Goalkeeper: Shaun Marshall
While I do not support a team now – and I strongly recommend abandoning fandom to anyone who is considering doing so – I grew up supporting Cambridge United. For a few years, I was a season ticket holder and got to see first-hand two relegations and any number of absolute car crash performances and examples of individual ineptitude. It was the perfect education for any football fan.
One of the most memorable players from this time was Shaun Marshall, a homegrown goalkeeper whose undeniable talent for shot-stopping repeatedly saw him given runs as the club’s number one. I say ‘repeatedly’ because after a few games in which he made saves that would have made Peter Schmeichel proud, he would invariably make a boneheaded mistake and find himself relegated to the reserves once again.
Every goalkeeper makes gaffes, of course, but there was something unique about Marshall’s haplessness. Just when it seemed he had finally put the worst behind him, he would inexplicably pass the ball to an opposition striker, drop a cross into his own net or dive straight over a meek, daisy-cutting shot that barely possessed the power to cross the line.
The best illustration of his misfortune came in John Taylor’s testimonial match, played against Leeds United in November 2003. As a Leeds corner came into a crowded box, the referee signalled a foul for shirt-pulling and awarded a free-kick to Cambridge. The area emptied and Marshall reclaimed the ball, rolled it to the edge of the penalty area and punted it downfield.
What he had somehow failed to notice – indeed, what everyone on the pitch had failed to notice – was that Leeds forward Lamine Sakho was laying injured in the middle of the Cambridge area, more or less on the penalty spot. Play continued and Marshall walked slowly backwards, observing the game in front of him as he did so.
The packed Newmarket Road End immediately saw how this was going to end and began the anticipatory collective ‘ooooh’ that precedes any event that is going to be greeted with a big cheer. How Marshall did not hear this inexplicable noise and turn around to see what was going on I will never know, but by the time he had obliviously reached the still-prone striker, the noise had reached feverish heights.
As he finally toppled backwards, falling with all the grace of a new-born giraffe trying to stand for the first time, the ovation was huge – among the loudest of my time as an Abbey Stadium regular. A truly unforgettable number one.
Right-back: Warren Goodhind
Another selection from the era of adolescent Cambridge fandom, Goodhind was an enthusiastic, hard-working but ultimately average right-back who ran a lot, took loads of long throws and made a few nice covering tackles when his less dependable teammates set about showing the opposition towards the Cambridge goal via the shortest route possible.
When not being Tony Hibbert before Tony Hibbert was even thinking about being Tony Hibbert, Goodhind’s most telling contribution was almost as comedic as Marshall’s. Clearly desperate to one day achieve his childhood dream of scoring an actual real-life goal, he went up for every corner, sprinted towards the ball and, just as it landed inevitably in the hands of the goalkeeper, leaped to execute a diving header, hurling himself into the goal in the process.
This innovative set-piece tactic saw him score a colossal zero goals during four seasons with the Us but, far more importantly, it consistently made me and my dad laugh every other weekend for a few years. Several years have passed since my dad or I set foot in the Abbey but we still laugh about how desperate Goodhind was to score just one goal, as well as the comic awfulness of his only method of attack.
Centre-back: Igor Latte-Yedo
The third and final little-known figure from the Cambridge United years, Latte-Yedo was an Ivorian man-mountain signed by Gallic dreamboat and eventual Most Hipster Manager Ever, Hervé Renard. I say ‘man-mountain’ – that label does not quite do him justice. The truth is that Everest would have looked minuscule in comparison to what is quite possibly the biggest and most imposing object I have ever seen.
Latte-Yedo did not just move, either – he practically flew. Six-foot-three and fifteen stone of pure muscle, he was comfortably the quickest player on the pitch at any given time. There was no athletic feat that was beyond him and his absolute mightiness immediately earned him a cult following on the terraces.
There was just one small problem: he was an absolutely terrible footballer. His first touch was heavier than Slipknot, his sense of positioning non-existent and his attempts to pass a ball with any accuracy humiliating. He was originally deployed as a centre-back but he was so wretched in that role that he was swiftly moved to striker, where his basic ineptitude would not prove so disastrous.
On one occasion, Cambridge won a free-kick twenty-five yards from goal and the crowd chanted for Igor to take it. Somehow, the players consented and Latte-Yedo found himself standing over the ball. The fear in the opposition’s wall was palpable: he was clearly going to opt for power and if he slammed the ball straight into them there was a real chance that there would be fatalities.
