Spain all-time greatest playing XI and manager: Barcelona stars dominate legendary line-up

Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered England, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Portugal in this series. Today’s nation of focus is Spain.

Football in the early to mid-2000s has been defined by Spain. Once considered underachievers at the international level, La Furia Roja shed that tag by winning Euro 2008, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2012. It is the type of domination not seen much in the modern era. But Spain’s impact on the world of football runs deeper than just their glory. For a while, everyone tried their best to ape the Spanish style of play. The possession-based style, featuring intricate passes and slick off-the-ball movements, became the way to play for many. It helped, of course, that the nation seemed to produce great talent as if it was no big deal.

Indeed, it is the sheer level of talent they have produced that makes this list – an all-time playing XI from Spain – so hard to compile. And doubtless we will have offended fans of certain players.

So, without further ado, let us take a look at what we think is the best Spanish playing XI ever.

Table of Contents

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas – (Active from 1998-2020, Spain caps: 167, World Cup wins: 1, Notable career achievements: Picked in UEFA Team of the Year 6 times, won 19 trophies at Real Madrid, Notable clubs: Real Madrid, Porto)

That Iker Casillas was one of few players to make it from Real Madrid’s academy to their first team should in itself be an indication of how talented he was. Real are not exactly vaunted for promoting younger players; but in Casillas they had someone who would go on to become a legend of the sport.

Casillas was nicknamed “Saint Iker” by fans and pundits for his ability to inspire calm. Between the sticks he was as reliable as they come; combining excellent shot stopping and reflexes to become an all-time great. He was also Spain’s captain as they won the Euros in 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup.

His club career saw him win multiple honours, although many fans regret the way he was forced out of Madrid. Nevertheless, it did little to diminish his legendary status. Casillas was voted as the second-best goalkeeper of the 2000s, behind only Italian great Gianluigi Buffon.

Right-back: Sergio Ramos – (Active from 2003-present, Spain caps: 180, World Cup wins: 1, Notable career achievements: key part of dominant Real Madrid and Spain side, Notable clubs: Sevilla, Real Madrid)

Admittedly this is a bit of a shoehorn; Sergio Ramos is best remembered for his showings in the heart of defence. But he did spend a decent chunk of his senior career – both domestically and internationally – playing as a right-back. And it is impossible to leave him off such a list.

Ramos is arguably the template for what a modern defender should be – his sketchy disciplinary record aside, of course. He’s comfortable with the ball at his feet, possesses an excellent passing range and is proficient carrying the ball for long distances. He is also a good defensive organiser, with an ability to read the game and anticipate what is about to happen.

Ramos also is an underrated goal-scorer, noted for his “clutch” goals i.e. scoring at a time when the team needs it the most. Besides being an aerial threat, he was also a good free-kick and penalty taker. Like Casillas, his Madrid exit could have been better handled. But he will forever be seen as the blueprint for defenders of the future.

Centre-back: Carles Puyol – (Active from 1999-2014, Spain caps: 100, World Cup wins: 1, Notable career achievements: played for one club through his career and won multiple honours, Notable clubs: Barcelona)

The man nicknamed ‘The Caveman’ was something of an antithesis to Barcelona – and indeed, Spanish football – as a whole. While Spain is known to pride players with technical skill, Puyol is the kind of defender who would have not looked out of place in an English side of days gone by. Nevertheless, his biggest skill was that he worked hard on his game.

A graduate of Barcelona’s famed ‘La Masia’ academy, he played only for the club of his youth through his career. He was even their captain for a good portion of his career and it is easy to understand why. Not only was he the hardest worker in the squad, he could lift his teammates and possessed excellent organisational skills.

Aside from that, he was also good in the air and was much rougher than your average Spanish defender. As such, he was a key part of the side that won Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010. Indeed, his defensive organisation stood out in a team full of ball players. But that is exactly what they needed to compliment their attacking football with defensive solidity.

