UDHAV ARORA | 26th October 2021

Growing up in a neighborhood of passionate cricket fans, being the odd one out never felt odd to me because of my love for the beautiful game. But the 2010 FIFA World Cup triggered a massive change for me, one that has shaped pretty much the next decade of my life. 

After 11 years of joy, disappointment, and sorrow, my all-time XI is mixed with stories of underdogs, serial winners, greats and underachievers.

Let’s get straight into “Aesthetics Athletic FC”. Come on, that’s a decent name.

Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer

Guarding the posts is the face of modern goalkeeping and arguably the greatest goalie of all time- Manuel Neuer. 

The German took Europe by storm through his exploits, breaking out for Schalke, but it was during his time at Bayern Munich when people well and truly took a step back to realize that they might be witnessing unparalleled genius. 

Another reason why I adore Neuer is his redemption arc post-2018. He looked to be on a slippery slope for two years but returned at the very top of his game under Hansi Flick.

That metatarsal injury had aggravated a significant dip but one must doubt Neuer at their own peril; and at 35 years of age, the World Cup winner is still winning games singlehandedly for the Bavarians.

Might I add- Kingsley Coman may have left the ground with the Man of the Match trophy in the 2020 Champions League final, but it was Manu’s brilliance that won them the one with the big ears. 

I could go on and on but you know as well as I do that Manuel Neuer may just be the most complete goalkeeper this sport has ever seen.

Centre-back: Carles Puyol

7th July 2010. Germany vs Spain. World Cup semi-final. My first ever live football match.

Xavi whips in a corner as the scores read 0-0. Someone I could only describe as Tarzan at the time flies in, slams his head on the ball, and makes a fall to the ground. Before his own body could hit the ground, the header had already beaten Neuer. 

Puyol was the reason a ride-or-die Cricket fan like myself crossed paths over to football and started supporting Barcelona. 

I did not get to watch Puyol’s best-ever years live, but over time I watched clips and old games stretching to his debut, and at some point, started to idolize him.

A brilliant footballer, a better captain, but most importantly, a genuinely wonderful human being. 

Centre-back: Mats Hummels 

Mats Hummels does not have an underdog story. Nor does he have an awful lot of silverware in his cabinet. But he is the most eye-catching centre-back I have watched in over a decade. 

Hummels was among the first generation of ball-playing centre-backs after the concept had been popularized and the German was among the very best.

Apart from that, the Borussia Dortmund man put in the cleanest tackles I have ever seen. In fact, he’s always loved a game-saving last man tackle in his career, including the one on Kylian Mbappe during this year’s European Championship springing to mind. 

Hummels being an incredible centre-back isn’t breaking news to me. And that’s also not necessarily why I adore him.

Mats Hummels, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, is blessed with a style that makes a tenacious tackle look as easy on the eye as a knife running through a perfectly cooked Eggs Benedict.

Centre-back: Marquinhos 

Probably a surprise pick to many, Marquinhos fills in as the final piece of my defensive trident and is perhaps just the right mix of my other two defenders’ best qualities.

The Brazilian has consistently been at the top of his game and him being one of the best defenders in the world isn’t a revelation, but has gone under the radar for way too long.

The PSG skipper was starting in central defence along with Thiago Silva as a 19-year-old and had begun to put in world-class shifts within two seasons. 

But it was his stint at defensive midfield under Thomas Tuchel that made me realise how undoubtedly brilliant he is.

The Ligue 1 farmer jokes can go for a walk because at 27, Marquinhos is already a modern-day great with his best years ahead of him. 

Right wing-back: Dani Alves

In his ‘Players’ Tribune’ column, Dani Alves made the most Dani Alves promise you’re likely to hear before his move to Juventus from Barcelona.

“You’re going to miss me.”

Almost cinematic in a sense but at the time, his range of his influence at the club was underestimated and overlooked.

How do you replace Alves’ experience? His supreme technique? His one-twos with Lionel Messi? You cannot, and nearly ten right-backs later, Barcelona have not either.

What separated Alves from the rest were the intangibles he brought to the table, even when he was not on the pitch.

A dressing room couldn’t ask for a finer combination between a tremendous footballer and a soul who makes big occasions feel like kickabouts in the park.

I mean, the man glided down the escalator minutes before a Champions League final.

At 38, he is the most decorated player to grace the sport and still plays and enjoys his football like a 20-year-old breaking through the first team. Alves calls himself “The Good Crazy”, and honestly, who can disagree?

Deep-lying playmaker: Andrea Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo was always the man in the background of those Facebook motivation quotes that talked about being classy, successful, and hard-working. And after all, why not? 

Donning black Ray Bans and the sharpest two-piece suit you’ll ever see, Don Pirlo was as cool as they come.

80-yard passes that break the opposition defence? No problem. Sliding tackles on strikers twice as quick on the edge of the box? Handled. Need a pin-point free-kick from 30 yards out? You know who to call. 

Pirlo could do it all, drop a 10/10 performance and leave the game looking unfazed. 

But he knew that better than anyone. 

“I don’t feel pressure, I don’t give a toss about it,” he wrote in his autobiography. The Italian stallion was as press-resistant as they come and an absolute delight to watch every time he stepped on the pitch.

No Pirlo, No Party stands true to this day.

