SRINIVAS SADHANAND | 20th October 2021

Much like Robin van Persie, I too listened to the little boy within while picking this XI. I went for 11 footballers that made me want to kick a ball about for the rest of my life.

That dream is far from alive but this team would leave any opposition dead in the water.

Say here we go in Fabrizio Romano’s voice before you get stuck into this.

Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer

“Name one genius that ain’t crazy!”

When Kanye West belted out this bar on the track, “Feedback” from his modern-day masterpiece, “The Life of Pablo”, he aced the definition of genius. Stick with me for a second. Imagine taking a century-old art form and completely turning it on its head forever?

That very sentence is how Manuel Neuer revolutionized the art of goalkeeping. Crazy enough to be genius and genius enough to be crazy.

You’re a football fan’s version of a boomer if the term, “sweeper-keeper” is still a buzzword to you in 2021. It isn’t and that’s down to Neuer truly being his side’s 11th outfield player for over a decade.

I’m not going overboard when I say that there are days when “Manu” is the most watchable player on the pitch, as a goalkeeper.

Reminder: Germany’s No.1 represents Germany and Bayern Munich which makes it tougher for him to stand out, unlike Ochoa for Mexico with all due respect.

Yet, he has, he does and he will. Just watch his textbook tackle against Algeria from the Round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup and prove me right.

Right-back: Philipp Lahm

Take any footballer from any era, say their name out loud and the first thought that pops up in your head is a dominant trait that defines them.

I say ‘Park ji-Sung’ and you’re instantly thinking, “utility man”, “versatile” and labels in and around the same ballpark.

Try the same exercise with Philipp Lahm and you’ll struggle. Philipp Lahm is so much more than a single defining adjective. Philipp Lahm can never be put into a box. Philipp Lahm is balance.

And for a full-back, balance trumps all.

Offensively, Lahm’s attacking arsenal saw him combine with Robben to form what is one of the greatest ever double-acts between a full-back and a winger.

And defensively, he turned the question marks to full stops, especially when cruising as a No.6 during the Guardiola era.

I second Pep when I say that the Bayern legend is the most intelligent footballer the game may have ever seen.

Being versatile is a skill but making a strong argument for being a better defensive-midfielder than a right-back is Philipp Lahm.

Now allow me to digress.

I ran around my house, screaming “Lahm!” as a 9-year old, witnessing him open the scoring in the 2006 FIFA World Cup against Costa Rica.

Trust me, there was only one right-back that was going to make my XI.

Centre-back: Vincent Kompany

If I could build a captain, I’d unknowingly conjure Vincent Kompany up.

A vocal skipper is my kind of cliché and when you’ve got a presidential-calibre orator like Vinny in the mix, dressing room speeches would turn into TED Talks.

Talk is cheap however, and my custom-made leader has to be pre-programmed to boss the biggest occasions.

A certain Belgian’s winner at Old Trafford opened the doors for City to leapfrog United in the iconic 2011/12 season. And even decades into the future, his postage stamp against Leicester is destined to make any Premier League highlights package.

These aren’t coincidences, this is Vincent Kompany. And Vincent Kompany is inevitable.

And of course, I’d want the head honcho to be a master of his craft, instead of simply screaming from the sidelines like a disappointed father.

The greatest compliment I could pay to Vincent Kompany, the central defender is that he’d feel right at home in any era of the sport.

You don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Centre-back: Thiago Silva

Thiago Silva is your favourite centre-back’s favourite centre-back. A true connoisseur’s choice.

And I strongly believe that he has no right to be this perfect at 37. Nor does he have the right to go blonde at 37. But unlike Charlie Sheen, he really is bi-winning.

I’m just saying it how I see it- there isn’t a centre-half on the globe who guarantees more entertainment value than O Monstro. As Rolls-Royce as a Virgil van Dijk while being as G-Wagen as a Sergio Ramos, the seasoned vet is every defensive titan rolled into one.

The laughs were loud when Chelsea sent the contract through to the Brazilian behemoth. And they were downright obnoxious when he had a debut to forget against West Brom.

