FourFourTwo's 50 Best Football Teams Ever: 20-11
20. Dynamo Kiev 1985-87
On the face of it, Dynamo Kiev have no business being on this list. The Ukrainians never went beyond the last four of the European Cup. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain they never managed to better back-to-back Soviet titles. Igor Belanov and Oleg Blokhin may have won the Ballon d’Or, but lacked box-office stardust. Yet Dynamo’s gift to the modern game goes beyond mere statistics.
In an age where Prozone and Opta data is now scrutinised to the minutest detail, Valeriy Lobanovskiy – a taciturn, aloof tactician who approached football like a game of chess – pioneered logical, scientific analysis to what had been an intrinsically subjective sport. In 20 years as Dynamo coach, across three separate spells beginning in 1973, Lobanovskiy created a hat-trick of great teams.
“My players know that the morning after a game, the sheet of paper will be pinned up showing all the figures,” he once recalled. “If a midfielder has fulfilled 60 technical and tactical actions in the course of the match, then he has not pulled his weight. He is obliged to do 100 or more.”
“We form players following scientific recommendations,” said right-hand man Anatoliy Zelentsov. “We don’t just give a coach advice, we justify it with numbers.”
It was Lobanovskiy’s second great Kiev side that proved his crowning glory, one that won the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup 3-0 against Atletico Madrid. Blokhin’s goal – created by buccaneering full-back play and no-look passes, so well-planned had attacking forays been planned – was the perfect representation of the coach’s beloved ‘universality’. Few teams have such an enduring legacy.
19. Netherlands 1974-78
The Oranje were the width of a post from winning the 1978 World Cup. But Rob Rensenbrink struck wood in the final minute, Argentina scored twice in extra time, and the Dutch lost a second successive final to the host country.
This was a thinking man’s side, and despite a succession of managers (notably Rinus Michels at West Germany 74) it was tempting to believe that the thinking man was Johan Cruyff. He persuaded Michels to drop shot-stopper Jan van Beveren for the eccentric sub-six-footer Jan Jongbloed, correctly reasoning that his superior footwork could create the sweeper-keeper.
The Ajax Totaalvoetbal side that won three successive European Cups from 1971 to 1973 supplied Cruyff, versatile defender Ruud Krol, nippy back Wim Suurbier, explosive midfielder Arie Haan, classy playmaker Johan Neeskens, brainbox winger Piet Keizer and lethal forward Johnny Rep. But Michels added elements from Feyenoord, including combustible midfielder Willem van Hanegem, stalwart stopper Wim Rijsbergen and future Celtic manager Wim Jansen, plus Anderlecht legend Rensenbrink.
En route to the 1974 final the Dutch scored 14 and conceded just one in powering past Uruguay, Bulgaria, Argentina, East Germany and Brazil; only Sweden stopped them scoring, despite the unveiling of the Cruyff turn. In the final they scored before the hosts got a kick, but fatally failed to score a second and lost to Gerd Muller’s seven-yard swiveller.
Euro 76 was a letdown and Cruyff retired from internationals just before Argentina 78, much later revealing that he didn’t fancy abandoning his family after they’d been held at gunpoint in Barcelona. Van Hanegem also withdrew when told he wasn’t guaranteed a starting place.
After hiccuping through the first group, the Dutch replaced Ernst Happel with his assistant Jan Zwartkruis in a quiet coup (Happel remained as figurehead); they promptly blitzed a strong Austria side 5-1 before drawing with the Germans and outmuscling Italy to top the second group and reach another final doomed to defeat against the hosts. The Dutch would have to wait another decade to lift a trophy.
18. Juventus 1980-86
Few Serie A managers are given time to build a team – at Juventus, Giovanni Trapattoni built three. But while few can argue with Il Trap’s record during his first stint with the Old Lady – six league titles and a clean sweep of European trophies in a decade – it took five years and an evolution in his management style to transform the Bianconeri from dominant domestic force into continental colossus. And it all began with an Irishman.
A brilliant man-manager and disciple of catenaccio, Trapattoni relied heavily on the Italian players who would form the backbone of Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning side for his early successes in Turin. But despite also claiming Juve’s first European trophy (the UEFA Cup) in his first season, the European Cup continued to prove elusive.
It was Europe’s other competition, the Cup Winners’ Cup, that kick-started Trapattoni’s change of approach, though. So impressed was he with Liam Brady’s display in Arsenal’s 2-1 aggregate win in the 1979/80 semi-final that he signed the mercurial midfielder. Two title-winning seasons later, Brady departed to make way for Michel Platini, having shown what could be possible when you added defensive doggedness to foreign flair.
After a slow start, the Frenchman was sensational, winning three straight Ballon d’Ors and inspiring Juve to three more league titles, an Italian Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup. After losing 1983 European Cup Final they finally completed the set in 1985. That their victory over Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium was completely overshadowed by tragic off-field events should do little to detract from a decade of dominance that finally yielded the ultimate prize.
