The finest football sides in history
Deciding the best teams in history is never easy, but we thrive on making the tough decisions. So, each armed with our personal favourites, we gathered in a darkened room one evening to narrow things down. Deliberations continued long into the night.
In between the bickering, name-calling and hair-pulling, one thing became apparent – this list had to be about more than just cold, bare trophy hauls. Football is also about intangibles: how cool a team is; what effect they have on future generations; their aura. You won't find too many one-season wonders in this list, but there's room for a special few. Read on to see who we mean…
50. Leicester (2015/16)
You won’t find many one-season wonders in this list, but such was the magnitude of Leicester’s title triumph that it’s hard to exclude them.
Claudio Ranieri produced a near-perfect team that achieved immortality in arguably the world's strongest league. How else could they have managed to topple England’s illustrious elite just 12 months after barely surviving the drop?
Leicester had their outstanding stars – Jamie Vardy had a direct hand in 36 goals, Riyad Mahrez 29, while N’Golo Kanté proved a revelation in midfield. But their real strength was the collective bond which helped them eke out big results when the pressure was at its most intense.
49. Saint-Etienne 1973-77
You’d probably assume that Saint-Etienne’s greatest team would be the one Michel Platini led in the early ‘80s, before he ruled Europe with Juventus. You’d be wrong.
Underpinned by imposing Yugoslav keeper Ivan Curkovic, Argentine monster Osvaldo Piazza at centre-back and with attacking inspiration from Jean-Michel Larque, Herve Revelli and future Spurs boss Jacques Santini, Les Verts dominated French football for a decade from 1966, winning seven Ligue 1 titles, five Coupes de France and reaching the 1976 European Cup Final.
48. Chelsea 2004-06
Jose Mourinho mixed the best of Claudio Ranieri's team (John Terry, Frank Lampard, Damien Duff and Claude Makelele) with those already incoming for his debut campaign (Petr Cech and Arjen Robben), bringing in Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho with Roman Abramovich's petrodollars to add a more physical, quicksilver and devastating edge to an already talented team.
The Blues won successive titles in 2005 and 2006 (the former by 12 points, and only 15 goals conceded) with a brand of pressure football that earned them begrudged respect from non-Chelsea fans.
47. Wolverhampton Wanderers 1953-60
Clad in classic old gold, Stan Cullis's uncompromising and direct team powered their way to three league titles in nine years from 1953 onwards, missing a hat-trick of First Division titles and the FA Cup-League Double by just a point in 1959/60.
With a heavy emphasis on fitness and strength, Wolves's method of pumping long balls out of defence for their forwards to chase may have been dismissed as 'kick and rush' tactics, but in their nine peak success years they plundered 878 goals and topped the century mark in four consecutive First Division seasons.
46. Hamburg 1977-83
Hamburg had always been on the periphery of the German football elite until two tireless workers came together just after the club won its first European trophy in the 1977 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Liverpool’s European Cup-winning star Kevin Keegan and coach Branko Zebec both trained ferociously, the latter so much so that his players were in open revolt after losing the 1980 European Cup Final to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
Though it would be the Croatian manager’s drinking that marked his downfall, the squad’s unflinching desire to run further and faster than the opposition brought three Bundesliga titles in four seasons, plus the 1983 European Cup against Juventus.
45. Marseille 1988-93
OM’s owner Bernard Tapie set out to mastermind France’s first European Cup triumph – and if that meant bribery, match-fixing and doping, so be it.
In truth, Marseille were good enough to conquer Europe without skulduggery. They lost the 1991 final to Red Star Belgrade on penalties but, two years later, out-thought and outplayed defending champions Milan to claim the trophy.
At the back, sweeper Basile Boli and centre-back Marcel Desailly protected Fabien Barthez. The midfield featured Didier Deschamps, Abedi Pele and Chris Waddle, while the attack – which contained German World Cup winner Rudi Voller, fearsome France striker Jean-Pierre Papin and powerfully skilful Croatia international Alen Boksic – wasn’t too shabby either.
