There is nothing more satisfying in all sport than to proclaim a player or a team as the best ever. But the clamour for saying Spain 2012 is the best team the world of football has ever seen raises all sorts of issues. Not least, how do you compare teams and players from different generations?
In my memory, and I admit it goes back a bit now, no football team will ever compare with that of Brazil in 1970. Yes, you could say that this is my memory playing tricks and a reluctance on my part to shed the romantic images I carry from my youth. I shall grant you that.
It must also be said that the game has hugely changed since 1970. The players are fitter and faster and the grass, while not greener, is also much better maintained. Indeed, the dreadful pitches that the heroes of my youth played on, like black and white television, have all been consigned to history.
As Denis Law, gazing across the immaculate turf of modern day Old Trafford told me recently, “If you could play on that pitch like that throughout the season, how great a player can you be? We got to November and it was mud for the next five and a half months. Can you imagine George Best playing on pitches like that every game? You just wonder how good they would’ve been. The facilities the modern players have got, gives them the opportunity to be fitter, but some of the players in the old days would be as great today. Stanley Matthews would be a great player; Tom Finney would be a great player.”
And that is just the point about the Brazil team of 1970.
Here it is worth dwelling on that team, and both the similarities and the contrasts between Brazil 1970 and Spain 2012. Brazil, like Spain, had been the great underachiever of world football for more than two decades. Then suddenly, in Sweden in 1958, led by Pelé, they burst through and became the first non-European team to win a World Cup in Europe. They retained it easily enough in 1962 and were kicked out, there is no other word for it, in 1966 in England with a particularly infamous match in Goodison against Portugal.
They came to Mexico in 1970 with Brazil fearful of a repeat of 1966, changing the manager just before the tournament. But from their very first match, when they recovered from going a goal down against Czechoslovakia, they showed how special they were and won all their matches. There was never any question of Brazil being boring or not being watchable as there was against Spain in this tournament at times. In 1970, Brazil lit up that tournament in a way no other team has ever done. I give two examples.
In the first group match against Czechoslovakia, Pelé lobbed the goalkeeper from his own half. In the semi-final against their old nemesis Uruguay (who had beaten them on home turf in the 1950 World Cup), Pelé dummied the goalkeeper as he was fed a ball over the Uruguayan defence. Neither led to a goal, the ball just eluding the net, but both were moments of magic and fantasy, moments I shall always cherish.
I would say, for all the brilliance of Spain in 2012, no such comparable moments have been produced at these Euros.
Yes, for all qualifications about not comparing different generations, I would happily agree that Casillas and his defence are far superior to Felix and Brazil’s defence of 1970. That Brazilian team still had the old mentality that defending was not something worth doing.
But after that, can we really say Iniesta, for all his brilliance, is better than Gérson, the man who ran Brazil 1970? Xavi better than Tostão, and David Silva better than Jairzinho?
And who in this Spanish team would even come anywhere near Pelé, surely the greatest player we shall ever see?
So for my money, great as this Spanish team is, I shall still go with Brazil 1970. Yes, Spain 2012 would score against Brazil as Italy did in that final in 1970, maybe even 4 goals, but then Brazil 1970 would reply with 5. What a match that would be.
Old memories die hard, but in this case this is a memory worth holding on to.