Centre-back: Gerard Pique – (Active from 2004-present, Spain caps: 102, World Cup wins: 1, Notable career achievements: won two continental Trebles while at Barcelona, Notable clubs: Barcelona, Manchester United)

Like Ramos before him, Gerard Pique too is someone who epitomises what defending in the modern era is about. The talented centre-back excels at not only being able to play out from the back, but also in anticipating the game and thus being a proactive defensive presence.

Despite being prone to the occasional error, Pique remained a key part of both a dominant Barcelona and Spain side. His pro-Catalan views made him no friends in certain parts of Spain. But he was a first-choice starter when available for both club and country.

Pique continues to ply his trade for Barcelona and while his best days are probably behind him, it seems unlikely he will play anywhere else but for his boyhood club. He remains a key leadership presence in the locker room as someone who’s literally won it all with Spain and Barcelona.

Left-back: Jose Antonio Camacho – (Active from 1972-89, Spain caps: 81, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: played nearly 600 games for Real Madrid, Notable clubs: Real Madrid)

Jose Antonio Camacho started and ended his career at Real Madrid, which is notable for two reasons. One, their record with youth development isn’t the greatest. Two, the political machinations at the club tend to drive out even the longest-serving players. Yet the great left-back was the exception to the rule.

His time at the club was full of glory too; he won 19 trophies with the club, including 9 La Liga titles and 5 Copa del Rey trophies. Sadly for him, his international career coincided with a time when Spain were not a dominant force. Still, he was part of the side that finished second in the 1984 European Championships.

Camacho’s career could have ended sooner thanks to an injury that he suffered in training. However, he would go on to make a comeback after nearly 2 years out. He would eventually retire from the game on his own terms.

Defensive midfielder: Sergio Busquets – (Active from 2008-present, Spain caps: 127, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: has made over 600 appearances and counting for Barcelona, Notable clubs: Barcelona)

Part of Pep Guardiola’s La Masia revolution when he took charge at Barcelona, Sergio Busquets was always seen as a guaranteed first-team player in his young days. Even during his youth, he played with a maturity that belied his age. Indeed, his maturity was praised by none other than Johan Cruyff.

When he made his debut, he soon displaced experienced teammates Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita in the holding midfield role. It is understandable why: Busquets was an entirely different player at the base of the midfield. Whereas defensive midfielders were usually big with tackles and ball winning, Busquets was more refined.

His game is predicated on anticipation, positioning and interception. As such, he was the perfect fit for both a dominant Barcelona and Spain sides. In fact, age 33, he is currently the captain of both his club and country. Age might have slowed him down a tad but his sharp mind means he remains first choice when available.

Central midfielder – Xavi Hernandez – (Active from 1997-2019, Spain caps: 133, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: second-most decorated player in Spain’s history with 32 trophies, Notable clubs: Barcelona, Al Saad)

If Barcelona could produce a midfielder in a lab, chances are it would resemble Xavi Hernandez. The Catalan midfielder was a perfect example of a player whose game was brains over brawn. Xavi was not physically imposing, nor was he the quickest on the field. But he made the team tick with his passing, vision, positioning and ability to keep the ball.

Xavi’s all-round passing skills saw him record multiple assists; indeed, he topped the assists chart in Spain multiple times throughout his career. It helped, of course, that he spent most of his career with Lionel Messi in front of him. But the passes would have been sublime even without Messi up front.

He grew to be an integral part of both Barcelona and Spain, despite the emergence of newer midfielders as he grew in age. He ended his career at Qatar club Al-Saad, whom he managed until recently. Xavi is now the new Barcelona manager. But regardless of how that spell goes, he is etched in the folklore of club and country.

Central midfielder – Andres Iniesta – (Active from 2001- present, Spain caps: 131, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: most decorated player in Spain’s history with 35 trophies, Notable clubs: Barcelona, Vissel Kobe)

In Spain and Barcelona if Busquets was the shield and Xavi the creator, then Andres Iniesta was the engine. A different player to Xavi, Iniesta’s genius lay in him doing the simpler things right. His ability to carry the ball from deep and into the attacking third was key for both club and country.