44. Arsenal 2003/04
Manager Arsene Wenger was roundly mocked when, in 2002, he'd suggested it was possible for his team to go through the league campaign unbeaten. But in 2003/04, after surviving two early scares against Portsmouth and Manchester United, Arsenal emulated Preston's 'Invincibles' and won the league without defeat.
At the heart of the team were Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira – 'the three musketeers' who provided the skill, guile and physical strength to steer Arsenal to a third title in seven seasons. The fast and incisive pyrotechnic football they played was breathtaking, and in Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal possessed two of the greatest forwards in their history.
43. Tottenham 1960-62
With strikers Bobby Smith and Les Allen notching goals for fun, the prodigiously gifted inside-forward John White dismantling opposition defences with his blind-side runs and midfield anchored by the rock-like Dave Mackay, Tottenham romped to the title by eight points (in the days of two for a win) in 1960/61, then defeated Leicester in the FA Cup final.
Some said Spurs would be one-season wonders, and manager Bill Nicholson feared they had a point. So he added goal machine Jimmy Greaves, retained the FA Cup and reached the European Cup semi-final – where they were denied in part by suspect refereeing.
42. Steaua Bucharest 1984-89
Truth is a rare commodity when it comes to former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Yet for all the accusations of dictatorial favouritism that dogged Steaua Bucharest in the late ‘80s, the Militarii did go 104 domestic games unbeaten from June 1986 until September 1989.
Steaua were like a Romanian Harlem Globetrotters, led by Victor Piturca and Miodrag Belodedici’s graceful artistry. When they signed Gheorghe Hagi just for the 1986 European Super Cup, Ceausescu refused to allow the Maradona of the Carpathians back to Sportul Studentesc.
They also got to two European Cup finals, beating Barcelona on penalties in 1986 before losing 4-0 to Milan two years later.
41. Leeds 1968-75
In the Elland Road dressing room, manager Don Revie nailed a sign to the wall which read: 'Keep fighting.' His Leeds team, combining ruthless pragmatism with a shimmering of skill, did precisely that as football entered the technicolour age.
After capturing their all-important first trophy in 1968 (the League Cup), Leeds went on to win two League titles, two Fairs Cups and the FA Cup in 1972. Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton earned the team its 'mean machine' tag, while Peter Lorimer's spectacular shooting, Eddie Gray's skilful wing play and Allan 'Sniffer' Clarke's goalscoring exploits gave the Whites their cutting edge up front.
40. Arsenal 1930-35
Deploying the W-M formation to perfection, Herbert Chapman's Arsenal team routinely flattened opponents at their Art Deco, palatial Highbury home in the early '30s with a fast, direct and uncompromising brand of football.
The Gunners had a blueprint for the 'eight-second goal.' It sounded almost too easy, but Chapman's men – who won the FA Cup in 1930 and the league championship a year later – preferred to keep things simple, and devastatingly effective.
Following Chapman's untimely death from pneumonia, his successor George Allison added a more physical edge. But Arsenal lost none of their potency, completing a hat-trick of title triumphs in 1935.
39. Ajax 1992-96
When Louis van Gaal took over in 1991, Ajax had won one European trophy – the 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup – since the 1970s’ golden era of Michels and Cruyff.
The situation wasn’t as dire as it looked. The side that won the 1992 UEFA Cup starred Dennis Bergkamp, Danny Blind, Wim Jonk, Aron Winter and Frank de Boer. The team that won the 1995 Champions League – earning Van Gaal his move to Barcelona – featured Edwin van der Sar, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars.
Playing a 3-4-3 or 3-1-2-3-1, Van Gaal’s players enjoyed less freedom than Ajax’s Total Football stars, yet were regularly devastating.
38. Brazil 1982
Rarely can a team that achieved so little have been held in such high regard by so many for so long. The Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney called Tele Santana's tournament favourites "the most gifted collection of footballers in the game, the unmistakable nucleus of a great team".
Santana eschewed the failed 1970s Seleçao aesthetic of aping European muscularity, instead entrusting ball-players like Flamengo fantasista Zico, laconic left-sider Eder, Roma playmaker Falcao and iconic smoking doctor Socrates.
