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TOP 10 Stars in the Shadow of Stars

Dybala at Roma
© Ace Football

In this list, we illuminate the top 10 football stars who thrive in the shadows, showcasing their remarkable skills, contributions to their teams, and the unwavering dedication that sets them apart. Despite not always commanding the spotlight, these players’ impact on the pitch is undeniable, making them indispensable assets to their clubs and deserving of recognition among the game’s elite.

10. Kylian Mbappe’s Shadow Play:

As Paris Saint-Germain’s young prodigy, Kylian Mbappe has faced a unique challenge in his quest for the Golden Ball, partly due to the presence of the more experienced and equally skilled Neymar, a megastar who joined PSG a year before Mbappe’s arrival. This situation increasingly frustrated Mbappe, especially last season when he had to play in Neymar’s shadow. Rumors swirled that Mbappe requested or demanded the Brazilian’s sale. But when Neymar eventually stayed put, Mbappe ceased his conflicts with the club’s management and reportedly even turned down a significant bonus for continuing with PSG. Free from competing as the main star, Mbappe returned to training with renewed focus, and now stands to receive full acclaim for his success.

9. David Silva, Spain’s Overlooked Maestro:

David Silva, despite his immense talent and contribution to Spain’s golden era of football, often found himself overshadowed by legendary teammates Xavi and Iniesta. Silva debuted for Spain in 2006, but it was Xavi who shined during Euro 2008, even scoring against Russia, and received recognition in the symbolic team of the tournament and placed fifth in the 2008 Ballon d’Or. Fast forward to the 2010 World Cup, and although Silva was mainly a substitute, Iniesta’s winning goal and Xavi’s consistency overshadowed Silva’s contributions again. It wasn’t until Euro 2012 that Silva’s star shined brightest, proving his worth in the first team with pivotal goals and assists, yet Iniesta was named the tournament’s best player, and Silva missed out on Ballon d’Or nominations entirely. Despite being second in assists and fourth in goals all-time for Spain—and outperforming Xavi and Iniesta in talent—Silva never became the symbol of the team and never received a Ballon d’Or nomination.

8. Angel Di Maria’s Shadowy Brilliance:

Angel Di Maria is no stranger to being an unsung hero, a role he’s played at PSG and for Argentina, where even his decisive goals and assists in Olympic and Copa America victories were eclipsed by Messi’s stardom. We spotlight his time at Real Madrid, where he was outshined by Mesut Ozil’s playmaking excellence. Though their contributions were comparable, with Di Maria delivering 36 goals and 85 assists in 190 games to Ozil’s 27 goals and 81 assists in 159 games, Di Maria was often seen as the secondary star. Together for three seasons, they came to Real Madrid in one transfer window, but it was Ozil who dazzled as Europe’s top assist provider while Di Maria labored in his shadow. Only when Ozil left did Di Maria have a standout season, culminating in an assistant for the winning goal in the Champions League final of 2014 and being ranked in the Ballon d’Or’s top ten, a recognition that had eluded him while Ozil was at the club.

7. The Subtle Elegance of Beckham’s Real Madrid Era:

David Beckham, a global football icon, arrived at Real Madrid as a Galactico after Figo and Zinedine Zidane. Despite his star power, Beckham found himself overshadowed by these legends. Zidane’s defining moments like his Champions League final volley in 2002 solidified his role as the leader, while Figo was the club’s premier winger and threat on the right. When Beckham joined in 2003, Figo was still in prime form, prompting Manager Queiroz to experiment with moving Figo to the left to accommodate Beckham on the right, but reverted back due to poor team performance. Beckham’s votes in the Ballon d’Or dwindled, and his role shifted to the midfield, where he continued to influence the game albeit with fewer goals. To make matters more challenging, club legend Raúl owned the number 7 jersey, a stark reminder of Beckham’s secondary status at Madrid. Despite his celebrity and personal brand, Beckham couldn’t escape the shadow of his star-studded teammates.

6. Olivier Giroud, The Unseen Spearhead of France:

Olivier Giroud, France’s all-time top scorer, paradoxically spent much of his international career in the shadow of other luminaries. Debuting for France during Benzema’s tenure, Giroud often played as a substitute and only managed his first full 90 minutes a year after his first appearance. At the 2014 World Cup, despite being Arsenal’s top scorer, Giroud found himself competing with Benzema for the striker position. Euro 2016 should have been Giroud’s moment to shine with Benzema excluded due to a legal scandal, and Giroud did score in the group stage and knockout matches. However, France lost in the final and the standout performances of Payet and Griezmann outshone Giroud. The Arsenal striker faced criticism from French fans who missed Benzema, and despite Giroud’s key goals, he remained in the Real Madrid forward’s shadow, even when Benzema was absent from the national team. Giroud’s efforts contributed to France’s victorious 2018 World Cup campaign, yet his contribution to the team’s success often went unrecognized compared to the flashy play of his teammates.

