Football Features

Ranked: The top 10 Real Madrid players of the modern era

By Matt Clark, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 11:42, 24 November 2021


Real Madrid are the undisputed kings of Europe with 13 European Cups to their name including seven in the Champions League era – as many as the next best club (AC Milan) have in all of history.

In the last eight seasons alone, Los Blancos have been crowned European champions on four occasions, including that unprecedented three-peat between 2016 and 2018.

They have also been a domestic force over the last three decades with nine league titles, three Copas del Rey and eight Supercopas. Not a bad return for a period when bitter rivals Barcelona boasted probably the greatest team in history.

Some of the very best players in the world have graced the turf of the Santiago Bernabéu, from home-grown products to Ballon d’Or winning Galácticos. But which of them make the cut? Who are the top 10 of the modern era? We have produced our ranking here.

10. Ronaldo Nazario

Real Madrid appearances: 177
Real Madrid goals: 104
Real Madrid trophies: 2002/03 La Liga, 2002 Intercontinental Cup, 2003 Supercopa de España

Scoring just 61 seconds into his Real Madrid debut, it was clear that Ronaldo was something extraordinary. A World Cup winner with two Ballon d’Ors, the original Ronaldo was the best player in the world when he arrived, the ultimate Galáctico signing. While the trophy haul is less impressive than others on this list and injuries began to take their toll, O Fenômeno is still remembered as a magnificent striker at the club. The unforgettable hat-trick at Old Trafford in the Champions League has to be considered as his standout moment in the iconic jersey.

9. Roberto Carlos

Real Madrid appearances: 527
Real Madrid goals: 69
Real Madrid trophies: 4x La Liga, 3x Supercopa de España, 3x Champions League, 2002 UEFA Super Cup, 2x Intercontinental Cup

They sure know how to produce full-backs in Brazil. One of the first to reinvent the position and commit to attacking football, Roberto Carlos was an all-action force of flamboyance for a decade in Madrid.

Until relatively recently, no foreign player had played more times for Real Madrid than him, and his longevity is impressive given the period of churn at the club at the turn of the century. His free-kick technique seemed impossible, but he managed to repeat the trick often enough to convince. A decorated full-back, Roberto Carlos was the inspiration for Marcelo to follow in his footsteps, so he takes his place on this list.

8. Gareth Bale

Real Madrid appearances: 254
Real Madrid goals: 106
Real Madrid trophies: 2x La Liga, 2013/14 Copa del Rey, 2017 Supercopa de España, 4x Champions League, 2x UEFA Super Cup, 3x Club World Cup

The shy boy from Wales made it all the way to the top and, for a five-year period, was an integral part of a devastating Real Madrid front three which conquered and then dominated Europe. He arrived with much fanfare, dubbed the new Cristiano, and had a transfer fee which surpassed even CR7’s four years prior. In his first season, he scored in finals of both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. That blistering run to leave Marc Bartra clutching at thin air became iconic overnight, and he did not stop there.

All in all, the Welsh wizard scored in four separate finals for Real Madrid, including that brace against Loris Karius and Liverpool in 2018. His latter years have been a disappointment but that should not overshadow his peak. He has a strong case to say he is Britain’s greatest ever footballing export, and certainly the best Brit to play for Real Madrid. Sorry Becks.

7. Luka Modrić

Real Madrid appearances: 403
Real Madrid goals: 28
Real Madrid trophies: 2x La Lga, 2013/14 Copa del Rey, 3x Supercopa de España, 4x Champions League, 3x UEFA Super Cup, 3x Club World Cup

Without question, one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, Modrić has successfully converted the often-hostile Madrid press to move from record flop to Ballon d’Or winner in his time at the club. After finally getting his move from Spurs in the summer of 2012, it was a slow start for Lukita, but since then he has gone from strength to strength and continues to control the tempo of Madrid’s midfield into his mid-thirties.

Alongside metronome Toni Kroos and dependable Casemiro, Los Blancos have had the best midfield in Europe over the last five years. Having just reached the milestone of 400 matches for the club, Modrić will soon be in the top 20 appearance-makers of all time. He is still playing at the highest levels for club and country, and is showing no signs of slowing down just yet.

6. Zinedine Zidane

Real Madrid appearances: 230
Real Madrid goals: 49
Real Madrid trophies: 2002/03 La Liga, 2x Supercopa de España, 2001/02 Champions League, 2002 UEFA Super Cup, 2002 Intercontinental Cup

Zizou needs little introduction. A master with the ball at his feet, with close control that made other professionals look amateur, Zidane is another Galáctico who makes this list. Winning pretty much everything during his time at the club, he walked away on his terms in 2006, retiring when many felt he could have gone on. His wondrous volley at Hampden Park in the 2002 Champions League final is an eternal mark of his majesty.

He would be higher still up this list if his coaching success was factored in too, but for his playing days alone he sits on the edge of the top five.

