Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a four-part imaginary tournament between 16 of the all-time greatest club teams in soccer history. You can find Part 2 here.
THE IDEA: Is the present Barcelona side the best team ever? The debate feels futile: this side was great going forward; this side was great at the back; this side had so many great individuals it was impossible to stop them scoring; this side was so good defensively it could stop anybody from scoring. So let's add a structure; let's design a tournament in which the best sides can compete against each other, analyzing virtual games between the best teams there have ever been. It's guesswork, of course, but at least it's educated guess work.
THE FORMAT: It was decided to admit only post-World War II clubs sides, and that each club was permitted only one entrant. This is partly because these are the sides for which information is most readily available, and partly to try to prevent any one player appearing for two different teams. To an extent the 16 is arbitrary -- certainly Millinarios '49, Benfica '62 and Boca Juniors '78 can feel a little unfortunate to have missed out, and there are those who would argue for, say, Liverpool '77 over Liverpool '84.
THE RULES: The teams were randomly drawn into four groups, each team playing each of the others once, the top two from each group to qualify for quarterfinals. The games are arranged AvB, CvD; BvC, DvA; AvC, BvD; the first named team is the "home" side and plays not merely in its own stadium but under the rules of its era. Groups as follows:
GROUP A -- River Plate '42, Ajax '72, Flamengo '81, AC Milan '89
GROUP B -- Barcelona '11, Santos '62, Honved '54, Manchester Utd '99
GROUP C -- Penarol '61, Independiente '74, Dynamo Kyiv '86, Bayern '74
GROUP D -- Inter '65, Real Madrid '60, Estudiantes '68, Liverpool '84
River Plate '42 -- Renato Cesarini's fabled la Maquina side won only two league titles between 1941 and 1945, becoming known as the Knights of Anguish for the way they missed out on trophies, but such was the quality of its football Ernesto Lazzatti, the No. 5 of River's archrival Boca Juniors, said when he played them he'd rather be in the stand watching and admiring.
Ajax '72 -- Rinus Michels established Total Football at Ajax, but it was after he had left for Barcelona in 1971 that the side of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Piet Keizer reached its peak, let off the leash by Stefan Kovacs and producing stunning soccer to win the second of three successive European Cups in 1972.
Flamengo '81 -- For English fans there have been few such disconcerting sights as seeing a Liverpool team that had seemed indomitable both domestically and in Europe torn apart, but that's what happened in the Intercontinental Cup final of 1981. Zico's Flamengo, in the midst of a five-year golden period in which it also won two Carioca championships, three Brazilian state championships and the Copa Libertadores, won 3-0 against the Reds.
AC Milan '89 -- Italy had for decades been the land of the libero, but in 1987, Arrigo Sacchi arrived at AC Milan and imposed a back four and rigorous pressing. It was exhausting to play and exhilarating to watch, and a team featuring arguably the best back four there has ever been, plus the Dutch talents of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten won Serie A and two European Cups.
Here's how the games played out:
River Plate 0, Ajax 1 -- River Plate made most of the early running even if the playmaker Jose Moreno struggled to find space. The biggest threat came on the left from Felix Loustau in his deep-lying winger's role. For all River's intricate approach work, though, it struggled to break Ajax down and was regularly frustrated by the Dutch offside trap. Gradually the Monumental fell calm and, as Ajax's superior fitness began to tell, shortly before halftime Johan Cruyff drew his man-marker, Norberto Yacono, deep and played the ball behind him for Sjaak Swaart to cross for Piet Keizer, darting in form the right, to score. The second half was a story of Ajax denying River possession as it protected its lead.
Flamengo 1, AC Milan 1 -- For a time, Flamengo's attacking approach seemed as though it may unsettle Milan, the four attacking midfielders and the overlapping fullbacks stretching Milan's 4-4-2. Nunes was repeatedly caught offside, but there had been plenty of warnings when, midway through the first half, an angled ball from Zico beat the offside trap, laying in Junior on a familiar charge from left back. With Milan backtracking in vain, he cut into the box and rolled the ball square for Nunes to score. There is a toughness to this Milan, though, and when Junior was caught in possession shortly after halftime, Roberto Donadoni had space to accelerate down the right and cross for Marco van Basten to level with a typically precise header.
