ADITYA GOKHALE | 21st October 2021

Football is the love of my life and this XI includes all the muses I’ve met along the way. To me, it really is more than a game (branding 101), considering how integral these players have been in impacting the kind of person I am today.

It really is that deep and with that being said, here’s to jumping head-first into my all-time XI.

Goalkeeper: Emiliano Martinez

This might be a bizarre pick for many, considering Emi has only been in the limelight for the last 2 years. However, when we were pitched the idea for this series, he was the 2nd player that came to my mind.

That tells you all you need to know about how much I rate Argentina’s No.1.

And aside from his evident magnificence, the only question that I can ask is- “Where was he all these years?”

If I’m being honest, Arsenal well and truly robbed Argentina of at least two Copa America’s and maybe even a World Cup. Okay, maybe the latter is a bit of a long shot.

But more than that, the Gunners robbed the world of an incredible goalkeeper.

For me, Martinez should certainly be considered in the Premier League’s best ‘keeper debate, alongside the likes of Alisson, Ederson and Mendy.

One thing that is certainly not up for debate about Villa’s man between the sticks is that he is a maverick in an era of media-trained, robotic footballers.

From his penalty shootout heroics against Colombia to throwing Bruno Fernandes off his game in the dying embers, Martinez loves to get in the opposition’s heads for fun.

Admittedly, it was a tough pick between Emi Martinez and Iker Casillas for, who I consider a personal childhood hero as I was something of a goalkeeper myself.

But Emiliano edges it for me.

Right-back: Dani Alves

Need I elaborate on this pick?

For me, he is simply the greatest right-back the world has ever seen for starters. And him being one of the most genuine human beings in the game just adds to my affinity towards the Brazilian.

When footballers talk about how key it is to have certain players that keep the dressing room a sane place to be, they sum Alves up. The kind of soul that lifts everybody’s spirit in defeat and takes the celebrations to the next level in triumph.

Xavi referred to Dani as the ‘crazy guy. Whether that’s on or off the pitch is unconfirmed, but Alves’ brilliance would reduce one to simply refer to him as crazy because it’s unprecedented.

Need an outside of the foot curler from the corner flag? Call Dani Alves. Need to form a telepathic link-up with the greatest player to ever grace the game? Call the same number.

Need someone to raise the bar for fullbacks forever? The constant phone calls are verging on creepy but that’s the extent to which football owes this phenom.

At 38 years of age, the Brazilian legend is still winning, both in football and life. Imagine being the most decorated footballer of all time anyway and you’re just adding to your trophy cabinet with an Olympic Gold as well.

I just hope the rumors about him coming back to Barca are true to ensure my right-back struggles for room in the cabinet upon his storied return.

Centre-back: Vincent Kompany

If you google the word ‘leader’ and Vincent Kompany isn’t at the top of the search results, we have a problem.

The former Belgian captain is everything you could ever ask for from a center-back. Impeccable reader of the game? Check. A physical specimen? Double check. The perfect orchestrator at the back? I’m running out of checks.

And what is undeniable is how key Kompany was in City’s dominance over the years, as much as the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure.

If there was one player from Manchester City’s history that I could sign in their prime, it would without a doubt be Kompany.

You can find playmakers, finishers and defenders galore but you can’t say the same for leaders.

Centre-back: Diego Godin

Speaking of incredible leaders of men, we have to talk about Diego Godin. Godin is everything you associate with Atleti- unshakeable resilience, taking pride in battle and fighting till the very last breath.

The Uruguayan veteran is one of the greatest centre-backs I have ever seen. I’ve always been in awe of how he used command the backline at his peak and I wish I watched him play a lot longer than I did.

The man rarely ever put a foot wrong and lived for a clutch moment- his brilliant equalizer again Barca in 2014 that handed the Rojiblancos title on the final day, being his most iconic, without a doubt.

The braveheart every team would have killed to have in his pomp.

Left-back: Alejandro Grimaldo

This might be a big surprise but Grimaldo is my favorite ever left-back. I know you’re shaking your head at that sentence but let me explain.

I followed his progress, all the way from Barca’s Juvenil B to Barca B, a 3-year long journey and I was absolutely convinced that the lad was going to be the best left-back the world has ever seen.

While his career may not have lived up to the hype around his youth, that has to be somewhat down to his mismanagement at Barcelona.

Grimaldo has been sublime at Benfica and has been one of their key players for years upon years now. His attributes seem like somebody copy-pasted them from ‘The Perfect Full-Back’ handbook.

Blessed with a wand of a left-foot, searing pace and crosser and beastly defensive chops, this lad could go straight to the top if he makes a big move to a European behemoth.

I’ve scouted him more intensely than the Blaugrana scouts so better take my word for it.

Defensive-midfielder: Xabi Alonso

When you have a player who is renowned to this day for being a boss in the midfields of footballing institutions such as Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Bayern to name a few, you just know the man must ooze class.

Xabi Alonso was the conductor behind every orchestra in the middle of the park during his playing days.

From his Hollywood passing to how he dictated the tempo of games and his defensive excellence, the current Real Sociedad B manager was ticked every box as a holding midfielder.

As class as anybody around, if only a certain Sergio Busquets hadn’t existed during his time, he would have been the mainstay of that legendary Spain team.

And if we’re being honest, people would fight a much stronger case for Alonso to be the best midfielder we’ve seen from the bygone decade.

You already know he plays and looks better than you, even when he’s close to touching 40.

Central midfielder: Luka Modric

It’s the other LM10.

