Barcelona, best team ever? Soccer greats divided
With eight trophies in the last three seasons, a 29-game Spanish league unbeaten streak heading into this weekend and the world's greatest player in Lionel Messi, it's no stretch to argue that Barcelona is the best soccer team in the world right now.
Once you've watched them play for a while, another thought is hard to escape: Is this the best soccer team - ever?
Associated Press reporters brought the Barcelona question to some of the biggest names and brightest brains in soccer: managers like Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, Arsenal's Arsene Wenger and 1986 World Cup winner Carlos Bilardo; players both past and present, including greats like Tostao of Brazil, Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and Real Madrid's Jose Santamaria, who played for some of the game's most memorable teams.
Unsurprisingly, there is no consensus.
Unlike with sprinters or skyscrapers, where identifying the fastest or tallest is easy, there is no agreed standard benchmark for determining the greatest soccer team. But it's fun to argue about.
''They come very close,'' Beckenbauer told the AP. ''In this generation, Barcelona is the best team, (but it's) 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.''
Emmanuel Petit, who won the World Cup with France in 1998, takes a long view.
''Each generation has always had a fantastic team, every decade has always produced a few teams that easily stood out,'' he said. Barcelona ''are among the best teams soccer has ever seen, but I would never have the pretension of saying whether they are the best or not.''
Even if you don't want to pick out one team, certain minimum requirements have to be fulfilled for a side to figure into a conversation about the best of the best - including a cabinet filled with trophies.
That disqualifies Arsenal's ''Invincibles'' of 2004, who were unbeaten in league play but actually failed to win the FA Cup that season (the Gunners have never won a Champions League title).
But Barcelona could pass the trophy test. It has accumulated eight 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 said. ''I don't think Barcelona has reached its best. It always can get better.''
Yet flair is important, too.
So France's team that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships wouldn't rate. 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,'' said Socrates, the former captain of Brazil.
Wenger said that he rates Barcelona among the top three teams 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 it 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.'' Real Madrid will have its chances to change Barcelona's reputation. Starting with a league match Saturday, the rivals will meet four times in just 18 days, including twice in the Champions League semifinals.
Tostao, a 1970 World Cup winner with Brazil said: ''Barcelona has a unique style that can't be mistaken in today's soccer. 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 on defense, not allowing the opponent to play.''
''I don't know which team was the best ever, but Barcelona is among the best,'' Tostao said. ''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. Period.
Former Netherlands star Marco van Basten has said other teams seem bland after watching Barcelona.
Three-time African Footballer of the Year Abedi Pele gives Barcelona his vote, ''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.''
Said Luis Suarez, the 1960 Golden Ball winner: ''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.''
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.
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.''
Another critic is former Madrid star Santamaria - no surprise there. He said 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 ways 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,'' Santamaria said. ''Barcelona has had two great seasons of lovely football - and is having a third now.''
Maybe fans would be best advised to just sit back and enjoy the Barcelona show for what it is. That's what David Beckham recommends.
''Anyone that loves the game, loves to see it played in the way that Barcelona play it,'' Beckham said. ''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 City; Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Steve Douglas in London; Beth Harris in Los Angeles; Andrew Dampf in Rome; and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.