La Liga's Team of the Decade
At goalkeeper, Iker Casillas narrowly edges Santi Cañizares
After selling fullback Dani Alves, Sevilla was never the same
David Villa has been arguably the best striker in the world the past few years
It doesn't matter how good a player was before Jan. 1, 2000; if he wasn't good enough afterward, he isn't getting in. Plenty of very, very good footballers haven't made it. Take Rivaldo -- who scored the most ridiculous hat trick you could ever wish to see on the last day of the 2000-2001 season -- and was a stunningly good player but who left Barcelona in 2002 and won nothing this century.
It is not enough just for someone to have been or to be a good player. This isn't the 11 best players to have played in Spain. If it were, Sevilla's best all-time player would be Diego Maradona and you won't find many Sevilla fans telling you that. Players have to have had an impact, performed well, achieved something and made a difference in Spain and for their clubs and/or the country. They have to mean something, represent something. They have to have reached football fans somehow (and, yes, that does become a little subjective). And not just for one season. Edgar Davids did a huge amount to turn around Barcelona but was gone in the blink of an eye. Cristiano Ronaldo might be brilliant but can't be included because he has played just one and a third seasons -- and won nothing. Yet.
Not that winning alone is enough -- plenty of pretty average players have won things. By the same token, some players who have actually won very little have sneaked in, too.
The teams picked have to be at least plausible (if a little forced). It would be very easy to pick 11 strikers and creative midfielders, but who's going to defend? (But that doesn't mean these teams have been picked to play necessarily; we're looking for two center backs, not necessarily a center-back partnership). This team has been far harder than the last two, with greater variety of options and with far more great players to leave out and far more great players to accommodate. In some positions there have been loads of options, in some hardly any. If some players leave you thinking, "Well, he's not that good," ask yourself this: Who else would you pick?
Speaking of which: With this team there is a strong temptation, which I succumbed to in a couple of cases, to give non-Madrid and Barcelona players the benefit of any doubt. If only because no one else does. Ever.
So, yes, it's true: There is bias. This team is anti-Madrid.
Right. Let's get on with it, then ...
GK: Iker Casillas
Real Madrid, 1999-present
Valencia's Santi Cañizares was the kind of goalkeeper every team wants -- aggressive, dominating, a leader and capable of making great saves. He was very, very close to getting in. But ultimately it's impossible to look beyond the man who took Cañizares's place in the Spanish national team when he dropped one. No, not a ball -- an aftershave bottle, right onto his foot, severing tendons and missing out on the 2002 World Cup, at which Casillas became a penalty-saving hero. It was a real pity for Cañizares, a properly brilliant goalkeeper. But that's the way the cookie crumbles and the bottle breaks. And so, Iker Casillas it is -- the goalkeeper they call Saint Iker because of the ease with which he performs miracles. You can't really argue with a World Cup-winning captain.
RB: Dani Alves
There was something strange about Sevilla -- the best Sevilla in the club's entire history. Its best player was not a striker or a playmaker or a midfield general or a flying winger. He was a defender. A defender who cost just €1 million ($1.3 million), too. A mere right back. If you can call Dani Alves a mere right back, that is. He was more like a right back, central midfielder, right midfielder, right winger and support striker, all rolled into one. A one-man band wearing cymbals on his knees, a drum on his back, a harmonica strapped to his mouth and sweatbands on his wrists -- offering killer passes and crunching tackles. A screeching lunatic kid, perfect technician, tactical genius and -- let's face it -- sneaky little cheat, all wrapped into one hyperactive ball. A footballing Sonic the Hedgehog.
It was as if Sevilla's entire team was connected to Alves by a huge invisible rope; he used to start, continue and finish moves, dragging his teammates the length of the pitch. He'd get the ball from the keeper, play a one-two with the center back, run up the pitch a bit, play a one-two with the deep midfielder, run a bit more, play a one-two with a midfielder, carry on running, play a one-two with one of the forwards, run into the area, and then roll it across for the other forward to score. Sevilla coped with selling Julio Baptista, Sergio Ramos and Jose Reyes. But not Alves. It makes no difference to his selection here but he has proved as good -- if less central a figure -- at Barcelona. Last season he provided more assists than anyone else in La Liga. He has won two leagues, two Copa del Reys, two Uefa Cups, a Champions League and a World Club Cup.
CB: Roberto Fabían Ayala
He made possibly the stupidest career move imaginable in the summer of 2007. Ayala signed with Villarreal, but before he had even joined his new team for preseason training, he moved on to Zaragoza instead. Villarreal finished second; Zaragoza was relegated. And Ayala was not entirely blameless either. But that shouldn't blind people to what he achieved during the first five years of the decade with Valencia, where he won two league titles and the UEFA Cup -- and was a beaten finalist, on penalties, in the 2001 Champions League final. He was in (my) La Liga team of the year three years running between 2002 and 2004. Nicknamed the Mouse because of his facial features, that moniker ended up being of those ironic ones. Ayala was terrifying -- aggressive, clever, dirty and very, very good indeed. The man proved Wesley Snipes wrong: Ayala had an incredible leap.
