I say yes.
I’m referring to the Barcelona team of the past three seasons, 2009-11. Despite a few nontrivial player changes — Samuel Eto’o replaced by Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2010 and then by David Villa in 2011, Thierry Henry replaced by Pedro Rodriguez, Yaya Toure replaced by Sergio Busquets — the squad remained largely intact over this period.
Who are their chief rivals? And on what grounds can we consider Barça superior?
Nearly everyone who isn’t a diehard partisan views Brazil’s 1970 squad the best national team ever. A recent poll of experts yielded this conclusion, with Brazil 1970 followed by the mid-1950s Hungarian national team and the Netherlands’ 1974 World Cup team. The 1970 Brazilian team featured Pelé, the widely-acknowledged best player of all time, along with several other entertaining attacking talents like Jairzinho, Tostão, and Roberto Rivelino. It played with a seldom-replicated panache and soundly defeated most of its opponents.
In a head-to-head match, the contemporary Barça team would demolish the 1970 Brazilians; fitness, strength, skill, and tactics have advanced a good bit in the past four decades. The only fair way to compare across such a long stretch of time is by assessing the teams relative to others in their own era.
I give the edge to Barça for three reasons.
First, Brazil were pretty equally matched by England in the 1970 World Cup. The two teams met in the first round. Brazil ended up winning 1-0, but it easily could have gone the other way. England played Brazil straight up and gave as much as they got.
To my knowledge, in the past three years no competitor has played Barcelona straight up and succeeded in giving them a genuine challenge. Manchester United tried in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals. In both matches they did well for the first ten minutes, but after that Barcelona thoroughly dominated. Real Madrid, perhaps the second best team in the world this year, tried to play Barça straight up in a league match this past fall. Barcelona won 5-0.
Barcelona are so good — so capable of keeping the ball for long stretches, creating scoring opportunities, and getting the ball back quickly when they lose it — that even the most talented attacking teams tend to feel no choice but to retreat into a defensive shell against them. The strategy is to “park the bus,” pulling most players back into the defensive third of the field, and hope for a counterattack goal or two. Three of the best attacking teams in recent memory — Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semifinals, Arsenal in 2010 and 2011 Champions League ties, and Real Madrid in this year’s Champions League semifinals — were reduced to this approach.
Is this because these next-best teams simply aren’t very strong? On the contrary. In today’s soccer the top club teams are better than the top national teams. Globalization and the absence of a salary cap have allowed the world’s richest clubs to concentrate talent from around the world in a way that national teams can’t. This year’s Real Madrid team is one of the best we’ve seen in years. It features some of the top attacking players on the planet. Against Barcelona in the Champions League, however, Real’s coach Jose Mourinho kept several of them on the bench and played with, in effect, seven defenders. In the end it didn’t work, but it probably was their best hope of winning.
My second reason for preferring Barcelona 2009-11 over Brazil 1970 is the Brazilian team’s dodgy goalkeeper. It was a major liability. Barça has no comparable weakness.
Third, Spain won last year’s World Cup in what I think was the most dominant performance since Brazil’s in 1970. They took the game to every team they faced and won the tournament convincingly, even though a number of their victories were by small margins. Barcelona’s club team is essentially that Spanish national team plus Lionel Messi, the world’s best player and one of the ten best of all time. It’s a bit like taking Brazil’s 1970 team and adding Johan Cruyff or Franz Beckenbauer (or perhaps Gordon Banks in goal).
Are there club teams that might rival Barcelona 2009-11 for the title of greatest team ever? One obvious candidate is Real Madrid 1956-60. Their record of five consecutive European Cup (the predecessor of the Champions League) titles likely will never be equaled. The team featured two of the premier players of the 1950s in Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano. But that was an utterly different soccer era, before teams knew how to defend. And I’m skeptical about the quality of the competition they faced. Rightly or wrongly, I exclude them from consideration.
Here are four others.
Ajax 1971-73. This team won three consecutive European Cup titles and dominated the Dutch league until Johan Cruyff left to play for Barcelona. It also included the nucleus of the great 1974 Dutch World Cup team. But herein lies a problem. Most would consider the 1974 Netherlands team better than the Ajax team, and most also rank Netherlands 1974 below Brazil 1970.
Bayern Munich 1972-76. Bayern dominated the German Bundesliga in the early 1970s and won three successive European Cup titles following Ajax’ run. It then dropped off when Franz Beckenbauer left for the New York Cosmos in 1976. Here too, though, we have a club team-national team difficulty. The Bayern team contained the nucleus of the World Cup-winning German national team in 1974. But that World Cup squad probably was better than Bayern, and the World Cup squad is generally rated below the team they beat, the Netherlands, which in turn is ranked below Brazil 1970.
