La Liga is arguably the biggest and best league in the world, with the attraction of Real Madrid and Barcelona, along with the draw of a fantastic climate and more lax tax laws, it is easy to see why the Spanish league has the best players in the world participating in it week in, week out, however, the biggest argument against La Liga is the lack of competition outside of the top two, Real and Barca. Since the turn of the millennium, the history of La Liga, I think, can be split into three periods of dominance for various teams, not based on who won the league, but who was seen as “the strongest team” at the time, of course, please feel free to disagree!
The turn of the millennium saw the rise of “Los Galacticos” at Real Madrid, a period in which Real spent extortionate fees on some of the greatest players on the planet. We now have a situation where Barcelona are seen as the dominant team and this has been the case for some time and both of these period punctured by the short tenure of Valencia, under the guidance of Rafa Benitez, as arguably one of the strongest teams in Europe around the early noughties.
This got me thinking one misty September night in London. I decided to take a rain check on my trip to Kosabi casino and in such a diverse period of football, decide who would make a La Liga 21st Century eleven. After hours of thinking and tinkering (call me the English Cladio Ranieri!), I have come up with my 21st century La Liga dream team. Players are not particularly picked on trophies won or for services to their team, but more about their overall ability as a footballer.
In goal, there only can be one outstanding candidate for the number one jersey. Iker Casillas has been between the sticks for Real Madrid for fourteen years, culminating in over 450 games. Casillas has won it all, six titles, two Champions Leagues, one Copa Del Rey, littered with Intercontinental cups, Super Cups and UEFA Super Cups.
On the international scene, 150 caps for the most successful international team ever, one World Cup, two European Championship winners medals shows the mark of a world class player, add in five FIFPro World goalkeeper of the year awards and six inductions into the UEFA team of the year and you have the cherries on an already very large cake. Blessed with the captains armband emphasises his leadership skills, he also has excellent shot stopping capabilities, and, even more vital for a goalkeeper who finds he has some games where he has less to do, concentration.
The choice of a back four was not as straight forward as the goalkeeper, but I have gone with Roberto Carlos at left back, his Brazilian counterpart Dani Alves at right back with a defensive partnership at centre back or Carles Puyol and Fernando Hierro.
The two linchpins for this operation are arguably two of the greatest centre backs the league has ever seen. First up, Fernando Hierro, once of Bolton Wanderers and Al Rayyan, makes the grade. True, his notion of not going out at the top and chasing one more pay check may still rattle some of the old school football fans out there, but there was no doubting his passion and ability when it came to his time in La Liga for both Valladolid and most famously, Real Madrid.
A fierce competitor on the pitch and a gentlemen and ambassador off of it, Fernando was a leader and example to all his teammates, and in my opinion, one of two reasons Real Madrid were so successful in the Los Galacticos period (the other reason coming up shortly). He survived the purchase of world class talent and remained a cornerstone of the team for fourteen years, playing 439 times and scoring an incredible 102 goals, not back for a centre back! Effortless with the ball at his feet and dominant in the air, the five time league winner and three time champions league winner is a must for this team.
Partnering him is a similar centre back who happens to wear red and blue and bleeds Catalonian blood, Carles Puyol, the epitome of Catalonia and F.C. Barcelona. He is another player who has rode out the constant change of personal at his team and is again, captain and leader of the greatest club side to grace a football pitch. Where he may lack the technical ability of your Pique’s or other favoured ball playing centre backs, there is not another player you would want on your team when you have to dig in and at sometimes, survive a football match.
He is a player who would lay his life down on the line for his club if you asked him and go to war for not only Barcelona, but the Catalonian region itself tomorrow if that was required, extremely brave and with excellent passing skills, he is the old school world class, tough tackling, no nonsense centre back, a very rare commodity these days, there are plenty of players who kick players all over the park (most ply their trade in Stoke) but not many can boast his trophy cabinet which contains 100 caps for Spain, one world cup and one European Championship, six league titles, two Copa Del Rey wins and three Champions League wins, all playing for the greatest team of all time is extremely impressive.
South America populates my full back positions, one is a trend setter, the other is the young apprentice. Roberto Carlos was one of the Galacticos brought in by Florentino Perez from Inter Milan, something of which still riles Inter fans about then manager Roy Hodgson. He is Real’s all-time foreign appearance record holder (370 appreances) and was arguably the greatest left back the world has ever seen.
Blessed with extreme pace and a fierce Thor-like hammer of a left foot, he was capable of dissecting back lines with his 24 inch thighs or breaking goalkeepers wrists with cruise missiles launched from that worldie of a left foot. Forever remembered for “that goal” for Brazil, he was the first real attacking full back that we see today, at times acting as a second left winger. Sometimes criticised for his defensive capabilities, he was seen as a serious attacking threat, something which suited his game saw him reap 46 goals over eleven seasons in Madrid. Recently, a poll conducted for Madrid fans saw Carlos named in the best Real foreign eleven team of all time.
The young pretender is Dani Alves, the right back in a similar mould to Roberto Carlos. The second most expensive defender of all time gives you some idea of the ability of the man from Juazerio.
