's Underrated XI: The Unsung Heroes

It’s easy to pick your version of the best footballing XI of all time. It may not agree with the one picked by your friends, and if it is a collaborative effort you’re likely to find yourself falling out over full-backs, but with no restrictions, and a basic formation, we could all put together a side that could play a hybrid version of Total Football, the Beautiful Game and catenaccio, rendering it more or less unbeatable.

It’s harder to pick a “most underrated XI”, because you’re immediately faced with the question of what makes a player underrated – and who qualifies under that definition. It was easier before the Internet, of course. Back then, you could name a solid club player, maybe uncapped by their country, and people would nod and say “Oh, he is good. Yeah, he deserves more credit.”. Today, if you so much as happen to suggest that a talented player deserves some love, someone will point you to about thirty articles profiling that player’s skills.

That’s one reason why this selection is actually the Most Underrated XI of The Last 25 Years, although that’s a bit of an unwieldy name and wouldn’t look very good on a badge. We could broaden it and pick players from the 60s and 70s, but unless you’re over 50 – and I’m not – you’re relying on archive footage, and given that that was an age before TV cameras were even at every game, it becomes unfair to go that far back.

Additionally, you will notice that all of the players named above have at least played international football. Almost all of them have played in at least one World Cup, and two have even picked up winner’s medals, which may give rise to some debate over whether they fit the description of “underrated”. So let’s get this out of the way – the term itself is elastic and vague to begin with. The eleven players picked here have, between them, fetched enormous transfer fees and earned enough money to run a small continent for a decade or so – that’s not in dispute. No doubt, you can find several articles about pretty much all of them, saying how good they were and in some cases still are.

What these players have in common is that they are not the “faces” of any top-tier team, either club or national, from the era in which they played. They are not the Beckhams, the Ronaldos (Cristiano or the Brazil one), or even. One of them even manages to not be the face of a Republic of Ireland team, which is some pretty special flying under of radars by anyone’s standards.

So let’s accept that not everyone reading will agree with that definition of underrated, and some will quibble with whether these players fall into even that narrow definition. Along the way, we will explain what makes these players both good enough, and unheralded enough, to be in this team. And then let debate commence, obviously, because it’s not a proper Select XI if the fallout doesn’t lead to the end of at least one friendship.


Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Although a controversial selection on at least a few levels, let us make the case for Kasper Schmeichel here. Not only would few people argue that he’s in the running for “best goalkeeper in the World” status, most would argue that he’s not the best goalkeeper in his family. But think of it this way – he played in a team that won the Premier League despite giving up the majority of possession in just about every game, and only conceded 36 goals despite not keeping a clean sheet until the 10th game. That’s not something that happens without a quality goalkeeper.

While many would argue that N’Golo Kante was the unsung hero of Leicester’s 2015-16 side, at least Kante made the PFA’s Team of the Year for that season. That Schmeichel didn’t seems harsh, given the part he played in delivering the league title (including 14 clean sheets).

Then bear in mind Leicester’s Champions’ League run, ending at the quarter-final stage in 2017. The Foxes overcame Sevilla 3-2 on aggregate in the last 16 and, in both legs, Peter’s son saved penalties with his team under sustained pressure. Those saves made all the difference over the tie. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have been linked with moves to England’s biggest clubs; that Schmeichel has not is somewhat mystifying.


Danny Blind (Holland)

From the son of a former Manchester United player to the father of a current one. Ajax’s 1995 team was a joy to watch; skilful, smart beyond its years, and successful, they won the Champions League with an average age of 23. The vast bulk of that side went on to play for bigger European sides – including Patrick Kluivert, who came off the bench to score Ajax’s winner in the final. Seven of them played for Barcelona.

The one player in that side that didn’t go on to earn megabucks at a European superpower was veteran Danny Blind, who partnered Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard in defence. Blind, equally comfortable at right-back or in the centre, never played club football outside Holland. With his ability on the ball, innate positional sense, and perfect anticipation, he was one of the first players Johann Cruyff signed as manager of Ajax; and if he was good enough for Cruyff, well…


Miguel Nadal (Spain)

Spanish football has a reputation in the present day for being a beautiful, fragile thing, at its best a balletic mix of one-touch passing and visionary movement. Any manager will tell you, though, that the players who perform these moves need a brute alongside them to remind opponents not to get too lairy. Although Spanish teams of the 1990s were masters of underachievement, they did feature one of the best brutes ever to step on a football pitch.

