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The Greatest Football Teams of All Time

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Everyone has a favorite team of all time, and they’ll defend that team’s merits until they’re blue in the face (or red, green, yellow, or black, depending on your affiliation).

My personal favorite was the U.S. World Cup team from 2002 that was one missed-handball on Torsten Frings away from going into extra time against the mighty Germans in the Quarterfinals. That team had guts, determination, and the best shot-stopper in the tournament in Brad Friedel. There’s no doubt in my mind that we could have prevailed in a shootout, giving us the right to face a South Korean team that we had already taken a point off of. Then we could have advanced to the Finals, where we would have been trounced by Brazil, but that would have been a worthy accomplishment, right?

Anyway, even though I loved that team with all my heart, my head knows better than to put them amongst the greatest teams of all time. Heck, they wouldn’t even make the long-list, let alone the short-list. In order to be a great team, you have to win trophies, you have to have transcendent players, and you have to withstand the test of time.

As such, when I was compiling this list of the greatest teams of all time, I kept the following criteria in mind:

  • Obviously, the team must have won a major honor. For domestic clubs, the more silverware, the better. If a club only won one trophy, then there must have been something special about the way they won, otherwise, they were not considered. For international teams, it’s World Cup or Bust. Sorry 1954 Hungary and 1974 Netherlands.
  • Big names are also important, but not as much as winning (The Real Madrid Galacticos are nowhere to be found on this list). Basically, is this a team that you’ll remember decades after the fact?
  • For domestic clubs, I also looked at how well they did the following season. Very often, the mark of a great team lies in how well they defend their title, especially with everyone gunning for them. Given the interval between international competitions, I didn’t rely on this as much for international teams, but it was relevant in one notable case (see below).
  • Teams are listed chronologically. The game has changed too much in the intervening years, and trying to determine whether the stronger, quicker, and better conditioned athletes of today would run roughshod over the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer is unfair.

The Greatest Football Teams of All Time

Team: Brazil, 1958

Overview: Brazil won its very first World Cup title in 1958, and in doing so, established themselves as a powerhouse to be reckoned with for generations to come. Brazil went unbeaten in the competition, winning all of its matches save a 0-0 draw in the group stage against England. They crushed France in the Semi-Finals, 5-2, and then destroyed Sweden by the same score in the Finals to clinch the World Cup.

Players: Viva was a prolific forward, who became the first player to score in two different World Cup Finals. Skipper Bellini was an excellent central defender who inadvertently started a trend by holding the World Cup trophy high above his head. Didi was one of the greatest playmaking midfielders of all time and was named Player of the Tournament. Garrincha was one of the greatest crossers of the ball and is often considered to be the second greatest Brazilian footballer of all time. Djalma Santos and Nílton Santos (no relation) who were excellent full-backs that were also good on the attack. And of course, there was Pele. I hear he was pretty good.

Honors: 1958 World Cup

Team: Real Madrid, 1960

Overview: With their current struggles and nearly seven-year European drought, it’s hard to believe that Real Madrid once ruled European play. They won the first five European Championships from 1956-1960, including a 7-3 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 Final that remains the most lopsided score in the history of the competition. They came up short in their domestic competitions, but their dominance in Europe is something that will likely never be duplicated.

Players: Forward Ferenc Puskás scored 4 times in the Final, adding to the 8 goals that he scored in the competition up to that point. Alfredo Di Stéfano chipped in with a hat-trick of his own to seal the deal for Real Madrid. José María Zárraga, Real Madrid’s skipper on that night, won his fifth European Championship, a mark bettered only by his teammate, Francisco Gento.

Honors: UEFA Champions League, 1960

Team: Celtic, 1967

Overview: The Lisbon Lions pulled off the biggest haul of silverware by any club in a single season. They won the Scottish League Title, besting archrival Rangers by 3 points. They won both domestic cups, defeating Abdereen in the Scottish Cup Final and besting Rangers once again to win the Scottish League Cup. Their crowning achievement, however, came in the European Cup Final in which they showed off their entertaining, attacking brand of football and beat defensive-minded Inter Milan to become the first and only Scottish club to ever win Europe’s biggest club prize. Celtic’s triumph was even more impressive in light of the fact that it was a banner year for Scottish teams. Rangers went to the Finals of the Cup Winners Cup, while Kilmarnock made it to the semi-finals of the Fairs Cup (the predecessor to the UEFA Cup).

Players: Celtic were truly a local operation, as all of its players were born within 30 miles of Glasgow. They also played with four attackers up front, thereby ensuring that they would rack up a ton of goals. Skipper Billy McNeill was the inspirational leader of the club and was voted the greatest Celtic captain of all time. Bobby Murdoch was seen as the team’s most important player and formed an excellent partnership in midfield with the fiery Bertie Auld. Stevie Chalmers was a prolific goal scorer who hit the game-winner against Inter Milan in the European Cup Final. William Wallace (not “Braveheart”) was another great scorer who notched 89 goals during his five years at Celtic. However, their two best forwards were the guys who played slightly behind Chalmers and Wallace, Celtic legends Jimmy Johnstone and Bobby Lennox. Johnstone was voted greatest player in Celtic history with Lennox finishing slightly behind him. The following season, Celtic pulled off a double by winning the League Title and League Cup.