Igor began his run-up, the crowd noise reached a peak and he leathered the ball with every bit of his considerable might – straight into the base of the floodlight in the corner of the stadium.
Soon after this incident, I was browsing the discounted CDs section in the Lion Yard branch of HMV when I turned a corner and blindly walked straight into none other than Igor Latte-Yedo. I was in hospital for three months with fractures to my skull, collarbone, ribcage, pelvis and both femurs.
Centre-back: Jos Hooiveld
Before Jos Hooiveld was famous for scoring Premier League own goals at a record-breaking rate and/or getting sent off for ridiculously inept tackles, he was known to my friends and I as the most unpredictable centre-back in Football Manager history.
If the rest of the back four was on the halfway line, Hooiveld would stand on the edge of his own penalty area. If a simple pass was on in midfield, Hooiveld would punt a sixty-yard switch into the stands. If a dangerous ball came in and had to be defended, Hooiveld would overhead-kick it over his own crossbar. While he was rarely effective in a defensive sense, he was always entertaining.
His real-world arrival in the UK with Celtic and subsequent move to Southampton allowed us the chance to see if FM’s assessment was accurate and, while expectations were incredibly high of the Dutchman, he has exceeded them with ease. He is arguably the most watchable footballer around whose name is not ‘Arturo’.
Left-back: Trond Erik Bertelsen
The second and final Football Manager-based pick, Bertelsen is, despite whatever anyone says about Philipp Lahm, the most dependable full-back in the universe. If you want someone to play every single game, motoring up and down the left flank, keeping attacking moves ticking over and defending resolutely, Bertelsen is your man.
When my good friend Charlie and I went to Norway to see our respective Football Manager sides play in 2009 (yeah, I know), Bertelsen was the pick of the players in Viking’s genuinely extremely watchable 0-0 draw with Lyn. He has not scored since that season but goals are overrated. Besides, picking your favourite left-back is bloody hard, alright?
God: Sergio Busquets
I have written and said so much about Busquets’ complete footballing perfection that it is hard to know what more to say here. There probably is not any more to add, so here is a video of him being amazing instead. I was at this game and it was a privilege to witness his performance – it was probably the best individual ninety minutes I have ever seen. Given that I was pitchside for Messi’s five-goal showing against Leverkusen, the bar is set pretty high.
Also God: Xavi Hernández
With the sun setting on the Barcelona playmaker’s career, it is arguably worth watching him now more than ever. The standard-bearer for both the greatest club side in history and the best national team, Xavi’s brand of football dominated the world for five or six glorious years and revolutionised the way the sport is played.
Always the least eye-catching of his teams’ star-players, his understated roles often saw his colleagues take most of the plaudits – Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Andrés Iniesta were usually the beneficiaries – but as much as those players contributed to Xavi’s greatness, he gave them twice as much in return. His remarkable consistency, both in terms of style of play and of level of performance, built the platform for his teammates to show their absolute best.
Most lists of players considered the greatest of all time contain the same old names and are usually a selection of history’s most famous strikers, number tens and goalscoring midfielders. Xavi probably is not up there with the very best of all time – that is to say, the most ludicrously talented – but in terms of greatness – the accumulation of silverware, dominating at the highest level and contributing to the evolution of the sport – Xavi is pretty much untouchable.
Also also God: Juan Román Riquelme
Interpreter of space: Thomas Müller
The first time I saw Müller play was during the 2010 World Cup. Like most English observers, I had not seen more than one or two televised Bundesliga games the season before and I had no idea what to expect of him or of Germany in general. The final of the Under-21 European Championship the previous summer had introduced me to Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and Manuel Neuer, but how they would perform in South Africa – and without their apparent leader, Michael Ballack – I had not the foggiest idea.
Of course, Germany blew everyone away right from the start. Their 4-0 win over Australia announced the arrival of a new generation and removed any doubt that they were potential tournament winners. They scored four twice more in the knockout stages and Müller finished the tournament with the golden boot. This, according to British television coverage, was something of a joke.
Our pundits were almost uniformly biased towards David Villa, hoping the Spaniard would take the award as a more deserving player. Müller was clearly a talented finisher but he seemed to offer nothing to his team bar goals, despite being stationed on the right flank: he did very little in build-up play and only seemed to score by luckily being in the right place at the right time.
The more one sees of Müller, however, the more one understands that his ability to be in the right place at the right time is illustrative of talent more than luck: he is simply far smarter than every other player on the pitch. He possesses the same 360° awareness as players like David Silva and Luka Modrić – he just applies it off the ball instead of on it. When his marker thinks there is no danger, Müller is weighing up two or three goalscoring solutions and wondering which to choose.