Ajax 2, Flamengo0 -- Who knows what might have happened if Ajax hadn't got the early goal, Flamengo's coach Paulo Cesar Carpegiani said, but it did. As Andrade tracked Cruyff, Johan Neeskens burst through the center, latched on to the through-ball, and bustled between Mozer and Marinho before pummeling his shot past Raul. It was Flamengo's bad luck to come up against a second hard-pressing team and, starved of possession, its vaunted front five never got a look-in. Ajax, admirably composed, circulated the ball intelligently and rounded off the win five minutes from time with a Neeskens penalty.
AC Milan 3, River Plate 1 -- River's La Maquina side was superb with the ball, and with the likes of Yacono and Loustau better equipped to win it back than most. It foundered, though, against the rugged systematization of Milan. Carlo Ancelotti thumped in the opener from long range, and although there seemed just a shred of hope for the Argentines when Angel Labruna skipped by Alessandro Costacurta to level midway through the first half, River was suffocated by Milan's pressing. Ground down, it allowed Ruud Gullit space in the box to make the most of Mauro Tassotti's cross midway through the second half, and a tired challenge from Ricardo Varghi on Van Basten late on allowed the Dutch striker to make the game safe from the penalty spot, securing qualification for the last eight.
River Plate 1, Flamengo 1 -- River was already out, undone by two pressing sides; Flamengo needed a win and for Milan to lose to Ajax. It looked like it might get it as Zico belted in an early free kick but, allowed space to play, River showed just why it was in the tournament. As Loustau, the "fan-wing" dropped back to help counter Flamengo's 4-1-4-1, Adolfo Pedernera at last began to make an impression on the tournament, and seized on a Moreno through-ball to level on the hour. A draw, though, was of little use to either side.
Ajax 0, Milan 0 -- Ajax was already through, and Milan needed only a point. A win would have secured Sacchi's side a home draw in the quarterfinal, but when news filtered through of Zico's goal, discretion took over. As both sides pressed early on, there was a sense of a shapeless game compressed into a narrow belt across the middle of the pitch, but the longer it went on the more sense there was of going through the motions. A draw suited both sides, and that was what they got.
Barcelona '11 -- What would have happened had it not been for the volcanic eruption that forced Pep Guardiola's side to travel by bus to face Internazionale in the Champions League semifinal last year. Would they now be sitting on a hat trick of Champions Leagues? Two out of three, plus three straight La Liga titles, though, suggests the quality of a side that often seems to be playing a different game to everybody else.
Santos '62 -- How good was the great team of Pele, Pepe and Coutinho? So good that twice -- in Congo and the Biafran conflict -- wars stopped so both sides could watch tour matches. Its banner year came a little earlier, though, in 1962, winning the Paulista championship, the Taca de Brasil and the first of successive Libertadores titles.
Honved '54 -- When Gusztav Sebes was plotting his great Hungary national side following the nationalization of the game in 1949, he needed a club at which to gather the best players and train them together. He settled on Honved, until then a small suburban side, and added the likes of Zoltan Czior and Sandor Kocsis to a team that already included Ferenc Puskas and Jozsef Bozsik. The result was five league titles in seven years.
Manchester Utd '99 -- There are those who would argue the 1968 side was greater -- and of course measuring across eras when talent was less concentrated is difficult -- but the Treble won by the United of Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs makes a compelling case, as does a record of five league titles in six years.