Honors: Scottish League Title, Scottish Cup, Scottish League Cup, European Cup

Team: Brazil, 1970

Overview: The Gold Standard as far as national teams go. Brazil boasted what some consider to be the greatest array of talent ever assembled on one team. If they weren’t the greatest of all time then they were certainly the most fun to watch. After several World Cups that were defensive-oriented and low-scoring, Brazil restored the flair and excitement in 1970, winning millions of hearts and minds along the way. They won every single match they played during the 1970 World Cup, including a 4-1 thrashing of Italy in the Finals.

Players: Skipper Carlos Alberto was one of the greatest defenders ever to play the game and was known as an excellent attacker during an era when defenders rarely ventured forward. Clodoaldo was one of the most dazzling dribblers of all time and could dazzle a crowd (and opposing defenders) with his amazing footwork. Jairzinho was a goal machine who scored in every match that Brazil played in during 1970 World Cup. Rivelino was not only a showman who invented the “Elastico,” but was an extremely versatile talent in his own right. Gerson was one of the best passers in soccer history, and was widely credited as the playmaker on this squad. Tostao, Brito, and Piazza all played important roles. Plus, they had that Pele guy again.

Honors: 1970 World Cup.

Team: Ajax Amsterdam, 1972

Overview: The Twelve Apostles of Ajax had an unprecedented run of success from 1971-1973. Ajax’s treble in 1972 would have been remarkable enough if it weren’t for the fact that they just missed out on a treble the previous season. Ajax had won the 1971 European Cup, as well as the KNVB Cup, but just missed out on the Eredivisie, finishing second to Feyenoord. As such, they were determined not to miss out on any silverware the following season. Ajax won the league, wresting the title back from Feyenoord, bested FC Den Haag in the KNVB Cup, and outclassed Inter Milan in the European Cup Final to become the first club to win the treble since Celtic in 1967. In fact, Ajax was so loaded that they nearly defended their treble the very next season, winning another European Cup and Eredivisie but losing in the KNVB Cup.

Players: Skipper Johan Cruijff was the team’s leader and best player, and cemented his legend by scoring both goals in the European Cup Final against Inter Milan. West German Horst Blankenburg was the team’s sweeper and was widely considered to be one of the best in Europe (although he never played for his own country because he was stuck behind Franz Beckenbauer). Defender Ruud Krol was versatile and professional, playing left-back for Ajax but taking on the libero role for the Netherlands (where he was skipper for the 1978 World Cup and the 1980 European Championships). Johan Neeskens, a central midfielder who had a knack for scoring goals, and was the second-best player named Johan on the squad. While Cruijff was, obviously, the team’s talismanic figure, but the team also had striker Piet Keizer, who some observers claim was a better player than Cruijff. Keizer obviously thought so, and the tensions between the two were so high that when Cruijff left for Barcelona in 1973, Keizer celebrated by dancing on a table. Unfortuantely for Keizer, that was about all he had to celebrate, as Ajax’s dominance came to an abrupt end after the departure of “Pythagoras in Boots.”

Honors: Dutch Eredivisie Title, KNVB Cup, European Cup.

Team: Bayern Munich, 1974

Overview: The early-to-mid 70’s were a golden age for West German football. West Germany triumphed at the Euro 1972, and their international success poured over to the German Bundesliga. Several West German internationals played for Bayern Munich, who established themselves as one of the best teams in Europe. Bayern Munich won League Titles in 1972, 1973, and 1974, a German Cup in 1971, and, most notably, back-to-back European Cup Championships in 1974 and 1975.

Players: The team was led by the unfortunately named “Axis,” consisting of three legendary German figures in goalkeeper Sepp Maier, sweeper Franz Beckenbauer, and striker Gerd Mueller. The Axis were supported by the likes of forward Jupp Kapellmann (the club’s most expensive transfer at a whopping 802,000 Deutsch Marks), midfielders Uli Hoeness (who scored twice in the European Cup Final Replay against Atletico Madrid) and Franz Roth, and defenders Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck (who equalized in extra time of the first match with Atletico Madrid to ensure a replay) and Paul Breitner (who became one of only four players to score in two different World Cup Finals). Bayern proved their European dominance was no fluke, winning the European Cup again the following year.

Honors: Bundesliga Title, European Cup.

Team: France, 1984

Overview: Les Bleus exploded onto the scene in 1982, going all the way to the Semi-Finals of the World Cup before losing to West Germany on penalty kicks. Expectations for France were high for Euro 1984, which they happened to host. France did not disappoint, winning all of its matches en route to a 2-0 defeat of Spain in the Finals to win the country’s first international title. France followed up their victory with a 3rd place finish at the 1986 World Cup, losing to West Germany once again.

Players: Midfielder Michel Platini was the star of the tournament, scoring 9 goals in the competition, including two consecutive hat-tricks in the group stage. He was joined by Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse to form the Magic Square (le Carre Magique), one of the best midfield foursomes in soccer history. Les Bleus also boasted a great goal-keeper in Joel Bats, and stalwart defenders including Patrick Battiston, who recovered from a career-threatening injury against West Germany in the 1982 World Cup Semi-Finals to play an important role for Euro 1984.

