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Every four years, the world puts its differences aside for one brief month to come together and celebrate the greatest festival on earth: the FIFA World Cup. Featuring the mightiest teams and their greatest players, the tournament has gifted fans with numerous unforgettable moments since its inception in 1930.
Putting on a show at the grandest stage on earth is every footballer’s dream, but only a handful have succeeded in their endeavor. Today, we will take a look at the most revered performers in FIFA World Cup history and try to create the strongest possible XI.
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas
Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas was one of his nation’s key performers in their victorious 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign. The legendary shot-stopper made some stunning saves over the course of the tournament, winning the Golden Glove. Casillas, who made 17 saves at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, was only beaten in two games, keeping clean sheets in the remaining five games.
Center-back: Franz Beckenbauer
Nicknamed “Der Kaiser” (The Emperor), Franz Beckenbauer was equally adept at playing as a center-back and as a defensive midfielder. He carried the ball with grace, linked up brilliantly with teammates, and always led his troop by example. The two-time Ballon d’Or winner helped West Germany to the 1974 FIFA World Cup, playing all seven matches and claiming an assist.
Center-back: Fabio Cannavaro
The only traditional centre-back in history to win the Ballon d’Or, Fabio Cannavaro was a rock at the back for Italy. One of the heroes of the Azzurri’s FIFA World Cup triumph in 2006, Cannavaro closed down opponents without hesitation, rarely overcommitted, and could play defense-piercing long balls from deep.
Left-back: Roberto Carlos
One of the best full-backs of all time, Roberto Carlos remains an inspiration for left-backs across the globe. The Brazilian had an innate ability to join the attack from deep. He was quick, loved to overlap, could deliver pinpoint crosses, and knew how to find the back of the net.
Central midfield: Lothar Matthaus
One of the greatest defensive midfielders of his time, Lothar Matthaus played in five FIFA World Cups. A legendary leader, Matthaus had success both as a defensive midfielder and as a sweeper. His pinpoint long balls were a treat to watch, with him effortlessly assisting Germany’s forwards sitting deep in his own half.
Matthaus helped West Germany to World Cup glory in 1990, scoring four times over the course of the tournament. The Germans beat Argentina 1-0 in the final to bring home their third World Cup.
Central midfield: Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane was nothing short of a magician in France’s colors. The midfield maestro helped Les Bleus to their first-ever FIFA World Cup in 1998 and almost did it again eight years later, in 2006. Had he not been sent off for a headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 final against Italy, Les Bleus could very well have lifted their second World Cup. Zidane featured in 12 World Cup games for France, scoring five times and claiming three assists.
Attacking midfield: Garrincha
With the great Pele injured in the knockout stages of the 1962 FIFA World Cup, Garrincha stepped up and led the effervescent Brazilian attack. Garrincha had already made a name for himself courtesy of his brilliant performances at the 1958 World Cup, but it was in 1962 that he truly set the world alight.
Garrincha did not score or assist, but produced a mesmerizing overall performance to help his team to a 3-1 victory.
Attacking midfield: Diego Maradona
Widely hailed as the best player that ever lived, Diego Maradona was the hero of Argentina’s World Cup triumph in 1986. Donning the armband, Maradona weaved his way past players, evading challenges and scoring mesmerizing goals.
No list of FIFA World Cup’s greatest players is complete without the mention of Pele. He fired Brazil to their first-ever World Cup as a 17-year-old, scoring twice in a 5-2 win over Sweden in the final. In the semi-finals, he scored a hat-trick to inflict an emphatic 5-2 defeat upon the mighty France.
Forward: Ronaldo Nazario
Arguably the greatest striker in the history of the sport, Ronaldo Nazario played in three FIFA World Cups, impressing in all three. In 1998, he scored four times to take Brazil to the final, where they eventually lost to Zidane’s France. In 2006, he bagged three goals before the Selecao were eliminated by France in the quarter-finals.