1. Ajax 1965-73
When Barry Hulshoff retired from football in 1979, he did some coaching in Greece. One day, the former Ajax defender found himself in a remote mountain village, an old man staring at his shaggy hair and beard.
“He took my hands, held them and cried,” recalled Hulshoff. “He said there was no television in his village, so this old man used to walk for two hours to another village to watch Ajax games. And now, in front of him, he saw one of the players. He couldn’t understand it and became very emotional.”
Other teams may have won more, but few could elicit such an outpouring of emotion years later.
In disciplinarian coach Rinus Michels, the club’s trademark 4-3-3, chaotic position switching and teamwork was established; Total Football invented. When he left for Barcelona in 1971, replacement Stefan Kovacs afforded the team yet more attacking freedom.
Drifting centre-forward Johan Cruyff was the undoubted star, conducting his orchestra with typical pomp and skill. Johan Neeskens provided midfield legs, Arie Haan and Gerrie Muhren the tactical discipline, centre-back Velibor Vasovic the win-at-all-costs Yugoslav steel. Even keeper Heinz Stuy was selected for what he could do with his feet, not his hands.
Over 40 years since their pinnacle – a 2-1 win against Juventus to win the 1973 European Cup, their third in a row – Ajax’s 4-3-3 remains football’s most flexible, popular formation. Their influence on Barcelona and Milan, the only sides on our list that could match their artistry, is undeniable. But it’s the way they made you feel – the long hair, rock star swagger and beautiful play – that sets them apart.
Artists, writers, even ballerinas – the great Rudolf Nureyev once said: “Johan Cruyff should have been a dancer” – came to watch Ajax. The De Meer Stadion became a hive of intellectualism and the counter-culture sweeping 1970s Amsterdam. The venue for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in? The Amsterdam Hilton.
Ajax are the poster every schoolboy should have on their bedroom wall – football’s James Bond stood next to an Aston Martin in the shadow of the Alps. The greatest club side of all time? Nobody did it better.
2. Brazil 1970
Brazil had had rather good sides before: Garrincha and his young sidekick Pele had led them to successive World Cup triumphs in 1958 and 1962. But the team that swaggered to glory in 1970 will forever occupy a prominent place in the pantheon.
It’s partly a question of style. This Brazil represent the romantic ideal of football, the entertaining epitome of “You score four, we’ll score five”. It’s also partly sensuous: 1970 was the first World Cup after the widespread adoption of colour TV, and those iconic yellow shirts glinting in the bright Mexican sun dazzled almost as much as the players on show.
But oh, the players on show. After being hoofed out of the 1966 tournament, Pele had been talked out of retirement and was at his peak in a team of showstoppers. Alongside him up top was Tostão, just 23 with a detached retina and the kind of frame that implied he might be knocked over by a decent gust of wind. But he mixed it with the tough nuts – Alan Ball got an elbow to the throat – while connecting the older men around him. One mid-air backheel set up a goal for Pele against Romania. Not the sort of No.9 the English were used to.
Roberto Rivellino was a year older than Tostão but looked perfectly capable of silencing a bar fight with a hard stare. The moustachioed left-winger loved to unleash the sort of shot that threatened to take the net into the stands. After one fiercely bending free-kick past Czechoslovakia goalkeeper Ivo Viktor, the locals christened Rivellino ‘Atomic Kick’.
From the other flank, Jairzinho bagged seven, scoring in every game. Whereas Rivellino was all feints and shoulder-drops, the 25-year-old on the other flank was pure athleticism, using his pace and power to make left-backs wish they’d stayed at home.
Sitting back and conducting these masters of mayhem was Gerson. Diminutive and balding at 29, he could pick a pass from anywhere – in the final, he pinged a 60-yard diagonal onto Pele’s head, leading to the third goal – and could score from distance too, as Italy already knew from his 25-yarder five minutes earlier.
Yes, the team had flaws. The back half wasn’t too good, conceding against everyone but England. But even alleged holding midfielder Clodoaldo dribbled past four Italians during a final that’s etched into legend as representing jogo bonito, the beautiful game, prioritising inventive attack over canny defence. A third World Cup triumph meant they kept the Jules Rimet trophy, but they also signified everything that is glorious and, more importantly, fun.
