Twenty-three is the 2018 FIFA World Cup's magic number right now. It's the number of players each nation will be permitted to take to Russia, but it also happens to be the quantity of confirmed teams for the finals.
With that in mind, we've constructed a mock 23-man squad to take next summer, but with the rule that you can only select one player from each qualified nation. It means a lot of world-class and elite players must be put to the wayside and creates intriguing positional decisions.
As the attempts to select the perfectly balanced squad piled up, a good strategy emerged: Pick the star players from nations outside the perceived top 10 or 15, tally up what you need from there, and use the likes of Belgium, Spain and France—powerhouse countries filled with world-class talent in multiple positions—to solve the remaining needs.
Here's what we've come up with.
Keylor Navas, Costa Rica
Keylor Navas, Costa Rica and the goalkeeping spot represented a perfect marriage, and it was one of our first lock-ins.
The temptation will always be to go for a David De Gea or Manuel Neuer, but when you can nail down a starting 'keeper of Navas' quality and save Spain and Germany for outfield positions, it makes sense.
Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico
Ochoa has had a strange career: He's always stood out as a talented goalkeeper for Mexico, having shone at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but even then hasn't always held the No. 1 shirt. Plus, at club level, he's played for some bad teams and conceded a lot of goals as a result.
We hope not to have to call on him, but we feel privileged to have a 90-cap shot-stopper as our chief backup.
Jaime Penedo, Panama
You would have to endure a genuine injury crisis to be in a position to call on your third goalkeeper, so it felt logical to use Panama for this spot. Russia 2018 will be their first World Cup finals, and Jaime Penedo will be the man between the sticks for it.
Diego Godin, CB, Uruguay
Without wanting to delve into too many cliches too quickly, desire and passion can get you quite far in a small-sample tournament such as the World Cup. Therefore, having one of the world's best defenders in your spine is great; if said defender would run through brick walls for you, it's even better.
That's Diego Godin in a nutshell. He's the leader of our line, our captain on the pitch and our inspirational standard-setter.
Toby Alderweireld, CB, Belgium
As great as Godin is, his passing's a bit rough. His central-defensive partner needs to be much better on the ball (as well as similarly superb at defending), and Toby Alderweireld is the perfect mix.
The Belgian's combination of long, raking balls from the back and strong one-on-one defending makes him the complete performer in his position.
Jordi Alba, LB, Spain
Jordi Alba's 2009-10 was significantly less glamorous than many of his current Spain and Barcelona team-mates. While they were contesting World Cup finals and Champions League semi-finals, he was attempting to win a spot in the Valencia XI.
He did enjoy Euro 2012 success, but that golden Spanish era passed before he could get his teeth into it. He should be eager to help instigate a new one, and the way La Furia Roja are playing, that might just happen in Russia.
Kyle Walker, RB, England
Multiple early drafts of this 23-man squad featured Harry Kane as England's selection, but those also often ended with a lack of quality full-backs. That meant tweaking was required, which has led to Kyle Walker's selection as our starting right-back.
His form this season has been exceptional, with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola taking him to another level even from his Tottenham Hotspur days, and he was England's best player at Euro 2016.
Davinson Sanchez, CB, Colombia
As tempting as it was to select Radamel Falcao for Colombia, Davinson Sanchez as our reserve centre-back makes sense on plenty of levels.
This last 12 months, he's risen to the top of the European game, impressing for both Ajax and Tottenham, and the fact we can ally him with team-mate Alderweireld in the squad is a positive.
Mario Fernandes, FB, Russia
October saw Mario Fernandes—capped once by Brazil in 2014 and born in Sao Caetano do Sul—make his debut for the Russian national team.
He's one of several foreign-born players who have played in the Russian Premier League for so long they can be renationalised, and the Russian Football Union is pressing ahead with this strategy in a bid to strengthen the hosts' squad.
Fernandes plays full-back a bit like Branislav Ivanovic: He tears forward, dominates aerial duels and crosses with venom.
N'Golo Kante, France
Among the many attractive options in France's ranks—including Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba—N'Golo Kante stands a head higher than everyone else.
That he wins so many titles and contests so many finals cannot be a coincidence, and his irrepressible midfield style has been so effective for Leicester City, Chelsea and France that scouts and managers worldwide are desperately scrabbling to find the next version of him.
Toni Kroos, Germany
He may not be the most important midfielder for Real Madrid, but Toni Kroos is the key cog in the centre for Joachim Low's Germany, and he'll take centre stage in this side, too.
When Die Mannschaft take to the pitch, everything runs through him. In the wake of Marc-Andre ter Stegen's rise as a capable backup for Manuel Neuer, it's arguable Kroos is their most indispensable player.
