Sunday, December 18, 2011

The greatest team of all-time debate

(picture taken from BBC)

As FC Barcelona were crowned “World Club Cup” Champions on Sunday, the compliments started flooding in and rightly so. Barcelona have now won pretty much every trophy there is to win, some twice, over the past 3 years; making them rightly recognized as the best team in the world…at the moment. I say “at the moment”, because I’m reading and hearing people everywhere trying to compare this Barcelona side with other legendary teams from the past - in order to try and figure out the answer to the age-old question of “which team is the greatest team of all-time?”. Here’s my answer and the justification of it:

You cannot compare different teams from different eras. It is impossible. Football has evolved so much over the years and there are too many differences between the footballers we see today and those of the past; between the game we loved then and the game we love today. Two different “animals” as some might say. The basics of Football will always remain the same, but the surroundings, the gameplay and everything else will always evolve and change. There is no “greatest team of all-time”, but rather a number of great Football teams that have played in different eras and here are my reasons for believing this.

1 – The pitches
Watch videos of the 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s and so on; have look at the pitches. The players back then used to play in mud sometimes and still managed to get through the games. That was then, this is now - watch any game in any top league and have a look at the pitch – there has never been grass so green and well-cut as there is today. The grass in this day and age makes national parks look like a mess in comparison. What players have today in this aspect, has never been rivaled and allows players to play better and obviously, avoid injuries.

2 – The balls
Not those balls, you perverts reading this. The actual balls that the players play with nowadays are much, much, lighter than what players played with before. Evolution. That’s what happens, I’m not saying one is better than the other, but it is a fact. Balls today are much lighter than they were in the past. In the past, they used to be made of leather. Leather! Can you imagine Cristiano Ronaldo heading a leather-ball nowadays? Not a chance! He’d probably fall on the ground worrying about his haircut. To make you realize the difference even more, and the impact of the previous balls, whenever it rained, the ball got filled with water in it. Again, just imagine…

3 – The boots
When Adidas create a boot so advanced that it can keep count of how many steps you take, your heartbeat, which foot you’re better with and so on, you just know that the players today are privileged. This is as advanced as it can possibly get. Players back then had to clean their own boots and used the same one for an entire season! Nowadays, per game, players are lucky enough to have 3 or 4 different pairs, with different studs, in different colors – suiting all their needs, making it easier to perform as they choose fit. Different times, different eras.

4 – The different leagues
I say this because, again, different leagues have got different characteristics. The English league is the fastest, the Spanish is the most technical, the Italian & German leagues are the most tactical and intelligent. The leagues, like the teams in it, are very difficult to compare (hence why the European competitions give a good idea of who’s at the top and who’s not – something that this Barca team are proving quite exquisitely). Does winning La Liga now differ from winning it 50 years ago? Of course it does. Back then, when you look at the statistics, teams could lose 7 or 8 games a season, in all leagues, and still be crowned Champions. Nowadays, that will never happen. It is not because the standards of the leagues have improved, but because the gulf in class between the teams at the top and bottom of all leagues has become more evident. For various reasons (mainly money-related), at the start of any given season these days, it is easier to predict which teams will be competing for the league title at most “top” leagues in Europe. Whereas in the past, in England for example, you’d have a team like Aston Villa competing for the league title one season, and fighting a relegation battle the next (we still find this in France, however). Thus backing up my point of the difference in eras even more. The game has changed. Now, we already know who the “elite” are. Every single season. Which brings me to my next point…

5 – The injuries & squads
In Football nowadays, thanks to all the medical equipment and advances, players are able to recover from injuries quicker than ever. You might laugh this one off, but it’s a big factor in the difference of eras. For instance, if we take Marco Van Basten (a key member of Milan’s successful side in the late 80s/early 90s), who retired aged just 28, because of ankle injuries and then compare to the injuries suffered by Djibril Cisse who broke his legs (yes, both of them at different times in horrific incidents) and was able to recover fully – we have got to appreciate that footballers nowadays are very well taken care of. But despite these great medical advances, if injuries occur to members of a team now, they are easily replaced, as teams now have up to 25 top players. Football used to be a team game (starting 11, plus 3 subs), now it’s a squad game. The bigger the squad, the higher the chances of success. This has allowed players to rest more and stay fitter than in previous times - not to mention that players are now under strict diets which focus specifically on their body demands. Considering this point, one must say that Barcelona have been “lucky” (or blessed) when it comes to injuries…or rather the lack of injuries. Their star players have not gotten injured for long periods of time during this phase of glory in their history. But I do believe that has as much to do with “luck” as it does with their style. I’m tempted to say that given La Liga’s style of play, which focuses more on skill and finesse rather than the gung-ho approach we find elsewhere, the players in the league don’t get tackled around often. The evidence of this point comes in the shape of Arsenal – who play a similar style to Barca by keeping the ball on the ground – but get a load of injuries every season, simply because their Premier League opponents and peers, go into tackles at every given opportunity, which leads to a number of injuries. Unlike Barca. Unlike in Spain. Unlike in the past.