3. Milan 1987-91
Italy’s most successful European campaigners have enjoyed numerous stellar vintages – the six scudetti of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the ’92 unit that won Serie A without losing, the ’94 class who dismantled Barcelona 4-0 in the European Cup – but the perfect storm of style and success came in a four-year flurry that blew away Italy’s boring football reputation.
In 1986, sex scandal-loving future PM Silvio Berlusconi bought a bankrupt outfit that hadn’t won a title in nine years or a European Cup for two decades. His shrewd employment of Parma’s Arrigo Sacchi was the first stroke of painting a masterpiece. Sacchi’s deft deployment of Berlusconi’s fortune was the second.
The capture of Dutch trio Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard was a coup: blended with eight Italian maestros, including a high defensive line epitomised by the calm of Paolo Maldini and co-ordinated by impeccable sweeper Franco Baresi, the results approached alchemy.
Playing a flexible, Total Football-tinged 4-4-2 full of pressing, they dominated opponents physically and tactically. Sacchi called it “a team that moves together as if it was a single player”.
In the 1988/89 European Cup they humiliated Real Madrid 5-0 in the semi-final second leg and Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final; some argue that the team who retained the trophy in 1990, letting in just three goals, was even more cultured.
They were Serie A champions only once under Sacchi, but against the Napoli of Maradona and Careca, the Inter of Matthaus and Klinsmann and the Sampdoria of Mancini and Vialli, there was no shame in that. Sacchi’s Milan remain the benchmark of European football excellence.
4. Real Madrid 1955-60
In 1960, as Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3, the England team watched the game with the sound turned off in a Budapest hotel. As Jimmy Greaves recalled: “We watched open-mouthed, each realising but not daring to admit, that if this was what football was capable of, us English blokes were years behind.”
Just Fontaine, the French striker who scored 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup, said once: “Apart from Brazil, they were the best team I ever saw.” Matt Busby was enthralled by the side, their style and one player in particular: Alfredo Di Stefano, of whom he said simply: “He did everything.”
The influence of this Real Madrid team extends far beyond the talent of Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa and Paco Gento. Far beyond even the trophies they accumulated – and no other team has won five European Cups in a row, as they did, from 1956 to 1960. This team, Sir Alex Ferguson said once, invented the idea of a modern football club, signing the best players regardless of nationality, becoming synonymous with a particular style of football, seizing the opportunity provided by the new European Cup and overseas tours to create a global brand.
The tawdry magnificence of the galactico era – and the annual, industrialised melodrama of the summer transfer window – can be traced back to this polyglot side. This Madrid side, as Bernabeu said of Di Stefano, smelled of good football.
5. Barcelona 2008-11
“Fasten your seatbelts,” smiled Pep Guardiola upon being presented to Barcelona’s adoring fans as the club’s new coach in August 2008, “you’re going to enjoy this ride.” He wasn’t wrong. In 50 years’ time, when most of us will be eating through a straw, we can die happy that we saw one of the greatest sides ever performing at the apogee of their celestial talent.
In introducing tiki-taka – originally intended as an insult – to the footballing lexicon, Barça have re-written the beautiful game’s playbook in their own, perfectly formed 4-3-3 image.
Yet the Barcelona Guardiola inherited from Frank Rijkaard was far from a harmonious one. “Standards had slipped,” recalled midfield scuttler Xavi. “A kilo here or there didn’t matter. A few minutes late here or there didn’t matter. Now everything mattered. Pep was right on top of everything like a hawk.”
Right-back Dani Alves agrees: “If Pep told me to jump off the third tier of the Nou Camp, I’d think there must be something good down there.”
Winning an unprecedented sextuple in his first season, Guardiola achieved Nirvana by moving Lionel Messi infield. By the end of 2012/13, the Argentine had scored 233 in 218 games as a highly mobile centre-forward. Then there’s Andres Iniesta, a football artist with Picasso’s paint brushes for legs.
The 3-1 victory against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final – “no one has given us a hiding like that” said Sir Alex Ferguson – merely confirmed what Real Madrid legend Jorge Valdano calls a “miracle generation”.
If Barcelona are Mes que un club (more than a club), then this Barça side were Mes que un equip (more than a team).
6. Liverpool 1975-84
The year after taking over from Bill Shankly – the man who had, over 15 years, remodelled Liverpool from also-rans into heavyweights – Bob Paisley’s team finished second in the 1974/75 table. “I considered it a real failure,” admitted the new gaffer. “We never celebrate second place here.”