Brazil sizzled in Seville, beating the Soviet Union 2-1 before steaming past Scotland (4-1) and New Zealand (4-0). Argentina were then beaten 3-1 but disaster struck when they lost 3-2 to a limited but organised Italy. Zico called it “the day football died”.
37. Manchester United 1965-68
Ten years after the Munich air crash wiped out the Busby Babes, Matt Busby's Manchester United triumphed 4-1 at Wembley against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup Final in one of the most emotive nights in the history of British football.
After winning the title in 1964/65 and then again in 1966/67, Busby's third great United side finally grabbed the biggest prize of all. With the holy trinity of Best, Law (although he missed the final due to injury) and Charlton – arguably the finest trio of forwards ever accumulated in one club attack – pulling the strings, Old Trafford was the place to be in the swinging ‘60s.
36. Feyenoord 1968-71
Common football lore has it that Ajax invented the modern 4-3-3 at the same time as inventing Total Football. Well, those pioneering Amsterdammers may have done the latter, but they certainly didn’t do the former. That was their great rivals Feyenoord, who won two Eredivisie titles and the 1970 European Cup.
It was a 1970 Dutch Cup game that persuaded Ajax's Rinus Michels to revert from his hitherto-favoured 4-2-4 formation. Ajax ultimately drew level, but Feyenoord gaffer Ernst Happel had delivered the tactical masterstroke of dropping a forward back into the midfield that would come to define Dutch football.
“The game always unfolds in the midfield,” Happel reasoned, a philosophy which has dominated football ever since.
35. France 1982–86
Remember Platini not as a UEFA suit but one of the finest players to ever lace up boots. Numerically and positionally a No.10, he led Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez in les Bleus’ “Carre Magique” (Magic Square) midfield that waltzed away with the Euro 84 crown on home turf.
They might have achieved more. At Spain 82, Michel Hidalgo’s team had reached the semi-finals only to be brutally halted by the West Germans. Four years later in Mexico, having knocked out holders Italy and the mighty Brazil, the European champions were again stopped in the semis by their Teutonic neighbours – denying the planet a Platini-Maradona face-off in the final.
34. PSV 1985-89
In 1988, PSV won the European Cup after drawing all five games in the knockout stage and beating Benfica, 6-5 in the shootout.
Though vilified as dour and defensive, they played some fluent football in the late 1980s when their roster featured such dullards as Ruud Gullit, Willy van der Kerkhof, Romario, Ronald Koeman, Soren Lerby and charismatic coach Guus Hiddink, who convinced players that wrestling would improve their strength and balance.
Even without Gullit – sold to Milan for £6m – the treble-winning 1988 side featured four world-class stars: goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen, Belgium international right-back Eric Gerets, elegant centre-back Koeman, and midfield orchestrator Lerby.
33. River Plate 1941-47
The Maquina were probably South America’s greatest club side. That nickname – the Machine – refers to a stellar attack of Julian Carlos Munoz, Jose Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Angel Labruna and Felix Loustau which only played 18 games together.
The moniker is metaphorically accurate as, with other stars coming through (keeper Amadeo Carrizo, midfielder Nestor Rossi and Alfredo Di Stefano), River Plate were spectacularly efficient, beating local rivals Boca 5-1 in 1941.
After winning three Argentine titles in five years, Pedernera left. Even so, River won the league in 1947. It was a national players’ strike – persuading Di Stefano and Rossi to make lucrative moves to Colombia – that wrecked them.
32. Real Madrid 1984-90
Most great sides have a nickname. The Real Madrid side that won five successive La Liga titles between 1986 and 1990, reached three European Cup semi-finals in a row (1987-1990) and won back-to-back UEFA Cups (1985, 1986) was known as La Quinta del Buitre (the Vulture Squadron) after its talismanic genius, Emilio Butragueno – aka ‘the Vulture’ – and his stellar team-mates, Sanchis, Michel, Martin Vazquez and Miguel Pardeza.
Despite their nickname, the Madrilenos weren’t ruthless enough in the competition the club prized most. Plus, they had the misfortune to come up against Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan twice.
