Why Sparta are better than Barça

Sometimes the best questions have no definitive answers.

We all relish the thrill of office one-upmanship when we know the answer to a seriously trivial football question. For example, on Champions this week, we were intrigued by a uefa.com story pointing out that the three Italian teams in the last 16 must overturn a first-leg deficit away from home, something only one team has done before in the UEFA Champions League’s knockout stages.

That team was Ajax in the 1995/96 semi-final, who lost 1-0 in Amsterdam to Panathinaikos and beat the Greek champions 3-0 in Athens. Perhaps the effort wore Louis van Gaal’s side out because they weren’t at their best in the final, losing a shootout to Juventus. With historical precedent so firmly against calcio, no wonder Gazzetta dello Sport has already written off the hopes of Inter, Milan and Roma, declaring “Goodbye Europe”.

Is the sun setting on Italian Euro-hopes?

Lies, damned lies and record booksOnly a few weeks ago, Barcelona’s record-breaking la Liga run of 16 wins in a row prompted uefa.com to study the history books and declare that Benfica, who racked up 29 successive victories between 1971 and 1973, had the longest winning run in Europe. In England, the longest winning streak is 14, a record shared by Arsenal (2002-3 in Premier League), Bristol City (Second Division 1905-06), Manchester United (Second Division, 1904-05), and Preston North End (Second Division 1950-51).

Benfica’s tally isn’t a world record. As Uli Hesse (author of the lovely Tor!) pointed out in an email, rsssf.com – a sumptuous online archive where geeks like myself like to while away the hours – suggests that Jordan’s Al-Faysali racked up 32 wins in a row between August 2001 and March 2003.

The trail doesn’t end there. The same site’s celebration of unbeaten runs notes that Sparta Prague embarked on a run of 51 straight victories between 1920 and 1923. Digging deeper, Uli found more detail which suggested that Sparta also won all three games in an end of season mini-tournament in 1919, so the invincible Reds probably won a minimum of 54 matches in succession.

I say minimum because we don’t know yet know at which point in 1919 Sparta failed to win a match nor in what particular round of the 1924 season their victorious sequence came to an abrupt end.

Comedians and café ownersNo wonder supporters call the team of this era “Iron Sparta”. Among the Sparta stars of the 1920s and 1930s, two stand out for contrasting reasons: goalkeeper Vlasta Burian later became the king of Czech comedy, while inside-forward Oldrich Nejedly scored 161 goals in 187 games in eight years with Sparta and was top scorer in the 1934 World Cup with five goals. He would have scored even more but broke his leg in 1938 when he was 29, retiring a year later.

Nejedly shared his goalscoring burden at Sparta with Raymond Braine, a Belgian café owner and striker who – with football in Belgium still an amateur affair – felt compelled to play abroad. Failing to obtain a work permit for Clapton Orient, Braine joined Sparta but couldn’t have been entirely mercenary because he turned down a lucrative offer to change his nationality to lead Czechoslovakia’s attack in the 1934 World Cup.

The Sparta sides of the 1920s and 1930s were great. And their record of at least 54 wins in a row makes Barcelona’s recent 16 on the trot look a bit puny. But can we conclusively say they have won more games in a row than any other team in the history of football?

Afraid not. Exhaustive research hasn’t found a team with a longer winning run than Sparta. But feel free to tell me otherwise.