Nostalgia is always dangerous, but privileging the chronologically contemporaneous isn’t a healthy corrective. Spain’s remarkable achievement in winning a second consecutive European football championship on Sunday, following the team’s first world championship two years ago, is hard to overstate. Yet the chorus of voices rushing to proclaim them “the greatest international side ever” does just that.
There are several important objections to this indefensible assertion.
First, this appears to be a stopgap replacement for the bizarre cult surrounding FC Barcelona, which unexpectedly crashed and burned this year. This cult reached virtually messianic proportions, as illustrated in a deranged hosanna by journalist David Winner in The Guardian last April. Since it’s no longer possible to declare the current Barcelona team “the greatest club side ever,” this over-enthusiasm has been transferred to the Spanish national team (which by the end of the match on Sunday was entirely made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid players).
Second, it’s worth noting that there has been a general decline in the competitiveness of the European championship since the end of the Cold War. Eastern European teams, including Poland, Hungary, and the teams emerging from the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, all of which used to pose more serious threats, are no longer real factors.
This decline was established by the championship victory of Denmark in 1992, a team called in at the last minute to replace Yugoslavia, which was then under a sanctions regime. And it was underlined by the victory of Greece in 2004. With all due respect, it’s difficult to imagine either of these two thoroughly second-rate sides, let alone both of them, winning any of the European championships held before 1992.
Third, because football has changed so much and evolved over time, it is practically meaningless to try to pick and choose between sides from different eras. What we can point to, usefully, is a pantheon of great international sides that have punctuated the game with their dominance and redefined the sport in their own era. But it’s not possible or useful to construct counterfactual scenarios about which of these greats was “greater” than the others, because the periods of relative dominance or redefinition have all been noteworthy in their own way.
There’s no question that the current Spanish team is the dominant force at the moment, and the most powerful and influential squad in the past quarter-century. But numerous other past teams had at least as significant an impact.
Even in this moment of Spain-euphoria, a significant minority is loudly and rightly recalling the overwhelming brilliance of the Brazilian team from 1970, which still dazzles more than 40 years on.
Tiny Uruguay won two of the first four world cups, several Olympics, and 15 Copa America tournaments. While they have long faded from the spotlight, the Uruguayans still cannot be underestimated, as the last World Cup in South Africa proved. Italy won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938, dominating the international scene at the time. Brazil did the same in 1958 and 1962–becoming the only South American side to win a World Cup tournament held in Europe (the reverse has never taken place).
And, although Spain’s most ardent champions point to trophies as “empirical evidence” of “greatness”—as if something so subjective could be quantified—there are at least two major teams that have made huge contributions without major tournament victories.
The most significant of these, without question, is the Hungarian side of the early 1950s. The Hungarians introduced an (initially craftily concealed) original version of the 4-2-4 formation, bringing their center forward back towards the midfield as a pivot point to create far more dynamic spatial interplay on the pitch. They didn’t beat their opponents. They demolished them. The implications of this tactical transformation are still being developed to this day.
Football can reasonably be divided into pre-Hungary and post-Hungary circa 1950s eras. Before it was effectively disbanded by the Hungarian uprising in 1956, this side played 47 matches of which they won 40, drew six and lost just one: the World Cup final in 1954 in a fluke defeat to a West German side Hungary had crushed in an earlier round.
Building on ideas pioneered by the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the early 1930s, Ajax Amsterdam and Holland developed in the 1970s what became known as “total football,” which was also extremely influential. However, it didn’t win the Dutch national side any major tournament victories. But it’s ironic to hear fans of Spain or Barcelona disparage the Dutch legacy, as much of their style makes them direct heirs to that tactical approach.
This only touches on the great sides that dominated or redefined football in various eras. Right now, it is Spain. But proclaiming them “the greatest ever” reflects amnesia, ignorance or an indefensible attachment to the contemporary. Let’s give Spain their due, but not impoverish history in the process. And if they really do the “impossible” and win again in Brazil in 2014, we’ll revisit these claims then.