James Bolam: Brazil 1982
One of the beauties of football, but also one of its tragedies is that the best side doesn’t always win. There have been numerous examples down the years with the Dutch side of 1974 being the most obvious example. That they never won the World Cup that year is nothing short of criminal. Less than ten years later probably the best side in the world, and one of the best of all time, failed to grab football’s biggest prize. The Brazil team of 1982.
They were a joy to watch and the names of the midfield trio trip off the tongue. Zico was arguably the best player in the world at the time. The incomparable Sócrates who could also stake a claim to that honour and his backstory, being a fully qualified doctor and the creator of Corinthian Democracy is worth a long piece all of its own. The last of the trio Falcão was named by Sven-Göran Eriksson on Monday Night Football as the best player he had ever coached. Considering the array of stars that Eriksson managed during his career that tells you all you need to know about his quality.
They breezed through the first group stage playing some of the best football ever seen. In the second group stage, they beat their great rivals Argentina and only needed a point against Italy to qualify for the semi-final. What happened at the Estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona has now passed into legend.
Italy went ahead through Paulo Rossi. Sócrates equalised but Italy went ahead again. Brazil again came back through Falcão with a cracking strike. Brazil were much the better side playing some wonderful stuff. All they had to do was keep the ball, close out the game and they were through. The trouble was this team didn’t know how to settle for a draw. They pushed and pushed to win the match and were caught out by Rossi again. Try as Brazil might that was how it stayed. Italian pragmatism had beaten Brazilian style.
Socrates once said “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy. Those who only seek victory seek conformity.” and this team was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. That they didn’t win the World Cup was a tragedy. That they won the hearts of all that saw them was perhaps enough.
Rodney McCain: Manchester United 1999
Sir Alex Ferguson had many highlights during his 26 years in charge of Manchester United; however, the absolute peak of his success occurred over a period of five months from January to May 1999. For United fans it was five months of footballing nirvana, the like of which is unlikely to ever be repeated.
United suffered a shock 3-2 loss at home to Middlesbrough on 19 December 1998; it would be their last defeat of the 1998-99 season. Thereafter a side that regularly contained such icons as Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Irwin, Stam, Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer brushed all opposition aside, both domestically and in Europe.
By 16 May, as they faced Tottenham Hotspur in the final game of the Premier League campaign, United were still chasing the elusive “Treble”, never before won by an English club. A somewhat nervy 2-1 victory (after trailing 0-1 to a Les Ferdinand goal) thanks to finishes from Beckham and Cole gave Ferguson the fifth Premier League crown of his tenure.
That set the Red Devils up nicely for an FA Cup final showdown with Newcastle United at Wembley. An early goal from Sheringham settled nerves, and thereafter United were comfortably the better team, settling the game with a Scholes goal on 52 minutes. Their third “Double” in six seasons was secure.
So, to Barcelona’s Camp Nou, and a Champions League final showdown with the might of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern München. Hopes of the Treble seemed in tatters as an early goal by Mario Basler simply underlined Bayern’s superiority, despite United enjoying plenty of possession. When the Germans hit the crossbar with only minutes remaining it was surely a wasted reprieve for a United side that were running out of ideas.
Enter Sheringham and Solskjaer. Thrown on as late substitutes for Blomqvist and Cole, the Londoner found an equaliser on 91 minutes, touching a Giggs’ effort into Oliver Kahn’s right-hand corner. Two minutes later, and with the United fans still celebrating his leveller, Sheringham flicked a Beckham corner into the back of the six-yard box where Solskjaer stuck out a leg…and nirvana was attained!
Our ultimate dream came to fruition in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. Football, eh? Bloody hell!!
Pete Spencer: Hungary 1950-1956
The Hungarian National team of the 1950s can lay claim to being one of the greatest national sides ever.
Between 1950-1956 ‘the Mighty Magyars’ won 42 matches, drew seven and lost just once. They lost ‘the big one’, the 1954 World Cup Final to West Germany, which only slightly tarnished their reputation.
They were the first exponents of ‘total football’ and when teams were full of rigid formations, they were the first to employ a deep-lying centre forward. Being an Army team gave them the advantage of disciplined fitness and training methods, giving them a vital edge over opponents.
The spearhead of the team was Ferenc Puskás, skilfully supported by Hidegkuti, Czibor, Bozsik and Grosics. They saw off opponents with ruthless efficiency.
They shocked the world in 1953 becoming the first side from outside the British Isles to beat England at Wembley. Their 6-3 win in the ‘Match of the Century’ was followed by a 7-1 drubbing in a return fixture six months later.
On their way to the Final in ’54, they thrashed the Germans 8-3. They also beat Brazil and defending champions, Uruguay, to meet the Germans in the Final in Berne. Unbeaten in their previous 31 matches they raced to a 2-0 lead. But just as everyone expected them to put the game to bed, the Germans came back to win 3-2. The match went down in history as the Miracle of Berne. Two years later the Hungarian revolution broke up the team and the country was never been the same again.