Miguel Angel (never was a middle name more misleading) Nadal was nicknamed “The Beast”, and if you watched him play for five minutes you’d see it was a nickname well earned. Sometimes attackers would get past him. Sometimes the ball would get past him – but never both together. He was perfectly capable with the ball at his feet, but isn’t remembered for that. Spain’s successful sides of the last decade have created new heroes for Spanish football fans, but Nadal still owns demigod status on his native island of Mallorca – where he began and ended his playing career – as a rock in defence or midfield.

His nephew can also play a bit of tennis, apparently.

Ronald Koeman (Holland)

Forget his ill-fated spell as Everton manager if you can. Try to push aside the night in Rotterdam, 1993, when he clearly committed a professional foul on David Platt in the penalty area – and a free kick was given with no booking, less still a red card. Ignore the fact that that night, he should have been heading towards an early bath, less than five minutes before he pinged a free kick of his own past the flailing David Seaman.

Sorry to bring those memories back, especially if you support both England and Everton, but that free kick sums up Ronald Koeman more than anything that happened before or after. The kick was retaken after Paul Ince charged out of the wall, and having opted for power first time, Koeman went for placement on the retake. It was immaculate. To have the presence of mind to do that at such a pivotal point in the game required a footballing brain the size of Jupiter. That was Ronald Koeman. Forget his obsession with collecting Number 10s, and remember him as a player who would be in every “Best XI” going, had he been Brazilian.


Denis Irwin (Ireland)

Irwin never looked like a professional footballer. Diminutive and stocky, he looked more like the manager of a small office supplies wholesaler just outside Killarney. However, inside that unassuming frame was probably the best full-back of the Ferguson era at Manchester United. Capable of carrying out his defensive duties with the minimum of fuss, it was when he got into the opposition’s half that Irwin really switched on.

Handy from free kicks and penalties, and with a howitzer of a right-foot shot, Irwin’s determination and decision-making in the left-back role was a major reason why even into his thirties he was still a regular in the United side ahead of Phil Neville. And if you doubt that he’s underrated, here’s a puzzler for you:

Denis Irwin: 56 caps for Ireland
Kevin Kilbane: 110 caps for Ireland

In what world does that sound right?


Gennaro Gattuso (Italy)

Gattuso’s Wikipedia page refers to him as “not being blessed with notable technical skills”, and while one presumes the person who edited it to say that is now deep in hiding, it is true enough. Gattuso, a midfielder, rarely played defence-splitting passes or set off on mazy dribbles. His role, at club and country level, was to be 5’ 10 of sheer malevolent energy so Andrea Pirlo could do the silky stuff. It was the role he was born to play; rumour has it that as he was delivered, he drove his elbow into the doctor’s chest “to let him know he was there”.

(OK, not rumour. Completely made-up story. Same thing.)

When you watch highlight videos of Pirlo picking the right pass every time and playing it with a languid style that looks just right set to soft guitar music, remember that he had the time to pick and play those passes because Gattuso was usually marauding about 15 metres away ready to halve anyone who tackled his teammate. They were quite the effective partnership; if Pirlo was the violinist’s bow, Gattuso was the chainsaw that cut down the tree to make the violin.

Matthias Sammer (Germany)

While Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller scored the goals, Andreas Brehme marauded down the left, and Thomas Hassler played the clever through-balls, people often forget who kept the German teams of the 1990s ticking over. It was usually Lothar Matthaus, but he was such an objectionable human being that the human mind has evolved to forget him, as protection.

Much better in that role, but hamstrung by having played for East Germany before the two halves were reunified (and then by a knee injury that prematurely ended his career in 1998 at the age of 30), Matthias Sammer played in defensive midfield and as sweeper with an assured ease that made you feel he could play in any position. He also wasn’t Lothar Matthaus, which is a fine quality for a person to have.

Indeed, the two men, versatile players as they were, often featured in the same German teams post-reunification. Sammer, though, is too often forgotten – had he not suffered that injury he would have played into the 2000s, picking intelligent passes, making smart charges forward, and not being Lothar Matthaus. Football’s loss, and no mistake.


