Envision this: Cliff Branch streaking down the pitch, he receives a pass on the wing, and fires a missile from 20 yards out in the back of the net. I have no doubt in my mind that Branch – as well as several other historical Raiders - would’ve been an exceptional soccer player, given his speed and agility.
The Silver and Black are in London for the week, as they get ready to host the Chicago Bears at the all-new Tottenham Stadium, and in the spirit of things, it feels right to conjure up a list of Raiders that would collectively make for a dominant soccer team.
From speed, big legs, great hands, and physical specimens, the Raiders have had it all, which is why I’ve tried to piece together the ideal starting lineup.
In this hypothetical scenario, we’re going to assemble the roster using a standard 4-3-3 formation; let’s dive in.
Sebastian Janikowski, ST
We’re going to start at the top and work our way down, and in my mind there’s no one else I’d rather have bullying defenders in the box than the “Polish Cannon.”
The greatest kicker in Raiders history was also an incredible soccer talent in high school. While attending Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., Janikowski’s primary sport was soccer, and he was damn good at it too. He scored a state record 69 goals – nice – as a senior, which was the state record at the time. He was a former member of the Polish national under-17 soccer team, and turned down multiple pro soccer contract offers in South America to enroll at Florida State and play football.
When I think of SeaBass as a soccer player, I imagine Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rolled into one. Both had powerful boots and the combination of Rooney and Zlatan would match Janikowski’s bulldog mentality and physical presence. The Polish Cannon’s ability to finish and fire rockets from distance makes him a clear choice at striker.
Cliff Branch, LW
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Branch’s days as a Raider, is his speed.
Bayern Munich legend Franck Ribery had a knack for weaving past defenders and creating big plays, similar to Branch. Out wide, Ken Stabler knew that he could trust Branch downfield, and the same would apply on the pitch. All it would take is a simple through ball, or a tactical cross to put Branch in a position to leave his defender in the dust and get behind the opposing team’s last line of defense. Do I expect there to be the occasional offside with someone of Branch’s speed? Sure, but I would wish team’s luck against him.
Tim Brown, RW
You want a game-breaker? Look no further than Tim Brown – the Raiders equivalent to Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
Tim Brown is easily one of the greatest Raiders of all time, in large part to his reliability, ability to take over a game, and his speed outside. Mane is a 27-year-old phenom and has the same flash that Brown had in his late 20s. Brown was a stud in one-on-one situations and possessed amazing talent downfield, with Branch lined up opposite him, this front unit would be near uncatchable.
Bo Jackson, CM
The debate will go on for decades, but Bo Jackson is arguably the best athlete of all time, and his physical style of play in the middle of the field would give opposing defenses fits. Durable, strong, and nearly impossible to bring down, Jackson would be able to maintain possession and I imagine he’d be great at getting back on defense too.
Bo Jackson’s athleticism was second to none, and in the middle of the pitch he’d be a tough task for defenders. Whether he’s facilitating or making plays, Bo could do it all, and he would make the ideal midfielder.
Ken Stabler, LM
At the top of the formation we have Cliff Branch, so who better to help facilitate the ball to him than lefty specialist Ken Stabler, as the Hall of Famer had a knack for slinging the ball downfield to the speedster. Together on the pitch the duo would continue their chemistry and open up some game-changing plays.
Rich Gannon, RM
Similar to Stabler, Gannon would be partnered with his former star wideout on the right side, Tim Brown. Gannon’s command of the offense would translate on the pitch, and his vigor would be one of his greatest qualities. No. 12 always played with tenacity and I don’t think Gannon would have a problem getting back on defense or get in a player’s face.
Willie Brown, LB
The Raiders historically have some of the best defensive backs to play the game of football, and leading the way is “Old Man” Willie Brown.
Brown had one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, housing a pick-six against the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. Brown turned defense into offense, similar to Marcelo of Real Madrid.
Whether you’re trying to get by Willie B, or need him to play further up the pitch, he was a versatile and dynamic player.
Charles Woodson, CB
Some might argue that Charles Woodson is the greatest Raider of all time, or at least one of the most iconic. Everything C-Wood does just looks cool and as the center back he’d be a perfect fit.
Ball hawk, playmaker, freak athlete, whatever you want to label him, he was it. Given his size, C-Wood is the ideal person to have on the last line of defense. The former Heisman Trophy-winner and Super Bowl champion has the wardrobe to be a soccer player too. Woodson would show up to gameday in some eclectic outfits and it would match his play on the field.
Jack Tatum, CB
To complement Woodson, he’d be accompanied by Jack Tatum, who Coach Gruden has referenced countless times to rookie safety Johnathan Abram. He possessed a physical brand of football, flying around like a bat out of hell. His presence would undeniably give weaker strikers a fit as he bullied them near the box.
Lester Hayes, CB
Opposite Brown, we have the great Lester Hayes.
In college, Hayes played multiple positions, seeing action at defensive end and linebacker before being converted to safety. A defensive end playing safety? That doesn’t seem fair.
Anybody with his size and speed lining up against a feebler opponent never stood a chance. I’m not sure you’d make it past mid-pitch with Hayes defending.
Fred Biletnikoff, GK
Last, but most certainly not least, Fred Biletnikoff.
Freddie B caught nearly everything that came his way, and as the keeper I’d feel confident that in the rare occasion someone got through the last line of defense, he’d be there to make a play. With or without some added stickum, he has the athleticism and hands to dive, jump, or extend to make saves.