Honors: Euro 1984.

Team: Liverpool, 1984

Overview: Liverpool were already the Kings of English Football when they won a treble in 1984. They took home the League Title (their 15th title and third consecutive championship), League Cup (their fourth straight title), and European Cup (their fourth title). The only blight on their resume that year was a loss to Brighton & Hove Albion F.C. in the F.A. Cup.

Players: Colorful goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar (who was later accused of throwing matches) was the hero of the European Cup Final, coming up big in the penalty shootout during which time he gained lifelong infamy for mockingly wobbling his legs in horror and pretending to eat spaghetti at Roma’s kick takers. On defense, Liverpool boasted the likes of right back Phil Neal, who was the only Liverpool player to appear in their first 5 European Cup Finals (winning four of them), and left-back Alan Kennedy, who converted the winning penalty kick against Roma in the European Cup Finals. Skipper Graeme Souness was joined in the midfield by Craig Johnston, Sammy Lee, and Ronnie Whelan, all of whom played important roles in securing the treble. Up front, Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish formed a dangerous partnership with reigning PFA Young Player of the Year, Ian Rush. Liverpool followed up their success with another League Title the following season, running their record tally in that category to 16.

Honors: English Football League Title, Football League Cup, European Cup

Team: France, 1998

Overview: After failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, France roared with a vengeance in 1998, winning it all on their home turf. In claiming their first title, France became the first host to win since 1978. They won all their matches and thumped defending champions Brazil, who was led by reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Ronaldo. France proved their win wasn’t a fluke by winning Euro 2000, becoming the only World Cup holders to win the Euros.

Players: Fabien Barthez was a brick wall in goal, only conceding two goals (only one in the knock-out rounds) during the entire competition. Lillian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, were in their primes and provided much of the stability in defense and in midfield, while young superstars-in-waiting like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, and Patrick Vieira provided punch off the bench. However, the team started and stopped with Zinedine Zidane, who was the engine that drove the team in midfield. Zidane proved his genius during this tournament and established himself as the greatest player of his era. His brilliance (diminished somewhat as a result of his infamous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Finals) is still evident as France have yet to adequately replace him.

Honors: 1998 World Cup

Team: Manchester United, 1999

Overview: While other clubs had won the treble before, United’s accomplishment in 1999 probably ranks as the most impressive. In an era of greater player movement and concentration of wealth and talent in a select number of leagues in Europe, United, arguably, faced stiffer competition than either of their predecessors in the Treble Club. Additionally, few teams possessed the kind of never-say-die attitude that this United club did. They edged Arsenal by a single point (and scored a then-record 80 goals in the Premiership) to win the League. They scored two goals after the 86th minute to come from behind and knock out Liverpool in the F.A. Cup and advanced to the Finals after Ryan Giggs’ famous goal in extra time during the Semi-Finals against Arsenal. And, of course, they scored two goals in stoppage time in the second half to win the Champions League.

Players: Captain Roy Keane was one of the greatest club captains of the Premiership Era, and was one of the top holding midfielders to ever play the game. Peter Schmeichel is still considered to be the best goalkeeper ever to play in the Premiership and was an inspirational leader on the club. Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Jaap Stam, Nicky Butt, and Gary and Phil Neville were in the early stages of their distinguished careers, while Denis Irwin and Ronny Johnsen provided veteran leadership on the pitch. United also had four top-notch and proven goalscorers in Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and Teddy Sheringham, which gave Sir Alex Ferguson plenty of options up front, as well as the ability to come from behind late in matches. United were able to defend their League Title the following year and went out in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League against eventual winners, Real Madrid. They famously declined to defend their F.A. Cup title, being pressured into entering the inaugural FIFA World Club Cup as part of England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

Honors: English Premier League, F.A. Cup, UEFA Champions League.

Honorable Mention:

Arsenal, 2004

Overview: Arsenal became the first team in Premiership history (and first top-division English football club to do so since 1889) to go unbeaten throughout an entire season. Arsenal bested Chelsea and Manchester United, their two free-spending rivals, to run away with the Premiership title. One reason why they didn’t rank higher was because they failed to add to their trophy haul, as Arsenal were beaten in the F.A. Cup Semi-Finals by Manchester United, and were eliminated from the Champions League by Chelsea. Arsenal followed up their Unbeaten Season by running their unbeaten streak to 49 (before losing a morale-killing match at Old Trafford), winning the F.A. Cup, and finishing second in the league to Chelsea.

Players: Skipper Patrick Vieira was the heart and soul of the club, cutting an intimidating presence on the pitch while providing creativity on offense. Striker Thierry Henry was the best striker in the Premiership, notching 30 goals in all competitions, while receiving help up front from Dennis Bergkamp. Midfielders Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires were instrumental in the team’s free-flowing attack, as were fullbacks Ashley Cole and Lauren. Arsenal were capable of grinding out defensive victories, as Jens Lehmann had a career year behind capable defenders like Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, and Martin Keown.

Honors: Premiership Title.

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