesday brings with it the first ever winner of the Golazo 100.

For now read on to see who has made it into the top 40:

Golazo 100 schedule

Be sure to tune into Golazo Network, including Morning Footy to start your day with a breakdown of each batch of top players released every day. And, of course, make sure to check out the full breakdown and analysis of who was ranked where and why

40. Luka Modric — Midfield, Real Madrid

An unexpected turnaround means that we have not seen the last of the Croatia international with Real Madrid as he promised to see Los Blancos’ fans “next season” after their record-extending UEFA Champions League final win over the weekend. Luka Modric is a class act despite his advancing years and the technical loss, but also the experience which goes with Toni Kroos will be cushioned somewhat by one more year of the 38-year-old. With just two goals and six assists across all competitions, Modric is used sparingly by Carlo Ancelotti in La Liga, but in the UCL his ability to change games can still come in handy — even if it is not at the level of his 2018 Ballon d’Or win. World soccer should be grateful that we get one final season of the former Tottenham Hotspur man’s wizardry before he potentially hangs up his boots in the same way that Kroos is doing this summer. When he does finally do that, the Spanish giants’ midfield will be in good hands. — Jonathan Johnson

39. Joshua Kimmich Midfield/Fullback, Bayern Munich

Rare is the player that has been described as a Swiss army knife and can perform each of those tasks at elite levels, but Joshua Kimmich has been just that for several years now. The UEFA Champions League winner has rotated through roles as a defensive midfielder, a right back and a center back for most of his peak years, playing a key role in his team’s success for both club and country.

He was a consistent source of positivity for Bayern Munich during the 2023-24 season, one they would like to forget after failing to win a single trophy for the first time in roughly a decade. Kimmich serves as a part of Bayern’s foundational tactical plan — he ranked within the top 10 for touches and passes in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League, posting more than 90% accuracy in the latter category in both competitions. He balances his defensive labels with incredible attacking foresight, though. He ranked sixth in the Champions League for chances created (26) and expected assists (2.97), and was similarly productive with 72 chances created in the Bundesliga, seventh-most in the league.

Kimmich’s accomplishments are not reserved solely for the advanced stats sheets, though. The most memorable moment of his season was arguably scoring the game’s lone goal in the second leg of Bayern’s Champions League quarterfinal against Arsenal, demonstrating that he’s not just a behind-the-scenes type player. Another impressive club season for Kimmich is the perfect build-up for this summer’s Euros, where he will likely be a key figure as hosts Germany eye redemption after several years of underwhelming results. — Pardeep Cattry

38. Rafael Leao — Left Wing, AC Milan

AC Milan star Rafael Leao didn’t have his best season at the Italian club. Considering that the Portuguese player is widely believe to be one of the most talented attackers in Serie A his return of nine goals and nine assists was actually below expectations. Leao joined the Rossoneri in the summer of 2019 from Lille and since then has scored 58 goals in 210 games and also won the 2021-22 Serie A title as MVP of the season. Last summer he agreed to a new contract with the club with a €175 million release clause that can be triggered by any club that might want to sign him in the future. At the moment there are no concrete signs of a possible departure this summer, but AC Milan expect him much more from him next season, considering he’s definitely the most talented player in the AC Milan roster. – Francesco Porzio 

37. Grimaldo — Left Wing Back, Bayer Leverkusen

One season into his Bayer Leverkusen career, Alejandro Grimaldo already deserves a place in the annals of all-time great free transfers. For a reported $33,500 a week (a pittance at the elite level), Die Werkself got themselves 12 goals and 19 assists in all competitions this season from a 28 year old who really can function as a one man left flank. As sporting director Simon Rolfes noted: “Part of the reason why we dominate games to the extent we do at the moment is to do with him reading situations very quickly and coming forward to create overloads.”

Without the ball he is the Leverkusen wing back tasked with getting back into position quickly on the rare occasions his side turn the ball over. While Frimpong tends to hold his width and hover on the peripheries of attacks, Grimaldo has more freedom to glide around and get involved in the build up while still getting a sizeable number of penalty box touches.

