Picking a World Football XI for 2013 to Beat the Official FIFPro Selection
When it comes to football’s most glamorous awards season, of which the Ballon d’Or is undoubtedly at the centre, it can be easy to be swept into one of two opposing camps when it comes the entire entity.
The first camp, with some justification, argues that individual awards in a team sport are an inherently foolish idea; that it is impossible to accurately identify the single “best” player across the globe due to the unique environments and positions of every potential candidates.
Then there is the other camp, that believes awards such as the Ballon d’Or are the pinnacle of the sport for an individual—a stance perhaps lent further weight by Cristiano Ronaldo’s tearful reaction to Monday’s coronation. Isn’t it right that the most impactful exponents on the pitch should be lauded for their achievements?
Even those who fall in the second camp—and, by and large, that is probably the majority—many acknowledge that, while Ronaldo deserves to be lauded for his 2013 campaign, it is hard to stretch such a justification to the FIFPro Team of the Year XI, a selection that (in theory) names the best 11 players of the previous calendar year.
2013’s selection was somewhat unimaginative—with four Barcelona players, three Bayern Munich stars, and two players from both Real Madrid and Paris St-Germain nominated by the 50,000 professional footballers on the panel.
While all of the players involved undoubtedly had a case for inclusion, it is hard to escape the conclusion that reputations and past performances preceded many of them (Xavi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Dani Alves and Sergio Ramos) to ensure they were selected over other worthy candidates.
In response, here’s an alternative World XI to take on the official FIFPro selection.
An Alternative World XI
One of the key problems with the FIFPro selection (we’ll leave the discussion about what makes Franck Ribery classed as a midfielder but Messi and Ronaldo as forwards for another day) is the formation: a 4-3-3 that, thanks to the eventual voting, features no defensive-minded midfielders at all.
In response, and because the majority (just about) of top teams in world football use this system instead, we will pick players for a 4-2-3-1—with the added benefit that it gives defensive midfielders, whose role in modern football is vitally important, the sort of acknowledgement they surely deserve.
For added variety, any player in FIFA’s official teamsheet will be ineligible for selection for our team. That extends to the team's manager who, as we will decline to try and tempt Sir Alex Ferguson out of retirement, will be Jurgen Klopp—perhaps with Arsene Wenger as his assistant (just imagine!).
Perhaps not the best place to start, considering Manuel Neuer’s selection for the FIFPro team is arguably the most obvious choice of any bar Messi or Ronaldo. Still, we have set these rules, and we had better abide by them.
Perhaps the finest goalkeeper in La Liga at the moment, Thibaut Courtois has been a leading presence and influence on Atletico Madrid’s defence as Los Colchoneros have emerged as somewhat surprising La Liga contenders—and in the same year also helped Belgium book their place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
At just 21, that is no mean feat.
He edges out another young and talented goalkeeper, David De Gea, for the spot—while the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Victor Valdes are perhaps harmed by our desire to err against reputations and past achievements where possible.
A competitive department, but some of the selections make themselves.
Philipp Lahm’s selection in defence for the official FIFPro team is somewhat incongruous considering the Germany captain spent much of 2013 in defensive midfield for Bayern Munich—and his selection probably kept club team-mate David Alaba out of the official reckoning.
The Austrian’s loss is our gain, however, and he slots in as our left-back.
One the centre-back slots is easy to fill—Dante can perhaps feel himself unlucky to be passed over for Sergio Ramos in central defence, but he is an almost no-brainer for our side.
He edges out Vincent Kompany, whose defensive qualities, along with his leadership, would enhance any team (when fit).
Dante's centre-back partner is a slightly left-field selection, but is perhaps borne out by the statistics; AS Roma’s Mehdi Benatia. Unbelievably, the Morocco international was on the losing side just twice at club level in the entirety of 2013.
Having been a bit of a journeyman in the early part of his career, Benatia is quickly emerging as one of the elite centre-backs in the world game.