17. Independiente 1971-75
Independiente were obsessed with the Copa Libertadores. Having won it twice in the mid-’60s – as the first Argentine side to be crowned South American champions – they were once again ready to take on South America’s best in the early ‘70s. What no one would have predicted was that they’d go on to win four consecutive Copa Libertadores titles, a feat that has never been achieved before or since and is unlikely to ever be matched.
With some justification, El Rojo were dubbed The Kings of Cups. This achievement owed much to the emergence of an academy player who would go on to become the club’s greatest player: Ricardo Bochini. The 5ft 6in playmaker was so good that he became Diego Maradona’s idol: Argentina’s hero of ‘86 would go and watch Independiente just to see El Bocha in action.
“We had put together a team that was manufactured for winning finals, based on an iron defence and a magical attack,” recalls defender Pancho Sa.
Tactical systems changed, so did managers (and some players), but results stayed the same: Independiente were unbeatable in the Libertadores. With Bochini and winger Daniel Bertoni pulling the strings, El Rojo monopolised ball possession, playing a fluid attractive style admired all around South America.
On top of the Libertadores, they won two Intercontinental cups, beating Juventus in 1973 and Atletico Madrid a year later, and only lost to the great Ajax in 1972 – the only time Johan Cruyff played on Argentine soil. The game was so hard-fought that Ajax refused to play them the next year.
16. West Germany 1970-76
Squads must be overhauled as long as ageing is inevitable, but the West Germans were particularly good at reinvigorating. The 1966 finalists weren’t at the four-team Euro 68, and the 22 who went to the next World Cup included eight new players; the Euro 72 winners’ 18-man squad contained 12 tournament debutants; the 1974 hosts’ winning squad had eight new faces; and the Euro 76 runners-up had 13 finals first-timers.
Mind, these were no squad-filling never-will-bes. Among the new faces in 1970 was Gerd Muller, who’d already scored 207 goals in 235 Bayern Munich appearances and was still only 24. He promptly bagged 10 in five games at Mexico 70, including the quarter-final winner against England and two in the semi-final defeat to Italy, a valiant two-hour slog in which Franz Beckenbauer played on with his arm in a sling to protect a dislocated shoulder.
For Euro 72, Der Bomber and Der Kaiser were joined by buddies from the burgeoning Bayern team – swashbuckling left-back Paul Breitner, doughty stopper Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck and qualified teacher Uli Hoeness – plus three Gladbach greats in pass-master Gunter Netzer, schemer Rainer Bonhof and prolific striker Jupp Heynckes. No wonder they won (Muller bagging four in two games, natch).
The Germans hosted the 1974 World Cup with Bayern having just won the first of three consecutive European Cups. This time a deep squad shared the goals around a bit more, their 13 strikes coming from six different players – although Muller still got the winners in what was effectively the semi against Poland, and what was evocatively the final against a brilliant but overconfident Dutch side.
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Muller immediately retired from international duty – a shame, considering he was only 28 and had scored 68 in 62 caps – but the Germans called up another Muller. Dieter M scored a hat-trick from the bench in the semi-final – astonishingly, his debut – and got another in the final, but Helmut Schoen’s side would lose the penalty shootout. Still, three successive finals and two trophies: not a bad run for Beckenbauer’s boys. And in 1980, they would be European champions again… but that’s a different story.
15. Manchester United 1995-2001
The summer of 1995 was a pivotal time in the reign of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. His team had just relinquished their Premier League title to Blackburn, lost the FA Cup final to Everton and sold Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis – three key players in Ferguson’s first two championship triumphs.
Then the Manchester United manager did a strange thing: he bought nobody to replace them – instead choosing to put his faith in several members of the club’s FA Youth Cup-winning side, who had all made a handful of appearances the previous season. And so began the most dominant, consistent and thrilling period of the Ferguson era, and the most famous instance of a pundit having to eat his words in football history (“You won’t win anything with kids,” grunted Alan Hansen on the Match of the Day sofa following United’s opening-day defeat).
Six years that began with the triumphant return of Eric Cantona and ended with the £28m signing of Juan Sebastian Veron hardly suggests a team lacking in stardust, while world-class performers such as Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke also came and/or went in that time. But in a supremely oiled yet fairly orthodox 4-4-2, the one constant was a midfield that had everything; Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and David Beckham combined to provide leadership, pace, movement, crossing, dribbling, vision and above all work-rate – in attack and defence.
United’s reward was five titles in six seasons, two FA Cups and “that night in Barcelona” that clinched a team-defining Treble, establishing a stranglehold on English football that remains to this day.
14. Celtic 1965-74
“They were sleek and tanned like film stars,” recalled Celtic’s Bobby Murdoch of the Inter Milan line-up, as Celtic prepared for the biggest moment in their history, the 1967 European Cup Final at Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional. “On our side there were quite a few with no teeth.”
But a lack of pretension and a sense of togetherness characterised this ragged band of brothers – hardly surprising, seeing as they were famously all born within 20 miles of Glasgow and cost just £42,000 to assemble – as they went on to become the first British side to seize Europe’s ultimate gong.
