“What seems a lifetime ago, Chris and I discussed our England and Wales Cricket XIs and a potential Rest of the World XI. We did this because we can’t continually discuss the virus. I have certainly given up listening to the news. Actually, this is nonsense – I never listen to the news because all the mainstream media is good for is manufacturing consent. I have stopped scrolling through my Twitter feed looking for coronavirus updates, and rarely now listen to the podcasts I once did. Instead, I am looking for meaningful analysis of the state we are in (in particular, in relation to my own work in a University, and education more generally), and distractions, which generally take the form of writing or podcasts about football, cricket, cycling, revolutionary communism or quantum mechanics.
So, in order to move beyond our concerns at our dwindling stocks of real ale and stout, we decided to focus upon our England and Rest of the World football XIs. The same rules that we applied to the choice of our cricket teams applies once again here. These have to be players we have seen playing, either live or on television, during our football-watching lives. The choice of teams tells you a lot about each of us, I think, in terms of the type of player and their psychology or personality, the mix of players from Europe versus rest of the world, and the type of formation or approach or aesthetic.
Once again, it is clear that either England XI would be eviscerated. It was ever thus.
Chris’s England XI (4-3-3)
Peter Shilton – at only 6ft, relatively small for this position but turned out to be a giant of the game. 1005 professional games and 125 England caps speaks for itself.
Stuart Pearce – never the most graceful of footballers but gave 200% every match he played and wore his heart on his sleeve for club and country. A take no prisoners attitude on the pitch and a love of punk rock off the pitch made him a legend of the 90s.
Tony Adams – plied his trade with the Arsenal back four of the mid 80s and 90s and their record speaks for itself, add to this 66 England caps and you understand the measure of the man. The only player I believe to have captained a title winning side across 3 decades.
Terry Butcher – I just can’t get that vision out of my head of him playing with that bandage wrapped around his head and blood pouring down his face against Sweden in 1989… True Grit and determination.
Gary Neville – first choice at right back for England and Man Utd for over 10 years. Formed a great partnership down the right for club and country with a certain number 7 and was an easy name on the team sheet.
Darren Anderton – commonly known as ‘sicknote’ across the country for his injury prone career, but when fit was a phenomenal player… tall, quick, great step over and a fantastic delivery into the box earns him a spot.
Paul Scholes – in my view one of the most dependable players to pull on the 3 lions shirt. His vision with the ball at his feet was nothing short of genius and he had pace and strength to go along with this. If I had to pick any of this team that would stand a chance of making it into a World 11 it would be him.
Chris Waddle – the memories of that mullet disappearing in between the quarter and semi final of Italia 90 will always stay with me and to this day i still believe it made him even quicker. A good advert for a traditional winger… great pace to go round any defender to hit the byline and deliver a fantastic cross.
Alan Shearer – 283 goals in 559 club appearances and 30 goals in 63 caps are stats that can stand up against any striker. Strong with both head and boot and stood tall against the toughest of defenders and midfielders (especially getting under the skin of Roy Keane back in 2001).
Paul Gasgoine – pure genius or sheer madness was the best way to describe Gazza. Such a deft touch with the ball at feet and skills to match any player in the world. Very much hampered by off field issues throughout his career but a joy to watch on the pitch.
Gary Lineker – 48 goals in 80 appearances is pretty impressive to say the least, considering the only two players to better this tally were Wayne Rooney with 53 in 120 games and Bobby Chalrton with 49 in 106 games. Hence Mr Lineker’s scoring record for England makes him an easy choice for my starting 11.
Richard’s England XI (4-3-3)
Goalkeeper: Peter Shilton. I always wondered whether Shilton was bothered that Ray Clemence stole 61 caps from him and Joe Corrigan another 9? Whilst everyone talks about that 1990 penalty shootout in terms of Pearce and Waddle missing, Shilton never got near a single German penalty. That said, any player who gets his 1000th league game playing for Leyton Orient, having won the European Cup twice, is an absolute legend.
Right-back: Phil Neal. I always had a grudging respect for Neal. He loved an overlap, and who doesn’t love an overlap? In fact, this team is going to be predicated upon attack, because you only live once. I’m always drawn to the fact that Neal was the only player to feature in all four of Liverpool’s European cup wins in the 70s/80s. I wasn’t a big fan of Liverpool, but I do like an industrious player.
Centre-half: Rio Ferdinand. An atypical England defender, because it wasn’t just blood and thunder. God how I loathe blood and thunder. I loved his ability on the ball. I wonder what Pep would have made of him?
