Two weeks later, with the stardust having settled and the rush of excitement having subsided, I can say it with a clear mind. Barcelona’s performance against Manchester United at Wembley last month was the single greatest footballing display I have witnessed in more than half a century of playing and watching the game. I know us former pros are supposed to tell you that things were better in our day – but no old cynic could have been unmoved by the shimmering brilliance of that Champions League final display. In fact, it was almost a shame that United did score their own, wonderfully-executed goal through Wayne Rooney, otherwise we really might have been talking about perfection from Barca.
As a young pro with Chelsea, I watched Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park in what I’d always regarded as the best game of football I’d ever seen. Until last weekend. That Real side, including greats like Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Gento, were winning their fifth successive European Cup, while Eintracht, of whom we’d heard little, played their full part in an epic match. I am privileged to say I played in two genuinely great teams – England’s 1966 team and the Tottenham side of the early 1960s, which won the Double just before I arrived and then became the first British side to win a European trophy.
I also played against the great Benfica side of Eusebio and twice against Brazil at their finest. First, in the 1962 World Cup quarter-final in Chile, in the year when the great Garrincha – the Lionel Messi of his day – won the World Cup almost single-handed. Seriously talented players such as Didi and Vava would do nothing more than get the ball and give it to Garrincha, he really was that good. Then two years later, when Pele inspired them to a 5-1 victory over England in the Maracana. That day I made the huge mistake of scoring, thus making the Brazilians angry!
I also ‘enjoyed’ many encounters with the Manchester United side of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, then witnessed the wonderful Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s.So you understand where I’m coming from – I’ve seen a fair bit of damned good football down the years. And yet Barcelona were better than any of those great sides. Their passing and movement was from another planet. It is phenomenal to think that Messi should produce one of THE great individual displays, in the middle of one of THE great team performances. You could not even say that United had got their tactics wrong or made any glaring individual errors. They were simply outclassed.
Comparing individual players from different eras is impossible. So all I can say is that Messi ranks alongside the very best – Pele, Best, Garrincha, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, the man who set this great Barcelona era in motion. Barca’s third goal, with Messi’s mesmerising skill and David Villa’s magnificent finish, brought the house down. But for me the image of about 40 Barcelona players and backroom staff performing a ring-a-roses around the Wembley centre circle was just as striking.
As an ex-pro, these are the sort of things you look out for. It looked like this was such an incredibly united bunch of people, with an unbreakable team spirit, and no matter how gifted you are, you don’t reach the sort of level Barcelona have without that kind of unity. I don’t tend to watch football with starry eyes and I’m too long in the tooth to indulge in hype and hyperbole. So please understand that you were privileged to witness Barcelona last month. I don’t believe you will ever see anything better.