Josep Guardiola’s Catalans strolled to victory after victory in 2009, marking a third, near-impeccable season for Guardiola, and sparking the inevitable debates currently raging throughout the football community: are Barcelona the best club football team ever? After witnessing the smooth, yet utterly destructive tiki-taka showcased at Wembley, you’d be forgiven for jumping on the bandwagon and counting yourself lucky to have witnessed Barça’s brilliance.
But if sport has taught us one philosophy, it is that greatness is mercurial, and what goes up often comes sliding down in a most sobering fashion. Or, in Tiger Woods’ case, what goes up comes crashing down in a heavily publicised sex scandal. The golf ace, winner of 14 major championships and a record 10 PGA Player of the Year awards, pretty much had it all going for him. With great form and a huge fan base, Woods was the global face of golf. Then, in 2010, a tabloid published a story claiming that Woods had been involved in an affair with a nightclub manager. His wife later revealed that he had confessed to sleeping with over 120 women behind her back, leading to a downward spiral that saw him end the year ranked #58 in the world, his lowest rank since his rookie year in 1996.
No matter how brilliant an athlete may be, there is no escaping the eventual drag of time. Even the greats get old: Ali, Lomu, Gascoigne…well, maybe not Gazza. When most athletes realise their body is no longer up to performing at the aerial benchmark that professional sport and its fans demand, they decide to call it quits and bow out. However, when a group of excellent athletes bow out at the same time, from the same team, the team faces certain decline; such was the fate of the 1980s West Indies cricket team. A team which boasted the only ever 5-0 whitewash while on tour in test cricket history, the West Indies’ only notable defeat of the era was a surprising loss to India in the 1983 World Cup final. The decline in form began as the 90s loomed and the likes of Jeff Dujon, Clive Lloyd, and Gordon Greenidge announced their retirement. It is a trend in test cricket that has seen Australia decline, admittedly not to the same extent, and now faces India too.
In fact, the only team that have seemed to escape this Golden Cycle of sport are the New York Yankees. Their 27 World Series Championships makes the pinstriped Yankees the most successful, most profitable baseball team ever. However, it is their continued re-investment, not possible in many sports, that has ensured this level of success, to the extent that in 2008 their payroll was $80 million higher than their closest rival. This explains why the second most successful team, the St. Louis Cardinals, have won a comparatively unimpressive 11 championships.
Around now, you’re likely feeling embarrassed for assuming that Barca will continue to meander upwards to a Guardiola-inspired pedestal of holiness. Yet, it is the Real Madrid team of the 50s who are remembered by many of the old guard as the ultimate team, the epitome of brilliance. They won 5 back-to-back European Cups before a steady decline in form. Coincidentally, Sir Matt Busby claimed, “Any team that reaches the top is apt to be past it within five years of reaching it.” By my reckoning, Barca have been on top for three years, so it’s in their hands to prove Busby wrong or right. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the football: either way we are lucky to have witnessed their brilliance.