Dave Proudlove: Everton 1983-87
Despite being long-standing members of the First Division and enjoying great success under Harry Catterick during the 1960s, by the beginning of the 1980s, Everton had lost their way and had spent a decade in the doldrums. When they sacked manager Gordon Lee in 1981 after four years in charge, Everton were a club looking down rather than up.
But the club’s new appointment inspired the Everton faithful. Howard Kendall was one of the famous Holy Trinity midfield that helped the Toffees to romp to the First Division title in the 1969/70 season, and hopes were high when Kendall arrived back at Goodison Park.
Things started slowly for Everton under Kendall, but by the middle of the decade, things clicked into gear in a big way after building a whole new team.
In four seasons from 1983 to 1987, Everton won the title twice and finished runners-up, reached three consecutive FA Cup finals, winning one, reached a League Cup final, and lifted their only European trophy, the 1985 European Cup Winners Cup. They also lifted the Charity Shield twice. It was the club’s most successful spell.
With English clubs banned from Europe following the Heysel Stadium disaster, Kendall and his Everton team never got to compete in the European Cup, and in the summer of 1987, he left the Toffees for Athletic Bilbao. Despite being replaced by fellow Holy Trinity member Colin Harvey, Kendall’s team slowly broke up, and Everton have not come anywhere near matching those achievements since.
David Nesbit: Liverpool 1987-88
The 1987-88 vintage is widely accepted as one of the best Liverpool teams of all times and the yardstick by which Jurgen Klopp’s present side are measured in their efforts to be regarded as truly great.
It is fair to say that Kenny Dalglish’s all-conquering team of over three decades ago actually took a fair few people by surprise, not in terms of its quality but by the style of its football. Liverpool sides over the past fifteen years or so, whilst being very successful, were not particularly known for their attacking flair and instead were often built upon a solid defensive unit.
The sale of Ian Rush to Juventus in 1987 forced Dalglish into a tactical rethink and instead of a simple one-for-one replacement signing, Dalglish took advantage of the availability of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley to create an all-attacking side.
The results were immediate and stunning. Remaining unbeaten in the league until their thirtieth outing, Liverpool ran up scorelines of four goals or more no less than eleven times. A particular highlight of the season was a 5-0 drubbing of Nottingham Forest in a performance so exquisite, that it was described as one of the best-ever club performances by no less a luminary than the great Tom Finney.
Liverpool ended up winning the league by nine points and only an aberration in the FA Cup Final against Wimbledon prevented them completing a second double in three seasons.
Liam Togher: Spain 2008-2012
For generations, nobody fitted the tag of ‘international football’s bridesmaids’ quite like Spain, who for all their talent routinely checked out of major tournaments before the business end of proceedings. Over a four-year period in the 21st century, that all changed – and how.
The late Luis Aragones took a Spanish side featuring Hollywood names like Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and Fernando Torres to Euro 2008 with familiar high expectation – except this time the traditional script was ripped up. La Roja’s captivating brand of possession football saw them rise above every hurdle placed in their way, culminating in a 1-0 win over Germany in the final courtesy of Torres. The 44-year wait to add to their sole European triumph had ended.
Their 2010 World Cup run got off to an inauspicious start, losing their opening game to Switzerland, but Vicente del Bosque’s men swiftly put that behind them and progressed to a first final at this stage. The game against the Netherlands in Johannesburg was a bad-tempered affair but that mattered not a jot when Iniesta’s 116th-minute goal made Spain the eighth country to taste World Cup glory.
All of their knockout matches in South Africa ended 1-0 but the shackles well and truly came off at Euro 2012. Just as they thumped Ireland 4-0 in the group stage, they did the same to Italy in the final, winning a third major tournament in a row after so many barren decades. More than that, they did it in style to become arguably the greatest-ever international football team
Kushal Jain- Manchester United 1994-1997
After losing the league and shearer to Blackburn in 94/95
It was a surprising taste of second best for Alex
As he was trying and trying to work up his magic
His team had kids like Giggsy and Scholes
With a star in Cantona to inspire them all
He turned it around from the losses in ’95
To almost win it all in 95/96
As the devils marched on to win it in the end in league and FA Cup
The only missing trophy to set it all up
He won the title again in ’97
When a former Toon would help this side
As he helped the Red Devils to pull one over Tyneside.
And yet this one was sweeter than the other
Even without the FA Cup and Europe.
After all, Keegan had said I’ll love it if we beat them.
It was an era that was donned by him,
Alex and his Mancunian reds,
Before another revolutionary came along the way,
With his signings and his kids in play.
Everyone was preying on them,
Everyone was hoping for their luck to betray.
Andrew Haines: The Netherlands 1974
Perhaps this is debatable to some, but in my eyes, there is one true and clear footballing Holy Grail. It is elusive to most, it is all-conquering when performed to perfection, it is a system in which every player ebbs and flows in perfect harmony with their teammates. It is Total Football.
