Endless iterations can be constructed and no matter the variation, debate would be intense.
There tends to be a misty-eyed look into past tournaments which does mean modern stars are overlooked, so finding the right balance is tricky, especially given the game’s evolution adds another layer of difficulty.
Here, though, is our all-time World Cup XI and bench.
DREAM TEAM: 4-3-3
GK Lev Yashin (Soviet Union)
First true sweeper keeper, essentially invented modern goalkeeping and was central to the Soviet Union’s fourth-place finish in 1966.
RB Cafu (Brazil)
Most complete full-back of his time and remains the only player to have featured in three World Cup finals – winning two in 1994 and 2002.
CB Bobby Moore (England)
Captain of England’s famed 1966 World-Cup winning side and is widely regarded as one of the best defenders of all time.
CB Franz Beckenbauer (Germany)
Calm and cerebral, ‘Der Kaiser’ captained West Germany to triumph at the 1974 World Cup and repeated the feat as manager in 1990.
LB Paolo Maldini (Italy)
He appeared in four editions with Italy and although he never won, reached the final in 1994. A world-class talent across two decades.
CM Andres Iniesta (Spain)
Take your pick from the twin Spanish orchestras of Xavi and Iniesta, ‘Don Andres’ edging it for his winner at the 2010 tournament.
CM Lothar Matthaus (Germany)
Never has a nickname been more appropriate – Der Panzer. Appeared at five different World Cups and is the ultimate complete midfielder.
CM Zinedine Zidane (France)
A once-in-a-generation talent, Zizou is France’s finest export and a national hero. He won the 1998 edition with two goals in the final.
FW Pele (Brazil)
No Brazilian has scored more and no other player has won more than his three World Cups. The game’s greatest-ever goalscorer.
ST Ronaldo (Brazil)
At his peak, the most frightening forward on the planet. Sensational in 1998 and irrepressible in 2002 despite his knee injuries.
FW Diego Maradona (Argentina)
“El Pibe de Oro” – The Golden Boy. Iconic performance against England in 1986 and single-handedly guided Argentina to success that year.
Dino Zoff (Italy), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Daniel Passarella (Argentina), Garrincha (Brazil), Gerd Muller (Germany), Philipp Lahm (Germany), Bobby Charlton (England)
According to a 2015 census the average age of the population in Panama is 28.4 years. The Panamanian team that emerged from the final phase of the qualifying rounds, by football standards, rounded out as a positively ancient 29.4.
As far as football is concerned, Panama is clearly no country for young men. It is fitting though that some of the very last players of a golden generation that
finished Gold Cup runners-up in 2013 have managed to clinch one last, unlikely hurrah in Russia.
This is the first time that the country, home to just four million people, have qualified for the grandest stage. And what a journey the last 40 years have been.
Panama’s debut World Cup qualifier came in 1976 and even then, football in the country was so disjointed that professionalism arrived 12 years later.
There was such disarray in the early days that proper pitches, boots and even footballs were in extremely short supply.
In the late 1990s everything finally came together – through the help of an Englishman. Gary Stempel, who was born in Panama City, returned to the land of his birth and helped transform the baseball-mad country into a proper football outpost.
He took charge of the country’s youth teams – essentially impoverished kids found on the street – and built from the ground up, leading a side to the Under-20 World Cup in 2003.
More development has followed but the youngsters of the past are now veterans of the present without a wealth of talent to replace them.
World Cup fever, though, is certainly one way to kick-start the production line after Panama made it through a CONCACAF qualifying group that stretched the limits of belief.
Big-hitting USA somehow lost to dead-last Trinidad & Tobago in the final round of games. Panama consequently sneaked into the third automatic qualifying spot thanks to long-time captain and proverbial poet Roman Torres, who scored the winner against Costa Rica in the 88th minute.
Belgium, England and Tunisia may view Panama as Group G’s cannon fodder this summer. But if anything can return life to old legs, it is this one last dance.
While Panama keep it tight at the back, it will be up to Torres to chase after every loose ball and lost cause. The 29-year-old had a very productive 2017, scoring five goals including the equaliser in that historic qualification match against Costa Rica.
Hernan Dario Gomez
Luckily Panama have a coach who has been there and done it. Gomez is the only person, alongside the late Henri Michel, to have guided at least three different teams to the World Cup – Colombia in 1998 and Uruguay in 2002 before his finest feat with the Central American minnows.
A sprightly 32 compared to the rest of his battle-hardened team-mates, the skipper quite literally rose to the occasion when he smashed Panama into the World Cup. La Mareja Roja’s (The Red Tide) only hope is to constrict their opponents – the leadership of their Seattle Sounders man will be crucial.