CB: Carles Puyol
It was very tempting to go for roly-poly Brazilian Donato (Deportivo de La Coruña, 1993-2003), who began the century by scoring the goal that gave Deportivo its only league title. That alone could be reason enough to include the man with the big belly and the face of an Inca warrior, but Donato also played more games than any other foreigner in the history of the league. He came to Spain in 1988 to play for Atlético Madrid and joined Deportivo in 1993. For the last six years, he signed one-year renewals under the assumption that any day now his legs would give way or maybe that his stomach would engulf him, but somehow he just kept on going. He became the oldest goal scorer in the game and retired at age 40. But, well, it really has to be Carles Puyol -- especially after that header at the World Cup capped an astonishing decade.
LB: Roberto Carlos
Real Madrid, 1996-2007
Probably the most obvious choice of all. Even at the end, when he was not the player he once had been, he ran 80 yards to score the 90th-minute goal that beat Recreativo de Huelva and gave Madrid the chance to win a barely plausible league title in 2007. And he provided the assist for Zinedine Zidane's goal in the European Cup final. At least, he called it an assist.
CM: Xavi Hernández
Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass ... goal.
CM: Rubén Baraja
Baraja was the driving force behind a Valencia side that broke up the duopoly in a way that, sadly, we may never see again. Returning from injury, he sparked the club to its first league title in 31 years with seven goals in 17 games in 2001. Two years later, he helped Valencia win it again. Baraja had vision, pace and llegada, or arrival, the ability to dash into the area and score goals and make things happen coming from deep or from the edge of the box. He also played in the Champions League final in 2001 and won the UEFA Cup and the Copa del Rey. Baraja, 35, retired last summer.
AM: Juan Carlos Valerón
(Las Palmas, 1994-1997)
Deportivo de La Coruña, 2000-present
He started the decade with a relegation for Atlético and ends it barely able to walk and coming to the end. But, boy, was he good for a while. Quite a long while, too. One columnist described him as "Spain's Zidane -- only better." I wouldn't actually agree but, with the non-Barça/Madrid factor weighing heavily and tipping the scales of (in)justice his way, he does -- just -- get the nod over the Frenchman. And, equally unfairly, over one or two others. Valerón has a ridiculously high voice and absolutely no arrogance whatsoever, no airs or graces, no sense of superiority. He is such a devout evangelist that he sponsors a local football team called Abrisajac -- Abraham, Issac and Jacob welded together.
He was not fast, powerful or athletic. In fact, he was slow. But somehow he made a virtue out of that; people seemed to dash past him, skidding by helplessly as he strolled about unaffected by it all. His vision behind the strikers was central to Deportivo's success. And for a side that was not Madrid or Barcelona, it was very successful, with five consecutive top-three finishes, a Champions League semifinal (in which it was desperately unlucky and, the team believed, robbed blind by Porto), and the 2002 Copa del Rey -- the famous centenariazo where it beat Real Madrid on its 100th birthday in its own stadium. For two years running, a Deportivo player was Spain's top scorer: Diego Tristán in 2001-2002 and Roy Makaay in 2002-2003. The man who actually won the award was Valerón.
F: David Villa
Sporting Gijón, 1999-2003 (Second Division)
You could argue that David Villa is the best striker in the world. In fact, this columnist has argued exactly that. Quite a few times. He scored more goals than anyone else over the last decade except his strike partner in this team -- despite not playing for one of the country's biggest clubs and beginning the century in the Second Division. Villa has never slipped under 15 league goals in a season and averages 20 per campaign. Fast, clever, technical and cool in front of goal, blessed of great variety in his play and his finishing, he was top scorer at Euro 2008 and joint top scorer at the 2010 World Cup. He has won two Copa del Rey titles, scoring for Zaragoza against Madrid in the final back in 2004. It's amazing that Villa, who joined Barcelona last summer for €40 million ($53 million), never got a big move sooner. And even without it -- especially without it, in fact -- he would have been in this team.
F: Samuel Eto'o
(Real Madrid, 1998-2000)
With Eto'o, it's not just about the goals. It's also not just about Barcelona, where he was top scorer twice and won the most. Even before joining Barcelona, he had (officially, at least -- he had played three times in the competition for Madrid) already won the European Cup. And after leaving Barça, he would win it again. He also scored plenty for Mallorca, getting 31 league goals in his last two seasons -- plus a goal-scoring man of the match display in the final of the Copa del Rey in 2003, when Mallorca won its only trophy. His brilliance at Barcelona was not entirely unexpected. He scored more goals than anyone else over the course of the decade.
F: Leo Messi
Messi ... Zidane ... Ronaldinho ... Messi ... Zidane ... Ronaldinho ... Messi ... Zidane ... Ronaldinho ... ?
Deep breath ...
And, finally, the subs' bench (the men who should have or could have made it, the ones who were in contention):
Zidane (Madrid, 2001-2006), Ronaldinho (Barcelona, 2003-2008), Mauro Silva (Deportivo, 1992-2005), Donato (Deportivo, 1993-2003), Fernando Hierro (Madrid 1989-2003), Marcos Senna (Villarreal, 2002-present), Juan Román Riquelme (Barcelona, 2002-2003; Villarreal, 2003-2007), Diego Forlán (2004-2007, Villarreal; Atlético Madrid, 2007-present), Santi Cañizares (Valencia, 1998-2008), Fredi Kanouté (Sevilla, 2005-present).
And one last thing: If we're doing team of the decade with NO Madrid or Barcelona players at all:
Cañizares/Alves (Sevilla), Donato, Ayala, Capdevila or Carboni/Mauro Silva, Baraja, Valerón/Forlán, Villa (Valencia), Kanouté.