FourFourTwo's 50 Best Football Teams Ever: 30-21
30. Flamengo 1980-83
The Flamengo side that won the Copa Libertadores and beat Liverpool 3-0 in the Intercontinental Cup in 1981 is often reductively described as the genius of Zico and 10 others.
Zico, aka the white Pele, was the most gifted Brazilian footballer since the original Pele, able to somersault in the air and score with a backwards overhead volley. Adoring Flamengo fans would jokingly wish each other “Happy Christmas” on March 3, his birthday.
Uncomfortable with such reverence, Zico – who was 28 during Flamengo’s annus mirabilis – knew his side couldn’t have conquered the world without the flair of attacking right-back Leandro and the versatility of Junior, who was equally at home at left-back or left midfield even though he favoured his right foot.
Converting many of the chances Zico’s magic created was Joao Batista Nunes, who rejoined Flamengo in 1980 and scored 93 goals in 195 games, including two against Liverpool. His first, a nonchalant finish after a defence-bypassing ball from Zico, illustrated what made them such a deadly combination.
29. Nottingham Forest 1977-80
Has any team proved so much greater than the sum of its parts than the Nottingham Forest that won successive European Cups under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor? This dynamic duo perfected a remorseless, entertaining and mystifying good cop/bad cop act that filled their players with existential dread.
Devastatingly efficient, Forest shipped 24 goals in 1977/78 and became the fourth – and last – team to win the league the season after winning promotion. They were as self-confident in Europe, inspired by unseating reigning champions Liverpool in the first round in 1979.
Taylor’s eerie prescience helped – he correctly predicted Forest would beat Dynamo Berlin in the 1980 quarter-final after spotting how apprehensive the German players looked in the City Ground car park. Good in possession, Forest were outstanding without the ball, as they proved with two 1-0 victories in European Cup finals against Malmo and Hamburg.
Gunter Netzer praised midfielder John McGovern’s ability to control games. John Robertson, the team’s Picasso, impressed the great Azzurri coach Enzo Bearzot who beamed: “When he has the ball, he can create something.”
Gary Mills best encapsulated Forest’s astonishing overachievement: only 18, he was shifted into midfield after 10 minutes to stifle Hamburg with a 4-5-1 in the 1980 final. Clough feigned tactical ignorance but this tweak saved Forest. Mills performed magnificently, possibly because whatever Hamburg threw at him couldn’t be as terrifying as the wrath of Clough or Taylor.
28. Budapest Honved 1950-55
Honved 9-7 MTK. Such scorelines – and this 16-goal thriller was a local derby – explain why, in the mid-1950s, Honved were the team the whole world wanted to watch. Coached by Gusztav Sebes, the architect of the Mighty Magyar side that beat England 6-3 at Wembley – and backed by the Hungarian army – Honved became an R&D lab where new tactics were honed, inspiring Brazil’s World Cup winners in 1958 and Rinus Michel’s Total Football.
With their movement off the ball, interchanging positions and clever passing, Honved played a kind of football that seemed to come from outer space. They could only do so because Sebes could call on such greats as Ferenc Puskas, a one-footed genius who played every game in his head before it happened; Sandor Kocsis, a supremely gifted striker; visionary deep-lying playmaker Jozsef Bozsik; effervescent winger Zoltan Czibor and prototypical sweeper-keeper Gyula Grosics. One of the side’s lesser-known geniuses, defender-cum-midfielder Gyula Lorant, pioneered the use of zonal marking as a coach in Germany.
They dominated the Hungarian league, winning five titles in seven years, but one of the hottest episodes in the Cold War destroyed the team – the 1956 Hungarian uprising erupted just as Honved had begun their first European Cup campaign.
In normal circumstances, Puskas and his team-mates would have been confident of overturning a 3-2 first-leg defeat by Athletic Bilbao in Budapest, but, with their homeland in turmoil, the distracted players opted to play the second in Brussels where, as the failed revolution in their home city turned bloody, they drew 3-3. After such an inconclusive finale, the team disintegrated. Despite this modest success in continental competition, they had made their mark.
27. France 1996-2000
France had a fallow patch after the break-up of their glorious mid-’80s team, missing the tournaments in 1988, 1990 and 1994 while exiting Euro 92 winless.
But a new breed was emerging, with an international flavour. Eric Cantona’s year-long suspension in 1995 handed the playmaker baton to 22-year-old son of Algerian immigrants Zinedine Zidane, alongside PSG schemer Youri Djorkaeff (son of an Armenian and a Kalmyk Pole).
Their guile was given a platform by a strong defence including the classy Laurent Blanc, powerful Lilian Thuram (born in Guadeloupe), Milan rock Marcel Desailly (born in Accra) and miniature Basque overlapper Bixente Lizarazu, all protected by midfield water-carrier Didier Deschamps. Aime Jacquet’s team reached the Euro 96 semis, conceding just twice in five games; then, conceding just twice in seven, they only went and won the World Cup on home soil.
It was a triumph for French multiculturalism, le mot juste being “Black-blanc-beur” (the latter a non-derogatory term for the North African diaspora). Replacing hopeless centre-forward Stephane Guivarc’h with young bucks Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, they triumphed at Euro 2000, dramatically beating Italy thanks to Sylvain Wiltord’s injury-time equaliser and Trezeguet’s golden goal.
26. Borussia M’gladbach 1970-79
The story of this team is a miracle. Not even the success of Brian Clough’s Forest was as improbable as the rise of this small, provincial club.
Or maybe it wasn’t a miracle but destiny? After all, there seems to be no better explanation for the fact that during the short post-war era when local boys still played for their hometown clubs instead of looking for riches elsewhere, no fewer than five men who would win the 1972 European Championship with West Germany were born within a 10-mile radius around a town considerably smaller than Nottingham. Jupp Heynckes, Günter Netzer, Berti Vogts, Horst-Dieter Höttges and Erwin Kremers – they were all Mönchengladbach lads.
These players formed the side that put Borussia on the map in the 1960s. But the man who it took it a step further, who created not just a good team but a myth that captures the imagination to this day was Hennes Weisweiler, the coach. The first reason was that he played an attacking game so daring that even maverick Netzer pleaded with him to be more defensive. The second was that he eventually had to sell his stars (such as Netzer to Real Madrid) but always found new, cheap talent where no one else bothered to look (such as Allan Simonsen in Denmark).
For one glorious decade this team held its own against the great Bayern side that won three consecutive European Cups, winning more Bundesliga titles than the Bavarians. It was a feat midfielder Horst Wohlers would later describe as a ‘miracle’.