31. Austria 1930-36
Matthias Sindelar, known as “The Paper Man” due to his frail frame, was the fulcrum of the Wunderteam assembled by manager Hugo Meisl and English coach Jimmy Hogan. All rapid passing and interchanging of positions, they might have ended Anglocentric chauvinism 21 years before Puskas’s Hungary, but ultimately lost 4-3 to England at Stamford Bridge.
Austria opted not to travel to the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, but the Wunderteam were backed to win the 1934 World Cup in Mussolini’s Italy. However, they lost a semi-final to the hosts in questionable fashion: Sindelar was kicked while lying on the ground following an early reducer, before a disputed goal sent Italy through.
30. Flamengo 1980-83
The Flamengo side that won the Copa Libertadores and beat Liverpool 3-0 in the Intercontinental Cup in 1981 is often reductively described as the genius of Zico and 10 others.
Zico was the most gifted Brazilian footballer since the original Pele, able to somersault in the air and score with a backwards overhead volley. Adoring Flamengo fans would jokingly wish each other “Happy Christmas” on March 3, his birthday.
But the man himself was uncomfortable with such reverence and knew his side couldn’t have conquered the world without the flair of attacking right-back Leandro, the versatility of Junior or the goals of Joao Batista Nunes.
29. Nottingham Forest 1977-80
Has any team proved so much greater than the sum of its parts than the Nottingham Forest that won back-to-back European Cups under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor? This dynamic duo perfected a remorseless and entertaining good cop/bad cop act that filled their players with existential dread.
In 1977/78, newly-promoted Forest shipped just 24 goals and became the fourth – and last – team to win the league the season after winning promotion. They were as self-confident in Europe, beating Malmo and Hamburg in successive finals.
Gunter Netzer praised midfielder John McGovern’s ability to control games, while John Robertson, the team’s Picasso, greatly impressed the Italian coach Enzo Bearzot, who beamed: “When he has the ball, he can create something.”
28. Budapest Honved 1950-55
In the mid-1950s, Honved were the team the world wanted to watch. Coached by Gusztav Sebes, the architect of the Mighty Magyar side that beat England 6-3 at Wembley, Honved became an R&D lab where new tactics were honed, inspiring Brazil’s World Cup winners in 1958 and Rinus Michel’s Total Football.
With their movement off the ball, interchanging positions and clever passing, Honved played a kind of football that seemed to come from outer space. They could only do so because Sebes could call on such greats as Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Jozsef Bozsik, Zoltan Czibor and Gyula Grosics, who helped Honved to five titles in seven years.
27. France 1996-2000
France had a fallow patch after the break-up of their glorious mid-’80s team, missing the tournaments in 1988, 1990 and 1994 while exiting Euro 92 winless.
But a new breed was emerging, with an international flavour. Eric Cantona’s year-long suspension in 1995 handed the playmaker baton to son of Algerian immigrants Zinedine Zidane, alongside schemer Youri Djorkaeff (son of an Armenian and a Kalmyk Pole).
Their guile was given a platform by a strong defence including Laurent Blanc, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu. Conceding two goals in seven, Les Bleus won the World Cup on home soil, before triumphing at Euro 2000.
26. Borussia Monchengladbach 1970-79
The story of this team is a miracle. Not even the success of Brian Clough’s Forest was as improbable as the rise of this small, provincial club.
Or maybe it was destiny. After all, there seems to be no better explanation for the fact that during the short post-war era when local boys still played for their hometown clubs instead of looking for riches elsewhere, no fewer than five men who would win the 1972 European Championship with West Germany – and five Bundesliga titles and two UEFA Cups for their club – were born within a 10-mile radius around a town considerably smaller than Nottingham.
Jupp Heynckes, Günter Netzer, Berti Vogts, Horst-Dieter Höttges and Erwin Kremers – they were all Mönchengladbach lads.
25. Juventus 1994-98
When Juventus won the Champions League in 1996, players wept with joy. Marcello Lippi’s Bianconeri were indisputably the best in Europe – they had swept aside Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, before beating Ajax on penalties after winning the first of three Serie A titles in four years. They would also reach two more Champions League finals, losing both.
