Greatest soccer team of all time: Aritz Gabilondo
AS journalist Aritz Gabilondo chooses his greatest ever football team as part of our Legends XI series.
Over the past week and a half, AS has been asking prominent journalists and experts to pick their best football team of all time, as we try to pin down the 11 greatest players to have ever taken to the field. Once every team has been named, a final AS Legends XI will be drawn up, based on which players were included the most times across all the sides.
Aritz Gabilondo's XI
AS Argentina/Peru journalist Aritz Gabilondo is the next member of the jury to choose an all-time XI.
Goalkeeper: Lev Yashin
The only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or, Yashin played for the USSR at four World Cups between 1958 and 1970, his displays earning him a place in FIFA's World Cup Dream Team in 2002. Nicknamed the ‘Black Spider’ because of his distinctive, all-dark choice of playing attire, Yashin helped the Soviets win the European Championship in 1960, and also lifted five domestic titles with Dynamo Moscow, where he spent the entirety of his 20-year career. In 2019, Ballon d’Or organisers France Football created a new award for the year’s outstanding goalkeeper, naming it the Yashin Trophy in his honour.
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.
Central defender: Franz Beckenbauer
Known as 'Der Kaiser' because of his imperious defensive play, Beckenbauer earned over 100 caps for West Germany from 1965 to 1977 and was captain as the host nation secured the 1974 World Cup with a 2-1 win over the Netherlands. Beckenbauer would repeat the feat as head coach of the Germans at Italia '90. The defender made over 400 appearances with Bayern Munich before winding down his career as a player in the NASL with New York Cosmos.
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 midfielder: Xavi Hernández
String puller-in-chief for two of the finest teams the men’s game has ever witnessed, World Cup winner Xavi is 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.
Attacking midfielder: Sergio Busquets
Busquets is another of the 'tiki-taka' pass masters who were integral to the legendary Spain and Barcelona teams of around 10 years ago. An understated but unerring presence at the base of the midfield, he has been described by his former Barça boss Pep Guardiola as a footballer who "does everything to make the team around him tick". Capped 120 times by Spain, the 32-year-old recently brought up his 600th appearance for Barça, where he has won eight LaLigas and three Champions Leagues since graduating from the Catalan club’s youth academy.
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: Lionel Messi
One 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 650 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.
Known as ‘O Rei’ (‘The King’), Pelé won three World Cups with Brazil after bursting onto the international stage as a 17-year-old at Sweden ’58. A wildly prolific goalscorer, he remains Brazil’s leading marksman with 77, while his total of 643 strikes for Santos was a record single-club haul until Barcelona’s Lionel Messi surpassed the figure in December.
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.