Captaining his side to a Champions League trophy later, I’m pretty sure Silva could’ve popped a bottle of his detractors’ tears before the champagne on the night.

Perhaps my only gripe with the Brazilian skipper is that if his 8-year Parisian love affair was halved, I’d be able to bow down to his greatness in Premier League football a lot longer.

“Appreciate Thiago Silva while he’s still here” should become a daily affirmation for every football fan.

Left-back: Marcelo

For the kids that missed out on the honour of watching Marcelo in his glory days, I’m sorry to break it to you- but you really did miss out.

It’s alright. Just press play on a highlights reel and I’m sure you’ll come away thinking that the 4-time Champions League winner is one of the game’s greatest ever left-wingers.

This, in essence is the legacy of the great Marcelo Vieira- a left-back so freakishly technical that he may as well be donning the No. 10.

Let me just say this. I’d catch myself impatiently waiting for the Brazilian to get on the ball at times, despite a certain Portuguese fella adorning the same flank.

The ones that consider this as disrespectful are disrespecting the enigma that was Marcelo.

To take the torch from Roberto Carlos as an 18-year old, straight from Fluminense is commendable. To run with it for more than a decade straight and be synonymous with Los Merengues’ greatest period in the modern era is unmatched.

Let me Google translate ‘legend’ in Portuguese and get back to you.

Defensive-midfielder: Sergio Busquets

Simple experiment- ask every football fan you know their thoughts on Sergio Busquets. If someone doesn’t understand what Busquets does, that’s a red flag already. And, if someone just doesn’t rate Busquets, they’re watching the wrong sport.

No finding can be as conclusive as this in the history of research across mankind and I’ll tell you that for free.

The understated genius of Busi is invisible to those who only have eyes for a Kante busting a gut for 90 minutes straight.

Look, I’d be the last one to slander a master of the Frenchman’s ilk. But for me, the Spaniard doesn’t have to put himself through an excessive cardio session because he snuffs out danger your cliché movie detective couldn’t to save his life.

While defensive midfielders have always embraced chaos, Busquets has always epitomized control. His peers are more metal and mosh pits to his waltz and wine tasting sessions.

I could make this XI five decades from now and Busquets would still start.

Attacking midfielder: Kevin De Bruyne

If a football-themed crossword were to exist and asked you to fill out the name for “the best midfielder in the world”, not writing Kevin De Bruyne would just mean you’re stuck. Think about it.

It’s not even been a conversation starter for over half a decade. (unless he’s injured/unfit).

With that being said, there is one aspect that KDB severely lacks in his game- excuses.

Keep reading while I try wiping this smirk off my face after what I just did there.

The best crosser of the ball since Beckham, blessed with a range of passing that gives him a seat at the table with any and every midfield great and a presser so relentless, the mere idea of luxury players rightly seems like a myth; the Belgian doesn’t seem real at times.

And as a City fan, I can tell you that he’s two of our greatest ever midfielders rolled into one. Silva’s La pausa (Read about the term La Pausa, here) and Yaya’s penchant for turning nothing into something equates to the multifaceted magnificence of De Bruyne.

Manchester City’s No.17 is my favourite player in the world, without a shadow of a doubt.

Attacking midfielder: Andres Iniesta

This segue is as seamless as can be as we’re now talking about my favourite footballer of all time. A messiah amongst men who could moonwalk on water with the ball at his feet while mere mortals would be reduced to battling it out on the grass.

A genius who would break ankles and spirits in midfield- but would never break a sweat.

I’ve basked in the glory of El Illusionista’s sorcery for years upon years and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Iniesta doesn’t pass the ball, he caresses it. Iniesta doesn’t dribble, he dances past you. Iniesta doesn’t tackle, he pinches it.

Do you see where I’m coming from? Don Andres could do his laundry with finesse for crying out loud.

And look, I could go on and on about his screamer against Chelsea and the winner in the World Cup final. But to me, the legend of Iniesta was even above and beyond these moments.

Iniesta’s biggest moments were his tact, touch and turn that went into every single move he made for 16 years at the upper echelon.