Yet this golden era was tarnished by revelations that players were routinely given prescription drugs and antidepressants, even if they didn’t need them. Does this negate the team’s feats? Either way, Lippi’s team was brilliantly engineered, featuring the finest forwards in Europe – Alessandro Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alen Boksic, Pippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Vialli and Zinedine Zidane.
24. Preston North End 1888-89
Preston were football’s first great team: innovators, agitators, the original Invincibles. They paid players before professionalism even existed, pioneered a previously unseen ‘pass and move’ game when dribbling was all the rage and were among the first clubs to look beyond their local area for top talent.
The Lilywhites’ achievements in the 1888/89 season alone would have made them contenders for a place among football’s greatest-ever sides. Unbeaten in the inaugural First Division with a goal difference of +59 across 22 games, their win ratio would have given them 100 points in the Premier League era.
They completed the Double without conceding a goal in five FA Cup matches, then retained the title the following season.
23. Boca Juniors 1998-2003
When Carlos Bianchi took over in 1998, Boca were distinctly average. They’d won just one minor trophy in 15 years, their back-to-back Copa Libertadores victories of the late-’70s a distant memory.
Time for an overhaul. Bianchi trimmed a bloated squad and redeployed the classic Boca system: 4-3-1-2, with an eccentric goalkeeper, hard-working defenders and a disciplined midfield, all orchestrated by a mercurial No.10 (Juan Riquelme) and spearheaded by a predatory goalscorer (Martin Palermo).
It was simple, direct and intense – and it worked. Boca won the Libertadores in 2000, 2001, 2003 and reached another final in 2004, plus four league titles and two Intercontinental Cups triumphs over Real Madrid and Milan.
22. Estudiantes 1967-71
The Argentines won three successive Copa Libertadores from 1968, but it’s the all-consuming gamesmanship for which they are best remembered.
To Estudiantes, their roughhouse tactics felt necessary after a lengthy period of domination from Argentina’s Big Five (Boca, River, Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo). They broke the quintet’s ruling with the title in 1967.
Their first Copa success was a welcome achievement for a team outside of all-conquering Buenos Aires. They followed that up with an Intercontinental Cup victory over Manchester United in which Nobby Stiles was sent off in the first leg, before a particularly bad-tempered second resulted in George Best punching Jose Hugo Medina as both men were shown red.
21. Barcelona 1988-94
Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team brought about a Total Football revolution at the Camp Nou and beyond. They may have been subsequently outshone by Pep Guardiola’s cohort, but even Pep knows it wouldn’t have been possible without his old manager.
“They were pioneers and we cannot compete with that no matter how many trophies we win,” Guardiola said in 2011. “We will never equal the period of the Dream Team.”
It took Cruyff until 1991 to land his maiden Liga crown, but it proved the first of four in succession to complement two Copa del Reys (1988, 1989), the European Cup Winners’ Cup (1989) and a first-ever European Cup in 1992.
20. Dynamo Kyiv 1985-87
On the face of it, Dynamo have no business being on this list. The Ukrainians never went beyond the last four of the European Cup, while before the fall of the Iron Curtain they never managed to better back-to-back Soviet titles. Yet their gift to the modern game goes beyond mere gongs.
In an age where Opta data is scrutinised to the minutest detail, Valeriy Lobanovskiy pioneered scientific analysis in what had been an intrinsically subjective sport. In 20 years across three different spells as Dynamo coach, Lobanovskiy created a hat-trick of great teams.
It was his second side that proved his crowning glory, beating Atletico Madrid to the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup. Oleg Blokhin’s goal – created by buccaneering full-back play and no-look passes – was the perfect representation of the coach’s beloved ‘universality’.
19. Netherlands 1974-78
This was a thinking man’s side, comprising several members of the Ajax Totaalvoetbal side which won three successive European Cups from 1971 to 1973: the masterful Johan Cruyff, versatile defender Ruud Krol, nippy back Wim Suurbier, explosive midfielder Arie Haan, classy playmaker Johan Neeskens, brainbox winger Piet Keizer and lethal forward Johnny Rep.
