Are Barcelona the greatest club side ever?

(By Paul Morrissey – follow on Twitter here.)

FC Barcelona, Champions of Europe 2011.

It feels like a long time comin’.

Throughout this most glorious of seasons the Greatest Ever debate has raged, and often been justifiably refuted by the Old School. Their counterpoint: how can you claim a team to be the greatest ever when they’re not even current champions?

The so-called arrivistes were kept down but kept hope. Like Darwin before the publication of The Origin of Species, they let the greybeards segue on in sepia-tinted blissful ignorance until the time was ripe. Patience, Simba.

They were quietly confident that a Barca victory this May would convert their theory into practice and put the notion beyond any reasonable doubt: that this would exalt Barcelona to the greatest team in history.

Can Barca have come through all the hype, the conspiracy theories, the adversity (Abidal’s illness, ill-judged accusations of doping) – all on the back of a World Cup year, just like that.

In my day…

Comparing teams of different eras almost feels like a taboo subject, like walking on eggshells. In a banana skin factory. During a minor earthquake. But until it is made super-injunctionable, we can give it our best shot. The time hath come.

So which great sides are we still pretending were superior to this Barca side? Let me reword that: which great sides come close to having equalled this Barca side?

It’s disingenuous to even consider Real Madrid’s five-in-a-row of the 1950s; it’s just incomparable on so many levels. You might as well call Will Smith New York’s best golfer in I Am Legend. Besides, if Messi has to win a World Cup in order to become the greatest ever (yarbles!), surely that Real Madrid team cannot be considered on the basis of the number of World Champions in their ranks – zero? Eliminado.

The only teams to come close, then, in terms of home-grown/domestic players dovetailing club honours with international success are the Ajax and Bayern sides of the 1970s.

Comparing with the Bayern and Ajax teams of the 70’s, though, is not only futile in terms of context and era, but more importantly in terms of the age of competition and the range and breadth of the competitors. The competition was only a score year old by that stage.

Many leagues and clubs were hamstrung through political and economic strife, others were in early stages of growth and were not yet ready to play with the heavyweights. Paris Saint Germain were formed in 1970, the same year Ajax won their first. In 1958, the English tail was still wagging the dog, with the Powers That Be at the FA wishing it would go away, paranoid of all things foreign in their insular ways of What They’ve Done To Our Game, What They’re Doing To Our Game, and What They’ll Do To Our Game if this competition gets off the ground. Indulge your daft little flight of fancy if you must, but this competition won’t last beyond mating season.

If Ajax and Bayern were such great teams, where did they go and how did they allow a provincial team of boozers from Nottingam to conquer Europe twice?  They allowed that to happen simply because such was the times, thems was the rules. The sport and its premium competition was only in the inital storming phase of sophistication, tactical or otherwise. (And let’s not even mention the pass-back rule.)

Club infrastructures were still too homogenous, their finances too restricted, to eke out a competitive advantage over and beyond a five-year cycle.  Any team who competed could give it a fair crack. You paid your money, you spun the wheel. For Clough’s Notts Forrest it was as much about the (mis)adventures, the journey into the unknown, the discovery of “blond lager,” as it was about the triumphs. And an incognito perambulation through the red light district, for larks and laughs when they found time. Innocent, heady times.

The straight-knockout format of the pre-Champions League era was more favourable to defending champions. A lucky draw and you were back in the final before you could say “Ol’ Big Ears.” The spawning of the Champions League, and the introduction of group stages changed that. Mismatched finals became a thing of the past, and the cream steadily rose to the top.

There’s the case of the poor state of the pitches of yesteryear, but would better pitches have kept Stan Bowles from storing the Racing Post by the goalposts for a sly butcher’s during matches? Or Georgie Best from taking to the pitch half-stoated? The 60’s and 70’s produced their great teams and great football, but in the context of fledgling professionalism.

We’ve reached the end of history: social democracy reigns supreme throughout Greater Europe (openinig a can of worms here, eh Tim), and everyone is competing on more or less the same terms. CSKA Moscow’s 2005 UEFA Cup, followed by Zenit’s in 2008, Russia’s first European titles since the restructuring perestroika movement of the late 1980s, are testament to this.

