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Football sudoku: Picking the best starting XI without any shared club or country connections

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or, WHY DID EVERYBODY HAVE TO PLAY FOR AC MILAN AT SOME POINT??!

FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala 2011 Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

If you have an hour to kill — or more, depending on when you were born since this is easier the longer you’ve been alive — here’s a fun little exercise by way of Jamie Carragher’s Twitter account.

The task: pick the best starting XI from players during your lifetime
The challenge: can’t repeat national teams
The extra challenge: can’t repeat clubs

The TRIPLE-DOG-DARE challenge: You have to pick Ronaldo. (The “real” Ronaldo, who played for Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AND AC Milan in his career, which is a quadruple whammy that no “best XI” can afford even if El Fenomeno really should be in this team. Yes, even ahead of Messi.)

I didn’t do the triple-secret challenge. It was already hard enough without it, with AC Milan often proving the Achilles heel. No Marco van Basten, for example. No Marcel Desailly. No Roberto Baggio either, one of many who moved around in Serie A much more than would be expected in other leagues.

One thing you will become very apparent very quickly during this exercise is that most of the best players make the rounds among the handful of the biggest clubs. And once you pick Lionel Messi, you’re done with Barcelona. But at least he’s a one-club man, unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, who now takes out three. And there’s no way I’m going without Pavel Nedved.

That’s where I started, once OG Ronaldo was reluctantly cast aside. Then looked for one-(big)-club legends of the game. Messi, Maldini, papa Schmeichel. Philipp Lahm took the Bayern slot. Nedved meant no Juventus, which meant no Zidane or Cristiano Ronaldo. Most Real Madrid players had other major stops in their careers unfortunately. Fernando Hierro, the General, did not.

Just when you think you got a handle on things, you realize that Kylian Mbappé and N’Golo Kanté are both French, and Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Javier Zanetti are all Argentinian. Marek Hamšík and Edinson Cavani both played for Napoli, so one(-half of my heart) has to go.

And so on.

You might get lost for a while. Eventually, you might cobble something like this together. You won’t be satisfied, nor am I, but it’s the best I can do in the time I’m willing to spend on this.

(3-4-3)

GK: Peter Schmeichel (DENMARK) — Manchester United, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Sporting CP, plus a few Danish teams

DCL: Paolo Maldini (ITALY) — AC Milan
DC/SW: Fernando Hierro (SPAIN) — Real Madrid, Valladolid, Bolton, Al Rayyan
DCR: Philipp Lahm (GERMANY) — Bayern Munich

ML: Pavel Nedved (CZECH REPUBLIC) — Juventus, Lazio, Sparta Prague
MC: N’Golo Kanté (FRANCE) — Chelsea, Leicester City, Caen, Boulogne
MC: Dragan Stojković (YUGOSLAVIA) — Red Star, Marseille, Verona, Nagoya Grampus
MR: Marek Hamšík (SLOVAKIA) — Napoli, Brescia, Slovan, Dalian

FW: Lionel Messi (ARGENTINA) — Barcelona
ST: Alan Shearer (ENGLAND) — Newcastle, Blackburn, Southampton
FW: Dennis Bergkamp (NETHERLANDS) — Arsenal, Ajax, Inter


P.S.: Here’s Carragher’s attempt.