His performances at the 2010 World Cup were not evidence of his limitations or of dumb luck but products of his education and training. The reason he looked to be doing nothing until he put the ball in the net was because he was playing a version of the sport that was not understood in Britain at the time, and arguably still is not today.
His reinterpretation of the role of the modern striker has made him one of the most extraordinary players in the world – perhaps even of all-time. The best thing is he has got even better every year and looks set to continue that upward trajectory. One day we will look back on him as the first of his kind and the myriad number of Müller-lites (sorry) will speak of him in hushed, reverent tones.
Wide-forward: Pedro Rodríguez
The template for all twenty-first-century wide forwards: lethal with both feet, tactically flawless and a perfect professional on and off the pitch. Pedro was one of the players I most wanted to see the first time I made the trip to see Guardiola’s Barcelona side in person. He promptly set up two goals and would have been the undisputed man of the match if Xavi had not been at his absolute pinnacle, breaking the record for number of completed passes in a match that night.
Pedro’s form has undeniably been up and down since his breakthrough seasons at Camp Nou, when he was the only player to score in each of the six competitions Barça won across 2008/09 and 2009/10, but he has always offered something invaluable to his sides by understanding the way they play and adding the threat in behind that is so often lacking when he is not on the pitch.
As Michael Cox has said on more than one occasion, Pedro may not be the most talented player at his club or in the Spanish national team, but his attributes are unique and his tactical intelligence allows him to adjust to the requirements in each game. He will never be the first name on the teamsheet, but he will very often be the difference-maker.
It will be a terrible shame the day that Barcelona decide to dispense with his services but if he ever decides to move of his own accord, I sincerely hope he goes to Arsenal: they have been crying out for a player like him for about as long as I can remember.
Striker: Gabriel Batistuta
I am a pretty terrible footballer: slow, lead-footed, capable of the occasional nice pass but otherwise useless. However, I do possess a left foot, in the words of the aforementioned Charlie Anderson, ‘imbued with the wrath of Odin’. The reason for this is that I grew up watching Gabriel Batistuta.
The vast majority of my earliest football memories are of sitting on the sofa with my dad watching Football Italia and its sister programme, Gazetta Italia. Like everyone else who made sure to tune in every week, we were lured by the exotic novelty of foreign football, the received wisdom that the Italian game was the best in the world and the incomparable skill of the show’s presenter, James Richardson.
One player who unfailingly played a prominent role in the show’s round-up of the previous week’s goals was Fiorentina’s Argentine number nine. I remember being immediately struck by the violence of his shooting: every time he let fly at goal it seemed to be with all the force of a nuclear explosion. It was all any goalkeeper could do to get out of the way of his surface-to-air missiles before they found themselves in hospital.
After most Gazettas, I used to go out into the garden and try to emulate Batigol’s ferocity. As a result, my parents began spending record amounts on fence panels and shed windows, before finally settling on buying a bigger goal for the garden. For years it went on like this. I woke up, turned on Channel 4 and AC Jimbo showed me Batistuta’s latest howitzers. Afterwards, I went outside and set about making my shot most fearsome weapon in my footballing armoury.
The more I watched the more I understood, and I began to appreciate the finer points of his game: his exemplary movement in and around the box; his appreciation of angles and timing; the little burst of acceleration that always took him away from ball-watching defenders and left him through on goal.
By the time the 1998 World Cup rolled around, I was utterly convinced that Batigol was an unstoppable force of nature and that he would blast Argentina to glory, and in the process leave the nation of France in dire need of new nets for their goals. It did not work out that way, but his four goals in the group stage, including an awesome hat-trick against Jamaica, will be forever embedded in my memory.
Fiorentina’s entry into the Champions League in 1999-2000 afforded him yet more time on my television screen as they drew Arsenal and Manchester United in consecutive group stages. In four games against the English teams, he scored three goals, two of which are YouTube staples to this day. The screamer against Arsenal at Wembley, in particular, is a textbook example of what made him my favourite striker.
Nowadays I probably would not care for Batistuta too much – I would pick holes in his pass completion figures or point out that he does not make anything like the defensive contribution he should – but I will suspend my disbelief for a second here and include my first Argentine hero.
Sincere apologies to Dimitar Berbatov, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Marcel Desailly, who really should be in this XI somewhere.