The Lisbon Lions should be admired for much more than just their pioneering victory on the continent. Scottish football was far more competitive back then: when Jock Stein took the helm at Parkhead in ‘65, Celtic hadn’t won the league for 12 seasons (Aberdeen, Hearts, Dundee, Kilmarnock and Rangers shared the glory) and had only managed the feat twice since 1938. Stein’s subsequent nine league titles in a row stand as one of British sport’s greatest achievements.
“Together they are a real team,” said the boss who encouraged his boys to play relentlessly attacking football and “as if there are no more tomorrows... make neutrals glad.”
So familiar, so confident, they worked like clockwork from keeper to forward. Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Lennox and Bertie Auld shone, but it was the unit that was the star – and Stein himself, a Fergie-inspiring master of tactics and the psychological game. As Bill Shankly told him after Lisbon: “John, you’re immortal now.” His team is, too.
13. Torino 1945-49
Believe the hype: the Grande Torino side that perished in the Superga air disaster on May 4, 1949 really were that good. In 1947/48, they won Serie A by 16 points (in the days of two for a win), scoring 125 goals, winning 19 out of 20 home games and finishing the season with a goal difference of +92. (That also happened to be the fourth – of five – successive scudetti for I Granata.) In 1946/47, they were so blatantly the best team in Italy that Azzurri coach Vittorio Pozzo picked all 10 of his outfield players for a game against Hungary from Torino.
This ridiculously gifted side was built by local businessman – and frustrated journeyman defender – Antonio Novo, who reorganised the club and created a sophisticated scouting network. Novo’s flowing, innovative side pioneered a flexible tactical approach that anticipates the cavalier 4-2-4 with which, 10 years later, Brazil won the World Cup.
The fulcrum of the team was captain Valentino Mazzola, father of Inter legend Sandro, who epitomised the rare blend of skill and power that made this team so sublime. Mazzola combined brilliantly with Ezio Loik to score and create chances for themselves, each other and acrobatic centre-forward Guglielmo Gabetto.
Behind them Giuseppe Grezar pulled the strings, confident that the unflappable centre-half Mario Rigamonti, combative Aldo Ballarin, elegant left-back Virgilio Maroso and agile, energetic Valerio Bacigalupo would nullify most threats. Calcio is still haunted by how great this team might have been.
12. Bayern Munich 1967-76
If a single team can create an entire club, then this side laid the foundation for the dynasty we know as Bayern Munich. When Franz Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier, both in their early teens, joined the club’s youth set-up in 1959, Bayern weren’t even the top club in their own city – 1860 Munich was more popular and successful. Consequently, Bayern weren’t admitted to the Bundesliga when Germany finally created a nationwide league in 1963.
It would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because a baby-faced team was allowed to gel and grow and learn outside the spotlight. In 1964 a young, chubby striker by the name of Gerd Muller signed for Bayern, because he thought he’d never break into 1860’s star-studded side. At the end of his first season, Bayern were promoted and that was that: from then, their upward trajectory felt limitless.
In 1967, Bayern won their first European trophy (the Cup Winners’ Cup against Rangers) and the core of that team – soon bolstered by a few choice youngsters such as Paul Breitner and Uli Hoeness – would stay together for the next 10 years and turn lifting silverware into an art form. Amazingly, the side didn’t really dominate the Bundesliga, but it always found a way to win in Europe and also formed the backbone of the all-conquering West German national team.
Then, in 1977, Franz Beckenbauer joined the New York Cosmos – and the story of Bayern’s greatest team was over. There would be other exceptional teams, of course, including the current crop. But this was the side that started it all.
11. Benfica 1959-68
Restless Hungarian genius Bela Guttmann had a simple credo for building teams: “Give the public their money’s worth.” That philosophy came to glorious fruition in the Benfica side he created. Playing an attacking 4-2-4 or the W-M formation with five up front, the Eagles reached four European Cup finals in seven years, winning in 1961 and 1962, and dominated the Portuguese league by hoovering up seven titles between 1960 and 1968.
The success of a team that became known as O Glorioso Benfica is often reductively attributed to one transformational genius, Eusebio. Yet the side’s most influential player, also born in Mozambique, was Mario Coluna. Known as the 'monstrous sagado' (sacred beast), Coluna became the complete modern midfielder, a master strategist with an explosive left-foot shot. As great as Eusebio was, he couldn’t turn the 1963 European Cup Final around after Milan’s Gino Pivatelli crocked Coluna.
And Eusebio was great. A hammer of a right foot, immaculate technique, intelligent movement and impeccable sportsmanship earned him a slew of nicknames: the Black Panther, the European Pele and, simplest of all, O Rei (the king). Yet Coluna and Eusebio could not have flourished without the quality of goalkeeper Costa Pereira, winger Joaquim Santana and centre-forward Jose Aguas.
Guttmann’s Benfica triumphed in two of the most enthralling European Cup finals. As nail-biting as their unexpected triumph over Barcelona in 1961 was, the 1962 final was the Eagles’ meisterwork. Defeating Real Madrid 5-3, in a game where both sides seemed to deem it a matter of honour not to score from inside the area, Benfica gave the world their money’s worth. Such free-flowing football soon gave way to the brilliant pragmatism of catenaccio but the legend of O Glorioso Benfica endures.