If you’re anything like me, picking the greatest player to ever play soccer is impossible to do. That, or you are one of those people who pick a player and say they were the greatest ever, and everyone else is wrong. I am not here to add to that type of fire. Instead, I will be picking what I believe to be the greatest starting XI ever, which I am sure still leaves room for argument.
Of course, like any team, the starting team needs the help of some substitutions — so we’ll be going there first. Just like regulation, I will be picking three players who just miss out on the starting XI, but still deserve to be recognized.
Let’s start with Franz Beckenbauer, who was the modern-day sweeper when he played in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Beckenbauer played over 400 times for Bayern Munich, leading them to three consecutive Champions League wins. He continued his career by playing for West Germany at the national league level over 100 times, leading them to a World Cup win in 1974.
Next is Ronaldinho, probably one of the most gifted players to ever kick a soccer ball, but probably one of the least driven players. Ronaldinho’s whole game is what puts him here, as he can do things normal people could only dream of with a soccer ball. His work ethic is what held him back, from late-night partying to skipping practice. Either way, he played for three of Europe’s biggest clubs, Paris Saint Germain over 50 times, FC Barcelona over 100 times, and for AC Millan over 70 times. During his time in Europe from 2001 – ‘11, he won one Champions League, two FIFA World Player of the Year, and one Ballon d’Or. He also played over 90 times for the Brazil National Team, helping them win a World Cup in 2002.
To round it all off, the final sub would be Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, or the “Brazilian” Ronaldo. He probably would have been, undoubtedly, the greatest of the time. I say “would have” due to a terrible knee injury he picked up during the prime of his career. Physicians said that his kneecap “exploded,” and he was never able to fully recover. However, Ronaldo would truly be one of the greatest strikers ever, scoring over 247 times at the club level and 62 times at the national league level. He won three FIFA World Player of the Year, two Ballon d’Or, and two World Cups with Brazil in 1994 and 2002.
Now we move on to the starters and for the formation. We will be going with the all popular 4 – 4 – 3: four defenders, three midfielders, three forwards — and, of course, one goalkeeper, which many teams seem to be utilizing nowadays.
The goalkeeper is one of the most important positions in a soccer team, and there have been many great keepers throughout the years. The one who stands out the most to me is German Keeper Manuel Neuer. Keepers are usually never in the conversation of the best players in the world, but Neuer has been in those conversations for a couple of years, as he is not like a lot of keepers. Neuer is something that we have come to know as a “sweeper-keeper,” which entails him running out of his keeper box and making a tackle as if he was a defender. Neuer has also gotten his hand on some important silverware in his career, winning eight Bundesliga titles, two Champions League titles with Bayern Munich, a World Cup with Germany in 2014, as well as a Golden Glove Award for the competition, and five UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year awards. Neuer is a keeper whose abilities can not be taught.
The right-back position is filled by Philipp Lahm. The German full-back is another one-club man, as he was loaned out to VfB Stuttgart for two years, but he played, for most of his career, at Bayern Munich, where he would be a key player. He would help them be dominant in the German League, winning eight league titles throughout his career, with one Champions League title with them. He would also lead the Germany National team to a World Cup title in 2014. If his titles do not impress you, get this: in the 700+ games he played, he never received a single red card. This is quite remarkable for a defender. His work ethic was also outstanding, as he would be in the defensive end and the attacking end of the pitch, as well as being a tactical genius. Lahm was truly one of the greatest defenders ever.
For center-backs, it’s usually ideal to have a player who’s loyal to the club that they play for, a strong force in order to get attackers off the back, and, probably the most important, is a leader that players look up to. The two who fit this are Paolo Maldini and Carles Puyol.
Starting with Maldini, the Italian center-back had a 25-year career, where he was a one-club man playing for AC Milan. Maldini made his debut at the age of 16 and played 901 times for them, taking the captain’s band in 2002 at the height of his career. This earned him the nickname “Il Capitano.” He won five Champions League titles, seven Serie A titles, but missed out on Italy’s 2006 World Cup title win, as he declined the call-up.
As for Carles Puyol, he’s what the modern center-back is about: strong on the header, great at getting the ball on a set-piece, and quick at the back. Puyol is also a one-club player, as he played for Barcelona for 20 years after entering the prestigious youth system in 1995. He played over 500 times for the Catalan club, winning three Champions League titles, six La Liga titles, and the 2010 World Cup with Spain.
On the left side of the defensive end is Roberto Carlos, who was one of the greatest attacking-minded fullbacks. One of the things that he is known for is his crazy free kicks and the amount of bend he put into them. Whether it be 30 yards away or 50, his free-kick skills were something to marvel at. Carlos made his name while playing for Real Madrid, where he played over 350 times, scored 47 goals, and helped them win three Champions League titles and four La Liga titles. He was also part of one of the most entertaining Brazil squads of all time in 2002 where they won the World Cup, as they had players like Ronaldo, Cafu, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Kaka all playing at one time throughout the tournament.