Central midfielder: Joshua Kimmich 

Bayern Munich cruised their way to 6 trophies under Hans Flick in 2020 while the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry, Manuel Neuer, and others kept dropping masterclasses. But Joshua Kimmich was the captain of this ship. 

He may be tasked with the duties of a No. 6 but Kimmich is not only one of the most complete midfielders on the planet but one of the most complete footballers around.

I’ve watched Bundesliga regularly for a good 8 years and football for 11, but hand to heart, I do not remember a single underwhelming performance from Joshua Kimmich. Not at right-back, centre-back, defensive midfield, central midfield or right-wing.

He’s clearly walking down the same path as a certain Philipp Lahm and has nearly a decade’s worth of fuel still left in the tank. That alone should sum up the extent of his greatness. 

Left wing-back: Marcelo 

Gearing up for the El Clasico for most of my life, Real Madrid had plenty of players that could send chills down the spine of Blaugrana fans and players alike. But one man I feared more than anyone else on the same pitch was Marcelo. 

Blessed with bags of divine flair and unreal skill, he was a one-way ticket to wreaking absolute havoc, starting at left-back. There were times you would question his decision to play in that position. 

Not because he was barely there, but you could slot him in midfield, as a 10 or probably on either wing, and he would give you your money’s worth.

I loathed Marcelo growing up, but now that he doesn’t feature for Madrid regularly, I genuinely miss him. Maybe it’s time to hit up YouTube to watch a compilation of his first touch. 

No.10: Lionel Messi

I have tried writing about Lionel Messi several times but words never seem to do him any justice.

Each time, the backspace rules every other key while I continue to search for words to describe who I sincerely consider as one of the most talented human beings to ever exist. So, here goes nothing.

I first saw Messi in action when he was 23. He already had two Ballon d’Ors to his name and was on course for his third. Newspapers in my school had his name in the sports section every week, sometimes twice, and he was getting GOAT shouts by some of the biggest names in football. At 23. 

But what makes him the greatest is that Messi does things on the pitch that I, and others, have never seen before and yet, it seems normal. It seems normal because he has normalized genius. 

What else can be said about the man who rivals the greatest goalscorers, passers and dribblers as a singular entity? We are not worthy. 

Striker: Wayne Rooney 

If Wayne Rooney was better managed during the early years of his career, he would be in and amongst the GOAT debate. That is a hill I am willing to die on. 

Fortunately for me, my first ever season of watching the Premier League -2010/11 came off the back of Rooney’s best, where he scored 26 goals. His numbers dipped since, but I witnessed a man willing to leave it all on the line for Manchester United. 

Rooney was nothing if not persistent. He used to drop deep to win back the ball, start counter attacks and end up on the scoresheet himself.  

Wazza’s match-winning assist in the MLS for DC United is truly one of the most bizarre sequences leading to a goal I’ve seen in football- but it sums up the iconic No.10’s lionhearted ways.

Sure, he stands as the second highest goalscorer in Premier League history but he was always so much more than just a No.9. The third-highest on the assists chart in Premier League history but so more than a creator. 

It’s a shame that the kids growing up on the Premier League in today’s day and age can’t turn back the clocks to witness the unrelenting brilliance of Wayne Rooney.

Striker: Jamie Vardy 

“Chat s**t, get banged.”

Words to live by. 

Completing my all-English striker partnership is the man from Leicester City and my favourite player of all time (Yes, you read that right), Jamie Vardy. 

I’m a sucker for a good underdog story and Leicester City’s 2015/16 Premier League win reeled me in like salmon to Alan Shore’s bait. An the heart of it all was a certain Jamie Vardy. 

Since then, I have been watching Leicester’s matches almost religiously, which has come with a side of love for Vardy’s s***thousery.

The man is sprinting past defences at 34 like a striker in his prime and riling up entire stadiums with his celebrations. What’s not to love? 

Now in his eighth season, Jamie Vardy is 25 goals off the top ten Premier League goalscorer list and you can bet he won’t stop till he reaches that. 

The man, the myth, the legend.

The Best of The Rest

Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak 

Jan Oblak is here in this list by default as the best-ever shot-stopper I have seen live. The man turns up on the biggest of occasions against the biggest of players, annoying the life out of oppositions. But when everything is done, you have to stand up and applaud a talent this supreme. 

Centre-back: Gerard Pique 

Barcelona fans often take Gerard Pique for granted. But he’s been the mainstay in the heart of the defence as managers and teammates have come and gone. 

There have been ups and downs, but Pique’s longevity, coupled with his brilliant peak(s) and his outspoken nature make him one of my favourite players ever. 

Attacking midfielder: Angel Di Maria

The second of the two Real Madrid presences in my squad, Angel Di Maria, has lived his entire career out of the spotlight.

But there is no denying that the Argentine is a big game player, one of the most creative footballers of his generation and a consistently reliable presence for any and all teams he has played for. 

His understatedness should not take away from his excellence, even years after he says farewell to the beautiful game.

Left-winger: Lorenzo Insigne 

I’m capping this team off with the man who has underachieved his entire career because his loyalty to Napoli precedes everything else- Lorenzo Insigne. 

Be it swiftly cutting in on to his right and finding the top corner or playing the perfect through ball to find an attacker from deep,

Insigne has an enormous arsenal of talents and only watching him regularly will make you realise that he truly is a gift to the sport.  

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