Thomas Muller (Germany)

It is possible to have 200+ appearances for Bayern Munich and 89 caps for Germany at the age of 28, own a World Cup winner’s medal, a Golden Boot from the previous World Cup, score ten goals across those two tournaments and still be underrated. How? Simple – ask a hundred people to name the ten best players of the last decade and count how many name Thomas Muller. If the number you get is less than a hundred, he’s underrated.

Even the most positive write-ups of Muller mention his “versatility”, his ability to create space and lay on chances for team-mates. All valuable qualities, all different ways of saying “Yeah, so, anyway, Robert Lewandowski…”. Just as there would be no Pirlo without Gattuso, there would be no Lewandowski without Muller. He gets through endless amounts of work, is shunted out to the right by manager after manager (including, apparently, your author) to accommodate more “exciting” players, and gets on with it.

If there aren’t statues of Thomas Muller dotted around Munich by 2030, there’s no justice in the world.


Gheorghe Hagi (Romania)

In the 1990s and the early years of this century, Hagi was a divisive figure in European football. One of few players to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, he perhaps never really left the mark he should at either club. Questions over his discipline, work rate, and consistency abounded. One thing that could never be questioned was his left foot. The magic wand on the end of his left leg could shoot, dribble, and pass like few others since Diego Maradona, a man often cited as an inspiration for Hagi.

In a memorable game at the USA World Cup in 1994, Romania beat the heavily-favoured Argentina 3-2. Maradona had been expelled from the tournament having failed a drug test, but Hagi made the viewing public forget that with a performance of sheer virtuosity. He scored to make it 3-1, and seal victory for Romania, but it was his assist for the second goal that was truly stunning – selling defenders down the river by dipping his shoulder as though to dribble, before dinking a ball behind them all for Dumitrescu to stab home. Look it up on YouTube – it’s well worth it.


Alvaro Recoba (Uruguay)

Perhaps two things stopped Alvaro Recoba from becoming a player in the pantheon of true South American greats. The first is that he had the misfortune to play during a time when his native Uruguay were … none too great. He only played in one World Cup (2002), in which La Celeste went out in the group stages. The second is that, due to his languid playing style, he developed a reputation for laziness. However, why do more running than you need to, when you could make the ball do the things Recoba could?

His passing over long and short distances, crosses, penalties, and corner kicks were enough to make him, at one stage, the highest-paid player in the world. It was his direct free-kicks, however, that made him special. Remember that Roberto Carlos free-kick against France? Sure, it was good. It also set him up for a career of trying to repeat it and crashing the ball into walls the world over. Recoba hit better free-kicks than that on a routine basis; if he had been Brazilian, we’d still be hearing about him today.


Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina)

People old enough to remember Batigol in his pomp will point out that at the end of the 90s he was routinely considered one of the best strikers in the world. People cheeky enough to come back at those people will say yes, that’s true – but how many people still talk about him today?

Batistuta was a fearsome striker because he could score in any way he wanted. He hit them from distance, he dinked them from twelve yards, he scored free kicks, he scored penalties. He also scored headers. For a player possessed with the grace that Batistuta brought to the field, a header can sometimes seem like a fairly crude way of scoring. Not the way he did it, though. A majestic soaring leap combined with the finesse to put the ball right where the keeper was never getting it. He should be talked about in the same hushed tones we reserve for Brazilian Ronaldo, but he stayed with Fiorentina for too long, in a team where he was not surrounded by players who could win titles; so a single Scudetto, won with Roma, is his only career medal.

Batistuta played 77 games for Argentina – it would have been more, but he was left out of squads in the late 1990s because the national coach, Daniel Passarella, chose to ban players with long hair. You want to know why Batistuta is the striker in this underrated XI? Because he’s worth it.

So there you go. Eleven players who, for one reason or another, don’t seem to get the kudos that they deserve. Feel free to disagree – it would be a miracle if anyone’s XI were exactly the same as this one. Certainly, it’s liable to be the only time you see Denis Irwin and Alvaro Recoba on the same team sheet. In any case, if you want to tell your author we’re wrong, go right ahead and do so in the comments. Just be aware that we’ll tell Gennaro Gattuso on you if you do.

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