He hardly ever had to again: over the next eight seasons, the Reds won the league seven times, along with four European Cups and four League Cups, creating England’s first genuine football dynasty.
That they did it while remaining so well-liked by neutrals is remarkable, and a testament to a thrilling brand of pass-and-move play. Shankly had called it “a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes.” His successors honed it to perfection. “Don’t complicate things,” said Joe Fagan, who took over from Paisley in 1983, and won a Treble. “Bill hated soccer speak. He wouldn’t recognise a Christmas tree formation if it toppled on top of him.”
So while there was much individual excellence at Anfield – Dalglish’s sublime orchestration, Rush’s merciless finishing, the “Renoir with a razor blade” that was Souness – it was always fitted within, and slave to, the team. It was one that could win ugly as well as beautiful, with a devastating 12th man in the Kop.
Their biggest triumph? Replacing like with like, in boot room and on pitch – Fagan for Paisley, Dalglish for Keegan – and never deviating from a core team philosophy. Numerous sides since, foremost among them the modern Liverpool, have tried and failed to emulate it.
7. Spain 2007-12
There was a time when Spain were football’s great underachievers. Reaching 19 of the 20 Euros and World Cups since Argentina 78, they were always there but rarely even thereabouts – not achieving as much as a semi since winning Euro 64 (and what kind of country would constantly hark back to a mid-60s triumph?).
Like a few other underachievers, Spain parped on about injustice and jinxes – but in 2008 it all came together. Uniting a previously disparate squad by dropping Raul, coach Luis Aragones harnessed possession-minded midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, but married the aesthetic to the athletic: five of their first six goals at Euro 2008 came on fast breaks, the other from a set-play. Meanwhile a back half featuring Iker Casillas behind Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos could mix it, too: Spain committed the most fouls at Euro 2008.
In the quarters they faced Italy – not just world champions but longstanding jinx-holders – and beat them via the catharsis of penalties. Russia were swept aside 3-0 in the semi, and the final against Germany was won when Fernando Torres – then still at Liverpool and bagging for fun – ran onto Xavi’s pass and lofted it over Jens Lehmann.
Aragones, retiring a few days short of his 70th birthday, was replaced by Vicente del Bosque. Adding Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets while making more use of Xabi Alonso, Del Bosque – for whom the adjective ‘avuncular’ may have been invented – encouraged his players’ confident domination of possession, as typified by Pep Guardiola’s iconic and all-powerful Barcelona side. Spain swept to the World Cup with a perfect qualification record.
After a shock group-opening loss to Switzerland the favourites only conceded once more in six games, squeezing past Germany in the semis before besting the brutal Dutch via an Iniesta extra-timer. They weren’t exactly free-scoring – they won each of their four knockout games 1-0, leading for a total of just 55 regulation minutes – but their patience in possession, probing for gaps left by the inevitable tiring of ball-chasing defenders, attracted millions of admirers. “With their poise and kaleidoscopic passing, Spain represented football in its ideal state,” wrote the Guardian’s Paul Hayward of the first European nation to win the World Cup outside their home continent.
Recording another 100% qualification record en route to defending their Euros crown in 2012, Del Bosque maximised his midfield resources by playing without a true striker. The decision was controversial but clearly vindicated in the final, when they didn’t just beat their old bogey-team Italy but demolished them 4-0. By that point they had gone 10 successive knockout games without conceding, becoming the first nation to win three consecutive major tournaments.
It would be the highpoint. Tactics move on, and a generation of high-pressers derailed the tiki-taka train: at Brazil 2014, Spain lost 5-1 to the Dutch and were home before the postcards. But this great team’s unparalleled achievements should not be overlooked, while many fans still venerate their style’s relaxed lethality.
8. Inter Milan 1962-67
The team that defined the way we still think about Italian football. Argentine boss Helenio Herrera didn’t invent catenaccio (Austrian coach Karl Rappan created it years earlier), but his modified version – a 5-3-2 with a libero behind the defence and half-backs launching speedy counter attacks – was implemented so precisely that his side came to embody it.
Arriving from Barcelona in 1960, Herrera ushered in a new era of professionalism at Inter as well as new tactics. He was big on nutrition and limited his players’ drinking and smoking; he introduced the ritiro – where the players would retreat to a country house from Thursday onward to prepare for Sunday’s fixture; his pep talks and motivational techniques were legendary – he even plastered slogans like “Class + Preparation + Intelligence + Athleticism = Championships” across the training ground.
