KABIR ALI | 24th October 2021

11 years since I started following the beautiful game, here are my 11 of the best. If I could channel myself into a footballing side, this would be it.

Besides being among the best of this past generation, some of the players have shaped the way I see the game while others have given valuable takeaways. Let’s get stuck in.

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas

As the youngest sibling who had little option but to be relegated to a position between the sticks by default, whenever I had a kickabout with my brothers, it took me time to endear myself to goalkeepers. And no one helped with that more than Iker Casillas, the man who made ‘keeping cool again.

San Iker was never supposed to be this good, as a custodian or a captain – sticking out like a sore thumb in a sea of giant showstoppers and vocal captains- Casillas somehow bettered them all.

But what Casillas taught me more than any other player, was to seize the day.

If it wasn’t for César Sánchez injuring himself in the 2002 Champions League final and Santiago Cañizares dropping a bottle of aftershave on his foot a month later just before the World Cup, Casillas might never have been Real Madrid and Spain’s No. 1.

But he was, and football is all the better for it.

Centre-half: Sergio Ramos

The only other reason for picking Sergio Ramos, besides my very obvious affinity for La Roja is that I simply would not want to be lining up against him.

And that, above the goals, the clutch moments, the trophies, and all else, encapsulates this generation’s greatest defender for me. Someone you would hate to go up against, but would go to war with at your side.

Having to make a mid-career switch from right-back to left-sided centre-back, enforced by Carles Puyol missing the 2012 Euros for Spain, meant that he was never the best defender in the most literal sense of the word.

His 26 career red cards show that he wasn’t the cleanest either.

And yet, to be as dominant at an art he had no right being so good at speaks volumes of Ramos’s character, and points to why he was the beating heart and captain who lifted 3 consecutive Champions League trophies for his team as part of a stellar career.

Centre-back- Virgil van Dijk

No Liverpool fan needs to explain this pick, but let me have a go anyway.

As someone who started supporting the club when it was in the doldrums of the Roy Hodgson era and had been through the agony of seeing us fall away in cup finals and title races, Virgil van Dijk was the signing that returned us to the summit.

Besides his monstrous individual ability, the peak of which I have not seen any centre-half replicate in my admittedly short time of watching the game, his mentality and attitude, the pride with which he dons and plays for the red shirt and his immaculate interpretation of what it means to be a modern defender confirms his place in Liverpool folklore and makes him a shoo-in for this side.

Centre-back – Giorgio Chiellini

No defensive unit, and a back 3 at that, is complete without an Italian presence. And of the last decade plus, Chiellini is the finest example.

A steady mix of one of the finest footballing brains and brute physicality, expertly masked by his slight frame, Chiellini formed the backbone of a Juventus dynasty that dominated Serie A the same way he swatted aside many an opposition forward.

Watching him and his partner in crime, Leonardo Bonucci run it back earlier this year at the Euros reminded one and all why Chiellini is a defender’s defender.

A true titan who walks into the hall of fame of Italian defenders, something history tells us is no mean feat.

Right-wing back: Dani Alves

If you’ve followed the series up till this point (if you haven’t, what are you even doing?), you’ve seen a few of us wax lyrical about the most decorated player in the history of the game. But for me, Alves is best summed up in his own words,

“We are just kids playing in the rain, man. If it goes wrong, so what? Is it the end of the world? No, man. We’ll just go find somewhere else to play.”

Team honors aside, Alves embodied joga bonito, the true Brazilian way of playing football.

Following in the footsteps of some of the greatest full-backs and compatriots in Djalma Santos, Carlos Alberto and Cafu was never going to be easy, and yet Alves did so with aplomb and in the eyes of some, eclipsed them.

But why am I talking about him in the past tense? At 38, he continues to scoop up silverware, ironically named, seeing as he last clinched gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

He has his eyes set on clinching next year’s World Cup, and if anyone can, Dani Alves can.

Central midfielder: Steven Gerrard

The first name that rings in your ears once you decide to formally embark upon a journey of a lifetime supporting the Reds, Steven Gerrard simply put, is Liverpool himself.

I felt well-versed with Stevie G’s greatness even before I had seen him kick a ball – learning about his heroics in the miracle of Istanbul, the last-gasp strike against Olympiacos, the FA Cup final so aptly named after him, his addiction to grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck to drag his side across the line, and the goals. Especially the goals.

And once I started watching him go about his business, even in a mediocre Liverpool side, it all made so much sense.

Even as the legs had started to go a bit towards the back end of his career, Gerrard’s ability and IQ helped him dominate games from quarterback, cementing his place in my eyes as the most complete midfielder I have ever seen.

Central-midfielder: Kevin De Bruyne

The highest compliment I can pay Kevin De Bruyne is that I suspect this is what it must’ve felt like to watch Gerrard in his prime.

That said, the Belgian truly is one of a kind, a midfielder who, whilst still at the peak of his powers, has already started to influence the next generation of metronomes who dream of dominating the middle of the park with his effortless elegance.

And if you’re wondering if he can hold his own in a two-man midfield, it means you don’t fully grasp his brilliance.

Just because he crosses better than your favorite winger, passes better than your favourite regista, and has a sledgehammer of a foot that would put the best long-range shooters to shame, doesn’t mean KDB can’t mix it with the best of them with a work ethic that makes you wonder if he has a third lung.

