December 18, 2009
All-Decade Team: Soccer
By Grant Wahl,
Starting XI
Gianluigi Buffon
Club teams in 2000s: Parma, Juventus
Nationality: Italy
Gigi did more than just don outlandish colors and headbands for Juventus and the Azzurri. He also happened to dominate a game like no other goalkeeper in the decade. Tall and agile, he made you work incredibly hard to beat him. (Bonus points for sticking with Juve during the year in Serie B.)
Club teams in 2000s: AS Roma, AC Milan
Nationality: Brazil
The single lasting image of Cafú may have been of him standing atop World Cup trophy pedestal in 2002 -- a delightful bit of unscripted magic -- but I'll also remember him bombing down the right side for AC Milan and Brazil for years and years and years.
Fabio Cannavaro
Club teams in 2000s: Parma, Inter Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid
Nationality: Italy
When you see Cannavaro in person, it's hard not to marvel at the explosive jumping ability of a center back who isn't very tall but uses incredible athleticism and vision to take over the back line. A deserving World Player of the Year in 2006.
Paolo Maldini
Club teams in 2000s: AC Milan
Nationality: Italy
He wasn't involved in Italy's 2006 World Cup title, but Maldini did everything else for AC Milan and the Azzurri over a remarkably long career that he somehow extended into his 40s. The classic classy player.
Roberto Carlos
Club teams in 2000s: Real Madrid, Fenerbahçe
Nationality: Brazil
I'll never forget the first time I saw Roberto Carlos in person in Miami leading up to the 1996 Summer Olympics. This little cannonball of a man could change a game with his runs down the left side, and no player has ever been more dangerous from long range on free kicks.
Cristiano Ronaldo
Club teams in 2000s: Sporting, Manchester United, Real Madrid
Nationality: Portugal
Most great dribblers have a low center of gravity, but the man who was named for Ronald Reagan is something altogether different: a tall player who can dribbled past defenders at incredible speed and score and score and score. Ronaldo is a physical and spatial freak.
Zinedine Zidane
Club teams in 2000s: Juventus, Real Madrid
Nationality: France
Zizou gets our Player of the Decade nod, barely beating out Ronaldinho, who also won two World Player of the Year awards this decade but didn't have anything approaching Zidane's longevity at the top of the global game. No player since Diego Maradona has provided as much joy to viewers who love the artistry of soccer. Case in point: France's stunning upset of Brazil in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals, in which Zidane rediscovered his mojo on the game's biggest stage. (Bonus points for scoring the greatest goal of the decade in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.)
Patrick Vieira
Club teams in 2000s: Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan
Nationality: France
We need to include at least one monstrous defensive midfielder on this team, and Vieira's gargantuan efforts for Arsenal and France fit the bill.
Lionel Messi
Club teams in 2000s: FC Barcelona
Nationality: Argentina
Messi has been bowling over soccer observers for long enough now that he deserves a place in this World XI. A relentless force of nature in the attack, Messi's ability to elude defenders and control the ball at speed is unmatched in the game today (not even by Cristiano Ronaldo).
Club teams in 2000s: Grêmio, Paris Saint-Germain, FC Barcelona, AC Milan
Nationality: Brazil
From 2004 to early '06, Ronaldinho ruled world soccer. His combination of explosiveness, passing, dribbling and scoring has been seen in few players in the history of the game. The king's reign didn't last long, however, and Ronaldinho's off-the-field partying and loss of fitness have turned him into a different player.
Club teams in 2000s: Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Corinthians
Nationality: Brazil
The all-time World Cup goal-scoring leader made an inspirational comeback from a serious knee injury to lead Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title. Even though he wasn't always fit, Ronaldo was a whooshing force of nature who terrified defenses around the globe.
Guus Hiddink
Club teams in 2000s: Real Betis, PSV Eindhoven, Chelsea
National teams in 2000s: South Korea, Australia, Russia
In Guus We Trust: That's the slogan that has defined Hiddink, who overachieved with so many teams this decade, at both club and national-team level, that it was easy to lose count. There was South Korea (World Cup '02 semifinalist), Australia (World Cup '06 second round), Russia (Euro 2008 semifinalist), PSV Eindhoven (2005 Champions League semifinalist) and Chelsea (2009 Champions League semifinalist). Hiddink may not have qualified Russia for the 2010 World Cup, but he will be in demand everywhere the game is played.

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