Barcelona, as a city, is notable for its outward-looking philosophy and willingness to embrace philosophies and talents from culture outside of its own. As perhaps the city’s most significant institution, it stands to reason that the massive success of F.C. Barcelona has long relied on contributions from beyond the borders of Catalunya, both on and off the pitch. Below is a gameday squad, comprised of the greatest imports to don the Blaugrana at each position.
Note: Lionel Messi and Paulino Alcántara were not considered for inclusion here, due to Messi’s comprehensive La Masia development and Alcántara’s family’s relocation to Barcelona in 1899, when he was three years-old.
- Marc-André ter Stegen (2014 – present; 178 appearances for Barcelona, 21 caps for Germany) – In his first four seasons with Barcelona, ter Stegen’s played a central role in three La Liga titles, four Copas del Rey, a Champions League win (as part of a treble), and victories in the Supercopa de España, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. His reflexes are lightning quick, and he is outstanding with the ball at his feet, and possesses a remarkable gift for simply avoiding errors, mental and physical. He is arguably the best keeper in the world.
- Dani Alves (2008 – 2016; 391 official appearances/21 goals for Barcelona, 107 caps/7 goals for Brazil) – Nominally a right back; in reality a pan-right-side force. In terms of personality, skill set and demeanor, there simply could not have been a better partner on the right flank for Lionel Messi, both the ascendant version still exploring his genius, as well as the version with time and space at his beck and call. The near decade-long mind meld the pair shared on the right flank was not only lucrative from a practical perspective – Alves was around for six La Liga titles, four Copas del Rey, three Champions League wins, four Supercopas de España, three UEFA Super Cups and three FIFA Club World Cups – but also provided a glimpse of the fun that’s possible when a pair of geniuses are left to dabble, unfettered.
- Eric Abidal (2007 – 2013; 193 appearances/2 goals for Barcelona, 67 caps for France) –Before he was the club’s Sporting Director, Abidal provided leadership and stability from the left back position, and contributed to a collection of silverware that included four league titles, four Copas del Rey and two Champions League crowns. While he was a member of the treble-winning side of 2008-09, Abidal will be best remembered for his appearance at the 2011 Champion League final. Two months after the announcement that he’d undergone surgery for a tumor on his liver (which would ultimately require a transplant), Abidal played all 90 minutes in Barcelona’s 3–1 domination of Manchester United. Then, in a truly heart-melting gesture, he was given the captain’s armband by Carles Puyol, so that Abidal could be the first to lift the trophy before the Wembley Stadium crowd.
- Michael Laudrup (1989 – 1994; 217 appearances/55 goals for Barcelona, 104 caps/37 goals for Denmark) – Andrés Iniesta’s favorite-ever player. Had he not done the whole “Leave Barça for Real Madrid and almost immediately mastermind a 5-0 shellacking” thing, Laudrup’s place in the innermost circle of Barcelona legends would be beyond reproach. As it is, he’s one of the most singularly intelligent, artistic and technically and physically gifted players the club has ever seen. He moved to Camp Nou to work under his boyhood hero, and came to embody Johan Cruijff’s philosophy on the pitch, pulling the strings for the legendary Dream Team – winners of the 1992 European Cup and the first Barcelona side to win four consecutive league titles.
- Ronald Koeman (1989 – 1995; 264 appearances/88 goals for Barcelona, 78 caps/14 goals for Holland) – Having previously worked under Cruijff in Holland, Koeman arrived in Barcelona prepared to once again thrive under his compatriot. The most prolific goal scoring defender in club history, Koeman netted nearly 90 times, and established the (still standing) La Liga record for consecutive successful penalty kicks, with 25. Another vital member of the Dream Team, Koeman not only won the aforementioned four straight La Liga titles, but also personally put an indelible stamp on the 1992 European Cup final. If Eric Abidal’s 2011 lifting of the cup at Wembley is one of the most heartwarming moments in European Cup final history, nineteen years earlier, Koeman’s laser of a free kick in the 112th minute of a nervy affair, on the same, hallowed Wembley turf, is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic and thrilling.
