Picking a World Football Dream Team
Picking a perfect XI is one of the great joys of following world football.
It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.
Pick your 11 favourite players and shoe-horn them into some sort of vaguely workable formation.
Or work out intricately which second, third or fourth choice would best complement a team based around those two or three must-have names.
You can limit yourself to specific clubs, leagues or countries, or better yet, themes like "Bad Hair XI," or you can open up your choices to the all-time best of the sport.
It's an art, a science, a fantastically efficient time-waster and a great way to stir up debate.
I couldn't possibly narrow down the wide world of football into one dream team, so here are four different takes on the concept.
There's a special category of players who may be past their best (probably in fact are), but such is their stature that if given the chance, we would love to see them play.
My Legends XI is made up of those players.
All are technically still playing, though some are clearly closer to their prime than others.
Abidal is still recovering from his liver transplant, but he has recently returned to training, and judging by Barcelona's defensive display in the clasico last week, not a minute too soon for culés.
Carragher's role at Liverpool is becoming increasingly symbolic, but he is still an important player and a real Anfield legend.
Beckham and Henry have found the MLS hospitable to prolonging their careers gracefully, still producing the goods and indispensable to their teams.
Javier Zanetti and Andrea Pirlo show that a certain elevated class ages at a surreally slower rate than normal mortals.
Legends XI Selection Dilemmas
Most of the Legends XI picked themselves.
AS Roma legend Francesco Totti was first on the team sheet, quickly followed by Gigi Buffon, Thierry Henry, Zanetti and Carles Puyol.
And who could resist Ronaldinho? Well, probably lots of people, particularly in his current state—but he's still Ronaldinho.
It was a tough decision to leave out Ryan Giggs and/or Paul Scholes, and one that I expect might attract criticism.
But it's testament to their continued influence at Man United that they didn't immediately present themselves as candidates for an "oldies but goodies" team. On the other hand, they are not as crucial to their team as David Beckham and Andrea Pirlo continue to be.
Up front, it was a toss up between Raul and Didier Drogba, with the ex-Real Madrid man just edging the Ivorian.
The Beautiful XI
It's tiki-taka heaven!
My Beautiful XI was chosen to emphasize aesthetics, both in the sense of a free-flowing possession and passing game, and with individual skill.
In goal, obviously a beautiful team needs a "sweeper-keeper" who really prefers to play the ball with his feet. Step up, Victor Valdes!
Like Barcelona in the clasico, I have chosen to dispense with central defenders and play a skillful midfielder there instead. I opted for Xabi Alonso over Barça's Javier Mascherano, for his more elegant tackling skills.
Similarly, the full-backs were chosen for their adeptness on the ball, passing and dribbling skills.
And dynamic Spanish duo Xavi and Iniesta have to form the heart of the midfield.
Beautiful XI Selection Dilemmas
Obviously, the first name on this team sheet was Lionel Messi.
Oscar, Neymar and Agüero were close behind for the sheer aesthetics of their individual skills, which somewhat regrettably squeezes Cristiano Ronaldo out.
Atlético Madrid's sublime Radamel Falcao gets the striker role for his riveting form and technique.
To counter-balance all that highly subjective beautiful game conjecture, I turned to soccer statistics database Who Scored? for a cold, hard look at just the facts and figures.
The Stats XI is made up of the highest statistical performers from across the top five European leagues (Premier League, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A), adjusted to fit an appropriate team formation.
Juventus' irrepressible Andrea Pirlo pops up again, as does the inevitable Messi.
Stats XI Selection Dilemmas
But even working with statistics, there is room for selection dilemmas.
The top 11 players by the numbers include only two defenders, no goalkeeper and seven midfielders—almost all attacking—so some judicious maneuvering was necessary.
Strictly speaking, the top defender who can play at left-back is Giorgio Chiellini; but the highest ranking who plays there exclusively (and whose work there, rather than at centre-back, generated these particular stats) is Everton's Leighton Baines, so I went with him.
Poor, sad Ronaldo ranks only 20th overall, so once again he misses out.
And once again, Messi at No. 1 leaves his selection in no doubt.
The immaculate Andrea Pirlo (No. 4 overall) and Lazio's thrilling Hernanes (No. 2) easily book their central midfield spots.
Bayern Munich's Thomas Müller arguably should get a place ahead of Santi Cazorla, but I picked the Arsenal man as a more conventional midfielder to balance the attacking bias of the statistics.
I picked Falcao for similar reasons, ahead of a clutch of attacking midfielders, as the highest ranking pure forward after Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The classic dream team is an attempt to assemble the best of the best, an ultimate Winning XI.
On form and track record, this Winning XI finally unites Messi and Ronaldo, as well as this year's European Balon d'Or winner Andres Iniesta, Spain's world and European championship captain Iker Casillas, Manchester City midfield rock Yaya Touré and Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo.
Among them, the Winning XI have an astonishing 12 senior international trophies and 154 domestic honours, across eight countries.
All bring immense experience, but are still at or near their playing peak.
Winning XI Selection Dilemmas
Ronaldo, Messi, Iniesta and Casillas were obvious starters.
In the back line, Thiago Silva got the place ahead of Sergio Ramos and Vincent Kompany on consistent form. Bayern Munich's Phillip Lahm booked his left-back spot just ahead of Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra on the strength of his versatility.
And in terms of consistent winning quality as well as current form, Ibrahimovic was the obvious choice at striker.
But dream teams are made for debate—tell us your picks below!