There are a lot of great things about the Champions League, where 32 teams with players from all over the world come together in one tournament. With 32 teams come 32 rosters filled with names as equally awesome as the soccer they play. Just hearing the announcers pronounce these names within the same tournament makes it all worthwhile.
We get so many starting elevens compiled that by season's end they become rote. We know who the great players are. But, what about the great names? What would a team with the greatest names in the Champions League look (or, more importantly, sound) like?
After phonetically combing through every Champions League roster, I'm here to answer that question. There were a lot of fantastic contenders, but there can only be one team.
OK, that's a lie. I made three, because there were just too many awesome names.
Since the goal is to create the best sounding team possible and not to actually win games, I was pretty liberal with positions. Each player is categorized as a keeper, defenseman, midfielder or striker. For this exercise, I don't care if someone is a central mid or a winger, a fullback or halfback, etc. Each team is in a 4-4-2, because why the hell not.
The Awesomely Named Team
There were no awesome name juices left over for this team name; the players hogged all the naming creativity themselves. This team is simply the best names, with no other criterion. It is completely up to my judgment what constitutes an awesome name. I have also included the players whom I initially identified off their rosters as being eligible for the squad: the Close Calls. Only the best names made the cut. Feel free to quibble with my decisions. (You would anyways even if I didn't invite you to, but I thought I would make it officially sanctioned behavior.)
Keeper: Lars Unnerstall (Schalke 04)
A first name of Lars makes him an automatic contender, since Lars is one of the best names on the planet. Traditional yet threatening, brief yet complex. Lars Unnerstall could be your most trustworthy associate or a brutal assassin (or both, depending on what line of work you're in).
Close Calls: Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal), Anton Kanibolotskiy (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ufuk Ceylan (Galatasaray), Claudio Bravo (Real Sociedad)
Szczesny got points for trying to fit all the consonants into his name, and for only having two of the eight letters be vowels, which is an impressive consonant-to-vowel ratio. Kanibolotskiy is a trip to pronounce, if you can do it correctly. Claudio Bravo was a close second to Lars, since any name that inherently makes you sound like a smooth Euro linguist has utility in itself.
Defense: Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Lucho González (Porto), Holger Badstuber (Bayern Munich), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Azpilicueta is a 10/10 on the fun-to-pronounce scale. Go ahead, try it. I'll wait.
Lucho overcomes a bland, common last name with an amazing first name. I can't in good conscience leave off someone with the name Lucho. So, too, with Nacho Montreal, and to boot, his last name sounds like Monorail, so I call him Nacho Monorail, which is the single best name in the history of names. Imagine monorails where nachos are complimentary. I think we can all agree that'd be a good thing.
I would not mess with a fellow named Holger Badstuber. That last name is straight out of a Bond movie.
Close Calls:Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid), Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Schalke 04), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City), Daley Blind (Ajax), Avraam Papadopoulos (Olympiacos), Konstantinos Stafylidis (Leverkusen), Nacho Fernandez (Real Madrid)
If there were four defenders named Nacho, you best believe I would have compiled an all-Nacho defense, which would blanket the opponent with nacho cheese. Unfortunately, there weren't four, and a first name of Nacho was not enough to overtake a bland last name of Fernandez. (And, yes, by the transitive property of equality, we can now prove a first name of Lucho is cooler than a first name of Nacho.) So, too, with the Papadopouloses. If there were four of them, we'd have an all-Papadopoulos defense.
Per Mertesacker makes the list because of the asymmetry between his first and last name. Per is so simple, whereas Mertesacker is almost as long and clumsy as the man himself. It's poetry in nomenclature.
Midfield: Sven Bender (Borussia Dortmund), Lars Bender (Bayer Leverkusen), Emmanuel Frimpong (Arsenal), Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich)
Sven and Lars Bender take the title for best names on the entire team. It's tough to say which one has the better name. I say Sven, because it rolls easier with Bender. But, see above for the awesomeness of Lars. It's a tough call, for sure. But, as Michael Katz tweeted:
Indeed, sir. Indeed. If I was Sven Bender, I would legally change my name to SvenBender SvenBender, so no matter whether someone was addressing me by first or last name, they had to pronounce my full, awesome name.
I couldn't leave off a last name of Frimpong. You can place the emphasis on the Frim or the Pong, it doesn't matter, its all gold. That's the kind of versatility this team needs. So, too, with Xherdan Shaqiri. I wonder if people call him Shaq. I hope not.
Close Calls: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern), John Obi Mikel (Chelsea), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Schalke 04), Geoffroy Serey Die (Basel)
All were supremely tough cuts. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the most supremely German name imaginable. John Obi Mikel was only on this list because of the obvious Star Wars comparison, and frankly, that's more than enough. If I were him, I would insist people call me Obi John Mikelbi. Gedion Zelalem was the hardest cut I had to make. As if Gedion isn't an awesome enough first name, he also has a Z in his last name, and incorporating a Z into your name is a commendable feat (except for Zachs of any spelling, you cheaters). Leaving off someone with a last name of DIE was really tough, but that spelling of Jeffrey cannot be condoned.
Strikers: Gohi Bi Zoro Cyriac (Anderlecht), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Schalke 04)
Much to my dismay, most of the Champions League strikers have pretty typical names. Not so for Gohi Bi Zoro Cyriac. See above for the excellence of Z's, but that is multiplied when it's part of the name Zoro! I hope he wears the Fernando Torres mask every time he plays, because it's kind of like the Zorro mask. (Yes, I am aware there are two R's in Zorro, the masked fighter. I care not.)
