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True Greats: Appreciating five of the best Spanish footballers of modern times

Sergio Ramos made history during the international break after becoming the most capped male player in the history of European football, the defender representing Spain for the 177th time during their Nations League draw with Switzerland.

It proved a performance to forget for the history maker as Ramos twice missed from the penalty spot, including a woeful Panenka effort as a late equaliser spared the centre-back’s blushes.

Those spurned spot-kicks were a rare low point in an otherwise incredible career for the Real Madrid captain, who has spent 15 years at the forefront of the Spanish national side and played a crucial part in a period of huge success.

Ramos formed part of the side which won an unprecedented three major tournaments in succession after years of underachievement at international level, in a golden era for Spain that saw their national side – alongside Barcelona – leave an indelible mark on modern football and introduce the world to tiki-taka.

In celebrating Ramos’ record-breaking achievement and the centre-back’s continued influence at 34-years-old, we’ve decided to revisit some of the most influential players from Spain’s modern history.

Here are five of the best Spanish players of modern times:

Xavi

Amongst the players most synonymous with the revolution of Spanish football during the late 2000’s, Xavi was the fulcrum of both the national side and Barcelona at the peak of their considerable powers.

Arguably the greatest Spanish player in history, it was the pinpoint passing of Xavi which allowed the tik-taka style to flourish for the two best sides of the modern era, an irreplaceable cog in a wheel that destroyed oppositions sides by starving them of possession.

Xavi was amongst the prominent wave of diminutive Spanish footballers who proved technical talents far outweigh physical prowess, winning every major honour available for both club and country.

His list of honours includes eight league titles and four Champions League trophies at Barcelona, in addition to winning two European Championships and a maiden World Cup in the colours of La Roja.

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Xavi was the midfield conductor of the finest midfield the game has seen, obsessively checking his shoulders, reading the play and possessing a natural gift to find time and space in even the most congested of engine rooms.

Playing against both Barcelona and Spain was often described as ‘chasing shadows’ by opposition sides at the height of tiki-taka, with Xavi’s recycling of possession key to his side’s ability to elusively remain a step ahead.

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Andres Iniesta

It’s almost impossible to mention the aforementioned Xavi without alluding to midfield partner Iniesta, the two having dovetailed in sublime style to become one of the most iconic partnerships in football history.

The two Spanish stars overcame initial perceptions they could not play in the same side to flourish as the centre-pieces of a Catalan conveyor belt of possession, exchanging passes to each other with a simplistic brilliance that brought unprecedented success.

If Xavi was the brain of Barcelona’s operation than Iniesta was undoubtedly the artist behind their beauty, his ability to play in a one and two-touch style mixed with dribbling skills that saw him drift past players with grace and guile.

It’s often said that the most difficult aspect of football is making the game look simple, though Iniesta was a player whose game radiated effortless ease.

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His legend was only enhanced by his ability to deliver when it matters most, being named as the Man of the Match in the finals of the Champions League, European Championships and World Cup, Iniesta scoring a dramatic extra-time winner as Spain were crowned as world champions for the first time in 2010.

Amongst the most decorated players in football history having won over 30 titles at Barcelona, the unassuming Iniesta stands as one of the game’s greatest ever technical talents.

Andres Iniesta – 20 of the best quotes about the Barca legend

David Villa

Spanish football’s signature passing style may have left opposition players both frustrated and forlorn, though their possession monopoly needed a cutting edge in order to become the most successful international side of the modern era.

That edge came in the form of David Villa, a player who for all of his success perhaps remains underrated amongst the greatest goalscorers of the past two decades.

Villa stepped out of the shadow of all-time record goalscorer Raul to become the prominent figure in the Spain attack, delivering on the grandest of stages including being the leading scorer at the 2008 European Championships as Luis Aragones’ side ended a 44-year wait for major tournament success.

The passing passages of Xavi and Iniesta may have grabbed the headlines but it was Villa’s contribution which proved so decisive at the World Cup two years later, scoring five times in seven appearances – including knockout stage winners against Portugal and Paraguay – as Spain were crowned world champions.

An instinctive finisher off either foot, he got the move his talent deserved at club level when signing for Barcelona following that World Cup success, enjoying a brilliant three-year spell that delivered two league titles and the Champions League – Villa scoring in the latter final victory over Manchester United in 2011, a performance many hold amongst the best ever produced by a club side.

He left Barcelona and won a further league title as part of Atletico Madrid’s shock triumph in 2014, though his legacy stands largely at international level, Villa eclipsing Raul as the country’s all-time record goalscorer and retiring with 59 goals in 89 caps.

Villa may never receive the same plaudits as some of his other illustrious compatriots, though there is no mistaking his contribution to Spain’s spell as football’s finest.

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David Silva

Whilst the aforementioned stars on this list largely showcased their talents to world football amid the comforts of Spain’s superpower clubs, David Silva became one of his nation’s favourite footballers in the midst of the rigorous demands of English football.

Silva was not the first diminutive foreign import to be written off as unsuited to the blood-and-thunder nature of the Premier League before thriving, but he may well be the very best to have done so.

Silva’s silky skills and creative class made a mockery of suggestions he would struggle at Manchester City, his touch and technique allowing him to play the game at his own tempo even in the frenetic pace of the Premier League.

His arrival was amongst the catalysts for City becoming the most successful English side of the past decade, their remarkable rise including winning four league titles, lifting a first ever domestic treble and shattering a host of divisional records.

Silva’s collection of 11 major honours at the Etihad was added to by a brilliant career at international level, his 125 caps a remarkable tally amid incredibly fierce competition for midfield places.

That haul of appearances saw him score 35 goals to stand as Spain’s fourth-highest goalscorer of all-time, whilst his 29 assists is second only to Cesc Fabregas in the history of the national side.

Add two European Championship and one World Cup winners’ medals to his collection and it is a staggering story of success for the Spanish schemer, a player who stands amongst the most iconic players of the modern Premier League.

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Sergio Ramos

The man of the moment and a player who continues to rewrite history, Sergio Ramos may not be cut from quite the same cloth as the other players on this feature, though his impact on the success of Spanish football has been no less prominent.

There are perhaps few defenders who have dominated the sport quite like Spain’s all-time record appearance maker, Ramos a natural leader and a player ferociously committed to delivering success for his side.

Signed by Real Madrid as a teenager, he has been an ever-present for club and country for 15 years, making 660 appearances for Los Blancos to date and remarkably racking up a century of goals since moving to the Bernabeu.

His list of accolades includes winning five league titles and four Champions League trophies, twice scoring in finals of the latter with Ramos a player who has so often defined the biggest of occasions.

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No player has ever been sent off more than Ramos in the history of both La Liga and the Champions League, his reputation as world football’s greatest sh*thouse and a master of the dark arts only adding to the aura of a player who prioritises winning above all else.

Ramos – who formed the bedrock of the Spain side which claimed three consecutive major tournaments between 2008 and 2012 – is box-office at his best and remains amongst the game’s greats despite entering the twilight of his career, the world-record 184 caps of Egpyt’s Ahmed Hassan now firmly in his sights.

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