En route to the 1974 final the Dutch scored 14 and conceded just one in powering past Uruguay, Bulgaria, Argentina, East Germany and Brazil; only Sweden stopped them scoring. In the final they netted before West Germany got a kick, but fatally failed to grab a second and lost to Gerd Muller’s seven-yard swiveller.
Euro 76 was a letdown and Cruyff retired from internationals just before Argentina 78; the Dutch still made the final, but two goals in extra time brought the hosts victory.
18. Juventus 1980-86
Juve boss Giovanni Trapattoni was a brilliant man-manager and disciple of catenaccio, and for his early successes in Turin he relied heavily upon the Italian players who would form the backbone of Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning side.
Yet Trapattoni’s experience in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1979/80 kick-started a change of approach. So impressed was he with Liam Brady’s display in Arsenal’s 2-1 win that he signed the mercurial midfielder. Two title-winning seasons later, Brady departed to make way for Michel Platini, having shown what could be possible when you added foreign flair to Italy's well-deserved reputation for defensive solidity.
After a slow start, the Frenchman was sensational, winning three straight Ballons d’Or and inspiring Juve to three more league titles, an Italian Cup, a Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Cup.
17. Independiente 1971-75
Despite Independiente's previous success in the Copa Libertadores, no one could have predicted that the Argentine side would go on to win four more consecutive continental titles, dominating the early 1970s and managing a feat which is unlikely to ever be matched.
This achievement owed much to the emergence of an academy graduate who would go on to become the club’s greatest player: Ricardo Bochini. The 5ft 6in playmaker was so good that he became Diego Maradona’s idol; Argentina’s hero of ‘86 would go and watch Independiente just to see El Bocha in action.
On top of the Libertadores, they won two Intercontinental cups, beating Juventus in 1973 and Atletico Madrid a year later, only losing to the great Ajax in 1972 – the only time Johan Cruyff played on Argentine soil.
16. West Germany 1970-76
Among the new faces in the West German squad at the 1970 World Cup was Gerd Muller, who’d already scored 207 goals in 235 Bayern Munich appearances. He promptly bagged 10 in five games, including two in the semi-final defeat by Italy, a two-hour slog in which Franz Beckenbauer played with his arm in a sling.
For Euro 72, Der Bomber and Der Kaiser were joined by buddies from the burgeoning Bayern team – swashbuckling left-back Paul Breitner, doughty stopper Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck and qualified teacher Uli Hoeness – plus three Gladbach greats in pass-master Gunter Netzer, schemer Rainer Bonhof and prolific striker Jupp Heynckes.
No wonder they won, just as they did at the World Cup on home soil two years later, before losing to Yugoslovia in the final of Euro 76.
15. Manchester United 1995-2001
The summer of 1995 was a pivotal time in the reign of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. His team had just relinquished their Premier League title to Blackburn, lost the FA Cup final to Everton and sold Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis – three key players in Ferguson’s first two championship triumphs.
Then the Manchester United manager did a strange thing: he bought nobody to replace them – instead choosing to put his faith in several members of the club’s FA Youth Cup-winning side, who had all made a handful of appearances the previous season. And so began the most dominant, consistent and thrilling period of the Ferguson era: as well as the famous treble in 1999, United won another FA Cup and four more league titles.
14. Celtic 1965-74
"They were sleek and tanned like film stars,” recalled Celtic’s Bobby Murdoch of the Inter line-up, as Celtic prepared for the biggest moment in their history, the 1967 European Cup Final. “On our side there were quite a few with no teeth.”
But a lack of pretension characterised this ragged band of brothers – hardly surprising, considering they were famously all born within 20 miles of Glasgow – as they went on to become the first British side to seize Europe’s ultimate gong.
Scottish football was far more competitive back then: when Jock Stein took the helm at Parkhead in ‘65, Celtic hadn’t won the league for 12 seasons. Stein’s subsequent nine league titles in a row stand as one of British sport’s greatest achievements.
13. Torino 1945-49
Believe the hype: the Grande Torino side that perished in the Superga air disaster on May 4, 1949 really were that good. In 1947/48, they won Serie A by 16 points (in the days of two for a win), scoring 125 goals, winning 19 out of 20 home games and finishing the season with a goal difference of +92.