- Javier Mascherano (2010 – 2018; 334 appearances/1 goal for Barcelona, 147 caps/3 goals for Argentina) – To sustain a run of success the like of which Barcelona has, the generational superstars must be surrounded by a capable and wiling supporting cast. Often immensely talented in their own rights, these players are willing to selflessly adapt their roles for the good of the team. Javier Mascherano personifies this phenomenon. Signed in 2010 from Liverpool as a defensive midfielder, Masche, after an underwhelming first season, was – through necessity – redeployed by Pep Guardiola as a central defender in the 2011 Champions League final. The early returns were positive, as Barcelona cruised to 3-1 victory over Manchester United, and, just like that, Mascherano had a new role. He’d man the center of the Barcelona defense for another six and half seasons, receiving little fanfare, but stockpiling a whole lot of silverware.
- Johan Cruijff (1973 – 1978; 231 appearances/86 goals for Barcelona, 48 caps/33 goals for Holland) – It’s impossible to overstate Johan Cruijff’s impact on F.C. Barcelona. On the pitch, his time in Barcelona yielded the club’s first league title in 14 years, a clinching of the Copa del Rey on the Santiago Bernabéu pitch, a landmark 5-0 beating of Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, and a successful defense of the Ballon d’Or in 1974. However, Cruijff’s greatest achievements in Barcelona do not fit neatly into the box of any on-pitch triumph. Both as player and manager, he preached an approach toward the game which endures to this day. What Kubala inspired through his play, Cruijff so completely comprehended that he successfully instilled it as an institutional philosophy: “Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.” He wholeheartedly embraced Barcelona on his arrival. He named his son Jordi, after the patron saint of Catalunya, at a time when it was illegal to do so. He redefined how his teams – whether he was playing or coaching – would approach the game. He created La Masia, the youth academy that produced not only the core of the greatest club side in history, but also the but one of the best coaches in the history of the game, and the game’s best-ever individual player. Cruijff not only laid a foundation, he created the infrastructure so that the game, as he saw it, could live on. As Xavi said in 2016, he “he created Barça’s DNA.”
- Ronaldinho (2003 – 2008; 207 appearances/94 goals for Barcelona, 97 caps/33 goals for Brazil) – The spiritual successor to László Kubala. Ronaldinho’s impact on Barcelona was seismic. Arriving on the heels of a lackluster era, Ronaldinho breathed new life into Barcelona football at a time of desperate need – not only in spearheading a pair of league titles, a pair of Supercopas de España and a Champions League victory in 2006, but through the joy and artistry with which he approached the game. As Kubala had done more than half a century prior, Ronaldinho jolted Catalunya with a special brand of substance that came draped in a whole lot of style, emphatically authoring the ephemeral peak of a somewhat nomadic career, while unapologetically embracing the trappings of the Barcelona nightlife. A singular, breathtaking talent, he will forever be revered by Barcelona fans.
- Samuel Eto’o (2004 – 2009; 199 appearances/130 goals for Barcelona, 118 caps/56 goals for Cameroon) – There are reasons, I suppose, that Eto’o is not an F.C. Barcelona icon. He was less eye-catching than his highest-profile teammates – Ronaldinho at the beginning of his tenure, and later, Lionel Messi. Also, his career was rather itinerant, as he went on to play for eight different clubs across Italy, Russia, Turkey, England and Qatar, so it’s difficult for a group of fans to definitively claim him as their Plus, he did help Inter to a treble the season after leaving Barcelona, with Jose Mourinho’s side eliminating Barcelona from the Champions League. That said, however, Eto’o’s contributions in his five seasons at Barcelona are the stuff of eternal adulation. At his peak, there were no holes to be poked in his game. He was a selfless, tireless worker with unrivaled stamina, with incredible intelligence, tactical awareness and technical skill. He was UEFA’s Club Forward of the Year in 2006, and named in UEFA’s Team of the Year in 2005 and 2006. In 2005-06, he won the Pichichi as La Liga’s top goal scorer, but was also the Champions League’s top assist provider. In his three healthy seasons in Barcelona he scored 99 goals across all competitions – before Messi and Cristiano shattered the scales for such achievements, that was outstanding. Of those goals, two, came in Champions League final victories – one an equalizer against Arsenal in 2006, the other the opener in 2009’s 2-0 treble-clincher against Manchester United. As far as pure “#9’s” are concerned, there’s a strong case to be made that Barcelona’s never had a finer one than Samuel Eto’o.
