Greatest soccer team of all time: Álvaro Benito's best XI
Former Real Madrid player Álvaro Benito chooses his greatest ever team, with Maradona, Zidane, Messi and both Ronaldos among his picks.
Over the coming days, leading Spanish journalists and football experts will be giving their best team of all time in this newspaper, to try and pin down the 11 greatest players to have ever graced a football pitch. Once all 11 teams have been named, a final AS Legends XI will be drawn up, based on which players were included the most times across all the sides.
Álvaro Benito's XI
Ex-Real Madrid player Álvaro Benito, who now works as a TV pundit and as an AS columnist, is the second member of the jury to pick their greatest ever XI. Benito follows former AS editor-in-chief Alfredo Relaño, who named his chosen line-up on Saturday.
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas
Spain’s World Cup-winning captain, Casillas was dubbed ‘Saint Iker’ for his habit of producing miraculous saves, the most iconic of which saw him deny Arjen Robben a seemingly certain goal in the 2010 final against the Netherlands. He was a three-time European champion with Real Madrid, where he established himself as a club great over the course of more than 700 appearances before closing out his career with a five-year stint at Porto.
Central defender: Paolo Maldini
The son of AC Milan’s first European Cup-winning captain, Cesare, Paolo Maldini helped the Rossoneri add a further five continental titles to their trophy cabinet during a 25-year career at the San Siro, twice as skipper himself. Italy’s third-most capped player with 126 appearances, Maldini twice finished on the Ballon d’Or podium; only three other defenders have made the top three this century. His son, Daniele, has now become the third generation of Maldini to play for Milan.
Central defender: Sergio Ramos
A World Cup winner with Spain and his country’s leading appearance maker, Real Madrid stalwart Ramos is now the highest-scoring defender in the history of both LaLiga and international football. The 34-year-old recently grabbed his 100th goal for Madrid - and there can be little argument over which is his most famous: that would be the 93rd-minute equaliser that set up a 4-1 Champions League final win over city rivals Atlético Madrid in 2014.
Left-back: Roberto Carlos
Best remembered for goals such as this angle-defying howitzer and, of course, THAT free-kick, Roberto Carlos went down as a Real Madrid great in an 11-year stay at the Bernabéu that brought three Champions League triumphs. Until December, his tally of 527 appearances for Madrid was a record for a non-Spaniard. Part of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning side, the 125-time capped left-back is, together with Maldini, one of a select band of defenders to have finished in the Ballon d’Or top three.
Central midfielder: Xavi Hernández
String puller-in-chief for two of the finest teams the men’s game has ever witnessed, he is, alongside Andrés Iniesta, arguably the leading exponent of the possession-based ‘tiki-taka’ style of play that defined the all-conquering Barcelona and Spain sides of the late noughties and early 2010s. With 767 Barça appearances to his name, Xavi - who is now coach of Qatari side Al-Sadd - has played more games for the Catalan giants than anyone else.
Central midfielder: Andrés Iniesta
Scorer of the goal that won his nation’s first and so far only World Cup, Iniesta is another of the 'tiki-taka' pass masters who were integral to the historic Spain and Barcelona sides of around a decade ago. A player who proved that being slight in stature is no obstacle to greatness if you ooze ability, he enjoyed 16 trophy-laden years alongside Xavi in the Barça midfield, winning nine LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues with the Blaugrana before leaving for Japan in 2018.
Attacking midfielder: Zinedine Zidane
Zidane’s majestic volley in Real Madrid’s 2002 Champions League final win may well be the greatest goal ever scored in the fixture (although a certain Welshman might disagree). A Ballon d’Or winner once and a FIFA World Player of the Year winner thrice, ‘Zizou’ was the undoubted star of the France team that won Les Bleus’ first ever World Cup in 1998, heading in two goals in a 3-0 demolition of Brazil in the final. His next appearance in the World Cup's showcase match was less successful, however.
Attacking midfielder: Diego Maradona
Maradona, who died at the age of 60 in November, is best remembered for dragging what was widely considered a run-of-the-mill Argentina side to World Cup victory in 1986. His five goals at the tournament in Mexico included perhaps the cheekiest of all time, followed four minutes later by perhaps the greatest of all time. This tribute from Gary Lineker, whose England team were on the wrong end of those two strikes, really sums up just how good he was.
Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo
A five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo has, together with Messi, been the defining men’s footballer of his era. Now at Juventus, the Portugal star is Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer and this month overtook Czech striker Josef Bican’s world-record tally of 759 career goals for club and country. He became only the second male footballer to reach 100 international goals in September.
Forward: Lionel Messi
The other half of the individual duopoly that has dominated men’s football over the past 15 years or so, Messi has plundered an eye-watering, club-record 648 goals for Barcelona since his first-team debut in 2004 - including 455 in LaLiga, more than any other player - and has helped the Catalans to four Champions Leagues and no fewer than 10 Spanish titles. Winner of an unprecedented six Ballons d’Or, 'La Pulga' is also the Argentina national team’s all-time leading marksman with 71 goals.
Forward: Ronaldo Nazário
At his peak, Ronaldo’s combination of pace, power, skill and finishing led him to be described as footballer-meets-Robocop, one memorable solo goal for Barcelona perfectly illustrating such superhero comparisons. Sadly, a succession of injuries took a physical toll on the striker, but he still racked up over 350 goals in a club career that also included spells at Real Madrid, Inter and AC Milan. In 2002, he enjoyed his finest hour (if not his finest haircut) when his eight goals were instrumental in winning Brazil’s fifth World Cup.