And it has to be said that Luka Modric’s spell with Real Madrid has been nothing short of spectacular. A wizard of the highest order, Modric passes the eye-test for every football fan out there.

But never mistake his panache for being a passenger as Lukita dragged Croatia to a World Cup final and was the heart of a Madrid side that cleaned up 4 Champions League trophies without breaking a sweat.

If we’re talking about all-timers, Luka Modric has to be in the conversation.

Central-midfielder: Andres Iniesta

Where do I even start? Wait, I know. Andres Iniesta is the greatest midfielder of all time. Yes, all time.

My favorite player of all time without a doubt, Don Andres was untouchable when he was at the summit. A select group of players could perhaps touch the levels the Spanish icon reached in his prime, but there isn’t a single one that has had the minerals to maintain that level of unparalleled greatness for as long as Iniesta did.

A friend of mine once compared him to being football’s version of Muhammad Ali.

Whether that’s true or not is debatable but how I took it is that he took the legendary boxer’s advice as he would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee on the pitch.

We were never worthy of his genius.

Right-winger: Lionel Messi

Does this even need an explanation? Doubt it. For me, he isn’t just one of the greatest players of all time; he is the greatest player of all time.

The man transcends football. Possibly the greatest sportsperson of all time, alongside the likes of Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali, Lewis Hamilton, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

With all due respect, the ‘GOAT debate’ was never really a debate for me. It shouldn’t be a debate when Leo has been getting such incredible shouts since he was 21.

Being one of the greatest playmakers the world has ever seen, all while being the greatest goalscorer in the world isn’t a task that should be considered possible unless you’re Lionel Andres Messi.

Striker: Aritz Aduriz

Adoringly known as ‘El Zorro’ or as I like to call him, ‘my nightmare’, considering the retired Spanish No.9 has scored against Barcelona every single time we played against Bilbao,

Rightly called ‘El Zorro’ which translates to ‘The Fox’, the man is a classic fox in the box. Clever name, to be fair.

His supreme movement in the box allowed him to exploit space like no one else and with his cat-like reflexes, anticipation was never a problem as he Aduriz was a textbook poacher.

Inarguably, he is one of the greatest strikers Spain has ever produced. And what always fascinated me is how despite standing at just 5’11”, the Bilbao legend scored an abundance of headed goals, thanks to his incredible leap.

“It’s easy to handle all the top strikers in the world when compared to playing against Aduriz”.

If Carles Puyol rates you as highly as that, you’ve got to be special and Aduriz certainly was.

Left-winger: Angel Di Maria

Now, this statement might be a bit controversial for most so I suggest you hang on tight for this one.

I believe that Angel di Maria was the main man during Real Madrid’s ‘La Decima’ run.

Now, I’m not saying that Cristiano, Modric, and Bale weren’t integral to the title. They most definitely were.

However, somebody as brilliant as Carlo Ancelotti knew who to put his stocks in. The entire system was built around ‘Fideo’ operating in an advanced central role.

Oppositions would systematically target the likes of Ronaldo and Bale and be naïve enough to give Maria acres of space. He’d let loose and playmaking genius would be on display.

Angel Di Maria is one of those players who I’ve always felt is supremely underrated and to this day, I think, “What if?” about him getting injured right before the World Cup final.

Had Di Maria been able to represent his country against Germany, the history books would have a different winner in mind.

As easy on the eye as any footballer you’re ever likely to watch.

The Best of The Rest

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas

Like I mentioned in the Martinez section, it was a very tough call to bench San Iker. The man has played for Real Madrid, a club I admittedly despise and yet somehow, I’ve never felt anything other than love and respect for the great man.

A wonderful ‘keeper who I based my entire persona off of as a shotstopper myself. I still remember a 12-year old me watching compilations of Casillas in 240p on YouTube before a tournament, hoping to channel my inner Casillas.

He has been a part of who I have become as a person and always will.

Centre-back: Carles Puyol

My love for ‘Capi’ knows no bounds. An absolute lion and a fierce leader, yet once that was always the classiest representative of everything FC Barcelona is supposed to stand for.

If it wasn’t for our rule of picking 3 players from the clubs every MTAG: More Than A Game writer supports, Puyol’s inclusion would have been a no-brainer.

Capi gave his all for the club,always dying for the cause, whether Barca were playing a Champions League final or winning 9-0 in a Copa del Rey Round of 64 tie.

My respect knows no bounds for the legendary No.5.

Central midfielder: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Now, this might seem absurd to anybody who didn’t know me back in 2010. But Schweinsteiger was my Facebook profile picture for a solid 2 years.

I simply adored the man. After Spain, Germany was my 2nd favorite team during the 2010 World Cup and I loved the way they played, with Basti setting the tone in splendid fashion.

I solely started liking the German icon in the summer of 2009, thanks to him meeting Formula 1’s Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg, who were my favorite drivers at the time.

But, once I saw him play, his game was the sole reason I fell in love.

Pure class.

Striker: Miroslav Klose

Another player I absolutely loved during the 2010 World Cup was Miroslav Klose. I remember trying to recreate his goal against Argentina, while playing alone on my grandfather’s terrace when I visited India during my summer break in 2010.

Unlike, Schweinsteiger, Klose wasn’t ever my facebook profile picture but rather, I named my Wii character, ‘Mklose’ to pay homage to the great man.

A small gesture it may seem, but then again, that was my only way of bowing down to his greatness.

No one loved the biggest occasions like the highest goalscorer in World Cup history.

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