The self styled “new Roberto Carlos” was first seen on the La Liga scene plying his trade for Sevilla, an attacking and committed full back, he was soon on the rader of Europe’s major clubs. How different things could have been for Alves, Liverpool were unwilling to pay an extra one million pounds for him in 2006 and Chelsea had two bids turned down for him a year later. In 2008, Barcelona needed to reinforce their full back positions, seeing an opportunity, Alves was snapped up for a mere £30 million.
He has not looked back, a genuinely nice guy off of the pitch, as shown by his tears when he left Sevilla and his offer to donate a kidney to Eric Abidal, but a bugger for the opposition on the pitch, both in terms of petulance and tearing wingers and full backs new ones with his constant rampaging runs. Eight league titles between the two full backs and an incredible five European Cups represents incredible hauls for both.
In midfield there are a number of players worthy of gracing any world eleven, players such as Figo and Yaya Toure haven’t even made the bench in this team, this emphasises the task at hand when picking a team such as this. I know that my selection here will not be to everyone’s agreement but that is what blogging and opinions are for! I have gone with a three man midfield, comprising of a holding midfielder and two central midfielders, similar to the formations played nowadays.
I have chosen Claude Makelele, Xavi and Zinedine Zidane, controversial I know! The first question you will be asking is how the hell can I leave Iniesta out!? Hopefully my opinions will shed light on my decision. Firstly, Makelele, arguably the glue in the galacticos machine, a tough tackling, mobile holding midfielder. Another game changer and another who has led to the likes of Busquets and Essien being moulded into “Makelele-esqe” players. Never a goal scorer or an assister of great proficiency (21 career goals suggests this) but a match winner never the less.
He’s not what I call a “Match of the Day player”, a player who will grab the headlines and plaudits and score wonder goals, but he is a water carrier, a player who does the dirty work when you need them most. Think Viera at Arsenal, Keane at Manchester United, Mascherano at Liverpool, Busquets at Barcelona, all successful teams need players who roll their sleeves up and break play down, because lets face it, even Barcelona don’t have the ball all the time.
He was never the technical type, as Perez said when he was sold to Chelsea in 2003 “We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.” Makelele was sold, you’ll notice the decline in Real since that year and the improvement of Chelsea’s fortunes (both on the pitch and off it). I think Makelele was a world class player and this quote from team mate Zinedine Zidane, I believe, is a far more accurate portrayal, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”.
The two central midfielders I have plucked for are two of the greatest midfielders to grace the game, Xavi and Zinedine Zidane. Where to begin with these two? Xavi, the diminutive pass machine of Barcelona, the heartbeat of one of the most successful teams ever, another Spanish centurion, another World Cup winner, another one man club, another supreme talent. The sublime technician is renowned for his laser precise passing and innovation, notches up more passes in 90 minutes than other players manage in entire seasons, a master of keeping possession and a workhorse when he doesn’t have the ball, a must for every team.
Next up, three time world player of the year, another world cup winner and yet another international centurion. Zinedine Zidane is often mentioned in the same breath as Maradona and Pele and is a real contender for the greatest player of all time. The thing about Zidane is how effortless he makes everything look, a 360 degree turn here, a drop of the shoulder there, his positioning, his ball striking, his vision, the list goes on. Owner of my vote for the greatest goal of all time after launching a volley over Hans Jorg Butt’s head into the top corner in the Champions League final of 2002, a great goal, but people forget, it was with his weaker foot.
Alas, Zidane signed off in acrimonious circumstances after his forehead made contact with Marco Materazzi’s solar plexus in that 2006 World Cup Final, however, they often say there is a thin line between genius and insanity, and there is probably not many footballers who can claim of having bucket loads of both.
Finally, the front three, I believe there is certainly no argument for two of the positions, and there is plenty of competition for the final place in this team. First of all, the most unimaginative choice ever for a 21st century La Liga team, Lionel Messi. There is no need to go on about the long list of his achievements, but the one that stands out for me, since the start of the 2009 season; he has scored 242 goals in 225 games, incredible.
The second player in the forward three I have chosen is possibly the only professional footballer in the world that despises how good Messi is, Cristiano Ronaldo. With an equally exceptional goal scoring record since joined Real from Manchester United (206 goals in 204 games), there is very little between him and Messi, the two greatest players in the world for many a year. Great in the air, a devilish set piece taker, a powerful, Adonis like mountain of a player, what more do you need in a left winger?
Finally, the last slot in my 21st Century La Liga eleven goes to an incredible talent, a player who made the impossible possible. There is no room in my team for Raul, David Villa, Morientes or Ronaldo, so this place goes to Ronaldinho, a player who bent the rules of physics at times in his career and a perfect complement to Messi and Ronaldo. The list of world class goals is endless but there are two that stick out in my mind from his time at Barcelona, one verses Chelsea in the Champions League and one against Villarreal. Both completely different, both epitomise the ability of the buck toothed dynamo, check out YouTube if you wish to reminisce on the good ol’ days.
Notable exceptions (the “close but no cigar” men) go to Gerard Pique, Fabio Cannavaro, Pablo Aimar, Andres Iniesta, Raul and the other Ronaldo. Please feel free to comment with your teams, thank you for reading.