Centre-half: Des Walker. He lit up Italia 90. Young, quick, great in the tackle. Everyone talked about Gascoigne, but Walker was the highlight for me. I am still gobsmacked that he went to Sampdoria under Sven Göran Eriksson who played one of the best central defenders in the world at left back. Moron.
Left-back: Ashley Cole. A carefree attacking full-back under Wenger, able to become a great defender under Mourinho. I’m not a big fan of people who get speeding tickets, but I do like players who excel at goal-line clearances. So Ashley gets the call.
Midfield: Bryan Robson. It was that goal against France at Spain 82 after about six seconds or something. And all those shoulder injuries. And the constant rumours when he was manager at Middlesbrough about drinking on Yarm high street. And the fact that he held England together during the 80s. God I hated the 80s.
Midfield: Owen Hargreaves. Two Champions League winning medals. England’s only world-class player in the mid-2000s. Completely underrated, and too often played out of position. Massively hampered by injury. I wonder just how good he could have been.
Midfield: Paul Scholes. There are way too many ManUre players in this team. This is causing me some pain. Anyway, Scholes is going to have to hold, because Hargreaves and Robson are going to be given licence to go and go.
Forward: Steve McManaman. Underrated in my opinion. I always love a mazy dribbler. You don’t get to be man of the match in the Champions League final if you aren’t gifted. Scotland and the Dutch eventually had no answer at Wembley in 1996.
Forward: Alan Shearer. I always remember a goal he scored in the qualification for France 98, away in Poland. After some laughable, it’s a knockout defending, Paul Ince broke and slid the ball through, and Shearer buried it first time in the far corner. Then he wheeled away with that trademark right arm in the air. Along with Walsall’s Martin O’Connor, he is probably the finest penalty taker I have ever seen.
Forward: Laurie Cunningham. Wonderfully gifted, and I need someone who can play on the left. Quite how he only got six caps is beyond me. Ron Greenwood was clearly an idiot. I like the fact that he started at Leyton Orient. I’m not a huge fan of the fact that he went to West Brom and went to Real Madrid. In fact there are too many real Madrid links in this team. Anyway, I had also forgotten that he played the last half hour of the 1988 FA Cup final. Good work.
Chris’s World XI (4-3-3)
Gianluigi Buffon – 77 clean sheets in 176 international caps is all that needs to be said here.
Paulo Maldini (captain) – over 1000 club appearances coupled with his long international career make him a strong option in this team. Part of the ‘immortals’ Milan team that went i think 58 games unbeaten.
Thiago Silva – one of my three selections to still be playing now. Strong, quick and great vision with the ball and great in the air. Ability to control the game from defence to attack with his passing ability and also a great leader.
Franco Baresi – another member of the Milan immortals and voted the club’s player of the century. A giant at the back for Italy despite being under 6ft and also had the ability to push up into the holding midfield role when required to support the team.
Lillian Thuram – part of the world cup winning team of 98’ and an absolute beast at right back… quick, aggressive in the tackle and great down the wing makes him an easy choice. Add into this that he was two-footed and he was just as competent playing in the centre also.
Frank Rijkaard – plied his trade with the great Ajax team of the 80s before moving to Milan where he became a legend. Only 73 international caps but a great advert of how a defensive midfielder should be… strong, aggressive and great vision. Was also able to switch to centre back if required where he played in his early years.
Zinedine Zidane – 95 goals in just over 500 club appearances and 31 goals in 108 internationals is brilliant for any midfielder. The list of glowing comments from managers and players is endless including Maldini, Keegan, Carlos and Ronaldhino. It is hard to find any weaknesses he had in his game and also a master of the headbutt in the chest.
Kevin De Bruyne – another of my choices to still be playing. Best attacking midfielder currently in world football and would easily walk into any club starting 11. Long range passing is as good as any past or present and vision in attack is phenomenal, but his main strength is in his work rate in every game. If he sustains this level through his career he will make any world 11.
Thierry Henry – technically gifted in every area of his game but especially at playing through the channels and one on one against goalkeepers. Wenger certainly got the best out of him at Arsenal playing him as the lone striker but he also notched up a lot of assists when drifting out wide. Probably not high up for a lot of statisticians but it was always a pleasure to watch him play.
Lionel Messi – 70 international goals in 138 games and averages just under a goal a game for Barcelona. His shorter size gives him great pace and agility with the ball at his feet, but his strength in the upper body makes him difficult to dominate as a defender. You would find it difficult to find a pundit that wouldn’t include him an all time world 11.
