Nostalgia and the only increasing quality of football with each passing year makes fantasy finals and all-time XIs harder and harder to pick.
The Champions League is centre stage for European football’s main event stars to steal the show and take all the headlines, aiming for perhaps the most prestigious piece of silverware on offer.
From Ronaldinho rubbing his hands and David Beckham standing over a dead ball, to Lionel Messi slaloming through dozens of players with ease, and Luka Modric splitting open defences like a hot knife through butter. Those big European nights are endlessly special, no matter the year, and it makes picking a team of 11 players incredibly difficult.
Rio Ferdinand reached the summit with Manchester United, winning the tournament in 2008 and making the final on further two occasions. And had he not come up against arguably the greatest club football side ever in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, he might’ve had an astounding three Champions Leagues to his name. Not bad going, that.
Speaking to Joe Cole for BT Sport ahead of the 2021/22 semi-finals, Ferdinand was tasked with piecing together his all-time Champions League XI. Let’s have a look at who he picked and what he had to say – and then have a big argument about his decisions.
Goalkeeper | Edwin van der Sar
Ferdinand said: “Judging goalkeepers for me, it’s do they transpire that calmness and confidence through the team? And our back four were always calmer when he was in the goal. He wasn’t someone you’d look at and think ‘oh he’d made unbelievable saves today’, he was just there, made saves and he made them comfortably. Right positioning, great with both feet.”
Centre-back | Sergio Ramos
Ferdinand said: “Big games, big moments, scorer of a load of goals for a centre-half as well, and he’s a leader. He’s grown on me. Earlier stages, he wouldn’t have been in this team if we we’re picking it years ago, but the older he’s got, the more mature he’s got, the more effective he is in the game. In the big games, he steps up.”
Centre-back | Paolo Maldini
Ferdinand said: “He was a fantastic player. Looked a nine-and-a-half out of ten – I saw him in Miami once and he got out the pool and I swear to you I had to turn away! I just thought it was too much, you can’t be that good a player and look that good. For me, his positioning was brilliant, he was strong enough, he was quick, he was great under the ball and temperament… there wouldn’t be many you’d put above him in terms of temperament in big games especially.”
Full-backs | Dani Alves & Roberto Carlos
On Alves, Ferdinand said: “When you look at that great Barcelona team and that great spell they had winning loads and loads of trophies, he was integral to the way they played. He just patrolled the right-hand side on his own, whether or not it was defending at the back. But most of the time he was like a right winger. Him and Messi had a great relationship together and I just think that he was on another planet to all full backs.”
On Carlos, Ferdinand said: “How many left backs in world football ever have we seen and you go ‘actually he’s a superstar’? He, again, transcended the position, patrolled that side on his own. You know what I liked about him? It seemed like he was just playing games on the pitch – ‘let me just see if I can hit it 60, 70 yards today’. You just knew chances were gonna come.”
Centre midfield | Xavi & Andres Iniesta
Ferdinand said: “We [Manchester United] played in the Champions League against these guys twice, man, and they just, they took my soul. They suffocated us, they controlled the pace of the game, they played one and two touch, couldn’t get near ’em. We would’ve been playing today and I still wouldn’t touch the ball. They were just on another planet. The best club team I played against and these two were the centrepiece of that… They were just too good. Simple as that.”
Centre midfield | Clarence Seedorf
Ferdinand said: “Clarence Seedorf for me is the most underrated player in the Champions League. This guy won four Champions Leagues, three of them with different teams. He was unreal, seriously. Off both feet, he was quick, he was strong, he could turn the pace up of a game when needed, in tight areas would receive it off both feet, balance unreal. He was like a ballerina in there. He just did things that you thought, ‘how was that possible?’ He was a phenomenal player, seriously. You couldn’t get near him.”
Right wing | Lionel Messi
Ferdinand said: “This guy, man. Unplayable. You know what he does? He doesn’t play right against you. Everyone’s playing to him, but then it’s about him. Big moments, this guy’s always stepped up, always produced, and I don’t even think I touched him in the game at Wembley. These are the types of moments that you just don’t forget… There are only a few players in the history of the game that have made you go like this [hands on head] – Messi is one of them.”
Striker | Cristiano Ronaldo
Ferdinand said: “The two best players to ever play the game [referring to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo]. Cristiano’s gonna be my number nine for obvious reasons.”
Left wing | Ronaldinho
Ferdinand said: “The streets will never forget this guy. He brought charisma, class – forget the skill, he brought an excitement, he brought a smile to your face. And there ain’t many players that I’ve ever seen – probably Messi’s done it, Ronaldo’s done it and R9’s done it, and probably Thierry [Henry] – but this guy, maybe in a different way to all of those, drew gasps on your sofa when you’re watching games where this guy played. He was a joke.”