Not much to choose from here but Murillo deserves some attention. A tall and hardy right-back, the 22-year-old has impressed for New York Red Bulls in the MLS and set up two goals in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final victory over Club Tijuana back in March.
KEY STATS AND FACTS
– This is Panama’s first-ever World Cup,
– Panama have six active players who have reached 100 caps.
– The nation’s lowest-ever FIFA ranking is 150th, in August 1995.
69 DEF 69 MID 68 ATT
World Cups competed at
World Cup record
P16, W6, D5, L5
Goalkeepers: Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucharest), Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco).
Defenders: Felipe Baloy (Municipal CSD), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Erick Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar (San Miguelito), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders).
Midfielders: Jose Luis Rodriguez (Gent), Yoel Barcenas (Cafetaleros de Tapachula), Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Bucaramanga), Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitario).
Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), Ismael Diaz (Deportivo La Coruna), Blas Perez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sports Boys), Gabriel Torres (CD Huachipato).
The odds are stacked against Panama but if their veterans keep it compact and scrappy, there will always be a chance of the knockouts.
Want a measure of Germany’s strength? The man who put the trophy etchers to work with that extra-time goal four years ago, Mario Gotze, is not even in the squad. And no one in the country will care a jot.
Gotze’s horrendous injury troubles this past season left him skulking alongside exiled Manchester City’s PFA Young Player of the Year Leroy Sane at the end of a long line of German talent other nations are looking at with envious eyes.
At 22 in 2014, Gotze was meant to be emblematic of a bright German future when the backbone of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose finally called it a day.
But whether it’s old legends retiring, or new stars fading, under long-time coach Joachim Low there is a system in place in which the ‘next man up’ can be seamlessly slipped into. And there’s a heck of a lot of those men.
The Bayern Munich-bound Leon Goretzka, a taller, more physical talent in attacking midfield, is the new playmaker in vogue – though he’ll do well to elbow Mesut Ozil out of the team. Then there’s Timo Werner, the RB Leipzig striker who offers a quality Germany have seldom had at No9 – pace.
Indeed, considering household names such as Ozil, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos are hardly old men in their late 20s, you’ll not find any warhorses
clinging onto their spots.
That’s not to say Low and Co just have to turn up to retain the trophy. Inspirational skipper and keeper Manuel Neuer has broken his foot three times in one season and Jerome Boateng was also a late injury scare. The thought of Marc-Andre ter Stegen between the sticks won’t be keeping Low up at night – though Neuer made the squad – but the defensive depth behind Boateng may do.
Alongside Mats Hummels, 22-year-old Niklas Sule was generally superb for Bayern Munich last season though if one of those two go down they’re left with the relative inexperience of Antonio Rudiger and Jonathan Tah.
Still, these are all nice problems to have. Low has also made full use of friendlies, a perfect qualification campaign and last year’s Confederations Cup cakewalk to blood the ‘back-ups’.
The only danger posed to them by a kind group containing Mexico, Sweden and South Korea is that they’ll be undercooked by the knockout stages.
Don’t count on it – you can never count out the Germans.
Precious few midfielders marry majestic passing, vision, tactical awareness and a knockout-winning pedigree – in fact there may only be one. Though Kroos has had his ups and downs with Real Madrid this season, expect him to play conductor to Germany’s symphony once again.
One of the most successful international managers of all-time, the 58-year-old is the reason why Germany are associated with attacking dynamism. His sides can both control possession and up the tempo at will.
Talk about putting your foot in it. Die Mannschaft’s iconic shot-stopper missed almost the entire season for Bayern Munich due to a reoccurring foot injury. Germany have quality back-ups but none radiate with quite the same aura.
It could so easily have been Leon Goretzka here but a rocket-fuelled Werner is likely to start as lone frontman. The RB Leipzig striker, 22, is lightning across the turf and scored seven goals from his first 10 caps
KEY FACTS AND STATS
30 – World Cup goals scored by Miroslav Klose and Gerd Muller combined. They place first and third respectively on the all-time list.
22 – Germany’s unbeaten streak before Brazil exacted some revenge for their 7-1 thumping at the 2014 World Cup by beating them in a friendly in March.
2.2 – goals per game scored over the last four World Cups (62 goals in 28 matches).
85 DEF 85 MID 85 ATT
World Cups competed at
19 (first in 1934)
World Cup record
P106, W66, D20, L20
Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona), Kevin Trapp (Paris St-Germain).
Defenders: Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Matthias Ginter (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea), Niklas Sule (Bayern Munich).
Midfielders: Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen), Julian Draxler (Paris St-Germain), Leon Goretska (Schalke), Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Sami Khedira (Juventus), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich).
Strikers: Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Timo Werner (RB Leipzig).
Germany could field two teams and maintain a good chance of going all the way. Their depth and growth under Low make them serious contenders.