While many have received acclaim for achieving with a variation on the Total Football theme, such as Pep Guardiola’s Dream Team at Barcelona – which I note has rather questionably not made the cut on this list – the others are pretenders to the throne (forgive me, Pep).
There is only one group of players that are the true kings of Total Football and they are Nederlanders.
Across years of work, the teachings and implementation of Totaalvoetbal had been rumbling on at initially AFC Ajax and later FC Barcelona. While he had taken inspiration from elsewhere and the journey had not begun with him, Rinus Michels was one of Total Football’s main cultivators.
In Amsterdam and Catalonia, Michels had worked on his Dutch disciples for years for it all to come together in ’74. West Germany were the hosts but the Netherlands were the stars of the show.
With the newly-appointed Michels in the dugout and Johan Cruyff, who would later turn from apprentice to master in the teachings of Total Football, maintaining order as captain on the field, the Dutch made short work of making it to the final of the 16-team competition.
In the first group stage, Uruguay and Bulgaria fell by the wayside while Sweden forced a draw. In the second group stage, Argentina were put to the sword first, 4-0. Next, East Germany, 2-0. In the final group game, on paper, the Netherlands had their toughest test of the competition in reigning champions Brazil.
The South Americans were star-studded in Dortmund but the were no match for Oranje.
While the Netherlands boasted all-time legendary names such as Johan Neeskens and Cruyff, those not well-versed in Dutch football history may not be familiar with names such as Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink, Wim Suurbier, Ruud Krol and Wim Jansen but each was as important as the last.
All had to work in unison and all did on 3rd July 1974, this was it – the pinnacle of Totaalvoetbal. Years later, Cruyff proclaimed it to be so in his autobiography, My Turn. The Brazilians were beaten 2-0 but, in truth, they had been powerless to stop the Dutchmen from progressing to the final.
Alas, the Netherlands had peaked too soon. Dutch flair and class met German guile and ruthlessness. Despite taking an early lead in the final, West Germany ran out 2-1 winners to lift the World Cup on home soil.
While the hosts had won it and perhaps deservedly so, the tournament belonged to another and they played in Oranje.
Jack Wills: Italy 2006
Italy may not get the plaudits of that 2008-12 Spain side, nor the Hungarian sides of the 50s, the Dutch side of 1974 or that glorious Brazil ’82 team. Italy were triumphant in a World Cup that featured a Brazil side with Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano, a young and exciting German side, Luis Figo’s Portugal, a ‘golden generation’ England side and the rest of the usual suspects.
Italy were not tipped to do well at the 2006 World Cup. The nation was shrouded in shame, following the Calciopoli scandal. This was used to their advantage. While sides like Spain and Argentina lit the tournament up early on, Italy just got on with things. They won, but they didn’t over-exude themselves; the World Cup is a seven-game marathon, not a sprint.
The Azzurri were defensively as good as any World Cup winner, but this was no stereotypical defensive Italian side. While they only conceded two goals during their time in Germany (a Christian Zaccardo own goal and a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the final), they were not shy of goals going forward.
They scored twelve goals in seven games, with every single striker that coach Marcello Lippi brought finding the back of the net. Throw in the silky play of Andrea Pirlo in the middle of the field, the goalkeeping stability of Gianluigi Buffon and the gladiator-esque performance of Fabio Cannavaro in central defence and you can see the spine of a truly dominant Italian side.
This team are hardly ever spoken about when discussing the best of the best, yet in the summer of 2006, these Italian players grouped together in the face of a national scandal and rose above it to become champions of the world.
Eliott Brennan: Chelsea 2004-06
José Mourinho’s ruthless swashbuckling hegemonies between 2004 and 2006 have a shot at being one of the greatest sides of the modern era. Fuelled by Roman Abramovich’s recent adventure into the football industry, Chelsea rapidly industrialised themselves to being a universal threat to the established order.
Mourinho transported his Porto 4-3-3 blueprint and shaped it to gift the players the perfect structure. Petr Cech, John Terry, Paulo Ferreira, William Gallas, Claude Makélélé, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Shane Duffy, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba and Eiður Guðjohnsen were an established, well-oiled core.
In 2004, they had a 71%-win ratio, dominating the league with only one loss and triumphing in the League Cup against Manchester United and Liverpool in their path. The dubious ghost goal in the Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield was the only element stopping Mourinho from potentially repeating.
The following year Chelsea were less successful, this time only winning the league title and the Community Shield. They fell out of the Champions League in the last 16 against Barcelona and Liverpool returned to haunt them in the FA Cup semi-final. The total era saw Chelsea have an unworldly goal difference of 107 goals in the league.
Mourinho was sacked after a disappointing start to the next campaign, but Chelsea’s success in these two seasons have a deeper legacy. The Cech, Terry, Ferreira, Essien, Lampard and Drogba core held together for years to come. Chelsea famously persistently retooled with players and managers. Abramovich refused to let a generational opportunity to go to waste. Everything Chelsea would then succeed was built upon this one team.