Best club team ever?

The Boca Juniors club coach Carlos Bianchi applauds after his team won the Argentine championship in the Avellaneda's Racing Club Stadium in Buenos Aires. The club will face Italy's Milan in Yokohama, Japan in the Intercontinental Cup final. Recently, Worldwide Historical Clubs Ranking by Marcelo Leme de Arruda, based in Portugal, has named the club as the best of all time. -- Pic. AFP-

WHICH is or was the finest club team of all time? A Portuguese academic has just given the surprising answer: Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires.

WHICH is or was the finest club team of all time? A Portuguese academic has just given the surprising answer: Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires. Worldwide Historical Clubs Ranking by Marcelo Leme de Arruda, claims to be based on mathematical, statistical, methods rather than what he disparagingly calls the "I think" method. Into one's head instantly came that famous old adage, Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.

Senor Arrunda's method is to award points for successes across the years: in the Intercontinental — Toyota Cups, the European Champions Cup, the Libertadores Cup national and Brazilian state championships. "The strength of one championship," he writes, "is defined as the performance of the teams which played these championships in the competition immediately superior." Such as the European and Libertadores Cups. But this in itself seems an arbitrary yardstick.

Comparisons are odious, runs another old saying, and in this case I feel that they are monumentally irrelevant. Not long ago in a moment of arrogance, the big Manchester United and Denmark 'keeper, as he then was, boasted that his United team would have beaten the United side that won the European Cup in 1968 10-0. We'll never know, but in any case, who cares? Teams are essentially of their time. In the late 19th century, Preston North End were known as The Invincibles. Yet, if the present Preston team, labouring away in the Nationwide League, were by some miracle able to play them, they would run up a cricket score.

Football gets faster and faster. Footballers get fitter and fitter. But to find convincing criteria is to pursue the mythical needle in a haystack. Thus, how far does the Toyota Cup really matter now? When it was known as the Intercontinental Cup it was a pretty dubious affair in any case. The European and South American teams met home and away, with the bizarre provision that goal difference didn't count. If each team won at home, which happened often enough, the team at home in the second game — which usually turned out to be the Libertadores winner — was entitled to play the deciding match on a so-called neutral ground in its own continent. This could lead to the shocking brutalities of such as the notorious 1967 third match in Montevideo between Glasgow Celtic and Racing Club of Buenos Aires, a horrible scenario of thuggery.

Nowadays, moreover, the Libertadores Cup has been substantially diluted. This because the economic crisis in South America means that major clubs, not least in Argentina, are constantly obliged to sell their best players to European teams. So for example the Boca Juniors team, which, under the inspiring aegis of that once prolific centre-forward, Carlos Bianchi, won the most recent title — as it had won it before when he was manager — had long been forced to sell one after another of its leading stars. There is just no real comparison with the European Champions Cup; in which of course numerous Brazilians and Argentines compete.

The present Real Madrid team at a training session. "The finest club team of all time," according to the author, was the Real Madrid team, "inspired by that amazing, supremely versatile, centre-forward, Alfredo di Stefano. -- Pic. JUNKO KIMURA/GETTY IMAGES-

For me, it is plain that the finest club team of all time has to be Real Madrid, inspired by that amazing, supremely versatile, centre-forward, Alfredo di Stefano. Real, of course, won the first five European Cup titles in a row, culminating in that astounding evening at Hampden Park in May 1960, when they took the fifth and last of those titles. I was lucky enough to be there, to see Di Stefano score three goals, Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian inside-left, four goals, in the 7-3 rout of poor Fintracht Frankfurt. At the end of the game, over 130,000 Scottish fans — never the easiest to please or the least xenophobic — stayed on the terraces to applaud Real. Yet, in Arruda's list, Real come no higher than fifth!

Santos for their part are ranked only 11th, yet who can forget the superlative football they played in the 1960s when Pele was at the height of his powers, scoring goals galore with his power in the air and on the ground, his almost gymnastic skills? He had the support of such players as Zito, the Brazilian half-back in their 1958 and 1962 World Cup victories, and of the young centre-forward, Coutinho. To rank Santos so low is a serious indictment of Arruda's methods. Teams surely — or clubs if you wish — should be ranked and assessed according to their best periods, not over a spell of years in which the stars may well disappear and the club lose it splendour. Only very recently have Santos blossomed again, reaching the last finals of the Libertadores Cup, after years of mediocrity. But that cannot take the shine off their achievements in the era of Pele.

Ajax of Amsterdam are ranked just one above Santos, while Bayern Munich are two places lower than that. An utter absurdity when you look back to the 1970s and the dazzling era of Total Football, when perhaps the best soccer in the history of the game was played by the West Germans and the Dutch. Inspired by the example of the young Franz Beckenbauer, who, watching Giacinto Facchetti surge forward from left-back for Inter, decided a sweeper could do that too, Bayern set an example followed by the Dutch. The idea of total versatility, that anybody could and should do anything, was perhaps over optimistic but there is no doubt that much gloriously exciting football ensued in consequence.

If Beckenbauer, as an attacking libero, was the heart and soul of the Bayern side, then Johan Cruyff, at centre-forward, was the fulcrum of the Ajax team, and of a Dutch international side who were playing Total Football well before coach Helmut Schoen at last allowed West Germany to do the same. Both Ajax, first, then Bayern won the European Cup three times in a row.

Going deeper into the past, how objectively to assess the inter-Wars Arsenal team who were arguably the best club side of their era? Inventing the Third Back game, they were the greatest force in English football, winning five league championships and the FA Cup twice, even beating the famed Austrian Wunderteam, masquerading as a Vienna XI (FA rules forbade club sides playing international teams) at Highbury. But there were no European tournaments for the team of Eddie Hapgood, Cliff Bastin and Alex James to play in. Just an annual Armistice Day match in Paris against the Racing Club. So Arsenal come in at 39th!

There is an old disparaging Italian saying ridiculing "people who think they've invented hot water." Senor de Arrude, I feel, must be placed in this category. How ever he disparages those "I think" list makers, his statistics don't shield him from the same charge.