Barca the best

Franz Beckenbauer gives some tips to Bastian Schweinsteiger. It was Beckenbauer who invented Total Football, says the author.-AP

Barcelona, with its glorious possession football, its technique, its teamwork and its immaculate short passing, is easily the finest team of the moment, writes Brian Glanville.

In 1972, the morning after Ajax had easily beaten Inter 2-0 in the European Cup Final, Jacques Ferran, then editor of ‘France Football' magazine, smiled and said to me that while football fashions change Total Football, as so expertly played by Ajax, was the new reality. And so it undoubtedly was. Though Johan Cruyff, the superbly all purpose Ajax and Holland centre-forward, was the catalyst and inspiration of his team, it was actually his gifted rival, Franz Beckenbauer of Bayern Munich and West Germany, who had literally invented Total Football.

I remember him telling me, long ago, that as a teenaged Bayern player, he had watched the giant Giacinto Facchetti, thundering forward on the overlap from left-back to strike at goal.

If a full-back could do that, he reasoned, why not a libero, attacking from his lair behind the defensive markers? And so it was triumphantly proved when he put his plan into practice.

An irony being that while he was able to do this for Bayern, the cautious manager of the West German international team, Helmut Schoen, for several years — including the World Cup Final at Wembley in 1966 — prevented him from playing libero for his country. When he eventually did, then West Germany were playing so-called Total Football, too.

The philosophy behind it was that anybody could and should do anything, defenders attack, attackers defend. Not everybody, at the apex of football, was convinced. I remember Danny Blanchflower, celebrated captain of Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland's 1958 World Cup team, once saying to me that he disagreed with the idea because “people are different” which, perhaps, has been proved over the years.

For Total Football, for all its allure, didn't last, even though it was played by both sides in the Munich World Cup Final of 1974, when after Holland had led almost immediately from a penalty, procured by Cruyff's sensational run half the length of the field, West Germany took the trophy winning 2-1.

Go back a good deal further in time and you find the great Hungary team of the 1950s, the team which thrashed England, hitherto unbeaten at home by any foreign team, 6-3 at Wembley in November 1953; and 7-1 in Budapest the following May.

Suddenly English soccer was rocked on its heels. A book was soon published, ‘Learn To Play the Hungarian Way'. But Hungary, however controversially, failed to win the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, losing the Final in Berne 3-2 after leading 2-0, to a German team which was subsequently accused, with eventual proof, of using drugs-stimulants.

It was also arguable that Hungary in that Final were not seen at their best, since Ferenc Puskas, captain and motivating force in the side as inside-left with a famous left foot, forced his way into the team, though clearly not fully fit. He'd been kicked by Werner Liebrich of Germany when Hungary won 8-3, in the team's initial meeting.

Flash forward to Sweden in 1958 and the next World Cup. Three Hungarian stars, Puskas, Sandor “Golden Head” Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor, had decamped to Spain after the Budapest revolution of 1956. Hungary's 1958 team looked jaded and laboured in the image of its former stars, Josef Nozsik and Nandor Hidegkuti. Moreover, it was prone to kicking its opponents. Learn to play the Hungarian way? Not any more.

Of club teams, none achieved the heights and the glories of the Real Madrid side which won all five of the first European Cups. Its dominating, even domineering inspiration was the tireless Argentinian centre-forward, Alfredo Di Stefano, who was virtually playing Total Football well before it had been invented. Di Stefano was the complete, box to box footballer, capable one moment of clearing beneath his own crossbar, then racing upfield to make a deadly through pass to a colleague. Around the opposing penalty area, he was lethally effective not only with feet but with his formidable head.

The Real team and Di Stefano, who attributed his stamina to having run through the streets of Buenos Aires in his youth, reached its zenith at Hampden Park, Glasgow, in May 1960, when it overwhelmed Eintracht Frankfurt — I was lucky enough to see it — 7-3. Di Stefano scored three of those goals, Puskas, playing for Real by then, the other four. What I want to emphasise is that Real were, in essence, a one-man team, even if Puskas, a late arrival, was himself a major star. By the same token, Bayern and West Germany would have been impossible without Beckenbauer, as would Ajax and Holland without Cruyff.

And now Barcelona, hailed as the best club team of all time, which they very well may be. Certainly they are, with their glorious possession football, their technique, their teamwork, their immaculate short passing, easily the finest team of the moment. Moreover, despite the refulgent brilliance of Lionel Messi, they are by no means a one-man team. Note that in the 2010 World Cup, playing for Argentina without Iniesta and Xavi behind him, Messi had a subdued tournament.

Barcelona have built their team commendably almost from boyhood, coaching their youngsters diligently in the style of the club. How many other clubs, however rich, can do that or would ever have the patience to do it? Barca are indeed the new shining reality, the profusion of little men, Messi included (they seldom head goals) showing that soccer for all its present physical demands is essentially and splendidly a physically democratic game. Learn to play the Barcelona way? It could take years. And infinite patience.