Gods of the beautiful game

Who are the Gods of the “Beautiful Game”?

I am letting slip evidence of my misspent youth here, a time when I spent too much time playing, watching, thinking and living football to the detriment of my studies.

Barcelona ’s comprehensive, not to say magisterial, triumph over Manchester United in the recent 2011 UEFA Champions League Final brought with it the inevitable flurry of articles in the media that wanted to know if Barcelona is the best team ever.

As many people have pointed out, it is impossible to compare players and teams across generations. Ever-increasing levels of fitness and the speed of the modern game prevent meaningful comparisons. Players and teams can only be compared with their contemporaries, and just possibly with the generation before and the generation after.

Did the person who coined the phrase “the beautiful game” realise how relatively few occasions there are when this beauty is truly achieved? And who did coin the phrase … does anybody know?

It is much easier to pick out individual players of greatness rather than teams … individuals who demonstrate much greater levels of skill than their opponents, to the extent of making very good players, often so called world class players, look very, very ordinary. I may be showing my age but I still think that Pele sits above all others, particularly in terms of an all-round range of skills … excellent with both feet, good in the air, unsurpassed speed of thought and invention both in terms of what is possible and in terms of execution. Maradona, with his individual virtuoso performances, probably comes second although Messi is knocking hard at the door.

Other players who to my mind join them in this Pantheon of great football players include, in no particular order: Di Stefano, Zidane, Beckanbauer, Cruyf and Moore. Bobby Moore may be a surprise but his performances in both the 1966 and 1970 World Cups personified consummate defensive skill, leadership and authority.

As I have said, the greatness of teams is much more difficult to assess. To my mind a great team needs at least 5, possibly 6, exceptional players and, most importantly, it needs to demonstrate that greatness by not just winning a major tournament but to do so by appearing to take the game to another level and by making other top-class teams look abject in the process.

There are no surprises in my three choices. Here they are in date order.

I am old enough to remember the Real Madrid vs. Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup Final in 1960. The skills of Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Santamaria etc were breathtaking to behold as the Spanish side won 7-3. I remember that a recording of the whole game was taken round schools afterwards to show the sublime skills of the Spanish side. British sides of the period looked positively pedestrian in comparison.

The Brazilian World Cup winning side of 1970 contained the most skilful set of players that I have ever seen. I can still remember the names of all the outfield players. Despite my cynicism on most topics … part and parcel of growing old I am afraid … I still salivate at the mere mention of their front four: Jairzinho, Pele, Tostao and Rivelino; backed by Gerson and Clodoaldo in midfield. And the icing on the cake? … that was the move and finish for the fourth and last goal in the final against Italy which was scored by their captain, Carlos Alberto. It still gets quite a few plays on TV and rightly so. “That was sheer, delightful football” said Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC commentator … yes it was Kenneth, in spades.

My last team choice has to be Barcelona for their humiliation of Manchester United in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final. Humiliation is not too strong a word … you only had to look at the total resignation on the faces of the United management team as they sat disconsolately on the sidelines. They were totally non-plussed. The bewitching short passing interplay of Barcelona in the last third of the field, orchestrated by the triumvirate of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta was an absolute joy to watch, as were the individual skills of Messi. All in all it was one of those very rare moments in sport when the performance is simply on a different planet from what is normally produced or expected; moments that you are very grateful to have witnessed. In the world of tennis Roger Federer, in his prime, was another example of a sportsman who seemed to operate on another plane from all other players of his generation.

2nd June, 2011