Nemanja Matic, Serbia
Serbia have a few notable, standout players, but Nemanja Matic is in a league of his own and was an easy pick.
The stacked nature of this squad means he's not a first-choice midfielder—Kante and Kroos will form the axis and protect the defence—but if one were to get hurt, there's a safe pair of legs waiting to step in.
Wilfred Ndidi, Nigeria
2017 has been a dramatic year for Leicester, but through all the ups and downs, Wilfred Ndidi has managed to put together a consistent run of strong form. It's been impressive.
He takes our fourth and final central-midfield spot, and although he would likely never see the pitch, he's about as strong a reserve option as you could wish for.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
The man who dragged Argentina single-handedly to the World Cup—the man whose absence in Russia next summer would have been mourned by many—will play a prominent role in this team's talented attacking midfield three.
Lionel Messi secured passage to the finals in 2018 by the skin of his teeth, but the important thing is he made it. He and his team-mates can now hit the pause button, put a terrible a qualifying campaign behind them and truly embrace manager Jorge Sampaoli's ways before next June.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Despite earning a reputation as a big-game performer, Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't seemed to have had much luck at World Cup finals. Injuries and weaker Selecao squads have played a part in that, but it's fair to say he's never sparkled.
That changes here. With Portugal fresh off a Euro 2016 win and a strong qualifying campaign, they will head to Russia as a team who can lift the trophy, and they do so because of the impact we know Ronaldo can make.
Completing a ludicrously talented three-man attacking midfield band is Neymar, who will reunite with former Barcelona team-mates Messi and Alba.
Brazil will be on a revenge mission in Russia following their 2014 heartbreak on home soil, and with Neymar in the form of his life—and looking a more decisive player than he was three years ago—they stand a good chance of achieving it.
Mohamed Salah, Egypt
Egypt will be one of the most fascinating storylines at the 2018 World Cup. Contesting their first finals since 1990, they qualified via a last-gasp penalty from Mohamed Salah—a stroke of the ball that reduced the lead commentator on the game to tears.
Anyone who can withstand that pressure and shoulder that responsibility is welcome in this squad.
Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland
Iceland's calling card is extreme work ethic and team spirit, but if you're picking one player out of that squad, it's Gylfi Sigurdsson.
He hasn't started well at Everton but seems to find his groove for his nation regardless. Even on the same pitch as Ronaldo, Messi or Neymar, you would probably pick the Icelander to take a last-minute free-kick from 25 yards to save your bacon.
Heung-Min Son, South Korea
Although a touch underwhelming during the qualifiers, Heung-Min Son is the natural pick from South Korea.
We've taken our approach from Germany manager Joachim Low and loaded up on attacking midfield/wing threats, and Son joins the rotation and sits behind Salah in the pecking order.
Intriguingly, this makes it three Tottenham players (and one ex-Tottenham, in Walker) from 23 squad members.
Nawaf Al Abed, Saudi Arabia
Many will underestimate Saudi Arabia next summer, but they qualified for the World Cup with relative ease and scored as many goals in qualifying as Japan.
The player to watch in their ranks is Al-Hilal forward Nawaf Al Abed, their chief source of spark and creativity in attack.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Who better to lead the line as our No. 9 than Robert Lewandowski? The Ballon d'Or-nominated Pole has enjoyed a tremendous 2017 and there's no reason that won't continue into 2018, bringing him to the boil just in time for the finals.
He alone makes Poland a threat to win any game; his 16 goals in UEFA qualifying topped the scorers' list, even beating Ronaldo, who had the Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra in his group.
Sardar Azmoun, Iran
In 2014, Iran worked their way to the World Cup and battled hard in a difficult group by leaning on defensive solidity and tactical execution—an effort led by manager Carlos Queiroz.
But, as difficult as they were to break down, they offered little in terms of attacking threat, placing a ceiling on how much they could achieve.
In 2018, things are different. They are still solid and stubborn but have Rubin Kazan's Sardar Azmoun in attack—a striker with 22 goals in 28 senior appearances for his country and who already plays his club football in Russia.
Shinji Okazaki, Japan
Our final spot goes to Shinji Okazaki, an incredibly reliable figure who may not score too often for Leicester but has managed close to a one-in-two record for Japan over 108 appearances.
Even if he's not finding the back of the net, he's an intelligent forward, combining relentless work rate with a tactical understanding of how to balance out formations—a trait this team might need given who is playing in attacking midfield.
There's a notable step down from Lewandowski to Azmoun and Okazaki, but the depth in attacking midfield means Ronaldo can fill in as the striker (bringing Salah or Matic into the XI).
All statistics via FIFA.com