Marco Van Basten – saved my all time favourite til last… signed for Ajax at 16 and then played for Milan ‘immortals’ also. Strong in the air, acrobatic, two-footed, quick and technical elegance all added up to produce i believe the perfect footballer. Sadly his career was cut short at only 28 due to a series of ankle injuries that he never recovered from.
Richard’s World XI (4-3-3)
Goalkeeper: Dino Zoff. He was properly old school. I would have gone for Buffon or Iker Casillas, but I just don’t trust goalkeepers in short-sleeved tops. It just isn’t right. Plus, Zoff was about 78 when he won the World Cup in Spain with Italy. He gives us all hope.
Right-back: Danny Alves. He was in that Barcelona team. The really great one, as opposed to the great one. He loved linking up with midfield, providing options through overlaps, and as we know midfield is the beating heart. If things are going wrong, always look at centre midfield. I don’t know why I’m discussing midfield here, other than it is enabled in its relationship to the back four.
Centre-half: Lillian Thuram. To be honest he could have made this team is for back as well, because for a while he was the best full-back and centre half in the world. A completely dominant force, including in his anti-racist activity. All hail the anti-racists of this world.
Centre-half: Thiago Silva. Franco Baresi-esque. I was never a big Brazil fan. In fact, I don’t really like any team that is any good, apart from Alan Buckley’s 1980s Walsall. Silva would have gelled with that Walsall team. Strong in the air, tactically aware, awesome at reading the game. He would have had a job evicting Colin Brazier from centre half though.
Left-back: Paulo Maldini. Could have played at centre half or right back. Irritatingly gifted with lovely blue eyes. Positioning and marking made tackling a secondary activity. I celebrate the cerebral nature of his play.
Midfield: Sergio Busquets. He’s in the team because it allows me to play two number 8s, and in what universe wouldn’t that be the thing? I was tempted by including Graeme Souness, primarily because I have a grudging respect for him after his performance in the second leg of the 1983/84 Milk Cup semi-final at Fellows Park. But his politics… It could have been Kante, but I’m sold on Busquets because, as Vincente del Bosque said: “If you watch the whole game, you won’t see Busquets—but watch Busquets, and you will see the whole game.”
Midfield: Clarence Seedorf. I like single club players, you know, like Walsall FC legends Kenny Mower and Ian Roper – players who ploughed a particular and singular furrow season after season, in spite of the peculiarities of those who managed to them. However, I also like those players who demonstrate their expertise and intelligence by dominating in a range of geographical and physical locations, and Seedorf is that player.
Midfield: Andres Iniesta. Football is about space-time compression, and Iniesta’s gravitational pull completely skewed space and time for that great era of dominance for Barcelona and Spain. I remember sitting and watching Walsall play Doncaster Rovers at home in September 2015, playing tiki-taka, and recycling the ball and working the opposition, and it was balletic and mesmeric and geometric and dialectical. It was an opening up of possibility, and our lumpen-supporters sitting behind me were demanding the ball was hurled into the box, and effectively wanting it to be given away because they didn’t have what it takes to sit with the ball and work space and time. I loved watching Iniesta because he had what it took.
Forward: Diego Maradona. Messi is a better player, but I like my characters to be openly flawed and human and bipolar in nature. I love the duality of Diego/Maradona, and the desperately to escape the favela and to provide for one’s family, and the need to survive on a rutted pitch and to carry everyone’s hopes with you. Of course, this took its toll, but the tormented grace was a demonstration of humanity.
Forward: Ronaldo (the real one, R9). He ignited everything. He took me out of the torpor of the 1990s, and he was almost impossible to play against, to comprehend, to imagine, to analyse, to describe. He was also almost perfect in 1-on-1s with the keeper, and alongside controlling the ball from throwing that is the most difficult skill in football. I have so much time for players who carry their average teams through competitions – Messi and Argentina in 2014, Maradona and Argentina in 1990, Ronaldo and Brazil in 1998. I love it even more when there is failure at the bitter end and the taste of mortality.
Forward: Roger Milla. We continue to patronise African football, and seek to colonise it by extracting the most valuable players for our leagues, or by dumping television rights and club memorabilia/shirts in the global South. As the linchpin of that great 1990 Cameroon team, and as a relatively old man (in footballing terms), Milla gave us a new light, and a new sense of possibility. His right-footed touch and finish for his second goal against Romania, his left-footed finish against Colombia and subsequent mugging of Rene Higuita, and his setting-up of Ekéké for Cameroon’s second were sublime.”