6 – Trophies & competitions
Trophies are the principle indication of a team’s success, but that’s not enough though. If trophies were the most important factor when debating the “greatest team of all-time”, then Real Madrid’s team of the 50s would easily be the greatest ever because of how much they won (5 European cups in a row). But there's much more to it than that. Like with every other point I’ve made in this article, Football has evolved – the trophy may stay the same, but the competitions formats have changed. A lot! For example, the European Cup back then was easier to win than it is now if you look at its previous format (home & away ties), 16 teams only in the competition, made up only of the Champions of each European nation (well, most of them) during Real Madrid's dominance period in the 50s. In fact, I’d say in the entire history of the competition, the toughest format ever was during the 1999-2003 seasons, which Real Madrid, Bayern Munich & AC Milan won, when there were actually 2 group phases to go through before reaching the last 16. The competitions are always changing and evolving. This makes it hard to classify whether a Champions League victory in the 2000s has the same value as one in the 1950s.

There are many more differences which could emphasize my point further, but these are the main ones I believe. Things have changed in Football over the years, over the decades, over the eras – making it IMPOSSIBLE to select a “greatest team of all-time”. The funny thing about this endless debate, is that about 7 years ago, before this Barcelona team came to the fore, I recall having a great conversation with a Barcelona supporting friend of mine. We sat for hours talking about the cycles that exist in Football; how teams endure success in cycles. In every league and in Europe, there’s always a dominant team for a period of time – then the tide changes, just like with everything in life. And right now, at this moment in Football history, nobody comes close to FC Barcelona and their style makes it all the more admirable. You may not agree with this, but most rational Football fans possibly will. While the newbies to the Football world won’t. To them, I’ll just say, give it 10 years, if you’re still watching Football by then, because not only does the tide turn as always in our beautiful game, but what goes up must come down. Take nothing away from FC Barcelona, they are an incredible Football team, one of the best ever, but they are not the greatest team of all-time. There is no greatest team of all-time.


  1. Starting from the injury part, I have to agree, especially about Spanish League, just because of Diego Maradona's injury when he used to play with Barcelona. Moving on, the article offers a lot of sense, especially about Cristina's hair with leather balls, newbies, and mud pitches.

    However, the way the whole Barcelona team is playing is what probably makes them the best ever. The whole world witnessed Brazil '82 and '70 saying they were the best teams when the former did not win the World Cup. This Barcelona is doing everything: Alien-like football display, 101% possession, goalscoring, trophies harvesting.

    We can argue until the end of days, and we will never figure out which team is the greatest.

    To conclude I will compare this debate to the one about Maradona-Messi: When recently asked about who the best player is, Maradona said it is Messi. The TV host was surprised and asked Maradona why he did not answer by simply saying: Maradona. Diego answered saying: Maradona played his part of the game and Maradona is retired, it is Messi's era now.

  2. @figo 29 - I think the Messi/Maradona debate is similar to this. In the sense that the players both played in different eras under different conditions. Also, very different financial conditions too - which also affects the entire way of thinking of the game.

    What Maradona did for Napoli is unheard of and will never be repeated. Also, to consider the fact that Maradona was supposedly taking "drugs" during his playing days, something unthinkable these days, and despite that he performed like a God. Imagine if he was as fit as players today...I don't even want to go that far :p. I am a Diego lover; and I think he should just be left untouched.

  3. gr8 gr8 article anthony! and yes every word u said is true!! And Diego should be left untouched by all u noobs messi fans. ill post in a while some of the greatest teams in football history

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