FourFourTwo's 50 Best Football Teams Ever: 30-21
25. Juventus 1994-98
When Juventus won the Champions League in Rome in 1996, players wept with joy. Marcello Lippi’s Bianconeri were indisputably the best in Europe – they had swept aside Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid before beating Ajax on penalties after winning the first of three Serie A titles in four years. They would also reach two more Champions league finals, losing both.
Yet this golden era was tarnished by revelations that players were routinely given prescription drugs and antidepressants, even if they didn’t need them.
Does this negate the team’s feats? One club official declared that anyone who thought so was a “village idiot”. Lippi’s team was brilliantly engineered, featuring the finest forwards in Europe – Alessandro Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alen Boksic, Pippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Vialli and Zinedine Zidane.
Juve’s engine room was almost as impressive: Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte pressed tirelessly in midfield, full-backs Gianluca Pessotto and Moreno Torricelli were tactically adroit and centre-back Ciro Ferrara was a one-man defensive masterclass. In goal, Angelo Peruzzi – though no Buffon – was good enough to save two spot-kicks in the 1996 final shootout.
24. Preston North End 1888-89
Preston North End were football’s first great team. Innovators, agitators, the original Invincibles. They paid players before professionalism even existed, pioneered a previously unseen ‘pass and move’ game when dribbling was all the rage and were among the first clubs to look beyond their local area for top talent.
The Lilywhites’ achievements in the 1888/89 season alone would have made them contenders for a place among football’s greatest-ever sides. Unbeaten in the inaugural First Division with a goal difference of +59 across just 22 games, their win ratio would have given them 100 points in the Premier League era, five more that Jose Mourinho’s record-breaking 2004/05 Chelsea.
They completed the Double without conceding a goal in five FA Cup matches. All this in a season of dwindling crowds amid rumours Jack the Ripper had headed north in search of fresh blood.
They retained their league title the following season and finished runners-up in the next three, but like all great teams, North End found that they were there to be shot at. There were newspaper stories about drunken womanising. Goal-a-game England striker Johnny Goodall was one of many Invincibles lured away by bigger wages. Fellow forwards James ‘Little Demon’ Ross and Fred Dewhurst had their lives cut short by illness soon after.
Trailblazing chairman Billy Sudell (who doubled up as a default manager in those days) was jailed for embezzling funds from his cotton mills to pay his stars. But while success was short-lived, few clubs have created such a lasting legacy.
23. Boca Juniors 1998-2003
When Carlos Bianchi took over in 1998, Boca were distinctly average. They’d won just one minor trophy in 15 years, their back-to-back Copa Libertadores victories of the late-’70s a distant memory.
Time for an overhaul. Bianchi trimmed a bloated squad and redeployed the classic Boca system: 4-3-1-2, with an eccentric goalkeeper, hard-working defenders, a disciplined midfield, all orchestrated by a mercurial No.10 (Juan Riquelme) and spearheaded by a predatory goalscorer (Martin Palermo).
It was simple, direct and intense – and it worked. Just like their famous sides of the ‘60s and ‘70s, if they scored, they won. “It was practically impossible for the other side to equalise when we were winning to nil,” recalls holding midfielder Mauricio Serna. “And we knew that if we were ordered in the back, our goal would eventually come.”
This solidity helped them go undefeated in 40 league matches, breaking Racing Club’s record (39) set in the 1960s. They won the Libertadores in 2000, 2001, 2003 and reached another final in 2004, plus four league titles and two Intercontinental Cups against Real Madrid and Milan. The club experienced a revolution in all areas, from youth academy to global marketing, and became one of Argentina’s most lucrative commercial brands. Bianchi transformed Boca from popular losers to dogged winners. The team of Buenos Aires’ working class had become a global enterprise.
22. Estudiantes 1967-71
The Argentines won three successive Copa Libertadores from 1968, but it’s the all-consuming gamesmanship for which they are best remembered – future Argentina manager and then-practising gynecologist Carlos Bilardo used to stab opponents with pins during matches.
To Estudiantes, their roughhouse tactics felt necessary after a lengthy period of domination from Argentina’s Big Five (Boca, River, Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo). They broke the quintet’s ruling with the title in 1967.
Their first Copa success in 1968 was a welcome achievement for a team outside of all-conquering Buenos Aires. They followed that up with an Intercontinental Cup victory over Manchester United in which Nobby Stiles was sent off in the first leg, before a particularly bad-tempered second resulted in George Best punching Jose Hugo Medina as both men were shown red (and Juan Seba Veron’s father, Juan Ramon, scored).
In the end, Estudiantes’s bastardry caught up with them: in 1969, a heinous Intercontinental Cup final second leg against Milan resulted in the entire team being arrested under the orders of Argentina president Juan Carlos Ongania. Three players – Alberto Poletti, Ramon Aguirre Suarez and Eduardo Lujan Manera – actually served time in prison.
This was revolutionary football of a different kind – “anti-football”, as it soon became known. But one league triumph and three consecutive major continental titles speak for themselves.
21. Barcelona 1988-94
Still the possession-hungry model by which the Catalans base their game, Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team brought about a total football revolution at the Camp Nou and beyond.
They may have been subsequently outshone by Pep Guardiola’s cohort, but the current Manchester City manager – a member of Cruyff’s squad from 1990 onwards – knows it wouldn’t have been possible without his old manager. “They were pioneers and we cannot compete with that no matter how many trophies we win,” Guardiola said in 2011. “We will never equal the period of the Dream Team – they were the first to break up the long period without success.”
That long period was one title win in the 14 seasons preceding Cruyff’s arrival in 1988. It took him until 1991 to land his maiden Liga crown, but it proved the first of four in succession to complement two Copa del Reys (1988, 1989), the European Cup Winners’ Cup (1989) and a first-ever European Cup in 1992.
Cruyff got tough when he needed to be, which meant only one season for Gary Lineker in his squad as the Dutchman instead hailed in the likes of Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario for a quite glorious Barcelona era.