It is what the Spain international does outside the box that will really have caught our panel’s attention, however. Over the past 10 months it has seemed there is no angle from which Grimaldo could not test, and often beat, a goalkeeper. His whip, dip and power are turn what might otherwise be speculative efforts into stunners, delivered with regularity. James Benge

36. Cristiano Ronaldo — Forward, Al-Nassr

Although things are not quite going according to plan for the Portuguese superstar in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr, the talismanic attacker could still star at UEFA Euro 2024 with Roberto Martinez’s side. Still captain at the age of 39 despite the impact of 18 months in the Saudi Pro League, Cristiano Ronaldo remains one of the game’s biggest names despite no longer being in his Real Madrid prime. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner remains etched into soccer history and for that reason alone, it is impossible to totally overlook him while still actively playing. A 35-goal league season in Saudi Arabia helps and could tee him up nicely to play a more meaningful role with the Portuguese in Germany than he did at the FIFA 2022 World Cup. — Jonathan Johnson

35. Ederson — Goalkeeper, Manchester City

The Brazilian goalkeeper is having an incredible time at Manchester City, but his future is in doubt this summer. However, he demonstrated himself to be one of the best in his role in recent years, and also a key player for the side coached by Pep Guardiola as he won the treble in 2023. There are plenty of reasons to think that the Citizens shouldn’t let him go, despite the fact that he’s about to turn 31 in August. His vision on the pitch makes him a key player for Guardiola and also his saves were one of the reasons for the success of this City team. Ederson joined the club in 2017 and since then was the starter as he played a total of 332 games anchoring the back line. – Francesco Porzio 

34. Hakan Calhanoglu — Midfield, Inter

The Turkish midfielder’s career was revitalized when he he started to play as playmaker under Simone Inzaghi at Inter. The big change arrived in September 2022, when Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic injured his hamstring and basically missed the whole first part of the campaign. Inzaghi chose to play Calhanoglu in that position as a playmaker, and he’s now more involved in the action via defensive responsibilities. This season, after Brozovic left the club and joined Al-Nassr, Calhanoglu had a more central role and was one of the secrets of the success of Inzaghi’s side. Two years after the big disappointment, when Inter lost to AC Milan the 2022 Serie A title, Calhanoglu had his revenge against his former club and finally won the Scudetto at Inter. – Francesco Porzio 

33. Ilkay Gundogan — Midfield, Barcelona

After winning the treble with Manchester City, the German midfielder decided to leave the English side last summer and joined FC Barcelona where he quickly became one of the key players for the side coached by Xavi Hernandez. Despite a difficult season, Gundogan was immediately able to bring his experience to a club that needed players like him to improve some of their developing young stars. Gundogan played 36 La Liga games and scored five goals, but also showed his personality in some interviews where he demanded more from the whole environment and teammates as well, and he’s now set to welcome his former German national team manager Hansi Flick who took charge at the Spanish club after Barcelona legend Xavi was dismissed as manager. – Francesco Porzio 

32. Antonio Rudiger — Center Back, Real Madrid

Antonio Rudiger is a madman, but in the best way. A wind up merchant who gets into attackers heads, Rudiger has been the perfect person to lead the heart of Real Madrid’s defense even with a rotating cast of defenders and goalkeepers around him due to injuries during the season. One of the many catalysts to Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph, after a draw to RB Leipzig in the round of 16 Rudiger said, “We don’t celebrate because it’s not a good performance.” That statement is one of many things showing why Los Blancos were able to suffer to win UCL, but they couldn’t have done it without Rudiger in the middle. When Eder Militao and Thibaut Courtois both went down with injuries it felt like there was no way the defense would survive and then they went on to only concede 26 goals in 38 La Liga matches. While there were bumps in the road, the German international was able to bring Madrid’s back line together and contribute key goals in the process. — Chuck Booth

31. Alisson — Goalkeeper, Liverpool

I’m looking at Alisson right now like I would a polar bear in Arlington. What are you doing down here? The best goalkeeper in the world, the second best player in this particular writer’s rankings, has been done dirty elsewhere in the voting pool, just because he wears gloves on his hands. Here’s the thing, goalkeepers may not win Ballon d’Ors or sell the most shirts but a pretty key component of winning football matches is stopping the other team kicking the ball in your net. No one does that better than Alisson, who has brought old school goalkeeping orthodoxies to a position in continual flux.

The Liverpool No.1 is a truly exceptional sweeper keeper, so composed with the ball at his feet that he can occasionally indulge a more cavalier side. The occasional mistakes he makes, however, are comprehensively outweighed by the one-on-ones in which he blots out any hope for opposing strikers, the command of his penalty area, the instinctive brilliance of an all-time great in his position. I’ll say it again, what on earth is he doing down here? — James Benge

30. Cole Palmer — Midfield, Chelsea

If you were crafting a blueprint for how to spoil a young talent it might go like this: take them out of a stable environment where their minutes will be carefully allotted, ideally on transfer deadline day so he has no time to settle. Then you thrust him into a club riven by mismanagement, a squad that has barely had time to learn each other’s names. The coup de grace would then be to task this 22-year-old with a huge role in offense, one far beyond any normal youngster with only a few hours of Premier League football to their name.