This ridiculously gifted side was built by local businessman – and frustrated journeyman defender – Antonio Novo, who reorganised the club and created a sophisticated scouting network. Novo’s flowing, innovative side pioneered a flexible tactical approach that anticipates the cavalier 4-2-4 with which, 10 years later, Brazil won the World Cup. The Granata won five scudetti in the 1940s before tragedy struck.
12. Bayern Munich 1967-76
If a single team can create an entire club, then this side laid the foundation for the dynasty we know as Bayern Munich. When Franz Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier, both in their early teens, joined the club’s youth set-up in 1959, Bayern weren’t even the top club in their own city – 1860 Munich were more popular and successful.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing a baby-faced team to gel, grow and learn outside the spotlight. In 1964 a young, chubby striker by the name of Gerd Muller signed for Bayern, because he thought he’d never break into 1860’s star-studded side.
At the end of his first season, Bayern were promoted and that was that: from then, their upward trajectory felt limitless, the Bavarians winning four league titles and three European Cups in nine years.
11. Benfica 1959-68
Restless Hungarian genius Bela Guttmann had a simple credo for building teams: “Give the public their money’s worth.” That philosophy came to glorious fruition in the Benfica side he created.
Playing an attacking 4-2-4 or the W-M formation with five up front, the Eagles reached four European Cup finals in seven years, winning in 1961 and 1962, and dominated the Portuguese league by hoovering up seven titles between 1960 and 1968.
The success of a team that became known as O Glorioso Benfica is often reductively attributed to one transformational genius, Eusebio. Yet the side’s most influential player, also born in Mozambique, was Mario Coluna. Known as the Sacred Beast, Coluna became the complete modern midfielder, a master strategist with an explosive left-foot shot.
10. Hungary 1950-56
The Magical Magyars came together under Gusztav Sebes, a cobbler’s son who advocated “socialist football” – a Total Football precursor in which players could swap positions at will.
Almost unbeatable – between May 1949 and February 1956 they lost just twice – Hungary won the 1952 Olympics and were invited to Wembley for a November 1953 friendly. Deploying centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti in a deep-lying role, they hammered England 6-3; the English demanded a rematch, and were duly walloped 7-1.
The 1954 World Cup should have been their coronation. They hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3, eased past Brazil 4-2 in a bruising quarter-final and beat holders Uruguay 4-2 in a flowing semi to reach a final against West Germany’s amateurs. Astonishingly, the outsiders came from 2-0 down to win in disputed circumstances.
9. Santos 1955-68
Not many teams can boast nine World Cup winners. And only one had the “The Athlete of the Century” up front during his peak. This is why Pele’s Santos feared no side, dominating the Brazilian league when it was at its strongest. Their motto was simply unrefined: “if the opposition scores once, we will score three.”
It didn’t matter if the opposition were a local side or the almighty Benfica at the Stadium of Light. This swashbuckling arrogance was especially evident in 1962 and 1963, when they won the Intercontinental Cup twice (Benfica and Milan), and prevailed in legendary match-ups against Garrincha’s Botafogo – encounters that were so fluid they could have been a work of art.
8. Inter 1962-67
The team that defined the way we still think about Italian football. Argentine boss Helenio Herrera didn’t invent catenaccio, but his modified version – a 5-3-2 with a libero behind the defence and half-backs launching speedy counter attacks – was implemented so precisely that his side came to embody it.
Herrera’s men won three Serie A titles, and back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965. While there were some brilliant performers in the side – Armando Picchi the all-important sweeper, rock solid full-backs Tarcisio Burgnich and Giacinto Facchetti, Luis Suarez a fine playmaker, Jair, Mario Corso and Sandro Mazzola forming a harmonious yet devastating midfield – this Grande Inter side were always seen as Herrera’s baby.
7. Spain 2007-12
There was a time when Spain were football’s great underachievers, but at Euro 2008 it all came together. Uniting a previously disparate squad, Luis Aragones harnessed possession-minded midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, and married the aesthetic to the athletic as La Roja secured the trophy.
