Why La Liga is irrelevant to Barcelona’s legacy
“In my time as manager, it is the best team we have faced,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after Manchester United were comprehensively dismantled by Barcelona in last year’s Champions League final. Three-time European Cup winner Graeme Souness went further, saying: “I think they are the best team ever and, in Lionel Messi, they have the best player ever.”
Ten months on, and Barca’s football continues to bewitch. Like the Dutch exponents of Total Football in 1974, and the brilliant Brazilians of 1982, this Barcelona side provides a visceral joy that goes beyond scorelines. Unlike those illustrious predecessors, Pep Guardiola’s team have not only sustained it for longer but also have the trophies to back up their claim to greatness.
And it’s quite a collection of trinkets. The statistics can only hint at the style but they do convey their relentless dominance of world football. Since Guardiola’s ascent in the summer of 2008, Barcelona have won three La Liga titles, three Supercopas, two Champions Leagues, two UEFA Super Cups, two FIFA Club World Cups and a Copa del Rey.
But there’s a problem with crowning Barcelona as the finest team the world has ever known. It’s the pesky inconvenience of the current La Liga table. Arch-rivals Real Madrid boast an eight-point lead over Guardiola’s men that will surely prove insurmountable. Can a team justifiably be labelled the greatest of all time while simultaneously being second best in their own league? It may appear incongruous, but history suggests it is surprisingly common.
Real Madrid’s star-studded side of the late 1950s is usually the benchmark when it comes to European club football, with their 7-3 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park the glittering culmination of their five consecutive European Cup triumphs. Barca have a long way to go before they can match this. And yet, Real neither qualified for that last tournament as La Liga winners nor won their domestic title that season – deferring to Barcelona domestically on both occasions.
It’s a recurring theme. Like Real Madrid at Hampden Park, Ajax staked their claim for greatness with a win on British soil – at Wembley against Panathinaikos in 1971. But the Dutch title went to Feyenoord that year. Likewise, Bayern Munich’s imperious run of three European Cups from 1974 to 1976 belies the fact that the second of those triumphs occurred in a season that saw the club finish a dismal 10th place in the Bundesliga – behind the likes of Kickers Offenbach and Eintracht Braunschweig.
England, too, is no stranger to the phenomenon. Nottingham Forest’s back-to-back European triumphs provide the curious statistic that they are the only team to be champions of Europe more times than they have won their own domestic league. Elsewhere, Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side failed to win the league in either of their European Cup winning seasons of 1988/89 or 1989/90.
There is a certain logic to the madness. “Being on display in Europe is too exciting – you burn too much nervous energy,” explained Gianfranco Zola, in regard to his early European forays with Chelsea. And league defeats to Getafe and Osasuna indicate even Barcelona are susceptible to being exposed by the drudgery of the day job.
Should beautiful Barca make a similar slip-up in the closing stages of the Champions League – particularly at the hands of Real Madrid in the final – then perhaps even their legacy could yet be revised. Win that tournament, and the lessons of history suggest the travails of a domestic campaign can almost be airbrushed from history altogether.
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