Comparing teams from different generations and eras is a fool’s errand.
But sometimes we get a little foolish over here at FC Yahoo. And we wanted to explore just where this Real Madrid team – which will try to win a third straight Champions League title and a fourth in five years against Liverpool on Saturday – measured up against the other great European runs.
Only three teams have won the European Cup or the succeeding Champions League three years in a row, and none have done it since Bayern Munich from 1974 through 1976. No team has won four in five since Real Madrid won the first five European Cups consecutively from 1956 through 1960.
Since defining a dynasty is tricky, we’re setting the bar at reaching the final at least three times in six years and winning it at least twice.
So here are our candidates:
- Real Madrid: 1956-’60
With all-time greats Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas playing up front, Real dominated the first half-decade of continental competition, capped by a 7-3 destruction of Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960. And Real would go on to lose finals in 1962 and 1964 and win it again in 1966. This remains the gold standard of European runs with eight finals and six titles in 11 years.
- Benfica: ’61-’63
Just as soon as Real was done dominating, Benfica rollicked to two straight titles over Barca and Real, before losing a third to Milan. Managed by the legendary Bela Guttman, and with Eusebio starring up front, Benfica would go on to lose finals in ’65 and ’68 as well.
- Inter Milan: ’64-’67
Argentine manager Helenio Herrera perfected the catenaccio — “doorbolt” — system of four defenders and a sweeper and rode it to three finals in five years, winning the first two in 1964 and 1965. Those teams played dour soccer, but it was almost always effective.
- Ajax: ’71-’73
This Total Footballing team, designed by the visionary Rinus Michels and marshaled by Johan Cruyff, first reached the final in 1969, but swept through Europe in three consecutive years in the early ’70s, bagging the first three-peat since Real’s in the 1950s. Much of this team went on to lose World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978.
- Bayern Munich: ’74-’76
Bayern became the juggernaut that it remains today with a loaded team led by Franz Beckenbauer and the uncanny goalscorer Gerd Muller with three straight trophies and a spine that had claimed the 1974 World Cup.
- Liverpool: ’77-’81
The Reds were the first English team to really break through in Europe with an extended run under manager Bob Paisley. Liverpool won it twice in ’77 and ’78 and then again in ’81, after a two-year interruption by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forrest. Forwards Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish starred and Liverpool would reclaim the title in ’84 and lose the final the next year.
- AC Milan: ’89-’95
After billionaire Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986, newly moneyed Milan assembled an all-star team of Dutchmen Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard and best-ever defense of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta. And there followed championships in ’89, ’90 and ’94 and lost title games in ’93 and ’95.
- Real Madrid: ’98-’02
Oh, hey, another Real dynasty. Florentino Perez’s first Galacticos era finally ended a 31-year European drought with titles in ’98, ’00 and ’02, powered by Luis Figo, current manager Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham.
- FC Barcelona: ’06-’11
Started under manager Frank Rijkaard and perfected with Pep Guardiola in charge, this went from Ronaldinho and Xavi’s team to one run by Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, re-imagining just what soccer could really be. Barca won titles in ’06, ’09 and ’11. And then again in 2015.
So where does Real circa 2014-2018 fit in? That’s hard to say until we know how it ends, exactly. The demise of this run has been prophesied several times already, as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos all find themselves on the wrong side of 30. Yet it carries on apace.
It’s also worth noting that most of these teams also dominated their domestic league during these runs. Real hasn’t, however, only claiming La Liga in the 2016-17 season, while Barca mostly hoovered up the other titles, taking seven of the last 10 Spanish championships.
Then again, it bears pointing out that whereas in 1956, the European Cup was a straight knockout tournament of just 16 teams, it has become increasingly strenuous as the soccer calendar becomes ever more cluttered. It now takes 13 games to win the Champions League, whereas it used to require only seven. The arms race at the top of the club soccer game has become so competitive that very few teams carry the depth to compete on two or three fronts anymore. Not even deep-pocketed Real.
Those are factors that favor the candidacy of latter-day Real as one of the greatest European club soccer dynasties of all time, but then every other age had its own challenges. And there’s no quantifying all that. Soccer has become faster and more demanding, just as sport science, facilities, accommodations and athletes have improved drastically.
The only conclusive statement to be made is that in the pantheon of all-time great times, this Real side belongs.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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