It certainly did equal championships. Herrera’s men won three Serie A titles, and back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965; they were unlucky not to win it again in 1966, and made it to the 1967 final too, losing to Celtic.
Money played a part: Inter were rich, but while there were some brilliant performers in the side – Armando Picchi the all-important sweeper, rock solid full-backs Tarcisio Burgnich and Giacinto Facchetti, Luis Suarez a fine playmaker, Jair, Mario Corso and Sandro Mazzola forming a harmonious yet devastating midfield – this Grande Inter side were always seen as Herrera’s baby. His departure to become the world’s highest-paid manager at Roma ended the Golden Era as quickly as his arrival had begun it.
9. Santos 1955-68
Not many teams can boast nine World Cup winners. And only one had the “The Athlete of the Century” up front during his peak. This is why Pele’s Santos feared no side, dominating the Brazilian league when it was at its strongest. Their motto was simply unrefined: “if the opposition scores once, we will score three.”
It didn’t matter if the opposition were a local side or the almighty Benfica at the Stadium of Light. This swashbuckling arrogance was especially evident in 1962 and 1963, when they won the Intercontinental Cup twice (Benfica and Milan), and prevailed in legendary match-ups against Garrincha’s Botafogo – encounters that were so fluid they could have been a work of art.
Judging them solely on their trophy haul is misleading – they refused to take part in the Copa Libertadores after winning it twice in two years in 1962 and 1963. They had other obligations, namely trying to pay Pele’s wages. So rather than compete on the continent, they toured the world playing high-profile friendlies. They attempted to play Di Stefano’s Real Madrid but never succeeded, with some suggesting that the Spaniards feared defeat.
Victories were countless. Teams they thrashed in that era include Inter Milan (4-1), Eintracht Frankfurt (5-2), Sheffield Wednesday (4-2) and Benfica (5-2, 4-0). All followed nominal instructions from manager Lula, whose pre-match team talk was limited to: “Go out there and do what you know.” And that they did.
10. Hungary 1950-56
Never shy of alliteration, the English press called them the Magical Magyars. Back home they were the Aranycsapat: the Golden Team. They came together under Gusztav Sebes, a cobbler’s son and former shop steward who advocated “socialist football” – a Total Football precursor in which players could swap positions at will.
Most notably, Sebes adopted his compatriot Marton Bukovi’s tactic of tweaking the prevalent W-M (3-2-2-3) formation, withdrawing the centre-forward and wingers behind the inside-forwards to create a midfield overload and cause confusion in the opposition defence.
In 1949 Hungary become Communist, football was nationalised and powerful chief Sebes assembled the best players at the newly reconstituted army club Honved, including genius forward Ferenc Puskas, prolific striker Sandor Kocsis, deep playmaker Jozsef Bozsik, lethal left-winger Zoltan Czibor and reliable goalkeeper Gyula Grosics. Working almost constantly with this core of players, Sebes introduced tactical fluidity, rigorous fitness standards and meticulous planning. It worked.
Almost unbeatable – between May 1949 and February 1956 they lost just twice – Hungary won gold at the 1952 Olympics and were invited to a Wembley for a November 1953 friendly. Deploying MTK’s centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti in a deep-lying role, they hammered England 6-3 – the first continental side to beat the Three Lions on English turf; a Budapest rematch the following May ended 7-1 to Hungary.
Passing intelligent triangles around English players suddenly rendered oafish, they were exemplified by Times writer Geoffrey Green’s elegant description of their famous third Wembley goal: as Puskas created space in the box with an intelligent dragback, England captain Billy Wright “rushed past him like a fire engine going to the wrong fire”.
The 1954 World Cup in Switzerland should have been their coronation. They hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3, eased past 1950 finalists Brazil 4-2 in a bruising quarter-final and holders Uruguay 4-2 in a flowing semi to reach a final against West Germany’s amateurs. Almost unbelievably, the outsiders came from 2-0 down to win in disputed circumstances.
Hungary continued to record illustrious friendly victories, beating Scotland at Hampden Park and the USSR in Moscow in front of six-figure crowds. But in June 1956 Sebes was replaced by Bukovi, and that October the Hungarian Uprising – anti-Communist and brutally repressed – was the cue for many of the team’s players to abscond during Honved’s European Cup trip to Athletic Bilbao. The state centralisation and control that had helped create one of football’s finest teams would blow it apart forever.