Cole Palmer should have flopped like a fair few other big name Chelsea additions have. Instead, he bore the weight of Stamford Bridge expectations like a loose fitting linen shirt. No wonder he was always so cold. With 15 assists and 27 goals (albeit a fair few penalties), Palmer was perhaps more valuable to his team than anyone else in the English top flight. Before his debut season was out, his team mates were being challenged to prove they are “Chelsea FC, not Cole Palmer FC.” There might still be work to do on that front. — James Benge

29. Nicolo Barella — Midfield, Inter

One of the most complete midfielders around the world, Barella is a player who improved drastically since he joined Inter in the summer 2019 where he quickly became one of the most important players on the team, and he’s currently the vice-captain. Under Conte first and under Inzaghi lately, Barella became a key player for Inter. As a right midfielder in the 3-5-2, Barella is an incredibly rangy player, but most importantly he’s one of the best ones at both recovering possession for his team and also to attack and score goals as well. Since he joined the Nerazzurri, he was named as the best Serie A midfielder twice in 2021 and in 2023, and was one of the players that drove Inter to lift the Serie A title trophy twice in 2021 and 2024 among other trophies. Despite the interests coming from the Premier League in particular, Barella is now set to extend his deal with the Nerazzurri in the upcoming weeks. – Francesco Porzio 

28. Rodrygo — Right Wing, Real Madrid

One of the stars of this current Real Madrid team, but also one of the most underestimated ones. Rodrygo, since he joined the Spanish giants, has delivered the goals and performances that made this cycle one of the most successful in the club’s storied history. Even this season, when Carlo Ancelotti had to cope the departure of a striker like Karim Benzema, Real Madrid opted to not replace him with another star, as they waited for Kylian Mbappe to play out his contract with PSG, and instead counted a lot on the same Rodrygo, who can play in multiple positions of the attacking line. He can play as a winger, as a central striker, but also behind or alongside another player. This is why he’s a player that Ancelotti can’t live without. One of those teammates that are always crucial to create a winning dynasty. In fact, he scored 17 goals in all competitions, the fourth best scorer after Vinicius Jr, Jude Bellingham and Joselu– Francesco Porzio 

27. Federico Valverde — Midfield, Real Madrid

The new number eight at Real Madrid will be even a more crucial player for the side coached by Carlo Ancelotti after German legend Toni Kroos decided to retire after the 2024 UEFA Euro taking place this summer. Valverde, season after season, has progressed from prospect to rotation player, to starter, to star at Real Madrid due to the rotations and development of Ancelotti. While others like Kroos and Modric began to rotate and play less as they aged, or others such as Brazilian midfielder Casemiro left the club, Valverde became one of the certainties of the Spanish side. He’s not only a great runner inside the field, but also a goal scorer, scoring a key goal against Manchester City in the first leg of the quarter finals at the Santiago Bernabeu, a goal that kept the dreams of Ancelotti’s side alive and probably decided a big part of the 15th Champions League won by Real Madrid this season. – Francesco Porzio 

26. William Saliba — Center Back, Arsenal

At just 23 years of age, William Saliba has the trait all great center backs need but few develop so soon: “that aura.” You cannot really appreciate the young Frenchman’s value to Arsenal until you see all the passes that opponents don’t play because they know they’ll be snared up by one of the most powerful, mobile center backs in the game.

In only his second year in the Premier League, Saliba’s repertoire expanded, particularly in the early months of the season when Mikel Arteta entrusted him to be the defender who stepped out from the back to build possession. In 2022-23 the youngster averaged 63.2 completed passes per 90 in the Premier League, the following term that was 69.2. His touches, passes in the attacking third and carries all trended up too as Saliba expanded his repertoire. With so much time on his side it would be no surprise if he has much further to climb in these rankings. — James Benge

25. Ruben Dias — Center Back, Manchester City

Manchester City’s defining feature is that the team is stacked with top-tier talent, something Ruben Dias exemplifies. The Premier League and Champions League winner is the defensive rock of their success, a foundational element of their stylish tactical plans that requires a practicality and an eye for a pass.