- László Kubala (1950 – 1961; 357 appearances/281 goals for Barcelona; 6 caps/4 goals for Czechoslovakia, 3 caps/0 goals for Hungary, 19 caps/11 goals for Spain) – The first icon. The lone statue. As much as anyone in the club’s history, Kubala set the tone for what F.C. Barcelona would become. The 281 goals and 14 trophies are an excellent jumping off point, but Kubala’s true impact lay in his elevation of the game to high art, and the embodiment of the ethos that’s governed the club’s most successful periods in decades since – on-field results are certainly important, but victory achieved beautifully is immortalized.
- Hristo Stoichkov (1990 – 1995, 1996 – 1998; 255 appearances/116 goals for Barcelona, 83 caps/37 goals for Bulgaria) – An extremely strong, yet quick and creative attacker. Though primarily a striker, Stoichkov possessed a playmaking streak, creating chances for teammates as either a secondary striker or an attacking midfielder. Revered in Barcelona, not only for employing his talents to achieve on-pitch success, but also for absorbing what the club and city stand for. A core member of the aforementioned Dream Team, Stoichkov, too, played a huge role in four consecutive La Liga titles and a European Cup triumph. His attacking prowess may have paved the way, but it was his passionate and fiery personality – and, perhaps, his penchant for ensuring that Romário, his partner in attack from 1993 until 1995, was not too engulfed by his notorious afterhours activities to attend training.
On the bench:
- Rivaldo (1997 – 2002; 235 appearances/130 goals for Barcelona, 74 caps/35 goals for Brazil) – One of football’s great nomads, Rivaldo joined Barcelona prior to the 1997-98 season, as the effective replacement for his departed countryman, Ronaldo, who’d just turned in one of the most spectacular individual seasons in the history of Spanish football. Both individually and from a team perspective, his Barcelona tenure started strong, with a pair of league titles, a UEFA Super Cup and a Copa del Rey in his first two seasons, with Rivaldo scoring 57 goals in 99 games in all competitions. Though he continued to score goals, netting 59 in 103 games over the next two seasons, silverware was no longer forthcoming. Lean years had descended upon Barcelona. It’s against this backdrop that Rivaldo conjured his most brilliant performance, certainly in a Barcelona shirt, if not ever. Barcelona needed a victory over Valencia on the last day of the 2000-01 La Liga season to secure Champion League qualification for the following year. First, take a moment and consider just how crazy that sounds today. At any rate, to this end, he produced what is widely considered the greatest hat-trick ever, culminating in an 89th minute a swerving overhead bicycle kick from the edge of the penalty area to win the game and secure European qualification for the club.
- Ronaldo (1996-97; 49 appearances/47 goals for Barcelona, 98 caps/62 goals for Brazil) – To crack a list like this based on a single season’s work is a genuine feat. But, man, what a season that was! Not only did he average an obscene .96 goal-per-game, setting the (since broken) Barcelona single-season goal scoring mark, he did so in the successful pursuit of silverware, as Bobby Robson’s Barcelona went on to capture the Copa del Rey, the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Supercopa de España. In addition to being comically prolific in front of goal, he was not short on memorable performances – the hat trick against Valencia, his goal in the fever dream Copa del Rey semifinal second leg against Atletico Madrid, that goal against Compostela… Oh, that goal against Compostela…
- Seydou Keita (2008 – 2012; 188 appearances/22 goals for Barcelona, 102 caps/25 goals for Mali) – An overlooked lynchpin of the Guardiola era. Keita appeared in 188 games for Barcelona, scoring 22 goals, and contributed to an absurd amount of winning football. In four seasons with one of the best club sides in history, Keita won three La Liga titles, three Copas del Rey, two Champions League wins (one as part of a treble), three Supercopas de España, two UEFA Super Cups and two FIFA Club World Cups.
