Our Favorite XIs

Xavi's and Messi's and Michael Essien's. Cassano and Yashin and old Johan Neeskens.

Last Friday, we celebrated 11/11/11 by posting our all-time favorite XIs. Those aren’t the best players we’ve seen, or our all-time greatest, or anything of the kind. These are our favorites – the ones we enjoy watching or rooting for or talking about, who enrich our soccer lives. They are the players we like the best, whether that be for their greatness or their playing style or the moments they provided us with.

Today, we’re explaining ourselves, elaborating on our lists, explaining why we’ve come to love Peter Beardsley and Ashley Young and Johan Cruyff and Jozy Altidore. We invite you to do the same too, either in the comments or by sending us an email. Give us a brief description why those are your favorite players, and if we get enough of them, we’ll make a reader’s XI post.

For now, these are a few of our favorite XIs:


Lev Yashin – Unfortunately he lived in an era when highlight reels were sparse. The film that does survive showcases the acrobatics that make Yashin a legend.

Roberto Carlos – The shiny-scalped Brazilian scored two of my favorite goals of all time – an outside-of-the-boot free kick against France (yes, that one), and a touchline goal against Tenerife that was so physically improbable that Stephen Hawking stood out of his chair when he saw it (OK, not really).

Paolo Maldini – A comprehensive defender, a ruthless tackler, and a perennial leader. He partnered with legends like Baresi and Nesta in famous Milan defenses, but he’s perhaps the best of all.

Ronald Koeman – Versatility is a great asset for a central defender. Koeman was a marauder up and down the field and scored over a hundred goals playing on the backline, including the winner in Barcelona’s 1992 European Cup victory.

Cafu – Before Dani Alves there was Cafu. No one could dominate the right wing like he could, making clinical crosses or dribbling into the box.

Claude Makelele – He spent many years at Chelsea but his highlight for me was at Madrid, where he stabilized the rest of the Galacticos with smart defending when it was needed (during the 2002 UCL final against Leverkusen, for example). They call it the “Makelele role” these days because he was so good at his job of ensuring no attackers leaked past the midfield.

Peter Beardsley – England’s most underrated outfield player for my money. He’s the only person whose close control and dribbling in the box can accurately be compared to Messi’s.

Willem van Hanegem – The Dutchman was a complete midfielder. He was a fantastic tackler but also employed great speed and passing prowess in attack. Most importantly, he had a wicked left foot.

Johann Cruyff – Does anything really need to be said about the most intelligent footballer who ever lived?

Lionel Messi – On top of all the plaudits he’ll receive in his career, the virtue that impresses me the most is his love of the game – refusing to be subbed, chasing down every ball he loses…no one enjoys soccer more than him.

Garrincha – He played on some meta level, like Playstation before there was Playstation, toying with defenders just for the hell of it. He could dangle a ball for 10 seconds with silly feints and then explode into the box for a cross or a goal. The sad story of his personal life makes his time on the field that much more brilliant. (By the way, he played and scored against Yashin in the 1958 World Cup.)


I didn’t set out to create the narrowest team in football history, it just kind of worked out that way.

Tim Howard – I thought about giving it to Brad Friedel, mostly on the back of his performances in 2002, but in the end, my longer history with Timmy won out. The man’s a hero. I know there are better keepers in the world, but there is no one I would rather have in my country’s long-sleeve hunting vest.

Jay DeMerit – Getting my patriotic quota out early. My emotional ties to DeMerit predates my knowledge of his life story; I liked him immensely just for the fact that he seemed to defend entirely on those ur-American characteristics of strength, effort and balls, but that fact that he played that way because he actually was Rocky cemented him a place on this list.

Franz Beckenbauer – I love Cruyff far more than Der Kaiser, but the concept of having a libero, a player who can pop up at any level of the field to be an extra man and help overload the opposition, is one I find incredibly compelling. For inventing and perfecting that role in one fell swoop, Beckenbauer makes my list.

