Tuesday 16 July 2019

Are Spain the greatest ever?

Puskas 4th goal celebrations lr

Another champion team from Spain. Real Madrid in 1960 and Ferenc Puskas celebrates a goal.

Are Spain the greatest ever?

Roy Hay

It is inevitable that Spain’s scintillating demolition of Italy in the final of Euro 2012, coupled with its victories in Euro 2008 and the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, would raise debate about whether this is the greatest team ever to play the game. There is always the problem of truncated memories, with recent events having an advantage over things that happened many moons ago. For example, Uruguay won the Olympic Games tournament in 1924 and 1928 and then won the inaugural World Cup in 1930. In both cases there were fewer teams involved, but you can only play against the opposition you face in any era. Then there is the question are we restricting the comparison to national teams or do we include some of the great club formations, such as Real Madrid from 1955 to 1960 or even, and I have to declare an interest here, Celtic from 1940 to 1910? My grandfather captained that team.

What is most impressive about Spain is that the core of the side took part in all three tournaments, and most of the players were also contributors to their club successes at Barcelona and Real Madrid at domestic league and European levels. There is no doubt that there is a golden generation of Spanish players and, unlike their Portuguese equivalents from the 1990s, these ones have turned performance into results at the highest level. The academy at Barcelona deserves much of the credit for it has been the nursery for the majority of the Spanish stars, including Iniesta, Fabregas and new boys like Jordi Alba. The scary thing is that this conveyor belt may already be producing the successors to this current crop.

Some of the other contenders for the greatest team label include West Germany in the 1970s when the team which included Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Paul Breitner won the European championship in 1972 and the World Cup in 1974 and reached the final of the European tournament in 1976, losing to Czeckoslovakia on penalties. The Hungarians in the 1950s, with Puskas, Hidekuti and co., were Olympic champions in 1952 and World Cup finalists in 1954. Brazil, with Pele, Garrincha, Tostao, Gerson and others, won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970. If Pele had not been kicked off the park by the Portuguese, who knows if they might have won in 1966 in England. The Dutch had a spell of club and national brilliance with John Cruyff but could not win a major tournament.

No doubt everyone will have his or her favourite depending perhaps on which team was dominant at their most impressionable age. I still think Hibernian’s ‘famous five’ forward line of the late 1940s and early 1950s—Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull and Ormond—paired with the Rangers ‘iron curtain’ defence—Brown, Young and Shaw, McColl, Woodburn and Cox—would have given any team a run for its money. They never played as a Scottish selection so it is a bit academic, but it coincided with my growing up.

Spain, however, have certainly set the bar very high in a fairly competitive era. The transformation from a team which had won nothing since the Olympic Games in 1992 and before that the European championship in 1964 is quite astonishing. I have no doubt that in future we will look back at an exceptional era of on-field brilliance under Luis Aragones and Vincent del Bosque, two fine coaches and human beings, who have allowed and encouraged the talent at their disposal to flourish in a variety of tactical formations. Who would have thought a team without a recognised striker could take four goals off Italy? Enjoy it while you can, and perhaps leave the question of which is the greatest for another day.

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