It sounds like a simple assignment: acting as general manager, assemble a soccer team featuring the best player in the world at each of the 11 positions. But as anyone who follows the sport knows, choosing that team is a complicated exercise. You want to reward the most talented individuals, of course, but you also want a coherent team. What's more, the result represents a sort of personal mission statement. How do I want to see soccer played? Is it possible in the 21st century to combine great aesthetics with winning fútbol?
Fortunately we have at least two glittering examples of that combination: FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. After a period in which the soccer world was ruled by defensive-minded squads that relied less on possession and skill than on quick-strike counterattacks -- hello, 2009-10 Inter Milan! -- the Beautiful Game has been rescued by the nation that has also brought us creative geniuses in haute cuisine (Ferran Adrià), architecture (Santiago Calatrava) and film (Pedro Almodóvar). No fewer than seven members of our World XI for '11 play for Barcelona or Spain. Four play for both.
In putting together my World XI, I wanted a solid defense, but I also kept in mind three things. One, the more you possess the ball, the less you have to defend. Two, Barcelona and Spain don't get enough credit for the pressure they put on teams to win the ball back -- pressure that starts up top with star forwards who are willing to work hard. And three, you need quality two-way players in important positions on the field, particularly in the central midfield and the backline. The modern game requires players to have a level of athleticism far beyond what they had a generation ago, but these days there are a few special individuals who possess great skill as well. My team will play a 4-3-3 -- the formation used by Barça and other cutting-edge clubs of today -- or, more specifically, a 4-1-2-3 with a triangle midfield and expectations that the fullbacks will charge up the flanks at opportune times.
At goalkeeper the clear choice is Iker Casillas, the Real Madrid/Spain standout whose foot skills and superior shot stopping separate him from the rest of the pack. It's not just Casillas' defensive prowess that matters, though. His vast experience and proven leadership prompted me to hand him the captain's armband, and as his Real Madrid coach, José Mourinho, has noted, the goalkeeper is also the first line in a team's attack. On the World XI for '11, in other words, everyone is to some extent a two-way player.
That's certainly the case of the four fullbacks. Right back Dani Alves (Barcelona/Brazil) and left back Patrice Evra (Manchester United/France) are capable of staying at home and stopping attacks, but their greatness lies in their ability to charge forward and unbalance defenses down the wings. Center backs Gerard Piqué (Barcelona/Spain) and Nemanja Vidi´c (Manchester United/Serbia) are both tall and physically imposing but combine speed, positioning and excellent ball skills to provide a complete package defending against the world's top forwards. Both, too, are dangerous aerial threats on set pieces in the opposing penalty box, which is important considering the relatively small stature of most of their World XI teammates.
My midfield has three players in name --Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich/Germany), Xavi (Barcelona/Spain) and Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona/Spain) -- but in reality there will often be four or five players -- taking up midfield space, whether the additions are advancing fullbacks or retreating forwards coming to help defend or get the ball. Schweinsteiger will have the most demanding two-way midfield role, but with his athleticism, stamina, skills and smarts, he's up to the task. He'll play a deep-lying central role, almost like a modern sweeper, linking the fullbacks to the other midfielders while helping to win balls in the midfield whenever we lose possession (which shouldn't be often).
Iniesta and Xavi will do what they do best: pass the ball in the same sort of mesmerizing tiki-taka possession game that they play with Barça and Spain. Xavi will be shaded to the right but will guide balls in every direction and help us maintain up to 75 percent of the ball possession in every game, while Iniesta will be tilted to the left because our other left-side players (Evra and forward David Villa) won't range as much up and down that flank as Alves and forward Cristiano Ronaldo do on the right side.
That leaves the three-man frontline, and it's hard to go wrong with Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Argentina), the most electrifying player in the sport; Ronaldo (Real Madrid/Portugal), a dribbling force of nature who is also fearsome on direct free kicks on goal; and Villa (Barcelona/Spain), the most consistently deadly finisher in the world. How will I align them? You can certainly mix and match, but I'll put Ronaldo on the right front wing, where he has been dangerous since his days at Manchester United (2003--09). Messi fits best in the center, where he has shown the ability to roam, drop back and be unpredictable with both Barça and Argentina. And Villa will start on the left front wing, though he'll have a vector pointing him toward the center whenever Messi drops back to receive the ball.
The great thing about this team is that everyone has a vector. Movement is the name of the game. After all, Barcelona has shown that the key to success is to move as soon as you make a pass, creating an opportunity for the next one. All of these players not only understand their own movements but also can see how they fit into the positioning of the whole.
Will there be times when my team loses its shape? Probably. But these players' recovery is peerless. And if they give up a goal? Honestly, I won't be too worried, because I know that we'll be able to score more than the opponent does by playing the open, entertaining style I want while maintaining possession.
Our team will play on the ground mostly, but we can mix things up with the occasional long ball. When it comes to shots on goal, Schweinsteiger and Ronaldo can be devastating from distance, outside the box. Ronaldo will take most of our free kicks on goal, but Alves can pitch in too, especially if we want to use Ronaldo's exquisite heading, making him a target along with Piqué and Vidi´c. And if Schweinsteiger isn't providing quite enough defense in his deep-lying role, I can always bring in yet another Spaniard, Sergio Busquets (Barcelona/Spain) off the bench. (Nobody said I couldn't have a bench!)
But the idea here is entertainment. I would rather win 6--3 than 1--0 every time. Some might call that approach naive or irresponsible, but I would call it a throwback. It's always a pleasure and a revelation to watch a black-and-white game from a World Cup of long ago, in which the men seem to be playing a completely different sport from today's. There is far less hard and cynical tackling, far more open space and -- creativity --and, surely not by accident, far more goals. The defensive soccer of more recent World Cups is here to stay, unfortunately, but we can counter it with talent and vision and movement. That's what my World XI is all about.
What it is not much about, surprisingly, is Brazilians. What does it say about the state of Brazilian soccer that an 11-player team that is meant to highlight the best of the Beautiful Game contains just one Brazilian (Alves)? Perhaps we're still dealing with the effects of Dunga's disastrous term in charge of the Seleção, when its mentality changed and its nickname became (of all things) the Warriors. Maybe the shortage of Brazilians on the World XI for '11 is due to the injuries of Kaká, the underachievement of Robinho and the steep decline of Ronaldinho. With the next World Cup taking place in Brazil, we can only hope that the return of the jogo bonito under new Brazil manager Mano Menezes will fulfill all the promise of youngsters such as Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso and David Luiz.
But for now the game's gold standard is distinctly European -- Spanish, really. Who knows how much longer there will be places at the highest level for Casillas (age 30), Xavi (31) and Villa (29)? For the latter two, in particular, the downward slope might be steep. But for now, in 2011, let's celebrate the Spanish flavor of the World XI with a glass of the finest Cava. This is champagne soccer, folks. As you read about the 11 exceptional players on the pages that follow, be thankful that we've had the opportunity to drink their finest vintage.
The world's best XI:
GK, Iker Casillas