Barcelona, best team ever? Football greats divided
It's not too much of a stretch to argue that Barcelona is the best football team in the world right now. But is it the best side ever?
If so, how to decide? And given how football has evolved over the decades, becoming ever faster, more muscular, wealthier and competitive, is it possible or even reasonable to compare Lionel Messi and his teammates to other great squads, including some that played a half-century ago?
Perhaps the best reason to ask such questions is that if the current Barcelona XI is the best ever, then it follows that football fans today must be the luckiest, because they're witnessing history being made.
Just as great art or a fine wine can be even more pleasurable when its pedigree and background is known, so Barcelona's football can perhaps be better appreciated if placed in a historical context. Has its like been seen before? Will it be seen again?
For answers, Associated Press reporters asked some of the biggest names and brightest brains in football, managers like Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, Arsenal's Arsene Wenger and 1986 World Cup winner Carlos Bilardo, players both past and present, and giants like Tostao of Brazil, Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and Real Madrid's Jose Santamaria who played for some of the greatest teams.
Not surprisingly, there is no consensus.
That, in itself, suggests that Barcelona cannot be the best of all time, at least not yet, because it still hasn't managed to clearly separate itself from the other teams - perhaps a dozen or so? - that could claim the title, ''Greatest Ever.''
''They come very close,'' Beckenbauer told the AP. ''In this generation, Barcelona is the best team, difficult to compare with former great teams like AC Milan at the end of the '80s. In the '60s and '70s, you had (Brazilian club) Santos with Pele and Carlos Alberto. Different times, different styles of play. If you ask me what was the best national team ever, I would say Brazil, 1970.''
For former France and AC Milan defender Marcel Desailly, ''Johan Cruyff's Barcelona team was a great one, with Romario, (Hristo) Stoichkov, (Ronald) Koeman. The speed of their game was not like it is now but it had other qualities. The AC Milan team of that period, when I was playing for them and a little bit earlier, is another.''
As Beckenbauer and Desailly show, such debates will always be subjective. Ask 10 people and you'll get 10 different answers. Unlike with sprinters or skyscrapers, where identifying the fastest or tallest is easy, there is no agreed standard benchmark for determining the greatest football team.
Trying to compare teams from different eras is always hard and arguably unhelpful and overly simplistic, too. It would do more justice to football's rich history to acknowledge that there have been many good sides, not just one that was the greatest.
''Each generation has always had a fantastic team, every decade has always produced a few teams that easily stood out,'' French 1998 World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit told AP. Barcelona ''are among the best teams football has ever seen, but I would never have the pretension of saying whether they are the best or not.''
Still, for undisputed greatness, certain minimums must be fulfilled, including winning multiple trophies. That disqualifies Arsenal's unbeaten ''Invincibles'' of 2004, which only won the Premier League title. But Barcelona could qualify. It has accumulated eight trophies since manager Pep Guardiola took over in June 2008, including a unique Spanish treble of Champions League, Spanish League and Copa del Rey in his first season.
''Teams that win are always the best. More than just playing beautifully you have to win, and Barcelona does that,'' Argentine coach Bilardo told the AP. ''I don't think Barcelona has reached its best. It always can get better.''
Flair is important, too. So France's team that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships wouldn't rate high enough. Nor would Inter Milan's squad that won the treble of Italian championship-Italian Cup-Champions League last season with coach Jose Mourinho's style-squashing defensive tactics.
But Barcelona, like the Ajax ''Dream Team'' of the 1970s, ticks the ''style'' box with its flowing and intricate passing game.
''Barcelona is that type of team that when it plays, you don't want to miss it. It's almost like a passion,'' Socrates, the former captain of Brazil, told AP.
Wenger told AP that he rates Barcelona among the top three sides in history because of its skill at keeping the ball. Beckenbauer singled out Barcelona's 5-0 rout of Real Madrid last Nov. 29, when Barca ran rings around its rival with speedy one-touch passing, as ''one game I will never forget ... One of the best games I ever saw.''
Tostao, a 1970 World Cup winner with Brazil, added: ''Barcelona has a unique style that can't be mistaken in today's football. It's a mix between the style of the great teams of the past, like Pele's Santos - which exchanged many passes and rarely lost possession - with a modern style which focuses on putting pressure on the other team while in defense, not allowing the opponent to play.''
''I don't know which team was the best ever, but Barcelona is among the best,'' he told AP. ''From the ones I've watched the most, Pele's Santos was the greatest ever, followed by the Botafogo of Garrincha, Didi and Nilton Santos. I also liked - based on watching highlights and on what people used to say - the Real Madrid team that had (Alfredo) Di Stefano and (Ferenc) Puskas. These are the three great teams of the past which I can recall.''
Some have no reservations. For them, Barcelona is already the best ever.
Former Netherlands star Marco van Basten is among those who say so. ''When you switch to another match after watching Barca play it feels bland,'' France Football magazine quoted him as saying.
Speaking to the AP, three-time African Footballer of the Year Abedi Pele also called this Barcelona team the best, ''not just because of the titles it has won in the past two years, but the quality of the play and the potential they have.''
''They are achieving extraordinary things. They are winning so many titles and are playing so well - I do believe we can consider them the best team of all time,'' Luis Suarez, the 1960 Golden Ball winner, told AP.
Some who stop short of calling Barcelona the best still single out the exceptional quality of its players, especially Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
''A fantastic team at the moment,'' said Ferguson of Man United. ''That's the message they give out to all of football. If you look at the diminutive size of Xavi and Iniesta, they have courage. Not just the courage of not being afraid to tackle. The courage always to take the ball. And then there's the magician up front, Messi, always wonderful to watch.''
But others say Barcelona still has things to prove.
''To say that they are the best of all time is an exaggeration,'' said Jeno Buzanszky, one of the last survivors of Hungary's ''Magical Magyars'' who won Olympic gold in 1952 and are perhaps best known for being the first foreign team to defeat England at Wembley. Buzanszky spoke in a phone interview to AP.
''I don't think it can be considered the best team ever, but it's among the best,'' said Tostao. ''What's missing for Barcelona is better bench players. And in the attack, Pedro (Rodriguez) and (David) Villa are excellent players, especially Villa, but they are not among the best players in the world today.''
Perhaps unsurprisingly, former Madrid star Santamaria told AP that Barcelona ''are having a great season but you can never compare them to a team like Real Madrid that won five straight European Cups. They're still quite a way from matching them.''
''Every period had its own great team. Each one reached a certain level in terms of vision, how they operated and their ambition within the time period it corresponded with,'' he said. ''Barcelona has had two great seasons of lovely football - and is having a third now.''
Perhaps all this is splitting hairs. Maybe fans would be best advised, like David Beckham, to just sit back and enjoy the Barcelona show for what it is. With time and more trophies, the team's place in history will take care of itself. The greatest or just one of the greatest? Does it really matter?
''Anyone that loves the game, loves to see it played in the way that Barcelona play it,'' Beckham told the AP. ''Without a doubt, they'll go down as one of the best teams ever.''
AP Sports Writers Paul Logothetis in Barcelona, Spain; Samuel Petrequin and Jerome Pugmire in Paris; Steve Wade in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Eric Nunez and Ron Blum in New York; Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Steve Douglas in London; Beth Harris in Los Angeles; Andrew Dampf in Rome; and Associated Press writer Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.