If you’re anything like me, you’ll have spent years listening to older generations talk about the teams that went before. My Grandad used to talk about the great Celtic side of the 1960s – a team led by Jock Stein which became the first British side to capture the European Cup in 1967, after defeating Inter Milan 2-1 in the Lisbon sun. My uncle still talks about them to this day and I can’t help but envy what he must have seen when he describes the trickery of Jimmy Johnstone, the passing ability of Bobby Murdoch and the pace of Bobby Lennox with an enthusiasm that is nothing but infectious.
It doesn’t just apply to my own family and my own team, though. Listening to a woman I used to work with who has been a fan of Manchester United from birth, she talks with that same infectious enthusiasm about some of the greats who have played at Old Trafford – such luminaries as Cantona, Best, Robson and others. I have to revert to videos, DVDs and YouTube to get any real sense of the majesty of these players and, in the cases of the true greats of the game that stretch even further back in history, sometimes even THESE sources aren’t a rich enough tap from which to extract what footage there is. Players like Di Stefano, Puskas, Pele and Beckenbauer, though known the world over for their greatness, can prove difficult to appreciate as footage of them becomes harder and harder to find.
For years, I’ve held what can only be described as a deep inner jealousy of the people I’ve described above. Those who can truly say that they have seen all those players at the top of their game – true greats that, for someone of my age and generation (I’m 26 by the way), are little more than myths and superheroes. To the minds of people in my position, they take on an almost fictional quality – you know what they did, but you don’t know if it was really real. How can you when you weren’t there? Of course, there have been players throughout my quarter-century on this planet who, to my mind, are amongst the greatest. Zidane, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio, to name but a few – but each and every time they come into conversation, there is an insistence on the part of the older generation that they don’t match up to those who have gone before and an acceptance on the part of the younger generation that this is probably true.
Recently though, that has all changed. Why? Primarily because of one team – FC Barcelona. Starting with their period under former boss Pep Guardiola, who founded the tiki taka form of football, through to today’s Champions League winning team managed by Luis Enrique, Barca have become the team by which a generation of football will be defined. With players like Iniesta and Xavi, they have somewhat re-invented the wheel, playing football that young and old alike agree they have never seen before. Combine that with the fact that the team contains the player many consider to be the greatest ever in Lionel Messi, and there is a strong case that those of us with a keen interest in football could have spent the last five years and the foreseeable future watching various evolutions of the greatest side ever to play the game.
Xavi, of course, has followed fellow Barca legend Carles Puyol out of the exit at Camp Nou, and it won’t be long before Iniesta and others follow. All good things come to an end but what will remain will be the memories that this great side has bestowed on us, the adoring public. And one of the best bits of it all? 30 years from now, when kids are gaining an interest in the game we love, asking us who are the best players ever, we’ll be able to tell them genuinely that, for every Di Stefano, Pele and Best there was, we had the privilege – no, the honour – of seeing Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. And I think that’s brilliant.