We have reached the penultimate side on the list, and we are now in the rather odd position where the team we have named second best in history would probably be beaten by every team that came before it in the series.
The problem with judging teams from different eras is that it is near-impossible to properly take into account the different level of professionalism, fitness and technique between each decade. Even the worst Premier League side would batter most of the better teams from thirty or even twenty years ago. There is a distinct point where everything changed though – in the mid-sixties football became more cynical, with Italian teams embracing catenaccio to exploit the very attacking play of the rest of Europe.
This Madrid side came a few years before that. Set up in a W-M formation, there was nothing particularly special about Madrid tactically – they were a basic passing team that weren’t even particularly good at winning the ball back, who grew better and better as astute president Santiago Bernabeu Yeste brought in the best players from abroad. It was the signing of Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano that started Real’s period of excellence. Defender Pachin said “there never has been anybody who can be compared with Don Alfredo. I say that with respect to Messi, Pele, Cruyff and the rest. Di Stefano was the best of all time. People joke about him even being a great goalkeeper, but he was a good keeper – he just never played there in a match. He was a great defender, midfielder and an incredible goalscorer. But most important of all, he was a great leader on the pitch – inspirational. When we were losing, we knew that with Alfredo we could not, would not lose.” It’s unlikely many Madrid fans would disagree with him. A quick, hard-working, tricky dribbler, who could pick out any pass he liked and win plenty of challenges despite not being particularly big, he is inarguably one of the best players to have played the game and by the time Madrid reached their apex in the final European Cup win against Eintracht Frankfurt, he was joined by another in Ferenc Puskas.
The Hungarian possessed a similar level of skill to Di Stefano but was more goal-orientated, much like Sergio Aguero to Carlos Tevez today, although he was happy to set up his teammates. His arrival brought to an end the Madrid career of Raymond Kopa, French star of the 1958 World Cup. Criticised for his selfishness at Stade de Reims, he became more of a playmaker and impressed enough for the French club in the inaugral European Cup final to earn a move to Spain.
Paco Gento would mix blistering pace with technical brillianceÂ on the left, while Luis Del Sol wasn’t quite as quick but would run much harder, earning himself the nickname “Seven Lungs”. Behind them Jose Maria Zarrago in midfield and Jose Emilio Santamaria in defence would offer uncompromising defensive steel.
After winning the first five European Cups, many of the side simply became too old to carry on its success and it faded away. Bobby Charlton may have said “these people are not human” after the Busby Babes were dumped out of the 1957 European Cup, but they certainly showed the human reaction to aging.
What this Real Madrid side represented was nearing the end 0f the old way of doing things, and they did it to the highest quality the game had seen at that point in time. Helenio Herrera’s Barcelona may have stopped them from being completely dominant domestically but you can’t reall argue with five back-to-back European Cups. They certainly aren’t the great exponent the game has ever seen, but they were the greatest exponent of what was then a vastly different sport.