FourFourTwo's 50 Best Football Teams Ever: 10-1
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.
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.
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.
Did you know?
Midfielder Luis Suarez believed if wine was spilt at the table during a meal, he would score in the next game. Before big matches, manager Herrera made sure he’d knock over his own glass of claret, so the superstitious Suarez would dab his finger, tap his forehead and shoe for luck.
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.