Unless you’ve been living under a rock or perhaps aren’t into football (if the latter is true I advise you to stop reading), you’ll be aware the Euros are imminent. Once again Europe’s best plus Northern Ireland will take part in a month long festival of football culminating and the incredible Stade de France in Saint-Denis. As part of their build up UEFA have come up with a 50-man shortlist of the Euros greatest players and have invited us fans to pick our greatest XIs. Here’s mine.
The Formation: Now usually with such online dream XIs the formation is fixed. Normally a rigid 442 or more recently a 433. UEFA however provided a wide selection. After viewing the defender choice I was more than happy to go with a 433, especially as there was no real width in the midfield selection.
Lahm GER Puyol SPA Beckenbauer GER (C) Maldini ITA
Zidane FRA Iniesta SPA Gullit NED
Henry FRA Muller GER Van Basten NED
GK: Peter Schmeichel (Denmark) – Undoubtedly one of the greatest goalkeepers ever. In my opinion the greatest. While most associate him with the all conquering United side of the 90s. It’s often forgotten that he was pivotal in Denmark’s remarkable 1992 triumph. He made crucial saves and was key to the well organized, rigid Danish system with the Danish back 4 often passing back to him so he could waste time (one of the reasons for the backpass rule being introduced swiftly after). Many great keepers have played in the Euros but Peter was the number one.
RB: Philip Lahm (Germany) Although I’m more used to him playing Left back or a holding role in the current Bayern side. Lahm is of course famously versatile and also right footed so in this side he’ll play right back and would do a typically exemplar job. Lahm is one of the greatest fullbacks of his era and dragged a very mediocre Germany side to the Euro 2008 where they came up against stellar Spain and still were fairly resolute. It seems almost unfair that someone who performed so exceptionally at every Euros he’s attended has ended their career without a winners medal. Luckily Lahm has a World Cup medal to console him. Solid, dependable, attacking but functional. Everything great about the new German football was symbolised in Lahm.
CB: Carles Puyol (Spain) – Captain of the greatest club side that ever graced a football pitch. Puyol brought that leadership to a Spanish defence which while hardly discussed was impenetrable. Puyol had it all as a centre back. Bravery, timing, reading of the game and of course as a student of La Masia he could pass. The archetypal ball playing defender but with the ability to get stuck in with the best of them. Not as easy on the eye or languid as Pique but more complete. Also he’s won 2 European Championships. Impossible to leave out.
CB: Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) – The man they called the Kaiser. Probably the greatest centre back to play the game. He had it all. Beckenbauer invented the sweeper position and played it better than anyone since. Also one of the most versatile players thats ever lived. Being able to play in midfield and being a genuine goal threat whatever position he played. Captaining West Germany to victory in Euro 72 before lifting the World Cup on home turf. Der Kaiser is an automatic selection and captain of this side.
LB: Paolo Maldini (Italy) – The greatest left back of the last 20 years? Maybe. Cafu and Lahm would be certainly be in the debate. Luckily Lahms already here and Cafu bizarrely made no Euro appearances oh wait, Brazilian. Lol. So the mercurial Maldini is free to take his well deserved place as the left back in this XI. Famed for his longevity playing at the very highest level for 20 plus years. Maldini was a class fullback who almost always won his duels against wingers before converting into an equally world class centre-back in later years. A major international title unfortunately eluded Maldini, but his star turn in Italy’s Euro 2000 run ensures him his place in this list.
CM: Zinedine Zidane (France) – The finest footballer of his generation and one of the greatest players of all time. Zidane is another automatic selection. Zidane had it all and did it all during his career. Goals, passing, vision, strength, creativity, skills, dribbling there was nothing he could not do on a football field. One of my earliest Euro memories was Zidane almost single handedly putting England to the sword in Euro 2004. But it is perhaps more Euro 2000 where his majesty and poise in the French midfield set the tournament alight. As he helped France follow up they World Cup win with a 2nd European triumph. Following in the footsteps of earlier mercurial French talent, Michel Platini in 1984.
