Brazil 2014 will showcase scores of European football greats and one-club marvels. But it will also be a sombre occasion, with the curtain finally drawing on many international journeymen and superstars, writes David Kelly. Here’s his Classic XI:
Steven Gerrard - is the lifeblood and engine room of England’s midfield. The Liverpool talisman turns 34 before the World Cup kicks-off in June. The Three Lions have won 64 percent of their games in which he has played a part, scoring 21 times, an average of one goal every five games. His assured presence, tactical prowess, and motivational attributes and qualities, especially amongst and with younger squad members, have propelled Liverpool and England in recent times. He proved that real loyalty can’t be bought and sold, snubbing several offers to European heavyweights.
Gerrard will always be remembered for Istanbul 2005 and inspiring the Reds to another emphatic come from behind victory in the FA Cup Final vs. West Ham, a year later. Destined to retire a one-club legend and Kop hero with his boyhood dream team, although he faces a mammoth task alongside Roy Hodgson this summer. Uruguay and Italy are tipped to progress, another challenge that Gerrard will relish with vigour. A career in management awaits.
Frank Lampard - is Steven Gerrard’s partner in crime. The Chelsea icon turns 36 a day after the Uruguay clash, so he’ll be looking for an early birthday present and extending England’s stay beyond the group stage. Similar in style, complimentary rather than critical (as professed by Gerrard himself), Lampard offers more of an attacking threat, scoring an average of one goal every three and a half games. His ability to spearhead swift counter-attacks will have fans champing at the bit for his involvement.
An experienced campaigner, Lampard helped the Blues achieve back to back Champions and Europa League success in 2012 and 2013. He still has plenty to offer, but will be relegated to a lesser role in Brazil. Lamps will go down as another England great, but Chelsea’s buying power will see him replaced and confined to the history books with an unblemished record.
Iker Casillas - is one of two shot-stoppers who feature, but at the tender age of 32, he may get another chance to deny the world’s best strike forces and partnerships in Russia 2018. The Real Madrid hero played five of Spain’s qualifying matches, keeping four clean sheets. France’s Olivier Giroud scored a late equaliser to rescue an away draw in October 2012, the only goal he conceded in over 450 minutes between the sticks. Whereas, Barcelona net minder Victor Valdes played three games in 2013, managing only one shut out.
Casillas is a winner and has countless honours to his name, guiding Spain to the 2010 World Cup and winning the 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland. His international credibility is both equally matched and enhanced by his form for the Galacticos in La Liga. Although Madrid have suffered and failed to relive and revive the heights of 2002, Casillas continues to lead the charge and assault on oul’ big ears. It’s hard to see him playing understudy to Valdes, given his ability to defend set-pieces. If Del Bosque has any doubts, he need only replay the 2002 World Cup 2nd round vs. Ireland. Held in high esteem and the same regard as Gianluigi Buffon.
Xabi Alonso - Casillas’ colleague for club and country, Alonso will be vying for a starting place in what is an extremely competitive Spanish contingent. At 32, the former Liverpool playmaker has penned a two year contract extension, keeping him at the Bernabeu until 2016. The Red Fury are spoilt for choice in every department, a fact not best acknowledged by the bookies, who make them 7/1 outsiders to defend their title, an exploit not achieved since Brazil reclaimed the trophy in 1962.
While Xavi and Iniesta write themselves into contention and pull the strings in midfield, Alonso works behind the scenes, grafting and toiling between defence and attack. The ever present and reliable ace shares many of the same honours as Casillas. However, he will also be remembered in and around Anfield for his Champions League heroics and splendour, not to mention his long range screamers vs. Newcastle and Luton Town. The mercurial machine is also blessed with superb vision and skill, no better man exists to ping a 50 or 60 yard pass and split open mass defences.
Xavi Hernandez - embodies the ethos of Catalan kingpins and three time UEFA Champions League conquerors (while playing), Barcelona. Alongside Iniesta, Xavi occupies the void between midfield and the final third, breaking down rival threats and advances through mere submission.
A tactical genius, Xavi orchestrates the five second rule, winning back and distributing possession in the blink of an eye. Barca regularly outgun their opponents, achieving upwards of 500 passes per game, or 5.5 passes every 60 seconds, forcing their foes on the back foot and seizing control. The little Spaniard’s resume lays claim to his immense stature and longevity, having countless domestic, European, and world honours in the club he joined as an eleven year old. Xavi transmits this experience and seniority on international duty, putting aside regional differences and the intense rivalry of El Clasico. The Barca puppeteer can once again be Spain’s main protagonist, but they must top their group to avoid the hosts in the second round and possible elimination.