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a name you can set your watch to. It has a first-name hyphen, which is always appreciated, and Huntelaar is a fantastic last name. Extra credit for the double-A's.
Close Calls: Yaya Sanogo (Arsenal), Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain)
Like I said, this group was pretty thin. Yaya Sanogo wouldn't have cracked the midfield or defense groups. As for Zlatan, he's a Z man.
* * *
This is apparently a technical term for someone with only one name, such Plato, Cher or Jesus. Soccer has lots of them, and I thought there was no way to compare a terrific polynym a noteworthy mononym. After all, so much of what makes a polynym great is the interplay between the multiple nyms. It's apples and oranges, really.
(Quick clarification: many, if not all, of these players have much longer birth names. But, I considered them for the Mononyms if their official player page only listed the single name.)
Keeper: Gabriel (AC Milan)
It was either him or Rafael of Napoli. Gabriel's got that biblical reference, which is snazzy. A little less common than Rafael, I think. So sure, why the hell not. Suit up, Gabriel!
Close Calls: Rafael (Napoli)
Defense: Sokratis (Dortmund), Zaldua (Real Sociedad), Ismaily (Shakhtar), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain)
I'm going to pretend Sokratis was named after Socrates, because that would be the absolute best. Zaldua has a Z, so he's a lock. I want to photograph the name Ismaily against a setting sun. And Marquinhos throws the atypical "S" at the end to throw you off. I like that, keeps you on your toes.
Close Calls: Miranda (Atletico Madrid), Rafinha (Bayern Munich), Alex (Paris Saint-Germain), Maxwell (Paris Saint-Germain), Dante (Bayern Munich), Pepe (Real Madrid), Marcelo (Real Madrid)
No credit to the mononyms that could double as first names, like Alex, Maxwell, Dante, Pepe and Marcelo. Even Miranda, really. No effort. I expect more from my Mononyms.
Midfield: Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk), Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Isco (Real Madrid), Koke (Atlético Madrid)
This was a tough group. I violated my first name rule (as explained above) for Fred and Bernard, because those are the goofiest names for professional soccer players. Fred is what you name something for a constant reminder of its goofiness, and Bernard is the oldest-sounding male name imaginable, with the exception of Mortimer. So to have guys named Fred and Bernard running around a soccer field is a delightful mismatch.
I'm going to name my children Isco and Koke.
Close Calls: Gabi (Atletico Madrid), Fernando (Shakhtar Donetsk), Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk), Lucas (Paris Saint-Germain), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Bruma (Galatasaray), Claudemir (Copenhagen), Hervias (Real Sociedad), Sangalli (Real Sociedad), Thiago (Bayern Munich), Ramires (Chelsea), Oscar (Chelsea), Willian (Chelsea), Mascarell (Real Madrid), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Nani (Manchester United)
Those are all the other mononym midfielders. Pretty disappointing, to be honest.
Striker: Hulk (Zenit St Petersburg), Kaka (AC Milan)
I don't need to waste words explaining why Hulk is on this team. Kaka is and will always be one of the great mononyms of this generation. Long Live Kaka.
Close Calls: Sulejmani (Benfica), Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk), Robinho (AC Milan), Neymar (Barcelona), Jesé (Real Madrid)
Neymar and Sulejmani are solid, but they're not nearly qualified to touch Hulk and Kaka. There was not a lot of parity in this position.
* * *
We all know having "van" in your name instantly makes it better. Robin Persie sounds like the kid you beat up every day for lunch money who then hid behind the slide crying until recess was over. Robin van Persie still doesn't sound too threatening, but you might think twice before shaking him down.
With this in mind, I separated out all the Vans into their own team. Otherwise, the Awesomely Named Team would be dominated with Vans, and that would be no fun.
It should be said, there weren't enough Vans to occupy an entire roster. So I took some liberties here.
Keeper: Mickey van der Hart (Ajax)
With a first name of Mickey, he's automatically a contender for the Awesomely Named Team. But van der Hart puts him over the top. What a fantastic name. No word over two syllables, yet combined they form a myriad of vowel sounds. Delightful.
Close Calls: None.
He was the only one.
Defense: Gregory Van Der Wiel (Paris Saint-Germain), Ricardo van Rhijn (Ajax), Mike van der Hoom (Ajax), Virgil van Dijk (Celtic)
It's impossible to overstate how badly I want this defensive line to exist in real life. I demand one of the oil-rich owners who burns money for his mini-giraffe's pleasure make it so.
Close Calls: None.
This team can't afford injuries. Or substitutions.
Midfield: Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea), Ste Van Jovetic (Manchester City), Du Van Zapata (Napoli), Ivan I Van Ov (Basel)
Is Ivan I Van Ov a midfielder? No, he is a defenseman. Is his name actually spelled that way? No, it's spelled the more conventional Ivanov. Does this matter? Hell no. He has two "vans" in his name, which makes him incredible, as long as you allow some flexibility with how his name is spelled and pronounced. So, too, with Ste Van Jovetic, although I think he would have more success at City if he spelled his name thusly, as would Du Van Zapata at Napoli.
This midfield is the greatest midfield in history. I will field no questions on the matter.
Close Calls: Branislav I Van Ovic (Chelsea)
Striker: Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Daniel van Buyten (Bayern Munich)
Daniel van Buyten is not a striker, but having "Van" in his name will compensate for any technical shortcomings.
Close Calls: None.
* * *
So there you have it. The three greatest teams in the history of soccer, or any sport, really. The only question is, who would win in an actual game of soccer? The answer is: we all would, because it would be a constant stream of awesome names flowing into our ears. You never knew the beautiful game could sound so good.
Oh, and the Mononyms would clearly win.