Here's how the games played out:
Barcelona 5, Santos 0 -- A chastening experience for Santos, played off the park from the opening minutes. Barcelona pressed in patches, and gambled on an early surge for which Santos seemed entirely unprepared, squandering possession on the few occasions it regained it. The forward surges of the two fullbacks, Dalmao and Calvet, usually such a source of threat, became a liability, leaving David Villa and Pedro in acres of room. Both struck in the first 20 minutes, Villa latching on to a Lionel Messi through-ball, and Xavi laying on the second for Pedro. Santos rallied to an extent as Barca's early storm blew out, but just before halftime Zito, nonplused by the strictness of the refereeing, collected a second yellow card for a clumsy foul on Andres Iniesta. From then on it was just a question of how many: Messi converted a penalty early in the second half, and late goals from Villa and Iniesta completed a comprehensive win
Honved 2, Manchester United 2 -- The Hungarians had a reputation for starting briskly, United for starting slowly, so it was little surprise when Honved took a third-minute lead, Ferenc Machos leading a counter and laying in Ferenc Puskas, who turned inside Jaap Stam before rattling a left-foot shot past Peter Schmeichel. With Joszef Bozsik more concerned with creating, Jozsef Banyai struggled to hold the midfield, and a rapid interchange between Paul Scholes and Dwight Yorke put Andy Cole clean through to level. Honved were ahead again before halftime, though, Zoltan Czibor's cross from the left finding Sandor Kocsis to head powerfully home. This United was a side that almost relished being behind, the comeback becoming its trademark, and with Roy Keane relishing the liberal refereeing it found an equalizer midway through the second half, Yorke stealing in front of Gyula Lorant to head in a David Beckham cross at the near post.
Santos 3, Honved 2 -- After the nightmare in Barcelona, things couldn't have begun much worse for Santos, Laszlo Budai finding space behind Calvet and pulling the ball back for Machos to rifle in the opener after eight minutes. But in an open, end-to-end game, it was a question of which side took its chances. Santos were the next to take one, Pele escaping Banyai to convert Pepe's clever through-ball. The home side had the lead just after halftime, Calvet crashing past the right back Imre Palicsko and unleashing a shot that Lajos Farago couldn't hold; Coutinho poked in the rebound. Bozsik, perhaps, had left his fullback exposed for that goal, but it was his raking diagonal that set Czibor in behind Dalmao midway through the half, his low cross being turned in by Puskas. Santos needed the win, though, and it showed the greater intent in the final minutes, getting its reward in the final seconds as a flurry of passes left Pele one-on-one against Lorant. A pause and a simple sideways pass, and Coutinho was through to blast home the winner.
Manchester United 1, Barcelona 2 -- The key battle lines were drawn up early: Barcelona had more of the ball, benefiting from the extra man in central midfield, despite Dwight Yorke's efforts to occupy Sergio Busquets, but when United broke and got the ball wide, it looked threatening. Every time Ryan Giggs ran at Dani Alves, or Dani Alves ran at Giggs, it seemed to create a chance. Sure enough, just after the half-hour, the Brazilian tore forward, exchanged passes with Villa and drove in a low cross that Pedro converted at the near post. A devastating second arrived just after halftime, Messi finding space in front of the United back four and laying in Villa for the second. This United team, its assistant manager Steve McClaren famously said, is never beaten, it just runs out of time, but this time the fightback produced only a late goal from the substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, jabbed in from close range after Gerard Pique had misjudged a Beckham cross.
Barcelona 2, Honved 0 -- With Machos, Honved's deep-lying center forward, occupying Busquets, Messi drifting into Banyai's zone and Czibor and Budai just making Dani Alves and Eric Abidal a little cautious about pushing on, Honved's natural 3-1-2-4 shape proved weirdly effective at restricting Barcelona, even if it did dominate possession. Had Kocsis not headed an early chance over perhaps Honved could have pulled off an unlikely win, but in the end weight of possession told. Xavi drew Banyai and released Messi to open the scoring midway through the second half, and when Iniesta's run wasn't picked up five minutes later, he ran on to another Xavi through-pass to make it 2-0.
Santos 2, Manchester United 2 -- The draw, perhaps, wasn't kind to United, facing two tough away ties and a home game against Barcelona. Its 4-4-2 was simply too open, and Pele was barely checked as he dropped off the front line of Santos's 4-2-4. United did take the lead, Yorke evading Zito and finding space between Lima and Mauro to lay in Cole on the half-hour, but Pele controlled the game, and smacked in the equalizer after Ronnie Johnsen had blocked Coutinho's initial effort. Needing the win, United left Giggs and Beckham higher and higher up the field, but conceded the vital goal with 10 minutes remaining. Roy Keane had taken advantage of the early sixties refereeing to put in some reducers on Pele, but Pele at last found room to lay in Dalmao, hurtling forward from fullback, to make it 2-1. Scholes headed a leveler from a Beckham corner within two minutes, but the winner never arrived.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor ofThe Blizzard.
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.