His assist tally was not as high as Xavi’s and he wasn’t scoring 20 goals per season either. But he popped up with key passes and goals whenever the team needed it the most. It is worth remembering that Iniesta scored the only goal in the 2010 World Cup final.

But Iniesta’s game was about more than just goals and assists. He made the team tick and could change the game instantly with a sudden run or deft pass. Barcelona have struggled to replace him in recent years, and understandably so. He was a one-of-a-kind talent for club and country.

Right-winger: Alfredo di Stefano – (Active from 1945-1966, Spain caps: 31, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: won five straight European Cups with Real Madrid, Notable clubs: River Plate, Real Madrid)

Born in Buenos Aires but a true legend of Spain, Alfredo di Stefano epitomised football greatness in the nation. Indeed, there are many who till this date stress that he was a better player than even Pele and Maradona. While this might be a debatable opinion, what cannot be debated is Di Stefano’s greatness.

On the football pitch, he was a creative and versatile forward who could score and create goals effortlessly. Di Stefano could also play anywhere in the attacking third, meaning he was a guaranteed starter for both club and country. He also won a ton of trophies; he scored in the final of the first five European Cups, which Real won.

His international career is interesting and controversial. He was capped for Argentina but later banned from playing for them by FIFA. The reason? He played some unofficial games for Colombia; a country he neither held a passport for nor had any natural connection to. As a result, he played for Spain too, where he became a naturalised citizen.

Left-winger: Paco Gento – (Active from 1952-71, International caps: 43, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: 12-time La Liga winner and 6-time European Cup winner – the most in history, Notable clubs: Real Madrid)

If Real Madrid are a team associated with European glory, then Francisco Gento Lopez – known as Paco Gento – was their finest proponent. As part of a legendary Real side, he played in 8 European Cup finals and won 6 of them; both of which are records.

He played alongside Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano at Real. And he became captain when both of them departed the club. The sight of Gento on the left flank, wearing the number 11 jersey either providing an assist or scoring from distance, became an all-too-common sight. He was a threat either as a creator or a goal-scorer.

Gento never won anything with the Spanish national team, but that was down more to the nation being underachievers at the time. He remains a legend of Spanish football for his exploits and is currently Honorary President of Real Madrid, for whom he made over 400 appearances.

Striker: David Villa – (Active from 2000-20, International caps: 98, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: Spain’s highest-ever goal-scorer both overall and in World Cups, Notable clubs: Valencia, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid)

David Villa’s near-flawless all-round game meant he pips the likes of Raul and Fernando Torres in this list. The fact that he is also currently Spain’s record goal-scorer also helps his cause. But the man nicknamed ‘El Guaje’ – or ‘The Kid’ in Asturian – was so much more than just a goal-scorer.

Villa preferred playing centrally but his overall link-up play, ability to pick passes and stamina made him a prime candidate to play either in a withdrawn #10 role or even on the wing. That he could shoot or pass confidently with both feet helped considerably.

His club career saw him play for and win trophies with four different clubs: he won the Copa del Rey with Real Zaragoza and Valencia, as well as a plethora of trophies with Barcelona before winning one final La Liga with Atletico Madrid. He was also a key part of the Spain side that won the Euros in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, displacing then-captain Raul from the side.

Manager: Vicente del Bosque

The man who finally took Spain to World Cup glory and followed it up with another Euro win in 2012, Vicente del Bosque is the most obvious candidate for their greatest ever manager. He was a fine player in his time too, being part of a trophy-winning Real Madrid side in the 1960s and ‘70s.

He would then begin his coaching career at the club too, first at the Castilla side then as caretaker of the senior team in two separate stints. Del Bosque would eventually land the job full-time, winning seven trophies with them. But his greatest triumph was reserved for the national side.

Taking over from Luis Aragones, he took Spain’s Euro 2008 winning side to South Africa and won them their first ever World Cup. He then ensured they retained the Euros 2 years later. His time at the helm of the side ended poorly but he will always be the man who won Spain’s first World Cup.

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