Gabriele Marcotti Selects

By Gabriele Marcotti  |  20 Mar 2015

This article first appeared in Issue Two of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2011

Goalkeeper: Walter Zenga

The best in the world in his era, what set him apart was the mop haircut and brash, suburban bully attitude. Zenga approached everything with a mixture of bluster and over-enthusiasm, whether it was managing (and winning titles) in Serbia and Romania or flogging nutritional supplements on late-night shopping channels (which he also did, post-retirement).

Rightback: Javier Zanetti

Used to be known as “El Tractor,” but bionic man is more like it. It’s not just the absurdly long career, eerie consistency and quick smile that make him special. Zanetti is what God had in mind when he invented role model athletes. He’s a one man charity conglomerate and, unlike most, he doesn’t just cut cheques, he donates his time, spending seemingly every minute away from football on one foundation or another.

Centreback: Marco Materazzi

The “Matrix” may not be to everyone’s tastes but he is evidence that ugly ducklings don’t need to grow up to be swans to taste glory. They can just turn into ugly adult ducks and, through sheer hard work and pigheadedness, they can score goals in World Cup finals. Oh, and get Zinedine Zidane sent off.

Centreback: Fernando Hierro

His name means “Iron,” and while he could whack the leather off a football, he could also strike it with the accuracy of a precision infra-red guided ballistic missile. A warrior and a leader who could at once terrify opposing strikers and deliver the ball wherever he wanted with one almighty whack of the boot. It takes somebody special to delight both Sam Allardyce and Jorge Valdano. Hierro managed to do it.

Leftback: Paolo Maldini

It’s always good to be reminded of your own humanity by contemplating (near) divinity. Tall, handsome, talented, loyal and, above all, effortless, he is the ultimate football aristocrat (or, rather, what nobility would have been if the gene pool had not been screwed up by centuries of intermarriage).

Midfield: Carlo Ancelotti

Before repeated injuries mangled his knees, Ancelotti was the complete midfielder who covered industrial quantities of the pitch and spread the ball with precision and creativity, while uncorking the odd Exocet at the opposition goal. This old school Carletto, the one at Roma, whose hurricane-like presence prompted even the cynical Stadio Olimpico to give him standing ovations.

Midfield: Roy Keane

Since it’s my fantasy, it would be the young Keane, albeit with the Ahmadinejad beard he sported later on in life. (There aren’t enough bearded footballers anymore anyway and this would creep out the opposition even further).

A bit of intimidation never hurt anyone. And with Ancelotti alongside him, he could be the vintage Keane, with licence to storm forward and wreak havoc, rather than purely defensive model we saw later in his career.

Midfield: Xavi

Think time and space are constants? Think again. Xavi manipulates time by picking out split-second windows that simply aren’t there for other fooballers. And he controls space by threading laser-accurate balls through gaps too small to allow them through. He bends physics to his will and slows the ticking of the clock at his pleasure. Sorcery in fooball.

Right wing: Paolo Di Canio

Well, he’s not going to play on the left, is he? Few players connect with fans the way he does, fewer still are as adept in turning personal rage into a driving force. Has made so many illustrious defenders dance like puppets on a string (YouTube his humiliation of Franco Baresi or Martin Keown if you don’t believe me) he could be football’s Jim Henson. When he gets the ball, you know something is about to happen.

Centre forward: Samuel Eto’o

Few superstar strikers in the history of the game can match him for workrate. You think goalscorers have to be selfish? Think again. He runs himself into the ground for the benefit of the team and still scores 25-30 goals a season, sometimes more. He once said: “A team is like a band. I don’t need to be the lead singer or lead guitarist. I just beat the drums and set the rhythm for everybody else.” Sums him up perfectly. A class act.

Left wing: Diego Maradona

In reality, of course, he’ll play where he wants and he and Di Canio will float and switch positions, listening to their internal genius. What more can I say that hasn’t been already said? His warm-up routine alone would pack any stadium. And what many of his critics forget is that he was a great teammate as well: you won’t find many who have played with him who have anything but unconditional love for him. The perfect cherry on top.

Manager: Francisco Maturana

This would be, of course, Maturana before his career was derailed by the trauma of USA ’94 and the killing of Andres Escobar. When Arrigo Sacchi was implementing the last real tactical revolution in Europe, he was doing the same in South America: a disciplined, aggressive zonal system based on pressing with allowance for individual genius and creativity. Lost his mojo after 1994, but, until then, shattered racial and footballing stereotypes.

Director of Football: Jorge Valdano

Working for Real Madrid, the ultimate Establishment club, but still coming across as a pure, footballing utopian with a smattering of South American literary lefty chic isn’t easy, but he manages to do it. Talk to him for five minutes about football and if you’re not seduced, you’re either a moron, a cynic or Jose Mourinho. Once said: “People say history remembers the winners. They’re wrong. Hungary 1954 and Holland 1974 are immortal, the teams who beat them in the final are half-forgotten.” He’s right.

Chairman: Bill Clinton

You want a guy who is credible (Monica Lewinsky aside) and respectable (as long as the neo-cons aren’t around) to be chairman and Bill is both those things. No clue if he likes football but he likes people and he gets things done. Plus, his contacts book has no peers.

Stadium: Westfalenstadion

Some grounds may have more history, but my fantasy team would make history. And they’d do it at the Wesfalenstadion, with its ridiculous acoustics making it one of the loudest places to watch sport in the entire world.  With a capacity of 80,000 to suit all tastes (corporate boxes, seating and standing, the way God intended) it manages to combine size and atmosphere like no other. And, of course, we’d fix it so we’d always play the second half in front of the legendary 25,000 capacity Sudtribune, the largest-free standing grandstand in Europe.

Kit: Boca Juniors

The yellow horizontal stripe on the baby blue background… classy and non-conformist at the same time, perfect for this group of players.

Fans: Napoli

It’s not that they’re long-suffering, passionate and loyal. Plenty of fans are. It’s that their loyalty is conditional. Please them and they’ll worship you. Displease them and you’ll be met either by anger or indifference. A dog can be loyal. A real fan is one whose respect and love you have to earn, week after week. A real fan will always love the colours and the idea of the club, but he’ll only offer unconditional support to those who deserve it. These long-suffering supporters are the same who showed up 60,000 strong in the third division but also deserted the San Paolo en masse when they felt the team was letting them down. That’s what I want. Fans who will hold you to account.

City: Glasgow

It’s simple maths. There’s more football density here than anywhere else. A city of 600,000 with three 50,000-plus football stadia? Are you kidding me? Glasgow is drenched in football.

Owner: The Supporters Themselves

Yep, a supporters’ trust with fans owning shares, electing a chairman every five years and weighing in on the major issues. A bit like Barcelona and Real Madrid, only with more transparency.

Referee: Pierluigi Collina

It’s not the bald head or piercing eyes. It’s just that he commands respect and, most of all, gets most of the decisions right. That’s all you can ask for.

Pre-match drinks: Nevada Smith’s, NY

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And at this midtown Manhattan bar with a billion TV screens, the footballing diaspora from every corner of the globe convene to commune with their clubs. The football as religion metaphor is way overused. But this is a church where there is only one religion – football – and all stripes are welcome.

Post-match meal: Meson Txistu, Madrid

They bring you a hot stone, you stick your thinly-sliced steak on it and, a few minutes later, you’re in culinary heaven. With a rocking wine list and a “who’s who” of football types showing up at all hours (and I do mean “all hours”), it’s the perfect place for post-match dissection.

Gabriele Marcotti is an acclaimed football journalist, author and broadcaster, whose work has appeared in The Times, ESPN and the Wall Street Journal, among many others.
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