After serving as a crucial member of the team that won the treble, Dias followed it up with another outstanding display during the 2023-24 season. He ranked ninth in the Premier League for touches and sixth for passes, posting a remarkable 94.1% passing accuracy in the process — third amongst players who played 500-plus minutes. He exemplifies the Guardiola center back, and perhaps as a result the model center back.

Four years into his spell at City, it’s clear why the club paid around €70 million for his services. Dias has risen to become the game’s best center back, and should hang onto the distinction for years to come. — Pardeep Cattry

24. Bruno Fernandes — Midfield, Manchester United

This past season will not live long in the memory of the Portugal international, nor Manchester United supporters after another desperate campaign which was saved late on by FA Cup success. Bruno Fernandes and Erik ten Hag are both unsure of their respective futures at Old Trafford and the 29-year-old will have a chance to put that pain behind him at UEFA Euro 2024 in Germany where he is part of Roberto Martinez’s squad. However, the Portuguese star has become a divisive figure on the red half of Manchester in recent years and with INEOS bringing new sporting leadership to the Red Devils, there is a possibility that a managerial change could open the door to an exit. Fernandes’ stock remains fairly high and 15 goals and assists across all competitions is still pretty decent when you consider how awful United have been at times. The ex-Sporting CP man recently suggested in a heartfelt open letter to the fans that he does not want to leave, but perhaps the time is approaching when it suits the captain and the club to mutually go their separate ways. — Jonathan Johnson

23. Victor Osimhen — Forward, Napoli

The Nigerian striker, despite a disappointing season by his standads, has to be considered among the top strikers around Europe and there is still no certainty about his imminent future. He extended his deal with Napoli in December 2023, but also included a release clause worth around €130 million. With multiple clubs potentially interested in signing him, new Azzurri coach Antonio Conte is still not sure to have him in his roster next season. Osimhen is a goal machine and scored 15 Serie A goals in 25 games played in the last season, a season where Napoli struggled and didn’t qualified for a European place next year. Osinhen can play in different tactical systems, but probably shows his best potential when he plays alongside two wingers and he’s the central striker in the 4-3-3 as he played under Luciano Spalletti when Napoli won the historical Scudetto in 2023. – Francesco Porzio 

22. Toni Kroos — Midfield, Real Madrid

To go out on a high is probably the ideal scenario for most athletes, but Toni Kroos will almost certainly accomplish that, regardless of how Germany do in the Euros. The 34-year-old can still hack it at the game’s top levels and even in his final season, he is still usually one of the best players on the pitch.

Kroos delivered one masterclass after another over the course of the 2023-24 season, when he was La Liga’s best passer amongst those who played 500-plus minutes with a 94.7% accuracy, creating 82 chances and notching eight assists in the process. The results were just as good in the UEFA Champions League, ranking second for passers behind Manchester City’s Ruben Dias. He was essential in Real Madrid’s campaign to win the Champions League, when Carlo Ancelotti’s side became known for playing second-best but winning out thanks to their attacking quality. It was perhaps most on display in the first leg of their semifinal against Bayern Munich, when the opposition had a handful of early chances but Kroos’ perfectly placed ball allowed Vinicius Junior to score the opening goal of the game on Real Madrid’s first chance.

His form has not dipped from his peak years, winning innumerable rounds of praise and the accolades to go along with it. There’s little left to say that’s already been said about Kroos’ brilliance, so let’s close with an easy concluding thought about a player as accomplished as he is: He will easily go down as one of his generation’s best players, and will be missed. — Pardeep Cattry

21. Vigil van Dijk — Center Back, Liverpool

Virgil van Dijk has long been the consensus pick for the best center back in the world, so it comes as no surprise that he’s the highest-ranked player in that position in the Golazo 100 after another solid season.

He ranked fourth in the Premier League for passes played and completed an impressive 91.5% of them, but his comfort with the ball on his feet is just one of his many attributes. His physical presence was crucial as Liverpool earned 10 clean sheets in the league, while his potentially unrivaled excellence on set pieces meant he added another five goals to his account this season.

Liverpool were more porous in the back during the 2023-24 season than they may have liked and there are some murmurs that van Dijk’s impressive stay in Merseyside might be up with new leadership at the club. There’s no denying that van Dijk is the best version of a modern center back, demonstrating practicality through physicality and creativity with an eye for the pass. He’s a rightful choice as his generation’s best center back, even as he exits his peak years. — Pardeep Cattry

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