The 2018 World Cup will feature 736 players, everyone ranging from teenagers to 40-somethings, relative unknowns to superstars and heroes on the rise to veterans giving it their last go.
Amid all of that is the cream of the crop. The absolute best from the best national teams in the world. Well, at least the ones that qualified. The list of stars who won’t get the opportunity to play in the World Cup because of their national teams’ qualifying failure is long. There’s no place for the likes of Gareth Bale or Gianluigi Buffon, for example. But there is room, as there always is on this stage, for a series of world-class stars who are simply the best at what they do.
Whether it’s scoring goals at an obscene rate, saving goals with uncanny ability, bossing matches either with possession or passing skills (or perhaps even both) or shutting down the opposition’s top threat, Russia 2018 will be the place to see it all.
With teams having submitted their 23-man rosters to FIFA, we set out to create one of our own: an ultimate World Cup team from the players headed to Russia. We looked to follow the traditional roster structure, with three goalkeepers, and at least one bona fide option on both sides of the field and in the center of the park. Above all else, if assembling the ultimate World Cup roster, you’re looking for second-to-none talent. But you also need leadership, some veteran experience and not a single weak link.
With that said, here is the Ultimate 2018 World Cup 23:
David De Gea (Spain): The world’s most in-form goalkeeper led the Premier League in clean sheets (18) and–unofficially–otherworldly saves. It’s no wonder he was voted Manchester United’s player of the year for a record fourth time. He’s as agile and acrobatic as he is fundamentally sound, and he is the ultimate safety net in the back.
Manuel Neuer (Germany): When Neuer is healthy, he’s the world’s top backstop, period. A foot injury kept him out of action for Bayern Munich from September on, though, so all eyes will be on his fitness, as racing off his line and roaming free are just as important to his game as his immaculate shot-stopping.
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium): Courtois may be a step down from Neuer and De Gea in the world goalkeeping pecking order, but not by much. The 6’6” netminder’s instincts and shot-stopping ability make him a desired commodity and a luxury for a team with as much outfield talent as Belgium.
Marcelo (Brazil): No fullback in the world possesses the Real Madrid star’s attacking skill and technical ability. Does that sometimes come at the expense of a full focus on the defensive end? Sure, but the mop-haired left back dynamo always gives a net positive on the return.
Mats Hummels (Germany): The Bayern Munich center back is a threat to go forward with the ball at his feet and in the air on set pieces, and he also possesses the ability to neutralize an opponent’s top striker. Hummels is as complete at the position as they come.
Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal): The towering Napoli center back has become the focus of high-profile transfer interest for the last few years, and the World Cup stage is precisely the place to send his value skyrocketing higher. Much of the Senegal focus centers on Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, but Koulibaly will hold the Lions of Teranga together in the back.
Vincent Kompany (Belgium): Cerebral, experienced and physical, Kompany has been a rock for club and country for years. Injuries have derailed his opportunities at times, though, and a groin knock suffered in a pre-World Cup friendly has Belgium holding its breath. If fit, he’s the leader of one of the world’s most talented sides.
Sergio Ramos (Spain): The Sergio Ramos experience certainly includes a penchant for cards and controversy. More vitally, though, it includes a penchant for expert marking and popping up with clutch goals. He’s won everything imaginable for club and country and been a central figure in all of it.
Joshua Kimmich (Germany): Bayern Munich’s versatile star was shaped by Pep Guardiola and has blossomed into an all-world talent. Adept at getting forward, the 23-year-old steps into Germany’s right back void left behind by the retired Philipp Lahm, and he has the potential to fill those shoes for the defending champions.
Isco (Spain): The Real Madrid star’s five World Cup qualifying goals helped Spain return to the grand stage, and his ability to attack behind the strikers or act as a false nine provides such a dangerous element in the final third. He’s cerebral off the ball, dangerous on it and a big reason why Spain is back among the favorites.
Eden Hazard (Belgium): The Chelsea playmaker glides through the center of the park, and his ability to take defenders on and slip through the decisive pass complements his finishing in the final third quite nicely. The centerpiece of Belgium’s attack-first approach, Hazard—like his country—has high expectations this summer.
Paul Pogba (France): Pogba’s season at Manchester United was clouded with pointed criticism and inconsistency, but he’s more at ease with his country and a midfield force to boot. He has the ability to spring the difference-making pass or long-range bomb while also bossing the center of the park.
Luka Modric (Croatia): Players don’t get much more smooth on the ball than the Real Madrid and Croatia central midfielder. An incredibly accurate passer and smart thinker in the moment, Modric always delivers, and he constantly presents such a calm and poised demeanor regardless of the stakes. He can strike a pretty ball, too.
N’Golo Kante (France): Kante is the world’s preeminent ball-winning, clean-tackling central midfielder. After rising to prominence with Leicester City’s improbable champions, he’s carried his form to Chelsea and to the international stage. Other teammates will often claim the headlines, but he’s constantly the foundation for his side and covers so much ground.
Toni Kroos (Germany): Kroos is constantly surrounded by stars, both for club and country, so he’s often overlooked, but he’s about as complete a midfielder as there is in the world. Technically sound, able to control a game and capable of a rocket from distance, Kroos has good reason for stockpiling so many trophies with Real Madrid and Germany.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium): The attacking spark behind Manchester City’s record-setting season had 12 goals, 20 assists in all competitions in 2017-18 and is as adept at creating for others as anyone on the planet. He’s just as punishing in the run of play as he is in dead-ball situations. Beware De Bruyne on the set piece.
Lionel Messi (Argentina): We’ve normalized Messi’s accomplishments given how long he’s been one of the world’s top two players. But after another 45-goal campaign for Barcelona, to go along with single-handedly sealing Argentina’s World Cup berth, his excellence shouldn’t be taken for granted. All that’s missing is a major trophy with his country.
Kylian Mbappe (France): It’s hard to believe Mbappe is just 19 given the complexity and completeness to his game. His move from Monaco to PSG required little transition, and his ability to mesh with other stars while also being capable of carrying the load bodes well for his sparkling future.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): Ronaldo may have had to adapt his playing style and game as he’s gotten older, but at 33, the Real Madrid star is still one of the world’s most unstoppable attacking forces. His insatiable thirst for trophies and goals have rendered his age just a number, and his doubters continue to be answered–often sensationally.
Robert Lewandowski (Poland): In terms of a true No. 9, there may not be a better one in the world than the Bayern Munich stalwart. Lewandowski is clinical in the air and with his feet, and his 16 goals in World Cup qualifying were tops in all of Europe. He’ll carry the weight of his country’s expectations in Russia.
Harry Kane (England): Despite his most audacious tries, Kane couldn’t win a third straight Premier League golden boot, but he did add another 30 goals to his career tally at Tottenham. Those who saw Kane as an awkwardly shaped one-year wonder could not have been more incorrect. He’ll captain England at just 24.
Neymar (Brazil): Could his foot injury have been a blessing in disguise? PSG’s Brazilian sensation will enter the World Cup rested and eager, especially after a broken backbone ended his 2014 World Cup on home soil in the quarterfinals. Underneath all of the tricks is a lethal scorer capable of the incredible moment.
Mohamed Salah (Egypt) – No player broke out in 2017-18 quite like Salah, whose 44 goals in all competitions carried Liverpool to within a game of being European kings. His Champions League final ended with a shoulder injury and tears, but after carrying his nation to its first World Cup since 1990, his ascent isn’t finished just yet.