Aragones was then replaced by Vicente del Bosque, who encouraged his players’ confident domination of possession, as typified by Pep Guardiola’s iconic Barcelona side; Spain swept to the World Cup with a perfect qualification record, then went all the way in South Africa.
They made it three tournament triumphs in a row at Euro 2012, but that would be the end: at Brazil 2014, Spain lost 5-1 to the Netherlands and were home before the postcards.
6. Liverpool 1975-84
The year after taking over from Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley’s team finished second in the 1974/75 table. “I considered it a real failure,” admitted the new gaffer. “We never celebrate second place here.”
He hardly ever had to again: over the next eight seasons, the Reds won the league seven times, along with four European Cups and four League Cups, creating England’s first genuine football dynasty.
That they did it while remaining so well-liked by neutrals is remarkable, and a testament to a thrilling brand of pass-and-move play. Shankly had called it “a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes.” His successors honed it to perfection.
5. Barcelona 2008-11
In 50 years’ time, when most of us will be eating through a straw, we can die happy that we saw one of the greatest sides ever performing at the apogee of their celestial talent. In introducing tiki-taka – originally intended as an insult – to the footballing lexicon, Barça re-wrote the beautiful game’s playbook in their own, perfectly formed 4-3-3 image.
Winning an unprecedented sextuple in his first season, Pep Guardiola achieved Nirvana by moving Lionel Messi infield. The 3-1 victory against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final – “no one has given us a hiding like that” admitted Alex Ferguson – merely confirmed what Real Madrid legend Jorge Valdano calls a “miracle generation”.
4. Real Madrid 1955-60
The influence of this team extends far beyond the talent of Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa and Paco Gento. Far beyond even the trophies they accumulated – and no other team has won five European Cups in a row, as they did, from 1956 to 1960.
This team, Alex Ferguson said once, invented the idea of a modern football club, signing the best players regardless of nationality, becoming synonymous with a particular style of football, and seizing the opportunity provided by the new European Cup to create a global brand.
The tawdry magnificence of the galactico era can be traced back to this polyglot side. This Madrid side, as Santiago Bernabeu said of Di Stefano, smelled of good football.
3. Milan 1987-91
Italy’s most successful European campaigners have enjoyed several stellar vintages, but the perfect storm of style and success came in a four-year flurry that blew away Italy’s boring football reputation.
Playing a Total Football-tinged, high-pressing 4-4-2, Arrigo Sacchi’s side – which featured Dutch trio Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, with Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini minding the shop in defence – dominated opponents physically and tactically.
In the 1988/89 European Cup they humiliated Real Madrid 5-0 in the semi-final second leg and Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final. Some argue the team who retained the trophy in 1990, letting in just three goals, was even more cultured.
2. Brazil 1970
Brazil had had good sides before, but the team that swaggered to glory in 1970 will forever occupy a prominent place in the pantheon; this side represented the romantic ideal of football, the entertaining epitome of “You score four, we’ll score five”.
After being hoofed out of the 1966 tournament, Pele was at his peak in a team of showstoppers. Alongside him up top was Tostão, with Roberto Rivellino and Jairzinho providing the ammunition from the flanks.
Yes, the team had flaws. The back half wasn’t great, conceding against everyone but England. Yet even holding midfielder Clodoaldo dribbled past four Italians during a final that’s etched into legend as representing jogo bonito, the beautiful game, prioritising inventive attack over canny defence.
1. Ajax 1965-73
In coach Rinus Michels, the club’s trademark 4-3-3, chaotic position switching and teamwork was established; Total Football invented. When he left in 1971, replacement Stefan Kovacs afforded the team yet more attacking freedom.
Drifting centre-forward Johan Cruyff was the undoubted star, conducting his orchestra with typical pomp. Johan Neeskens provided midfield legs, Arie Haan and Gerrie Muhren the tactical discipline, centre-back Velibor Vasovic the Yugoslav steel.
Over 40 years since their pinnacle – a 1-0 win against Juventus to secure the 1973 European Cup, their third in a row – Ajax’s 4-3-3 remains football’s most flexible formation. But it’s the way they made you feel – the long hair, rock star swagger and beautiful play – that sets them apart.
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