Without live matches, many in the football world have filled the gap by looking back and reviewing the sport’s history. Specifically, the concept of “best-ever XIs” has taken on new significance. It’s everywhere, and we’re no exception. With that in mind, here’s a look at the greatest all-time lineups for each of Europe’s top five leagues. Let the debate begin.
We begin with the Premier League, where the decorated duo of Vincent Kompany and John Terry form the bedrock of the side. The midfield trio is the perfect blend of bite, creativity, and goal-scoring ability. The attacking triumvirate consists of the league’s greatest-ever scorer – Alan Shearer’s 260 goals may never be topped – its most prolific assist man, and the best import English football has ever seen. Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry are both slightly out of position here, but they can play on the left and right wings, respectively. It was a necessary move to make sure they were in the team.
Some exceedingly tough decisions had to be made in central midfield, with David Silva and Steven Gerrard both left out despite enjoying sustained Premier League excellence. As noted, we already made some positional concessions to put this jigsaw puzzle together, and in order to maintain some semblance of balance, the midfield trio above felt like a necessity. Both Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero have been slightly underappreciated throughout their careers, but neither could dethrone Shearer in our eyes.
Just missed the cut: David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Petr Cech, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Real Madrid and Barcelona make up the entire XI here. The two Spanish juggernauts have combined for 59 league titles; no other club has more than 10. An even Madrid-Barca split across the backline gives us a nice mix of gung-ho Brazilians on the flanks and resolute Spaniards in central defense. Pass master Xavi pulls the strings alongside a pair of footballing titans in midfield, while the front three practically picks itself. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still shattering records, while Ronaldo – the original, Brazilian version – was an unstoppable force of nature.
Leaving diminutive ex-Barcelona wizard Andres Iniesta out of the team was truly gut-wrenching, but, as is the case with each of these lineups, some painful sacrifices had to be made all over the pitch in order to field something that at least vaguely resembles a functional XI. Ditto for scoring machines Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, who combined for 383 La Liga goals. Meanwhile, Ronaldinho’s peak was pure joy, but it was just a little too brief.
Just missed the cut: Alfredo Di Stefano, Andres Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Sergio Ramos, Ferenc Puskas.
On paper, this may be our least functional team, considering the only “defensive” midfield presence is Andrea Pirlo, who, despite gracing a deep-lying position during his storied career, was far more of a playmaker than a shield for the backline. That said, with a back-four like that – and, of course, Gianluigi Buffon between the sticks – who needs defensive midfielders? Paolo Maldini and Co. can sit back and watch as a fluid, creative unit runs wild and free. We’re rolling with five attack-minded geniuses, even if a couple of them are lined up in slightly more withdrawn positions than usual.
For a league long saddled with the label as a slow, defensive, sometimes downright boring relic, the sheer number of forwards we had to omit was staggering. In addition to those listed below – what a crop that is – we simply didn’t have any room for the likes of Silvio Piola, Gabriel Batistuta, or Sandro Mazzola. As for the defenders, Claudio Gentile and Alessandro Nesta may feel aggrieved here, too, but that backline is seriously tough to argue with.
Just missed the cut: Gunnar Nordahl, Giuseppe Meazza, Alessandro Del Piero, Javier Zanetti, Ronaldo.
This is arguably the most intimidating team to play against of the quintet. Just look at the nicknames of this stern XI. It’s backstopped by “Der Titan” (Oliver Kahn), while “Der Kaiser” (Franz Beckenbauer), and “Der Bomber” (Gerd Muller) patrol the penalty areas at both ends of the pitch. Or, in Beckenbauer’s case, the entire field. And that’s to say nothing of the imposing presence of both Paul Breitner and Lothar Matthaus. There is still plenty of skill on display here, though, highlighted by dazzling Dutch winger Arjen Robben and Gunter Netzer, the rebellious Monchengladbach playmaker who was one of German football’s original rock stars.
Not having Uwe Seeler in the team feels dirty. But, again, three center-forwards can’t fit into two slots, and “Der Bomber” was an obvious lock, leaving just one spot up for grabs. Seeler, the Hamburg legend, is hindered by the fact much of his scoring damage came prior to the Bundesliga’s foundation in 1962. That, and recency bias, boosted Lewandowski’s stock.
Just missed the cut: Uwe Seeler, Sepp Maier, Jupp Heynckes, Michael Ballack, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
We close things out with French football, where there’s a blend of decorated Ligue 1 legends and players who, despite moving to other European clubs, deserve to be recognized for their exploits in France. Outside of the superb Laurent Blanc, whose leadership skills earned him the moniker “Le President,” every member of the defense – including goalkeeper Gregory Coupet – won at least three consecutive Ligue 1 league titles at some point. Coupet and Eric Abidal were key members of the historic Lyon side that captured seven consecutive crowns in the early 2000s. Zidane, Michel Platini, and even Raymond Kopa are widely celebrated for their time spent in other leagues, but we’d be remiss to dismiss their Ligue 1 excellence. Up front, wildly prolific striker Jean Pierre-Papin is taking a wide position to ensure his inclusion.
Edinson Cavani, Herve Revelli, and even Pauleta have the longevity and statistics to threaten Ibrahimovic’s place in the team, but even though his tenure was relatively brief in the French capital, the haughty Swede has the numbers to warrant inclusion. He won every trophy – quite literally – on offer, and scored 113 league goals in just four seasons, including a 38-goal campaign in 2015-16. Cavani has been unfairly overshadowed for much of his career, and while it feels cruel to continue that trend, it’s justified here.
Just missed the cut: Marius Tresor, Robert Pires, Edinson Cavani, Herve Revelli, Just Fontaine.