The World Cup is typically seen as a showcase of the world’s greatest players on the global stage. That is true, but also not, as there are a large number of arguably world-class players who will not be going to Russia this summer because their country did not qualify, they are injured, or for reasons other than their footballing ability.
Below, we nominate a squad of 23 ‘failures’ who we think would be more than able to compete for the ultimate prize this summer, if only they were there. Indeed, on paper the fictive World Cup squad below looks in many ways stronger than the ones attending the event this summer. Our starting XI would look something like this:
Jan Oblak, Slovakia & Atletico Madrid (17 caps, £63mn)
Slovakia and Ateltico Madrid keeper Jan Oblak won the Europa League with Atletico a few weeks ago, and in La Liga Atletico conceded only 22 goals, and much of that can be credited to their goalkeeper.
David Alaba, Austria & Bayern Munich (61 caps, £45mn)
Pretty much has it all. The energy and stamina to run up and down the left wing, two good feet, but also capable of heading, tackling and intercepting. Often plays in central midfield for his country.
Georgio Chiellini, Italy & Juventus (96 caps, £9mn)
Seems to get better with age, but unfortunately called an end to his Italy career after not qualifying for the tournament in Russia. His performances are typically a masterclass of organisation and resilience.
Virgil van Dijk, Netherlands & Liverpool (18 caps, £45mn)
Played a key role for Liverpool in securing a top-four finish and reaching the final of the Champions League. Very calm and comfortable on the ball and at 6’4” he also brings formidable physical presence. A complete defender.
Hector Bellerin, Spain & Arsenal (14 caps, £36.00mn)
Began his footballing education as a forward at the Barcelona academy but was converted into a wing back when he arrived at Arsenal. His strength is in getting forward and impact in the final third, either through a cross or cutting into more central areas.
Leroy Sane, Germany & Manchester City (11 caps, £81mn)
The 22 year-old PFA Young Player of the Year scored 15 goals and assisted another 18 over 58 appearances for title-winning Manchester City this season. A shock omission from a German squad that if anything looks somewhat short of attacking talent.
Marco Verratti, Italy & PSG (25 caps, £63mn)
With the vision and technique to execute the perfect pass, Verratti is the fulcrum at the centre of PSG’s midfield and has taken over from Andrea Pirlo as the deep-laying playmaker for Italy.
Naby Keita, Guinea & Red Bull Leipzig (29 caps, £58mn)
Keita’s stats from his seasons in the Bundesliga show he is playing with high intensity and physicality but that he is also very versatile. Tackling and interceptions are strengths of his, but so is dribbling, suggesting Liverpool has bought a master of all trades.
Gareth Bale, Wales & Real Madrid (70 caps, £63mn)
There are few players in world football capable of running box-to-box as quickly as Bale. His ability to bring the ball, and the entire team, forward to the opposition penalty box in seconds is unrivalled.
Pierre-Emmerick Aubameyang, Gabon & Arsenal (49 caps, £67.50mn)
Despite what many has considered a lack-lustre beginning to his Arsenal career, his goal ratio at Arsenal is 0.77, which represents an improvement from his Borussia days (0.68).
Alexis Sanchez, Chile & Manchester United (121 caps, £63mn)
Missing the World Cup will at least give the Manchester United striker some much-needed rest and the opportunity to rediscover his best form at club level after a disappointing season.
And to complete the 23-man squad we add: Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus & Italy (176 caps, £1.80mn, 176 caps); Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy & AC Milan (6 caps, £36.00mn); Leonardo Bonucci, Italy & AC Milan (89 caps, £31.50mn); Aymeric Laporte, France & Manchester City (0 caps, £36mn); Alex Sandro, Brazil & Juventus (10 caps, £45mn); Alessandro Florenzi, Italy & Roma (28 caps, £22.5mn); Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia & Juventus (81 caps, £58.50mn); Marek Hamsik, Slovakia & Napoli (102 caps, £36mn); Riyad Mahrez, Algeria & Leicester (37 caps, £45mn); Anthony Martial, France & Manchester United (18 caps, £58.50mn); Mauro Icardi, Argentina & Inter (4 caps, £67.50mn); Ciro Immobile, Italy & Lazio (32 caps, £40.50mn).
The 23-man fictive World Cup squad above is valued at a total of £1,082mn by Transfermarkt, which compares with a total valuation of £1,075mn for the most highly valued squad at the World Cup, France, and also compares favourably with World Cup favourites Germany and Brazil (£872mn and £950mn respectively).
Furthermore, goalkeeper Oblak has 21 clean sheets in 34 appearances for Atletico Madrid this season, and conceded an average of 0.53 goals per match. Comparing this with the top goalkeepers going to Russia this summer, only Germany’s ter Stegen comes close this season with 18 clean sheets in 33 appearances for Barcelona (18/33) and an average of 0.58 goals conceded per match.
Others include Brazil’s Ederson 16/37 and 0.70 for Manchester City, 15/36 and 0.75 for Spain/Manchester United’s de Gea, 15/34 and 0.79 for Brazil/Roma keeper Alisson, and 15/39 and 0.89 respectively for Belgium/Chelsea goalkeeper Courtois.
The above squad has accumulated some 1085 caps, or an average of 47.2 caps per player. Again this compares favourably with all the main contenders in this summer’s tournament. Bookmaker favourites Brazil and Germany have squads averaging 29 and 40 caps per player respectively.
In other words, Nomura’s fictive World Cup squad is worth more, has more international experience, and concedes fewer goals than any of the teams participating in the World Cup this summer. Meanwhile, in the goal-scoring department only Argentina has scored more goals. While increasing revenues is likely the main reason why FIFA has decide to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from the 2026 tournament, the above would suggest that it is also possible to make the case for a bigger tournament in order to make sure that more of the world’s best players will be there. After all, the World Cup only comes around every fourth year and should be a showcase of the world’s greatest players.