As tens of thousands of fans settle into their Sun Life Stadium seats Saturday afternoon for a 4 p.m. friendly between defending World Cup champion Spain and Haiti, they may want to pull out a camera or cellphone and take a photo of those familiar Spaniards in the red jerseys because there hasn’t been a collection of players this good in a long time.
In fact, some would argue this Spain team is the best national team of all time. It can certainly make a compelling case after becoming the first team to win a World Cup sandwiched between two European championships.
The roster for Saturday’s game includes 19 members of the 2010 World Cup champion team, and 14 players combined from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, players such as Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas, David Silva, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Gerard Pique.
Its 4-0 win over Italy in the 2012 Euro championship was the most lopsided final in a Euro final, and Spain surrendered just one goal the entire tournament. The Spaniards did not lose a knockout-round game at the Euros or World Cup from 2006 through 2012. Spain beat Germany for the 2008 European title and Netherlands for the 2010 World Cup.
So, is this Spain team better than Pelé’s 1958 and 1970 Brazil teams? Better than Franz Beckenbauer’s German teams of the early 1970s? Better than the French teams of 1998-2000?
“Yes,” says ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas, a former defender for the U.S. national team.
“I can make an argument for Spain being the best ever,” Lalas said by phone Friday. “If you’re the best, you don’t just win. You do something that transforms the game, brings something that hasn’t been seen before, something that ultimately changes the way we view the sport. Spain has done that.”
Lalas points to Spain’s innovative strategy and precision passing. Its goal is to pass and pass and pass, like a pinball machine, keeping possession of the ball as much as possible. By doing so, their opponents don’t have the ball long enough to construct good scoring opportunities.
“People have studied their style and will continue to for a long, long time,” Lalas said. “Their results speak for themselves, but when your team becomes defined as a concept, that’s pretty cool. I played against Brazil in the ’90s. Yes, there have been other juggernauts. But this Spain team is a machine, a true sum of its parts.”
All that might be true, but Brazilian legend Pelé would still vote for his 1970 team, one of the flashiest of its time. That team beat Italy 4-1 in the World Cup final.
“Each generation has its preferences, but without doubt, if we are comparing, the 1970 generation was better,” Pelé said last summer, when everyone was gushing over Spain. “The 1970 Brazil team had many more [great] individual players than Spain, which has two or three excellent players.”
An argument could also be made for the 1958 World Cup champion Brazil team, which featured 17-year-old Pelé and Garrincha. Pelé rose to prominence in that Cup, scoring six goals, and the Brazilians beat host Sweden 5-2 in the final. They didn’t allow a single goal until the semifinals. That team also was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first to use a back four on defense and travel with a physiotherapist and psychologist.
And what about those German teams of the 1970s, the teams that won the 1972 European championship, the 1974 World Cup and came within penalty kicks of beating Czechoslovakia in the 1976 European championship game? Then again, the Euro tournament was not as big back then, with only four teams reaching the final stage.
France won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European championship. Les Bleus featured standout players such as Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Bieira, Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Nicolas Anelka. The Brazil team of the 1990s and early 2000s was no slouch, either with two World Cup titles, four Copa Americas and stars Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
If you go further back, there’s the Hungarian team of the early 1950s, led by legend Ferenc Puskas, who scored 83 goals in 84 games and went on to star at Real Madrid.
“People love these arguments, but the truth is, you’re not really comparing apples to apples,” said Fort Lauderdale Strikers president Tom Mulroy, who played pro soccer in the 1970s and 1980s. “The way I see it, there is a top shelf, and some teams and players are good enough to be on it. Pelé, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, and yes, I think Messi will be up there in the conversation.
“As far as teams that changed the game, the great Brazil teams, the great German teams of the ’70s, the 1954 Hungarian team with [Ferenc] Puskas. This Spain team, too, with its passing flair. But you can’t really compare because goalies back then had two defenders in front of them, now they have five. The ball had stitches. Try to curve that rock. The cleats were heavy, now they weigh nothing. It’s not fair to compare.”
The debate surely will rage on.
Said Lalas: “Thirty years from now, they’ll be talking about some new great team, and some reporter will call a TV announcer and ask, ‘What about that Spain team from 2013? Was that the best ever?’ ”