The game changers
Striking zone — On his Cup XI
In earlier times, my dear readers, young, strapping and strong boys were not taught to play football. That was because money was not the reward. It was a game for those with the gift; a natural endowment from heaven that enabled mere mortals to bring entertainment to mankind. In those days, entertainment was pure and stars shone and sparkled. At present, it is a fairly easy task as the playing field is almost level. Mediocrity has in some way replaced talent. Strength and fitness has replaced that Krishanu Dey’s kind of wizardry. It has become easy to make a World XI team. Having played football and then coached and worked hard for a Football Analysis qualification in one of Europe’s leading Universities, I will rather say that the task is greatly simplified. Football is dynamic and, of course, those who start in this World XI team may have to struggle to be in consideration by the end of the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia. Being a coach, it is my aim to convey my philosophy through my players. I believe the opponents should not touch the ball. If they touch it, they should not have it. They should not by any means string four to five passes together without my team retrieving it from them. I am okay if we lose, but even in losing the match, the opponent should be brought down to their knees by the football we display. In selecting a World XI, I have decided to shift from my usually preferred system of 3:5:2 to 4:4:2. Everyone in this list is of pure talent. They are not here because they can stick to a specific task but because they are naturally talented.
David De Gea, Spain
De Gea, has been one of the few consistent goalkeepers for club and country in the recent past.
Plying his trade in England, he has been instrumental in stabilising the recent free fall of Manchester United.
As the last line of defence, he has proved himself, at times to stunning proportions. He has brought back confidence to the back-four of his team.
His greatest asset is his positioning. It is almost uncanny how he can narrow the angle of the ball even when action is in the middle of the field. For a big man, he is of very quick reflex and gets down to the deck very quickly to effect saves.
He is first an outfield player and then a goalkeeper. This means he is confident of his ability with his feet, which is required in these days of possession football. He is a good communicator and one can hear him offering instructions to his strikers, 80 metres away. He has been known to be of a very calm disposition. De Gea certainly is head and shoulders above most of his peers.
Kyle Walker, England
Just after the Euro 2016, I picked a World XI and had a relatively unknown quantity, Kyle Walker, in the team. There was no question asked about the other ten players, but people wanted to know why I had included Walker. And a short while later, Pep Guardiola paid out a world record fee for a defender and did a deal with Tottenham Hotspur. Walker not only became a Manchester City player but dramatically, the most expensive defender in the world. He is one of the fastest footballers on this planet. He is strong, energetic, willing and intelligent on or off the ball. His role is very vital in his team’s success. He adds numbers to his side, he becomes that extra support in any situation. When his team goes in the attack, he joins the forwards from his own right flank adding one more person to the attack, and when the opponent is attacking, Walker takes on the onerous task of not letting the opponent’s left winger cross the ball. With a phenomenal work rate, he plays with the most ferocious speed. His crosses have often rattled the opponent and he has also formed scores of assists.
Sergio Ramos, Spain
The much maligned Sergio Ramos is a class act. He is a natural footballer. He is able to fit into any position on the field. Starting his career as a right wing-back where he excelled, he moved to be a central midfielder where he offered a protective screen to his defenders. Scan through the field and you will immediately notice that Ramos is a standalone. He is head and shoulders above his peers. I consider him to be the best central defender in the world at present. Ramos is one who understands the art of defending. He brings to the game a profound concept as a defender. Ramos never dives in, he defends with skill. He causes the opponent to pass the ball to teammates behind and not in front. He makes sure that the opponent does not turn with the ball. A simple ploy but simply brilliant. Ramos also chips in with very important goals.
Samuel Umtiti, France
Usually, as a coach I prefer three central defenders in my line-up. They will always be confident on the ball and I will always entrust them with the starting of moves and sometimes in completing the moves in the opponent’s 18-yard box. I have to make do with two because I have scanned and scoured the horizon and I see Sergio Ramos, alone. Umtiti is a brilliant defender, but definitely not in the class of Ramos. He has the knack of fairly stopping the opponent from making inroads into his territory. He has done well for Barcelona in this role and amongst the rest, he seems the most capable to partner with Ramos in this sensitive area of the field. Wish I could say more for him and the rest of the central defenders in the world. But maybe, I have said more already without words. However, Umtiti has injury problems and may miss France’s opener.
Marcelo is one of those players who make football look easy. Watching him always provokes a response of ‘Oh, I can do that too’. His is a natural expression and akin to a great artist at work. His flow is full of grace and you will notice no sign of toil. A pure conductor of an orchestra, he tunes the melody to perfection. He manages a lot of responsibility. Like Kyle Walker, he plays from his own box to the opponent’s box. That means that he increases the numbers for his team in every situation. Attacking or defending, he is always in the mix. He is one of the few wing-backs who has mastered the art of neat dribbling. Marcelo is also one of the best deliverers of a freekick. He is a scoring wing back, an entertainer and an accomplished footballer. Being a natural left footer, he is guaranteed to be a class act.