In an era where the Manchester City and Liverpool rivalry has produced scintillating football as the land’s most intense head-to-head clash, I really should be more hostile towards someone who has been at the heart of some of the misery the sky blue juggernaut has inflicted on my team.

However, it is simply impossible to look away from De Bruyne’s mesmeric ability.

We’ve all been subjected to the tiresome Lampard versus Gerrard debates, but by the time he calls it quits, De Bruyne could throw his name into the hat.

Left-wing back: Philipp Lahm

I admit I am slightly shoehorning Lahm into this position to fit him into the side, but then again, who else could you play out of position and yet expect to excel than the most versatile, consistent and intelligent defender of our time?

You always knew what you were getting out of Lahm – a guaranteed 8/10 with faultless efficiency in attack and defence. Be it a run down the flank, a lunging tackle or a piercing pass, nothing ever went to waste.

It is fair to say that no one shaped the footballing identity for Germany and Bayern Munich, each a gigantic institution of the modern game, like Phillip Lahm.

In keeping with the theme of being efficiently brilliant, Lahm called time on his international career, having lifted the World Cup at the age of 31, and hung up his boots for Bayern not long after, showing us that sometimes a champion’s greatness lies in knowing when his time at the top is up.

Right-winger – Lionel Messi

Not a lot can be said about the greatest of all time that hasn’t already been penned, by the writers of this series or otherwise.

And yet, the next time you watch Lionel Messi play, he is likely to produce a moment you’ve never seen on a football pitch before, not even from him.

That, in a microcosm, is what makes him the most special player I have laid eyes on.

In some ways, I am glad I am not one of his devout followers in whose eyes he has attained a god-like status, watching him week in week out. That would almost make him normal, and fool me into expecting others to play the way he plays, and doing the things he does.

To possess the technical skill to be a dribbler, winger, playmaker, and goalscorer is one thing. To excel is another. To be the best at them all is beyond the realms of reality, and that is exactly the realm in which Messi operates.

Striker: Fernando Torres

The moment I saw Fernando Torres lob the ball over the onrushing Jens Lehmann to clinch Euro 2008 for Spain, I gravitated towards him.

When you saw the blonde locks, headband, ankle straps and T90s, finished off by the menacing red of Spain or Liverpool, you knew the game was over before kick-off.

I saw injuries and loss of form rob me of Torres in his prime so soon after I had started tuning into games, sometimes solely to watch him.

And then came the move to Chelsea, a heartbreak that made it ominously clear that this was not going to be an easy ride by any stretch.

He didn’t possess the magic of Suarez, or the sheer output of Salah, but Fernando Torres gave me the gift of supporting Liverpool. And that’s why he’s the first name on this team sheet.

Left-winger – Marco Reus

It’s a shame that future generations won’t be able to appreciate the greatness of Marco Reus.

A career blighted by injuries and one that deserved a lot more by way of accolades and silverware, but it also serves as a reminder that a player can be a lot more than something that can be punched into a stat sheet.

When Reus returned to his boyhood club as a mercurial young talent who had already been ripping it up in the Bundesliga, he was destined for greatness.

While the circumstances have not allowed him to hit those heights, Reus has always shown an unwavering loyalty to the badge, especially at a club like Borussia Dortmund, which is one of Europe’s top selling clubs.

The supporting cast around him has been a revolving door of some of the world’s best and yet, Reus has always been around to lend himself, helping this talent develop to its full potential before they move on for bigger and better things.

And for this, he deserves his flowers.

The Best of The Rest

Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer

A maverick who reinvented the wheel for goalkeepers, the greatest testament to Manuel Neuer’s genius is perhaps the fact that he once shared the Ballon d’Or stage with Messi and Ronaldo at their peak.

But after falling off a bit due to a career-threatening metatarsal injury from those considerable heights, the German has enjoyed a renaissance in the past couple of years to confirm his status as one of the best goalkeepers of all time.

Centre-back: Carles Puyol

In amidst sides playing some of the most beautiful football of the modern era in Barcelona and Spain, Puyol’s rugged and brash presence was never supposed to fit in, and yet it did perfectly.

A brutally competitive centre-back who left everything out on the pitch every time he set foot on it, Puyol’s combative spirit has been sorely missing in his former team, once again underlining its importance.

Attacking midfielder: Andres Iniesta

Social media is awash with those ready to compare their club’s promising young midfielder to Don Andres as soon as they pull off the first croqueta. But let me be clear – we won’t see another like him ever again.

The very embodiment of La Masia’s Cryuffian principles, Iniesta’s brilliance lay in making his art look deceptively easy.

Be it a Real Madrid opposition pressing the life out of him or a Netherlands side taking turns at making career-ending tackles, Iniesta wafted through them all without breaking a sweat.

One of the best to ever do it.

Striker: Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez was the gateway into the world of footballing madmen for me, an eclectic mix of eccentricity and mercurial talent. Arriving at the same day as Torres left Liverpool, one of my greatest regrets is not getting to see the two as teammates.

His glaring personal faults notwithstanding, I have not seen a player make the Premier League their playground like Suarez did back in 2013/14. What he has since gone on to achieve in Spain shows that this was no flash in the pan either.

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