Barcelona are not the greatest club team of all time?!

By Carlo Garganese

Many of the superlatives that have been showered on the four-time European champions over the last few years are richly deserved. 

There is no doubt that the Blaugrana have been among the finest in history, inspired by the incomparable Lionel Messi and two iconic midfielders in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but some of the flattery is short-sighted and ignores the past. An ignorance that is worth highlighting following Barcelona's second successive Champions League semi-final exit, to Bayern Munich on Wednesday, a crushing 7-0 aggregate defeat which probably signals the end of the Catalans' period of dominance.

Comparing teams from different eras is always a thankless task. Football has altered and evolved immeasurably in the last few decades. Modifications such as the backpass and offside rule have created more attacking football, whereas the introduction of synthetic footballs, stricter referees and the multi-ball system have spawned a completely different environment.

Improvements in technology, training and medicine mean that footballers will continue to get faster, fitter and stronger, but that doesn't mean today's players are better. It just makes them more suitable to their surroundings.

The definition of greatness is open to debate. Is it all about success? Argentina's 1986 World Cup winning coach Carlos Bilardo, who was notorious for his win at all costs ideology, remarked: "Football is played to win. You have to be first. Second is no good, second is a failure."

If this is true, then the current Barcelona cannot be considered the greatest club team of all time. At least on a continental level. Taking the appointment of Pep Guardiola as coach in 2008 as the starting point of this Barca cycle, the Blaugrana have since won two Champions Leagues in five seasons, reaching the semi-final in the other three campaigns.

Barcelona failed to defend a European Cup crown like the last team to do so in 1990, the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi. If we prolong that Rossoneri generation to include the first spell of Sacchi's successor, Fabio Capello, then Milan actually captured three European Cups in five years, and made the final five times between 1989 and 1995. Far more impressive numbers than today's Barcelona.

Alfredo Di Stefano's Real Madrid lifted the first five European Cups, Johan Cruyff inspired Ajax to three successive trophies in the 1970s before Franz Beckenbauer immediately did the same for Bayern Munich. Eusebio's Benfica progressed to five showpieces in eight years (winning two) in the 1960s, Helenio Herrera's Inter retained their title in 1965, while Bob Paisley's Liverpool won the European Cup on three occasions between 1977 and 1981. All these teams achieved more in Europe's elite competition than the current Barcelona. As did, arguably, Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan, who reached three finals in five seasons in the mid-noughties – claiming two. Were we to expand this discussion to South America, one could also consider Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup protagonists from the 1960s like the Santos of Pele and Penarol of Alberto Spencer.

Of course, domestic success is relevant too, but with the exception of the Sacchi and Ancelotti Milan sides, all of the above generations dominated their local leagues – just as Barcelona have in capturing every La Liga title bar one since 2008-09.

Arsene Wenger would argue that greatness should be measured aesthetically. "The teams that remain in history are the ones that had style in their play, not just the ones that won trophies," the Arsenal manager stressed in 2003. Some of the most beautiful outfits failed gloriously – Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974 and Brazil 1982 are three international examples – yet their legacies are legendary.

There is a split in opinion over just how entertaining Barca have been – detractors considering them incomplete and occasionally sterile - but what isn’t in doubt is that no team has ever monopolised possession like Xavi, Messi & Co. The collective brand of one-touch tiki-taka passing is completely unique and their pressing high up the pitch equally revolutionary. This prompted Sacchi to concede that Guardiola’s Barcelona had marked football’s first tactical development since his Milan retained the European Cup in 1990. 

European Cup wins by golden generations

R. Madrid '56-60
Ajax '71-73
Bayern '74-76
Liverpool '77-81
Milan '89-94
Benfica '61-68
Inter '64-65
Milan '03-07
Barca '08-13