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5. Iker Casillas

Real Madrid appearances: 725
Real Madrid goals: 0
Real Madrid trophies: 5x La Liga, 2x Copa del Rey, 4x Supercopa de España, 3x Champions League, 2x UEFA Super Cup, 2014 Club World Cup, 2x Intercontinental Cup

San Iker as he is lovingly nicknamed, Casillas is the greatest Spanish goalkeeper of all time, and Madrid’s greatest ever shot-stopper. Making his debut as a bright-eyed 18-year-old, he soon made the position his own and was integral to the Champions League-winning team just as he turned 20. Real Madrid never needed to sign a big-name goalkeeper because Casillas became one in his own right. An ever-present, always dependable keeper, Casillas was a fan favourite for well over a decade.

Outlasting the other stars, he played on until 2015, and was the man to lift the much-coveted 10th European crown in Lisbon. For the boy from Móstoles, beating Atleti to achieve the feat made it all the sweeter. Only one man has played more times for the club, and he is slightly higher on this list.

4. Raúl

Real Madrid appearances: 741
Real Madrid goals: 323
Real Madrid trophies: 6x La Liga, 4x Supercopa de España, 3x Champions League, 2002 UEFA Super Cup, 2x Intercontinental Cup

The home boy, the eternal son, Raúl has to be ranked high. After leaving the Atleti youth system, he joined the ranks at Valdebebas and became a legend. On his home debut, he scored in the first half of a Madrid derby and never looked back. He remains the club’s record-appearance maker and was the record scorer too until Cristiano arrived. He won six league titles in 16 seasons – the highest number of anyone on this list – as his career took place after the Cruyff years and before peak Pep at Barça.

This perfect timing is reflective of his goalscoring instincts, always sensing where to be at the opportune moments. Now involved in the youth coaching setup, Madridistas will be hoping he can unearth a new version of himself. That could be his greatest legacy yet.

3. Karim Benzema

Real Madrid appearances: 575
Real Madrid goals: 293
Real Madrid trophies: 3x La Liga, 2x Copa del Rey, 2x Supercopa de España, 4x Champions League, 3x UEFA Super Cup, 4x Club World Cup

For a foreign player to last 12 years at Real Madrid is one thing, but for a forward to do so is quite another. Benzema is a constant who has seen the José Mourinho years, both of Carlo Ancelotti’s spells and everything in between. Arriving from Lyon, he was the perfect companion for Cristiano Ronaldo, his unselfish link-up play allowing others to stay in the limelight.

Since the Portuguese departed, Benzema has shown his true value to the club. Leading the attack, often on his own for the last couple of years, Benzema is the undisputed MVP of the team and La Liga as a whole. From facilitator to fearsome finisher, the Ballon d’Or campaign is not too outlandish. Soon he will join the exclusive 300-goal club and is only 15 behind Alfredo di Stéfano and a place on the pantheon podium. One thing is for sure, he is in the top three of this list.

2. Sergio Ramos

Real Madrid appearances: 671
Real Madrid goals: 101
Real Madrid trophies: 5x La Liga, 2x Copa del Rey, 4x Supercopa de España, 4x Champions League, 3x UEFA Super Cup, 4x Club World Cup

If you had to define the ultimate Madridista, Sergio Ramos comes pretty close to perfection. Despite being a child of Seville, Ramos embodied everything about the club and its fans for the last 15 years. A leader, a warrior with an eye for goal, a glittering CV and long list of accolades, this icon has been critical to their success over the years. His departure this summer felt seismic and a sad way for his legend to end. But what a story it was.

Signing as a right-back, he eventually moved inside to dominate the boxes at both ends of the pitch. Like many, his defining moment comes from that night in Lisbon in May 2014. Atleti were seconds away from becoming European champions, but Sergio Ramos had other ideas. Leaping into the air, he powered home the equaliser which gave Madrid salvation and crushed Atleti. His blossoming partnership with Raphaël Varane grew into a formidable understanding, the base of further successes. Ramos will always be remembered as a combustible antagonist, but also a fierce competitor who bled for Real Madrid.

1. Cristiano Ronaldo

Real Madrid appearances: 438
Real Madrid goals: 450
Real Madrid trophies: 2x La Liga, 2x Copa del Rey, 2x Supercopa de España, 4x Champions League, 2x UEFA Super Cup, 3x Club World Cup

The numbers are scarcely believable. Arriving amid fanatical jubilation and a world record transfer fee, this figure has been paid back with interest thanks to a scoring ratio of more than a goal a game across nine years.

Although he was part of that 2009 summer spending splurge, it was always going to be the Cristiano show, and what a spectacle it was. Records broken almost every game, Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s greatest ever goalscorer and fired them to three consecutive European titles. Mr Champions League never failed to turn up for the biggest occasions, scoring the goals to seal memorable comebacks against Bayern and Wolfsburg, as well as pressure penalties when everything was on the line. Cristiano was a cast-iron guarantee of goals, raising the bar to an extra-terrestrial level. He scored 50 goals in the knockout stages alone, more than many legends of the game achieve in their entire careers.

His evolution was incredible. From a rapid winger in José Mourinho’s counter-attacking machine to a freakishly-reliable penalty box scorer by 2018, Ronaldo maintained his standards throughout. Perhaps the most striking statistic is this: Of the 600 goals Real Madrid have scored in the Champions League era, Cristiano scored 17.5% of them (105). There can surely be few arguments then that he deserves his place on the pedestal as Real Madrid’s greatest player of the modern era.

Article produced by Matt Clark in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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