It hadn’t been long after Barca extricated the much-hyped prodigy from Santos – allegedly a year earlier than a long-standing deal originally called for – before a scandal about all of the sums in the deal that had been misplaced and misrepresented cast a pall over the club. Soon enough, Barca president Sandro Rosell had resigned as a direct consequence of the transfer, for which the fee was either $80 million or $130 million, depending on whom you believe. Still, Neymar was worth the fuss. He may have sometimes gotten in Messi’s way, but his 15-goal, 11-assist output helped keep Barca in contention for a good while in an otherwise disappointing season.
Getty ImagesClive Rose
Gareth Bale, Real Madrid
Following a summer move from Tottenham Hotspur for a transfer fee of some $130 million, the Welsh winger made a somewhat tentative start as the newest galactico at the club. But he eventually found his feet, rediscovered how best to utilize his blistering speed and started making repayments on the outsized investment in him through his performances. He got 14 goals and 12 assists in the league and five goals and four assists in the Champions League, helping Real compete for both until the last. But more importantly, he has provided an alternative to Ronaldo – a decoy and a lightning rod that has made the Portuguese’s life easier. And when Ronaldo is injured or in need of rest, Bale has shown himself capable of taking his place in shouldering the load.
Real Madrid via Getty ImagesAngel Martinez
Lionel Messi, Barcelona
It’s a weird year when you have to defend Messi’s inclusion in a list of the seven players of the year. That’s because by his own towering standards, he had a down year. Yes, 28 goals and 10 assists constitutes a down year. Messi was out with a string of niggling injuries, missing a few months, and hasn’t quite been his dominant self upon his return. It’s been so jarring to see him look human out on the field that some have speculated that he’s saving himself for the World Cup with Argentina – an asinine suggestion, if you’re at all familiar with Messi’s competitiveness.
Getty ImagesDavid Ramos
Diego Costa, Atletico Madrid
As a 25-year-old journeyman, the Brazilian-born Spanish international could hardly have been projected for the kind of year he had. After all, he had already played for seven different clubs and had never scored more than 10 league goals in a season. But he built on his solid campaign for Atlético last year – 10 goals – and capitalized on Radamel Falcao’s departure to AS Monaco to become the target man on the front line. Scrappy yet equipped with a finely honed ability to finish, he rammed in 27 league goals, eight Champions League goals and may yet help his unlikely side win both of those trophies.
Getty ImagesGonzalo Arroyo Moreno
Phillip Lahm, Bayern Munich
Long considered the world’s best right back, his new manager Pep Guardiola had little use for any such designations and happily re-made him into a central midfielder this year, lauding his world class soccer mind. And Lahm responded, becoming the center piece in Bayern’s swashbuckling new playing style. The little captain was once again the glue that held Bayern together in the Bavarian pressure cooker, leading them to the fastest league title in German history, secured in March.
Bongarts/Getty ImagesMichael Regan
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG
Soccer’s international man of mystery merrily continued dominating with his singular blend of acrobatic goals, innovative playmaking and off-the-field weirdness this season. He scored 25 league goals, got 10 in the Champions League, almost pushed an undeserving Sweden side into the World Cup, spoke of himself in the third person a lot, held off on getting into more fights with teammates and shot a series of odd commercials. At 32, this might be one of his last great seasons, but then Zlatan’s vision and grace is such that he could hold up well in the coming years.
AFP/Getty ImagesFRANCK FIFE
Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
It used to be that 50 was an unfathomable number of goals to score in a season. But in 2013-14, Ronaldo did it for the fourth year in a row. In each of those seasons, he scored at least 31 league goals and in the last three, he tallied double digits in the UEFA Champions League. This season he has gotten 16 in that competition, a new record. Meanwhile, he dragged Portugal into the World Cup, seemingly through sheer willpower, and has positioned his club to win a first European title since 2002 and their 10th overall. Real are still in the La Liga title race as well, meaning a treble is still on the table.