5. Edin Dzeko, The Underrated City Marksman:

Edin Dzeko arrived at Manchester City as a budding star from Wolfsburg for a then-record transfer fee of £37 million. Known for his consistent goal-scoring record in the Bundesliga, Dzeko was expected to continue his prolific form. However, upon joining City during the winter transfer window, he found himself competing for the forward spot with established talents like Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez. Although Dzeko showed moments of brilliance, including a goal that initiated the comeback against QPR, leading to Agüero’s legendary title-winning goal, his contributions were often overshadowed. Despite ending up in the top 10 of City’s all-time top scorers and achieving an impressive 110 goal involvements in 189 appearances, Dzeko’s Man City legacy is frequently eclipsed by the accolades of his star teammates, and he isn’t always counted among City’s legends. It wasn’t until his move to AS Roma that Dzeko rediscovered his status as a premier striker, becoming the focal point and top scorer for the Italian side.

4. Edinson Cavani, PSG’s Overshadowed Matador:

Edinson Cavani, a sensational striker, joined Paris Saint-Germain for a staggering €65 million, one of the most expensive transfers at the time. His arrival led to a challenging tactical puzzle for then-manager Laurent Blanc, who had to integrate another top forward alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Initially positioned as a winger, Cavani’s productivity declined compared to his season in Italy. Nevertheless, upon Ibrahimovic’s departure, Cavani flourished in his natural center-forward role, scoring 49 goals in a season and earning the respect as a world-class striker. Cavani proved that he was not inferior to Ibrahimovic as PSG’s lead striker, as he became the league’s top scorer twice, received Player of the Year honors, and even surpassed Ibrahimovic as PSG’s all-time top scorer. Sadly, his efforts to emerge from Ibrahimovic’s shadow during those three years often went unrecognized, and his legacy in European club football might have been more remarkable if he had been the sole star striker on a major team.

3. Luis Suarez & Neymar, Barcelona’s Eclipse by Messi’s Light:

Luis Suarez and Neymar, both world-class players in their own right, found that even their remarkable abilities were dimmed at Barcelona by the brilliance of Lionel Messi. Suarez’s exceptional goal-scoring and Neymar’s creative talents contributed significantly to the success of the MSN trio, which dominated football during their time together. Despite Neymar’s standout performances, including orchestrating the miraculous ‘La Remontada’ against PSG, and Suarez’s pivotal role in many wins, Messi continued to be the symbol of Barcelona and a perpetual Ballon d’Or contender. Neymar’s departure to PSG and Suarez’s eventual exit are emblematic of their desire for recognition outside of Messi’s shadow. Both players demonstrated their exceptional talents independently, but at Barcelona, their legacies are intricately linked to the unmatched aura of Messi.

2. Roberto Firmino, Liverpool’s Shadow Striker:

Roberto Firmino has been a critical component of Liverpool’s attack, often overshadowed by the spotlight on Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. Despite his invaluable contribution as a ‘false nine’ and as part of the formidable attacking trio, Firmino’s work rate, pressing, and playmaking often go underappreciated compared to the goal-scoring exploits of his teammates. His role in Liverpool’s success, including the 2019 Champions League victory, is monumental, yet understated against the backdrop of the more frequently celebrated moments by Salah and Mane. Jurgen Klopp once praised Firmino as a ‘world-class player practically every day’, which attests to his consistent impact, though his quiet efficiency doesn’t always garner accolades. After seven years at Liverpool, Firmino’s considerable talents and tireless work behind the scenes remain essential, even though he’s frequently left in the shadows of his star-studded colleagues.

1. Paulo Dybala’s Turn in the Shadows:

Paulo Dybala has experienced the unique challenge of playing in the shadows of two of the greatest football stars of our time—Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. His tenure in Juventus saw him demonstrating immense potential and leadership, inheriting Pirlo’s iconic number 21 jersey. Expected to be the creative force of the team, Dybala excelled, at one point leading as the top scorer despite the presence of forwards like Higuain and Mandzukic. However, the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 changed the dynamics, and Dybala found his role diminished, losing opportunities for goals and assists as the Portuguese star became the focal point of the attack. Dybala’s versatility saw him being played across various attacking roles but never establishing himself as the primary option. The Argentine international faced similar issues on the national team, with his style drawing comparisons to Messi, relegating him to a substitute role for a player revered as the best in history. Despite his obvious talent, Dybala’s career was heavily influenced by his status as a secondary figure to these living legends. His struggles manifest the harsh reality of professional sports, where individual brilliance can be overshadowed by the magnificence of generational talents. This transfer of Dybala from Juventus to Roma in 2021, post-Ronaldo’s departure, is seen as a crucial step towards reclaiming the spotlight and fulfilling his once-promised potential. His story is a stark reminder that timing, team dynamics, and the presence of other stars can significantly impact a player’s career trajectory.