During England's recent 8-0 drubbing of San Marino, the FA of the lowest ranked side in international football took to Twitter to defend themselves from the barrage of digs emanating from the great and good (and not so good and terrible) of English punditry. Dan Roan, Gary Lineker, and Adrian Chiles et al at ITV were all subject to the Sammarinese's wrath after belittling the match as a "formality" and questioning why they even bothered to field a team. Whether or not you agree with the derision and the jibes, there's an interesting comparison to be made for when the same voices turn to a slightly more illustrious team; Barcelona.
There's no getting around the fact that Barca are pretty decent. They have arguably the best squad in the world, with numerous superstars in their first 11 and a seemingly inexhaustible production line of talent coming from their storied La Masia youth academy. In Lionel Messi they have the greatest player in the world, possibly ever. They're on course to recapture the Primera League title, and are through to the quarter finals of the Champions League. Those same voices who so revelled in the inevitability of the the San Marino rout take it in turns to lavish praise on Barca, to turn to the bottomless well of superlatives and dub them "the greatest side ever".
But are they?
The comparison to San Marino is one both fascinating and telling of the media's tendency to pick favourites. The scant praise that England received for being on the right side of the 8-0 was decidedly muted, and yet when Barca stick four past those in the lower reaches of La Liga (a feat they've managed no fewer than 12 times this season), it's because they're so good, not because the teams they're playing has a squad and transfer budget that would struggle to competed in the second tier of English football. Deportivo de La Coruña have spent a miniscule sum of just over £1million on transfers in the past three years; in contrast, Blackburn Rovers spent the best part of £9million on one player, Jordan Rhodes, at the start of this season in their bid to seek promotion back to the Premier League. The tired idiom of Messi and Barca not being able to work their magic on a cold Tuesday in Stoke has been trotted out ad nauseum, but there's some validity to it, given the comparative parity between the teams in the Premier League.
In recent times, when Barca have faced off against the one Spanish team on a level playing field with them (Spanish TV rights are bargained for individually rather than collectively, meaning the smaller, less glamorous teams get a fraction of the big clubs' takings), Real Madrid, they've struggled. In the last six meetings between the two sides, Barca have managed just one win. While there is no denying that Real are a fine side, Barca's recent record against their fiercest rivals surely doesn't befit the greatest side of all time. Real may have the superior record, and pipped Barca to the La Liga title last season, and yet to suggest that they are the better team, let alone the best ever, would be met with derision - another example of the media's role in shaping opinions.
It isn't just the quality of La Liga that is serving to distend Barca's abilities. Across Europe, the old power blocks of the early 2000s have been broken up, and this increased competition in almost every major European league except Spain has helped to magnify Barca's comparative qualities. Just look at the disappearance of the 'Big Four' in England; Montpellier's against-all-odds victory over mega rich PSG for the Ligue Un title in France last season; Bayern Munich's dominance challenged by an upstart Dortmund side; and most startlingly the dearth of quality in Italy, where only Juventus represent anything close to the team they were prior to the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.
And yet, despite the current climate of more competitive leagues and weaker individual teams, Barca have failed to live up to their billing as the greatest ever in Europe's premier club competition. Their continental exploits have yielded two Champions League title (this "era" of Barca is generally agreed to have begun after their 2006 win, which was before vaunted manager Pep Guardiola took charge and reshaped the team), which whilst a fantastic achievement and worthy of high praise, once again fails to quite hit the exceptional standards of a team better than any other. Madrid won all of the first five trophies; both Ajax and Bayern Munich won it three times in succession in the '70s; numerous teams have won back-to-back titles; in short, whilst two European titles in four seasons is nothing to be sniffed at, it isn't anything we haven't seen before.
There's no getting away from the fact that Barca are an outstanding side, filled with players who would walk into any other club's starting XI and a philosophy that combines winning with an asphyxiating passing style. But the proclamations that they are the greatest ever, regardless of if they're coming from the media or luminaries ranging from Graeme Souness to David Beckham are at best premature. Barca may be a great side currently, but placing them amongst the pantheon of the greatest sides ever will have to wait until the dust has settled on their reign.
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