The right-back position is perhaps the trickiest to fill, with Dani Alves a fairly safe official selection (even if he did not have his best year in 2013). Borussia Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek would be a good option had he not missed most of the year with a hip injury, which means Pablo Zabaleta succeeds where Vincent Kompany narrowly failed and becomes Manchester City’s first representative.
The Argentine has improved considerably in recent times, and offers defensive security to go with a decent attacking thrust when required (although we admit this might be the weakest choice of the team).
This is where our side might be able to dominate the FIFPro XI, which has a conspicuous lack of steel. At the risk of accusations of Manchester City bias, we call upon Yaya Toure to provide that for our team—while his penchant for chipping in with a few goals in 2013 was impressive, it is his physicality and admirable stamina that makes him one of the finest in his position in the game.
Alongside him we will opt for Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, who is perhaps destined not always to get the recognition he deserves in the FIFPro annals, due to the position he plays. While more familiar in the 4-3-3 that Barcelona employ, we trust Busquets to adapt to our new formation, working in tandem with Yaya Toure to win back possession and distribute it simply and safely.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Andrea Pirlo would perhaps be other candidates for these spots, while Paul Pogba is surely set to be a shoo-in as the years pass.
In truth, you could point a finger at almost any top club in Europe and come up with at least one viable candidate for selection, such is the wealth of options on offer. We could probably name any combination of eight or nine different players and experience little real drop-off in overall quality.
To narrow it down, then, requires a certain amount of subjective selection. If Ribery can finish third in the Ballon d’Or voting then his partner in crime at club level, Arjen Robben, probably warrants a spot in our creation—especially as he scored the goal that decided the Champions League in 2013.
On the opposite flank, but interchanging regularly, we’ll opt for Gareth Bale—whose world record transfer (Was it? Wasn’t it?) to Real Madrid only fleetingly disrupted his impressive form for the calendar year.
It is worth remembering just how important he was for Tottenham in the first half of 2013, and how many times he won them games virtually single-handedly.
While our formation probably calls for a more orthodox “modern No. 10” to knit together our midfield and create chances for our lone striker, instead we’re going to trust the individual quality and footballing brains of our players and opt for Liverpool’s Luis Suarez.
It goes without saying that Suarez had his difficult moments in 2013, but he was also arguably the Premier League’s most electrifying player (certainly once Bale departed) for large parts of the calendar year, and helped Uruguay secure their World Cup spot.
The likes of Eden Hazard, Neymar, Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus would seem to have a strong chance of being on the proverbial substitutes’ bench for our lineup, while if we wanted a more conventional modern “No. 10” option than Suarez, Mesut Ozil would seem a solid choice.
It may be a personal opinion, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic was perhaps the most fortunate player to be named in FIFPro’s team of the year—a case of his reputation elevating him above other, equally deserving candidates.
One of those would certainly be Robin van Persie, whose recent absence from the Manchester United first-team has underlined just how important he was to their Premier League title success in the first half of the year.
Van Persie, however, will have to sit on the bench for our side—as we opt for another clinical main striker, Robert Lewandowski, for our team. Lewandowski, who will join Bayern Munich in the summer, was brutally unlucky to go through 2013 without winning a major trophy, but contributed numerous goals along the way. His four-goal performance in the Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid will live long in the memory, and is perhaps why he gets the nod here.
Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa would perhaps both have a claim to be in the squad, if they had enjoyed more consistent campaigns (Falcao, particularly, has not been as potent since joining Monaco, while Costa really emerged as an elite striker after the Colombian left Atletico).
So there you go; our rival selection to face FIFPro’s official XI.
In the likes of Ronaldo and Messi they may well have the slightly better individual stars, but we would fancy these players, in this system, to beat them more often than not in a head-to-head meeting.
It is interesting to note that three players from the Premier League—Zabaleta, Toure and Suarez (and Bale, sort of)—make our team selection, yet in the four years of the FIFPro XI only two players, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney, have been selected.
Is this a case of pro-Premier League bias on the part of the writer, or anti-Premier League sentiment on the part of the voters? It is hard to say but, considering the recent form of the likes of Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero, it seems unlikely England-based players will go overlooked when the 2014 iteration is publicised.