Liverpool 1977-84. Liverpool won four European Cup titles in eight years, including three in five years. They also won six English league titles during those eight years. There was a good bit of turnover during this span — the key forward, for instance, shifted from Kevin Keegan in 1977 to Kenny Dalglish for the bulk of the period to Ian Rush by the end — so it’s a stretch to think of this as a single team. I suspect that’s why relatively few seem to include them on the list of top contenders for all-time greatest status.
AC Milan 1989-91. This was a mesmerizing squad, with Paolo Maldini and several other Italian stalwarts alongside the brilliant Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard. The team won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990 and went through the entire 1992 Italian league (Serie A) season undefeated.
Great teams dominate their competition. There’s a qualitative aspect to dominance, but we can also look at the numbers. I think the two key indicators are titles and goal difference.
Begin with titles. Barcelona has now won the Champions League two of the past three years. (It’s won three of the past six, but the squad that won in 2006 was sufficiently different that I’m not including it here.) This isn’t the best title run ever. But it’s no less impressive than the earlier runs by Ajax, Bayern, Liverpool, and AC Milan. Virtually all of the world’s best players now play in Europe, with many of them concentrated in just ten clubs. Barcelona therefore faces stronger competition than its predecessors.
Barça has won its domestic league (La Liga) each of the past three years. The Spanish league is less competitive than the English Premier League, but it’s quite good. And in the past two years Barça’s main domestic rival, Real Madrid, has been one of the world’s top two or three teams.
Including titles in the assessment diminishes the luster of the AC Milan team of 1989-93 somewhat. Though it won the European Cup twice in a row, Milan won the Italian league title only twice during that five-year span.
Along with titles, goal difference (goals scored minus goals allowed) is probably the best quantitative indicator of dominance. The following chart shows per-game goal difference for each of these five club teams in domestic league matches and in Champions League matches. Performance in Champions League matches is the better measure for comparison, since domestic league quality varies a good bit. Ajax stands above the other four in goal difference in domestic matches, but the Dutch league competition was likely the weakest of the five.
Barcelona looks good relative to the others in both Champions League and domestic league goal difference. Is its impressive Champions League goal difference a product of some early-round 10-0 thrashings of weak opponents? No; Barça’s largest margin in any Champions League match during its three-year run was five goals.
LUCKY RATHER THAN GREAT?
One possible knock on Barcelona is that they got a bit lucky in their Champions League seminal tie in both 2009 and 2011. In 2009 they faced Chelsea. In the first leg, in Barcelona, Chelsea parked the bus and got a 0-0 draw. In the second leg Chelsea again played counterattack, and it worked well. They generated several good scoring chances, including a couple of possible penalty kicks that the referee didn’t award. Barcelona got a very late goal to tie the match 1-1 and go through to the finals on away goals. In this year’s semifinal Barça beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the first match and drew 1-1 in the second. In the first match, several Barça players reacted theatrically to some Madrid fouls, which may have contributed to Madrid’s Pepe getting red carded early in the second half. That probably helped Barcelona, though I’m not sure Real would have stopped Messi’s second goal even with eleven (or twelve or thirteen) men.
The thing is, every successful team needs a bit of luck to get by. Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team were lucky not to have to face England in the final. In the quarterfinal match between England and West Germany, England went up 2-0. England’s coach substituted for two of the team’s best players, to rest them and safeguard against injury. The Germans pulled off a remarkable comeback to win 3-2 and England were out of the tournament. In AC Milan’s first victorious European Cup run, in 1989, they faced Red Star Belgrade in a second-round home-and-away contest. They tied in the home match in Milan and were behind 1-0 in the 65th minute of the away match when a fog rolled in, forcing cancellation of the match. The full game was replayed the next day. It ended in a draw, with Milan then winning in penalty kicks.
Over time we forget the luck and remember the brilliance. A decade from now hardly anyone will remember these details of Barcelona’s Champions League triumphs. What people will recall, rightly, is Barça’s exquisite play.
A THING TO BEHOLD
Are Barça the best team of all time? There’s no way to settle the question objectively, and in the end it doesn’t much matter. What matters is the joy of watching them play. I was too young to appreciate Brazil’s 1970 squad and Cruyff’s Ajax team, and television coverage then was too limited in any case. What good fortune to live at a moment when it’s been possible to see a team as glorious as this Barcelona side work its magic on a regular basis.