Carles Puyol - is the last of a dying breed of one-club legends. The Barca defender deserves honourable mention, having indicated that he will retire at the end of the current season. As such, Puyol looks certain to miss Spain’s defence of their crown, citing his inability to recover from injury as a key factor in his decision. Carles leaves the game with every notable club and international honour, nearing 600 appearances for the La Liga giants. A rock at the heart of the defence, this loyal figure hasn’t had a break from football in four years.
The fiery centre-back wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to put his body on the line or in front of a boot. He will be sorely missed by football folk throughout the world.
Miroslav Klose - continues to be one of Lazio’s top marksmen, scoring six in 19 appearances for the Serie A side this season. The Eagles lie in 8th place, but remain in the hunt for fourth spot, seven points behind Fiorentina. Although Polish born, Klose made his international debut way back in 2001, and has 130 caps to his credit. At 35, Miroslav’s best days are behind him, but his 68 goals prove he’s still a major asset. The Mannschaft target man is the equivalent of a German Zidane, with his predatory instinct in and around the box being exemplary.
The number 11 has endured much World Cup heartache, finishing third in 2006 and 2010, and being soundly beaten by Ronaldo’s Brazil in 2002. It would be a cruel twist of fate if Klose were to retire without international honours.
Gianluigi Buffon - epitomises goalkeeping brilliance and humility. The Juventus star has conceded 16 goals in 24 starts to date, and continues to punch above his rivals in domestic and national competition. The 36-year-old marks his 13th season at the helm for the Old Lady, who are sitting pretty at the top of Serie A, 11 points ahead of Roma and well clear of the chasing pack. Already a World Cup winner from Germany 2006, a final decided on penalty kicks, Buffon is a safe pair of hands in tense situations.
At 6 ft 3, he commands the box and barks out orders to his defensive unit. Whoever said “a goalkeeper is only as good as his back four”, obviously never met this Azzurri ace in his prime. Uruguay and England will test his mettle in June.
Andrea Pirlo - is Buffon’s club compatriot and ally, joining from Milan in 2011. A dynamic and skilful midfielder, Pirlo scored a crucial penalty in the 2006 victory over France. Twice a Champions League winner with the Rossoneri, Pirlo also had stints with their bitter nemesis, Inter. He played nine of Italy’s qualifying matches, scoring one and setting up four.
Given the strength of Prandelli’s centre, Pirlo may have to accept an unconventional role, especially with energy sapping games vs. England and Uruguay to follow. His long range accuracy and free taking speciality set him apart from the ordinary. Andrea is a vital cog in Italy’s armour and aspirations.
Dirk Kuyt - built his reputation on hard work and maximum effort, emptying the tank with every performance. “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard,” is NBA star Kevin Durant’s mantra, a quote that Liverpudlians will associate with Kuyt’s six year reign on Merseyside. He wasn’t the most technically astute footballer, nor was he gifted with enough rays of mesmerising skill and talent to woo the Kop. However, the Dutchman’s forte was his willingness to chase every ball and never say die. The passion he displayed for his adopted club ensures his status as a Liverpool legend. His 71 goals show the importance of a workhorse, the cornerstone of every successful unit.
He loved scoring against Everton, Arsenal, and Manchester United, which makes him a fan favourite. Although a regular for Turkish giants Fenerbahce, Dirk has struggled to hold down a place for Holland, playing just 126 minutes in qualifying. He’ll have to accept playing second fiddle to Huntelaar and van Persie in three months, but Kuyt owes the Netherlands nothing. He is a rare find.
Didier Drogba - is no stranger to fame and success in England and Turkey’s premier cup and league competitions. The Galatasaray and Ivory Coast frontman celebrates his 36th birthday next Tuesday, but continues to hold down a starting place under Elephants’ boss Lamouchi. His side remained unbeaten on the road to Brazil, winning five and drawing three. The former Chelsea hitman scored three goals in five appearances, only being outscored by Kalou and Toure.
Drogba led the Blues to back-to-back Premier League titles in 2005 and 2006. However, his greatest accolade came in 2012, when Di Matteo’s charges stunned Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final. Didier is a versatile striker with unreal strength and determination. Despite losing his pace, his off the ball movement and reading of the game is as sharp as ever, something Japan, Greece and Colombia will feel the wrath of in June’s showdown.
The Professional Footballers’ Association states: “The average career is 8 years, and the average retirement age for a player is 35 years old.” Indeed, the football public will be blessed if these extraordinary players fight beyond the travails of Brazil. Love them or loathe them, when the lights go off and the grounds empty, they’ll peter out with glorious grace. That gut feeling will linger, memories of decades gone by.
By David Kelly