CM: Andres Iniesta (Spain) – One half of the greatest midfield partnership that ever played the game. You can’t mention Iniesta without mentioning Xavi but I think Iniesta’s just that little bit better. Not just a playmaker. Iniesta controls games and always has the potential to be a matchwinner, scoring some wondrous goals across his career. At Euro 2008 and Euro 2012. Iniesta effectively had to play the Messi role in Spains tika-taka Cruyffian system. He and Xavi provided the magic that turned simple possession into devastating attacking moves in split seconds. His brilliance helped Spain win 2 consecutive titles and he was the best in both sides. Particularly in Euro 2012 when Spain’s strikerless system allowed Iniesta to showcase his incredible dribbling ability. Although his best days are behind him. Expect him to still be phenomenal come June alongside Spain’s new generation, the old master will still shine. The best player in the best side in European Championship history.
CM: Ruud Gullit (Netherlands): The 3rd midfield berth was one of my toughest choices and I’m still contemplating switching to 442 to accommodate the master that is Pirlo. Gullit edged Pirlo because he has a winners medal. Not just any either. Gullit was a key part of what was until Spain in 08, the greatest side to win the Euros. The Netherlands in 88 were a joy to behold. Finally getting Total Football the trophy it had deserved since the days of Cruyff. With Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten, the Netherlands had one of the all time great triumvirates and they were devastatingly good. They didn’t just win, they won beautifully. Their football was sumptuous. Those lucky enough to see them in the flesh were blessed. The rest of us must settle for YouTube. But it is for these reasons, for lighting up the Euros. Gullit is in.
FW: Thierry Henry (France) – One of my all time favourite footballers, the 2nd best striker I’ve seen play the game after Ronaldo (Messi and CR7 are forwards not strikers). Henry was electric. Pace, pace, pace, touch, control, dribbling and glorious finishing. Has there anyone more clinical from a one on one than Henry. When he opened he body up everyone knew what was coming up. An ingenious footballer. Scoring some of the most creative goals ever seen. Quality. In French side blessed with great strikers: Trezeguet, Wiltord. Henry shone as he helped France lift Euro 2000. France’s greatest striker alongside Just Fontaine.
FW: Gerd Muller (Germany) – One of the greatest goal scorers ever. Muller knew one thing scoring goals. More famous for his World Cup scoring exploits. Muller won the Euro Golden Boot with West Germany as they lifted the title in 72. And it is this winning pedigree that gets him in the team ahead of Pirlo in midfield.
FW: Marco Van Basten (Netherlands) – If you don’t believe in magic. You Tube Van Basten’s volley in the Euro 88 final against the USSR. The greatest Euro goal by one of it’s greatest players. Van Basten is another automatic selection. As that volley demonstrated. Van Basten was capable of scoring goals no one else could score. He was special. When Arrigo Sachi set about building the great Milan side of the early 90s it was Van Basten that was the key. Rijkaard and Gullit weren’t enough you needed the sprinkling of magic Van Basten provided. Unfortunately his career was cut short by horrific injuries but his performance in Euro 88 alone ensures he walks into this side.
Lev Yashin (USSR), Frank Rijkaard (Netherlands), Lilian Thuram (France), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Michel Platini (France), Xavi Hernandez (Spain), David Villa (Spain)
The Manager: So that’s the team so who to manage such a motley crew. Well no manager has won 2 Euros so this honour goes to one of the game’s greatest ever managers, Rinus Michels, one of Total Football’s architects. Who managed the great Ajax side of the early 70s with Cruyff. The great Netherlands side of the 70s again featuring Cruyff and on his return to the national team he went one better than the 74 side always remembered for losing beautifully by winning beautifully in 88 with a side perhaps equally as talented. A true pioneer whose footballing philosophy influenced so many great sides of today. There was only one choice for such a team.