Forget being the man of the moment when you’ve always been the man for every moment. Say salud and raise a glass to a pioneer.

Right-winger: Lionel Messi

Can I be honest? I don’t actually have a lot to write about Messi. And you can’t blame me on this one.

Lionel Messi does things I’ve never seen done on a football pitch. So, how am I supposed to come up with labels and adjectives of the like?

I’ve never seen a footballer who’s everything I’d wish to see in a midfielder, a winger and a striker- all in one package.

I’ve never thought about a footballer and had instant flashes of his game accompanied by Beethoven and Bach.

I’ve never watched a footballer do the impossible on the regular and make it look easy to the point that it convinces me that it’s possible. (it’s not).

This is the best homage I could pay to the genius of Lionel Andres Messi. A phenomenon that was put on this Earth to make us feel things we’ve never felt before.

The big man upstairs knows that us mortals just say things to say things so he spent a little extra time on His special creation.

Striker: Sergio Aguero

Sergio Aguero almost made me do a knee-slide on hard, marble floors as I witnessed him score 5 goals in 20 minutes against Newcastle United. In hindsight, I probably should have because it would’ve been worth a scrape on my knee.

That’s my adoration summed up for Kun right there. It’s a sense of glee that it’s ingrained in you when you grow up worshipping your hero’s every move as a young buck.

And when the Argentine did bid farewell to the club I support, his brace against Everton was the last dance that made me happy because it all happened, instead of being sad it’s all over.

Tears were shed because Aguero was synonymous with some of the greatest highlight reels of my growing up experience.

Notice how I haven’t even mentioned “93:20”- the greatest moment in Premier League history as well as anything about Sergio, the striker.

Goals, assists, wins and losses can be accounted for. Impact cannot.

All you need to know is that I’m telling my kids in the future the same stories about Aguero that I present to you.

That’s impact. That’s what Sergio Aguero will always mean to me.

Left-winger: David Villa

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it is that I ride for Spain on the international stage like I was born and bred in Madrid. International football pulled me in during the 2006 FIFA World Cup but David Villa made me fall in love with football at Euro 2008.

A supreme finisher born with feet so quick, they’d leave defenders dizzy; Villa was absolutely devastating in his pomp.

Add to that his sublime link-up with Fernando Torres and I’m pretty sure El Guaje wouldn’t even have to look over his shoulder to spot El Nino and vice-versa.

Memories is the overarching theme of this XI and as I type this, flashes of his tremendous hat-trick against Russia at Euro 2008 as well his stunning finish against Honduras at the 2010 FIFA World Cup have taken over.

If there’s a reason while I think about this sport whilst brushing my teeth most mornings, it’s because ’08 Villa happened.

Forever grateful, David.

The Best of The Rest

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas

San Iker’s monk-like demeanour, incredible reflexes and unrivalled class makes him a No.1 I have always held in the highest esteem. A giant of the game who is arguably the greatest to ever stand in between the sticks.

An exception to the cliché of animated captains, Casillas was an exceptional leader by example of the greatest national team in the modern era and none other than Real Madrid. One of one in the truest sense.

Defender: Dani Alves

Full-backs don’t get more box-office than Dani Alves. And you’ve got to be born with a special footballing IQ if you’re renowned for being on the same wavelength as Lionel Messi.

And it makes me smile that he remains the most decorated footballer in the sport because it’s impossible not to adore such a uniquely gifted player and an even rarer human being.

Midfielder: David Silva

What’s always going to make me chuckle is how a data and analytics-driven footballing landscape could never quite crack the code from stopping David Silva from finding his beloved pockets of space and running games on his own.

There aren’t many footballers with a better notion of space than Merlin himself.

A generational midfielder and a true aficionado’s pick.

Striker: Karim Benzema

As things stand, there isn’t a better footballer on this planet than Karim Benzema. And the greatest testament to his gift is that in a post-Ronaldo Madrid, he elevated to levels we never knew existed.

Far from just a lump who stands up front and waits for things to happen, Benz is never a passenger. From being the sacrificial No.9 as a part of BBC to the ice-cold killer who knows nothing but net, King Karim is one for the history books.

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