- Sándor Kocsis (1958 – 1966; 240 appearances/164 goals for Barcelona, 68 caps/75 goals for Hungary) – Signed in 1958 from Swiss club Young Fellows, Kocsis was a deadly and versatile goal scorer, adept with either foot, and so good in the air that he was nicknamed “Golden Head”. More than simply scorer, however, Kocsis was also a gifted dribbler adept at reading the game and involving his teammates. As he arrived at Barcelona in the latter days of the Kubala era, his greatness was overshadowed not only by his iconic countryman, but also his combustible manager, Helenio Herrera. Though Barça did win a pair each of league titles, Fairs Cups and Copas de Generalísimo (now the Copa del Rey), the defining result of Kocsic’s time with Barcelona was a heartbreaking loss in the 1961 European Cup Final against Benfica in Bern, Switzerland, in the same stadium in which his legendary “Might Magyars” Hungarian national side had lost the 1954 World Cup Final.
- Deco (2004 – 2008; 161 appearances/22 goals for Barcelona, 75 caps/5 goals for Portugal) – Signed the summer after the monumental acquisition of Ronaldinho, Deco was vital in returning Barça to the top of food chain, domestically, as well as globally. A Champions League winner with Porto, Deco provided a valuable combination of creativity, toughness and tactical intelligence to the core of Frank Rijkaard’s teams. His first two seasons with the club resulted in two leagues titles and the 2006 Champions League trophy. At the end of the 2007-08 season, with his thirtieth birthday approaching, and incoming manager Pep Guardiola concerned about his commitment and focus, Deco was moved on, to Chelsea. Despite this, the seven trophies to which he contributed, and his role in the rejuvenation of F.C. Barcelona as a world power should not be discounted.
- Rafa Márquez (2003 – 2010; 242 appearances/12 goals for Barcelona, 146 caps/19 goals for Mexico) – Carles Puyol will be remembered as the beating heart of the Barcelona defense in the first part of this century. By his side for much of the journey was Rafa. In all, Márquez contributed to four La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey, two Champions League wins (he missed 2009’s game through injury, but played all 90 minutes in 2006), three Supercopas de España, a UEFA Super Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup. At the time of his departure Márquez had appeared in more games with Barcelona than any other non-European, and remains the CONCACAF player with the most appearances for the club.
- Luis Suárez (2014 – present; 237 appearances/173 goals for Barcelona, 106 caps/55 goals for Uruguay) – An insatiable goal scorer with strength, speed, technical skill, boundless energy and as nasty a competitive streak as exists in the sport. When Luisito joined Barcelona in the fall of 2014 (he needed to see out the remainder of his ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup), he joined Lionel Messi and Neymar, forming the “MSN”, one of the most devastating attacking combinations in the history of the game. Individually, Suárez peaked in 2015-16, scoring 40 league goals to capture the Pichichi as La Liga’s top scorer – the first player other than Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to capture the award in seven seasons – while also assisting on a league-high 16 goals. In achieving this double, he became the first player ever to lead La Liga in both goals and assists. These days, Suárez is unable to replicate his peak form with the same regularity as in the past, but it’s a testament to the standard he’s set for himself that a 30-goal campaign constitutes a noticeable drop-off.
About The Author
A La Liga obsessive and Barcelona fan residing in New York, Emile Avanessian has contributed La Liga- and F.C. Barcelona-focused writing to BarcaBlaugranes, SB Nation’s FC Barcelona site, as well as BarcaBlog, the written arm of The Barcelona Podcast. He’s also spent more than a decade writing about NBA basketball, on his personal website, HardwoodHype, on Forum Blue & Gold about his beloved hometown Los Angeles Lakers, as well as on numerous team-specific sites, the Los Angeles Times website, Yahoo Sports and ESPN, among others. Emile also recently began contributing to Thunder Wire, a USA Today-affiliated site covering the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.