Carles Puyol – 30 percent for the hair, 30 percent for the DeMerit-like willingness to run through a brick wall to stop the attack, 30 percent for having the skill to put that willingness to use at the highest levels of the game, and 10 percent for that whole “Shaking the queen’s hand while still in a towel” thing.

Michael Essien – I honestly can’t even begin to explain it. His was one of the first names I thought of when I was brainstorming my favorite players, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Despite his injury history, I just really like him. Isn’t that enough?

Johan Neeskens – For a line from David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, where one of his fellow players describes Neeskens as “a kamikaze pilot.”

XaviSee here.

Zinedine Zidane – I’m such a Zidanephile that I actually of the camp that the headbutt was actually the perfect way for him to go out on.

Dennis Bergkamp – Just because the reasons are obvious doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate:

Johan Cruyff – Of course he’s here. Cruyff’s the intellectual’s footballer, the nerd’s footballer, his legacy still shines brightest as an example of a player who could beat his opposing man and the entire opposing team with his mind. I’m nothing if not a football nerd, so Cruyff makes my list.

Jozy Altidore – You know that feeling you get watching Landon’s goal against Algeria? I get a similar feeling, probably a tenth or a fifth of that thrill, every time Jozy scores. Yes, his form can be frustrating, and I do feel a little bad about the level of expectations placed on him at his age. I wish that he had had someone to apprentice under for a little while. But that’s not really why.
The closest thing I can think of is that it’s a paternal sentiment, except he’s only barely two years younger than I am. I’ve watched him since the beginning of his career, a career that’s been such a part of the national team that his every step forward, and stumble backward (lots of those recently, most coming after slight contact) has felt a milestone for my own fandom of that team.


Note: I’ve only been following soccer for about four years now, so I am only gonna put in players that I have seen with my own two eyes in their prime.

Tim Howard: I love Timmy for several reasons, the insurance commercials he does not being the least.

Gareth Bale: His storied two-legged clinic against Inter is a good example of why I am obsessed with soccer.

Martin Laursen: An absolute rock at the back for Villa when I was learning to love the game. Inspiring captain, classy player.

Carles Puyol: When I see him play, I can’t help but think he should/could have been a warrior during Spain’s dominant years in the 15th century. I love that about him.

Philipp Lahm: The fact that he never seemed to me like he had any business being good at soccer made me all the more impressed that he was a joy to watch.

Ashley Young: I wrote a freaking elegy on him. Of course he makes my favorite XI.

Luka Modric: I remember watching a Tottenham-West Ham game when I first got into soccer. Modric was so silkily effective that even someone with completely untrained eyes could see how brilliant he was.

Xavi: The best midfielder of my lifetime. Without question.

Landon Donovan: For the moment against Algeria, which still makes me tear up every time I see it on YouTube.

Antonio Cassano: Another guy you can look to our archives to see why I love so much.

Lionel Messi: The best forward of my lifetime. Without question.

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2 Responses to Our Favorite XIs

  1. Ogo Sylla says:

    My fave XI (4-4-2):

    GK: Dino Zoff

    RB: Cafu
    CBs: Franco Baresi & Paolo Maldini
    LB: Giacinto Facchetti

    RM: Chris Waddle
    CMs: Lothar Matthaus & Michael Laudrup
    LM: Abedi Pele

    CF: Samuel Eto’o
    ST: Jean-Pierre Papin

  2. hansh says:

    “Carles Puyol – 30 percent for the hair, 30 percent for the DeMerit-like willingness to run through a brick wall to stop the attack, 30 percent for having the skill to put that willingness to use at the highest levels of the game, and 10 percent for that whole “Shaking the queen’s hand while still in a towel” thing.” That was great!!

    My personal XI has to include Landon Donovan and Andres Iniesta. As someone who got into soccer pretty much because I was bored in the summer of 2010 and the World Cup was on TV ALL the time, those two guys did more than anybody else to make me love soccer. They each gave me such a sweet, sweet, moment!

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