RIGHT WING HALF
Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium
Right-footed midfielders do not often come so accomplished as Kevin De Bruyne. He is strong, energetic, full of flair, competitive. He is a leader and has immense understanding of football. De Bruyne is a special player. He does everything excellently both on and off the pitch. His understanding and mastery of football is stupefying to say the least. With his in depth knowledge of football, he makes his moves lethal. A man of great industry, he is known to work from his own box to the opponent’s box. He is always in the opponent’s box to complete his team’s move. He is down in his own box, man-marking an opponent and adding numbers to his defence. A man of immense quality, he has scored several stunning and memorable goals. His cool disposition stands him in good stead. He is a football royalty.
N’Golo Kante, France
Whenever I hear the name N’Golo Kante, it reminds me of an advertisement for a battery that outlasts all others. Kante is the heart of his team’s midfield. In the 90 minutes, Kante does not only work harder than any other footballer, but he is also effective. His brilliance is in winning the ball off the opponent with minimum fuss. He works for all his teammates and as a protective screen to his defence, he does not dwell on the ball much. He steals it and hands it over to his teammates while at all times keeping himself free and ready for combat. Kante also has a lot of flair in his repertoire.
Luka Modric, Croatia
A giant in all but height, Luka Modric, in my estimation, is one of the best footballers in the world. He has had repeated success with different teams. The pint sized central midfielder has been known to be the heart and soul of all the teams that he has represented. It is the same at Real Madrid where his champagne football has created a multitude of fan-following. Modric is naturally gifted. He is capable of delivering both short and long-range passes. Passing is the hallmark of the central midfield and good passing ability shows a central midfielder in good light. He covers a lot of space, he keeps the ball so very well that it is absolutely impossible to take the ball off him, cleanly. Many opponents have been known to commit fouls on him at their own peril. Modric packs a punch on both feet and has scored many goals with his long-rangers. Croatia will expect Modric to be more incisive as he moves closer to the opposition box. Modric’s precision in the midfield is the most potent weapon for the Croats, and that would provide optimism to the team.
LEFT WING HALF
Neymar, currently adjudged one of the best footballers in the world, is comfortable playing in several positions. He is light on his feet and extremely quick with the ball. He is young and his appetite for the game is at an all-time high. He comes in on the left wing being a left-footed player. The idea is to make it easier for him to side foot the ball in a position of striking. Perhaps Neymar’s best asset is his dribbling. He is able to get the ball glued to his feet even without looking at it. It is always a treat watching him waltz past three to four opponents easily. He has a natural panache for scoring goals and that has made him one of the most dreaded footballers in the world. In this team, he will be the perfect foil to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Neymar has been out since February following surgery on a metatarsal fracture, but has taken the positives from that setback. “I had enough time to arrive at the World Cup in good shape and prepare,” said the Paris Saint-Germain attacker, who is fourth on Brazil’s list of all-time leading marksmen (53 goals) behind Romario (55), Ronaldo (62) and Pele (77). “Being injured isn’t good, but I feel rested. We have to look at the positives,” he said.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
You think of the magic and flair of a natural left-footer and the name that crops up is that of Lionel Messi. If Messi is simple in his way of life off the pitch, he is a calamity for opponents in the field of play. He is a one-man army with total annihilation as intent. In most instances, he has achieved this feat. An entertainer with the ultimate gift, Messi has entertained the world of football again and again. His countless runs with the ball, his almost uncanny sense of positioning, his map reading of the pitch, his dumbfounding goals — you name it and Messi has got it. I will not waste your time on analysing Messi. The best player in the world, however, has won everything - except a trophy with the national team. He will give his all in this World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
The ultimate goal machine, Cristiano Ronaldo has been a nightmare for defenders and goalkeepers in his illustrious career. He is fast, furious, and hardworking. He is direct and does what he knows best — scoring goals — better than anyone in the world. Ronaldo, like Messi, has won several accolades and recognitions, but still has a wonderful appetite for the game. His secret lies in his preparedness. Ronaldo is always in a primed body. He is fit and raring to go at all times. This is not a small matter because Ronaldo works all day to achieve this. He sets himself difficult targets and has a single-minded devotion in achieving them. Ronaldo is simply in a league of his own.
♦ Chima Okorie came to India as a student and his big break came when he joined Mohammedan Sporting in 1985. The Nigerian switched over to East Bengal in 1987 and became the darling of the fans. After a stint with Mohun Bagan, Chima moved to England. A National Football League winner, Chima has scored 280 goals playing for the Big Three