Unlike Sacchi’s Milan, who benifitted enormously from the ban imposed on English clubs post-Heysel, Barcelona are competing on a level playing field, as close to a perfect competition market as we may ever see. As David Conn recently outlined in the Guardian, the new financial fair-play rules could actually prove counter-productive in the battle to establish a post-modern New Order within UEFA. The Ajax’s and Aston Villa’s of this world are gone from the scene and they’re not coming back.

But Barcelona’s supremacy wasn’t begotten of the Yankee Dollar; it was begotten of revolutionary intelligence, imagination, and a dream. Hypothetically, it could have been any club with the cojones to carry out such a beautiful vision. Audere est Facere.

2005 – 2011: Longevity > X in a Row

This is not to say that football is on an unstoppable upward cure of perpetual betterment. The quality of World Cups is in almost reverse correlation to that of the Champions League. Until this Barca triumph, those great club sides of the 70’s could of course still legitimately claim parity with any team between now and the Milans of Sacchi and Capello, if only because no one had managed to sustain success over a full cycle. That has happened now, the weight has been lifted, and the German and Dutch forbears suddenly seem quaint by comparison.

Considering the domestic fronts for a moment, the hackneyed “SPL” theory on La Liga can’t hold much weight any longer either. Look at the rabble Barca reduced United to, and imagine what they would do to Newcastle and Wolves given the chance – pretty much what they do to the likes of Malaga and Sevilla on a weekly basis. And we don’t need to speculate on the merits of the Ere Divisie in the 1970s, do we? Now that would be boring.

If we’re to go the whole hog and call them the greatest ever, then it’s nonsensical to take this group in isolation; rather, a Hall of Fame spanning the last six years, including Ronaldinho, Titi Henry, Eto’o, Toure Yaya, and Giuly has to be accounted for. Sod it: Belletti, Edmilson, Sylvinho – every last player to have played a significant role in this muy bella epoca.

The ’06 Ronaldinho-inspired side was more laissez-faire in their vertical approach, but no one of these  three sides can be separated from the other; it is an interwoven narrative that could not have climaxed on Saturday night were it not for the ’06 side.  They are one and the same; same same but different.

We have everything; now it’s a question of motivation (Sandro Rossell, El Presidente)

There is no Satanic-Masonic led, Opus Dei aided, Jim Corr-Joey Barton and Ban Ki-Moon propagated complot propping up FC Barcelona*. Their current class are the best team in the history of Association Football.

Having won three out six of the last European Cups (were it not for the ash cloud last year, we’d surely be talking of a three-in-a-row†), this group could never kick another ball in anger and still lay claim to having touched the all-time zenith of their trade.

To have so comprehensively expressed themselves in three successive finals, when it mattered most, right in the money-time, is perhaps the greatest achievement of all. To see the tiki-taka dogma right through to the final whistle when parking the bus would have been wholly justified once the goals were scored; this is how they’ll be remembered. Because history doesn’t just remember winners – it remembers style and grace, win or lose.

(If we really must go down the road of counting medals, Xavi has now surpassed Kaiser Beckenbauer with his three Champions Leagues, Euro Championship, World Cup, and some six league titles. Beckenbauer was on his way to New York by this stage of his career; Xavi and co. can obliterate the very notion of comparison between now and 2016.)

Die Meister… Die Besten…. Les grandes Équipes… The Chaaaaaaampions

Come now, all ye wistful greybeards. Nostalgia is not what it used to be; let it go.

The Rapture never materialised last week and it’s just as well; regard what we have witnessed this day. That we end the debate if not here and now, then by the end of the summer wine, upon mature reflection.

FC Barcelona ’06-’11 is the Brett Hart of the beautiful game: the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.

* Enough with the Stamford Bridge-Øvrebø –four penalties already. If the first one is given, the next three don’t happen. If the second is given, the next two don’t happen, and so on. Four non-whistled penalties do not equate four goals. Leeds were robbed a perfectly good goal by Bayern in 1975, and if you dig deep enough, Ajax must have busted a nut with Lady Luck at least once in their three-in-a-row.

† If my Auntie had balls, you say. But I have particular empathy for the effect that coach journey would have had on the Barca legs and spirits. I once took a 24-hour coach from Paris to Budapest to play a Gaelic Football tournament, and even if the Catalan coach had a functioning lavatory, I would not wish that on any man. True story.