Is the current FC Barcelona the best club team of all time?
For one who has seen all the great club sides of the world since the invincible Real Madrid of the late 1950s, to ponder this is a big call.
But I’m serious. Sorting through the images that are in my mind, and the experiences that I’ve had as a student of the game for more than half a century, I’m having difficulty resisting the supposition that this Barca is not only up there with the cream but may be as good as it gets.
It’s important that I qualify what I mean here. I’m not talking about the greatest club in the world, based on trophies won, achievements made over prolonged periods, star players paraded etc. I make reference only to the unique excellence of this current Barcelona, the one under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, which is yet to complete its third season.
Greatness in football is defined by many things. But the greatest point of distinction and respect, is when a team becomes a singular reference point for all that other teams admire and want to become. This is the Barcelona of today, in a way and to an extent one has rarely seen in the long annals of the game.
The first of those, in my memory, was the magnificent Real Madrid between 1955 and 1960, the one of Di Stefano, Kopa, Puskás, Gento, Santamaria, Del Sol and the others, the original galacticos whom all wanted to emulate but could not. Their football had to be seen to be believed.
Dethroning them was the sublime Benfica, coached by Béla Gutmann, of Eusebio, Coluna, Simoes, Aguas and Germano, which reigned in the early 1960s.
Later came the emergence of Ajax, of Cruyff, and its 'total football’, which revolutionised the game, won three straight European Cups, and whose legacy lives to this day.
It was followed by the 1970s vintage Bayern Munich, led from the back by Beckenbauer, another three-time European Cup winner.
The great Liverpool, inspired by Bill Shankly, then dominated for over half a decade and reigned as the most feared entity in club football.
Then there was the era of AC Milan, its wonderful 'pressing game’ under Sacchi and then Capello, which ruled through the late 1980s and early '90s.
And the last of the truly great teams, before this Barca emerged, was the Real Madrid of the early 2000s, an unstoppable machine when its galacticos, Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Beckham and Raul were in full cry.
When listing great club sides, I guess you could also throw in the odd shorter term wonders, like the magnificent Santos and Penarol of the early '60s; the Manchester United of Best, Charlton and Law of the late '60s; the mid-'80s Juventus of Platini, Rossi, Scirea and Cabrini; and the young Ajax under Louis Van Gaal which reigned in the mid-'90s.
Is the current Barcelona as good as any of them? I believe it is, maybe better.
It has the magnificent players (world champions more than half of them), among them the word’s recognised number one, but more critically it has the philosophy and the attacking methodology that define true greatness.
The club identity which Johan Cruyff, as coach, founded and which was taken to a higher level under Frank Rijkaard, has now matured to become the perfect article.
The stars have aligned, creating a product that is the envy of all clubs and will be remembered and nostalgically recalled fifty years from now. By and large it has a team that was not bought but organically fashioned from within, and by a technical ideology which, though inspired by the Dutch, is now distinctly its own. This is important when making comparisons for too many great teams of the past were assembled by the cheque book.
This fact promises the greatness of the current Barcelona some serious longevity, which brings us back to the original question: is it the greatest club team of all time?
In fairness it might be too early to say. Teams, even the great ones, tend to undergo cycles and are generational, needing to be tweaked in order to sustain their greatness as players go, become too old and new ones come in. This Barca, after all, has only won one European Cup so far while the great Madrid of fifty years ago won five.
Who is to say what’s around the corner? Who is to say, for example, what would happen if Guardiola was tempted away? Or if, heaven forbid, Messi was to suffer a career-ending injury (not that I believe Barca is a one man band). Or if Barca got a new president who, for some reason, upturned the philosophy and threatened the continuity.
So the verdict on the current Barcelona’s true, historical greatness cannot be decided for some years yet.
What I can and will say, is that the Barca of today is the finest club team I have ever seen. I would guess that many would take the same view, including Craig Foster who I’m sure would shamelessly concur. And I’ve been around more than twenty years longer than him.
I rejoice every day at being alive to witness the infinite beauty of this Barcelona and sometimes have to pinch myself to see if it’s all real.