The hardest thing to do for anyone, likely, is pick three of the greatest midfielders ever, as the world has seen some incredible midfielders. Even so, I will try and make these picks, starting with the player who really had a large influence on how a 4 – 4 – 3 formation is played in today’s game: Johan Cruyff.
From having a move named after him, the “Cruyff Turn,” which is still largely used in today’s game, to helping create the free-flowing passing style of today’s game, Cruyff is largely regarded as one of the greatest players to ever touch a soccer ball, and his performances on the field mesmerized fans of the sport. Cruyff played for some of the biggest clubs of Europe, starting his career in Ajax and then moving to Barcelona, where he helped establish the current Barcelona playing style. Cruyff won three Champions League titles with Ajax in consecutive years, and won three Ballon d’Or.
The second player to fit into this midfield would be Zinedine Zidane, the master of playmaking and much more. While Zidane’s final game might be one he will always be remembered for — sent off due to a red card for headbutting an Italian player in the 2006 World Cup Final — his other feats on the field are something to remember. Whether it be making a wonderful pass for an assist, making a move to get past a defender that left us wondering how he did it, or scoring an outrageous goal, he was a true entertainer of the game. Zidane won three FIFA Player of the Year awards, one Ballon d’Or, one Champions League with Real Madrid, and one World Cup with France in 1998.
The final player in the midfield is Diego Maradona, “El Pibe de Oro,” often regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time. While that statement is up for debate, there is no argument on his skills on the field. Whether it be dribbling or his passing ability, the ball at his feet seemed natural to him. His performance in the 1986 World Cup is regarded as one of the greatest performances in a competition ever, as he led Argentina to their second-ever World Cup. He also scored one of the greatest goals in World Cup history when scoring Argentina’s second goal in the Quarter-finals against England. He took the ball from the middle of the field and dribbled past the England defense before slotting it past the keeper. Maradona also won the FIFA Player of the 20th Century Award, along with another player, who is also recognized as the King of Football. We’ll talk about him next.
This second is probably the most no-brainer part of picking the greatest team. The first player to pick would have to be Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as the world knows him, Pelé. He is even acknowledged, by some, as “The King of Football.” Of course, Brazil’s wonder-boy was going to be part of this team; Pelé was one of the most recognizable players of the 20th century, as well as one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Either way, Pelé is recognized as one of the greatest players of all time, depending on who you ask. There is good reason to call him this, as he won three World Cups with Brazil. While he never really earned player of the year awards, due to the fact that he played most of his career in Brazil with Santos and in the U.S. with the New York Cosmos, he was better than any other player at the time. He also was the other player to win the FIFA Player of the 20th Century alongside Maradona.
The second attacker to fill in the top three is Cristiano Ronaldo, who is also considered one of the greatest players to ever play. Ronaldo has been recognized as the greatest player on the planet for about three decades now, ever since he broke the scene with Manchester United in 2003, where he was known as a fast-pace dribbling winger. He later converted himself to the target man at Real Madrid, where he scored 450 goals for the club. Ronaldo also won five Champions League titles, five Ballon D’or, three UEFA Best Player in Europe, and two The Best FIFA Men’s Player awards.
This list would not be complete without mentioning “La Pulga,” Lionel Messi. I said I wasn’t going to give my opinion on who the greatest player ever is, but I lied. Lionel Messi is the greatest player to ever play, and there isn’t an argument about it.
Playing over 700 times for Barcelona, he has scored over 650 goals for them, and has scored 71 times for Argentina. What makes Messi so great is his ability to make plays that no other player can, whether it be a fantastic free-kick, an impossible goal while surrounded by multiple defenders, or even dribbling past five defenders. The man can do things with the ball no one else can.
Messi has also been known to play in different positions, whether it be a winger, a center-forward or even a center attacking midfielder proving the strings to a play. He also scored 91 goals in a single calendar year, which is the most out of any player to ever do. To top it all off, Messi has won six Ballon d’Or, the most in history, one The Best FIFA Men’s Player of the Year Award, four Champions League titles, and six European Golden Boots.
Of course, this whole “greatest team of all time” is my opinion, and, if you disagree with what I had to say, that’s fine. What made me pick these players, specifically, is the influence they had on the game itself. Without Puyol or Maldini, we may not have the model center-back captain we have today in soccer. Without Cruyff, there may not be a 4 – 4 – 3 formation, which has dominated the soccer world. Without Pelé or Maradona, soccer might not have gotten as popular in the 20th century. Finally, without Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, we may not have gotten millions of debates on who is the best player ever. We also would have not seen the magical moments these two have produced over the years, propelling soccer into the popular sport it is today.
Overall, soccer is definitely a sport where many great players have influenced the game, and the whole world.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images