WHEN the Champions League trophy had been hauled around Wembley and the colourful Catalan hordes had sung themselves hoarse, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola was asked a question which resonated in bars from Las Ramblas to Las Vegas.
Are Barcelona the greatest team ever to play the world’s most popular sport?
“It is impossible to say,” was his humble verdict after his Barcelona side had dismantled English league champions Manchester United. “I didn’t see the Real Madrid of (Alfredo) Di Stefano and the Ajax of (Johan) Cruyff. We try to play as well as possible. I hope in the next 10 or 15 years the people will remember this team and have enjoyed them.”
Guardiola need have no worries on that score. Anyone at Wembley on a night when football proved why at its best it is such an alluring spectacle surely will take the sight of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta weaving their midfield tapestries to the grave.
They will tell their grandchildren about the rhythmic patterns, the darting thrusts, the sumptuous goals of Pedro and Lionel Messi and David Villa.
They will tell them about a team which is the epitome of the old-fashioned ethos of all-for-one and one-for-all. A team of stars which is uncluttered by baggage and apparently unburdened by egos.
They will tell them of the expert technique, the instinctive appreciation of space and movement, the sheer beauty with which they pass and move the ball.
They will also tell them of a player who just might be the greatest ever to have played the game.
That is not an accolade which should be tossed around lightly, not when the reputations of Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and George Best are at stake.
Yet Messi ticks every box, even when compared with those wonderful players. He possesses the balance of Maradona, the vision of Pele, the art and deftness of Cruyff and the dribbling skills and courage of Best.
No, he is not playing at a time when defensive assassins could dish out intimidation and threaten ruptured achilles tendons at will, but the truly inspiring feature about Messi is his attitude.
With Maradona and Best there was a selfishness, a desire to showcase their own talent above that of the team. There is none of that with Messi.
There was one passage of play against United when the little Argentinian sprinted full bore from one white shirt to the next, to the next, only content when his single-handed determination had won back possession.
If the world’s best can do that, imagine the impact on his colleagues. Better than that, watch it, time and time again as Barcelona players take up their press and harry work ethic against all-comers.
That is why Barcelona are up there with the greatest.
It is the fusion of the team ethic with individual brilliance which makes them such a potent force.
Liverpool had that in the 1970s and 1980s when Kevin Keegan and then Kenny Dalglish were the focal points of their domination in Europe, yet they never thrilled the soul like Barcelona.
Neither did the Bayern Munich side of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness, although for dynamic power they would score highly.
This Barcelona side are closer in spirit and ambition to the Ajax total footballers of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan and the Real Madrid of Puskas, Di Stefano and Francisco Gento when competition, it should be noted, was nowhere near as wide nor as relentless as it is today.
The best thing of all about their 3-1 triumph over United was that in a football world beset with greed and cheating and corruption and silly hype when everything is ‘super’, even the injunctions, Barcelona demonstrated that winning can come adorned in fairness and respect and laced with joie de vivre.
“You always want to win but the way we won is what I am proud of,” said Guardiola. “To beat Manchester United is not an every day occurrence. There were not many fouls, we played better and cleaner than in other games.”
Mention here should be made of United, who also played fair and true to the club’s traditions of attacking intent, even if they were a poor second on the night.
But for pure, impeccable, eye-pleasing, stir-the-blood football, then Barcelona at Wembley were about as good as it gets.
My top six football teams: 1. Brazil 1970; 2. Ajax 1970s; 3. Real Madrid 1956-60; 4. Barcelona 2011; 5. Bayern Munich 1974-1976; 6. Liverpool 1977-78.
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