The Messi era at Barça is among the best in history

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 15: FC Barcelona players celebrate on an open top bus during their victory parade after winning the Spanish La Liga on May 15, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

By wrapping up the Liga with Saturday’s win against Granada CF, FC Barcelona secured its sixth league title in eight years. There’s nothing inherently special about six in eight. It’s an arbitrary range that begins with the exit of Ronaldinho and, consequently, the beginning of the Lionel Messi epoch. Pep Guardiola took over in the summer of 2008, sold a few of the team’s most celebrated players, and focused the team’s attack around then 21-year old Messi. Since that summer, Barça have won six league titles and three Champions League trophies, as well as a bunch of other cups history cares less about.

This year’s title did not “cement” this team’s legacy: it added to it. And that’s astounding, really. This era is still going, and will go on for a few years to come. I don’t think it ends officially until Messi either leaves or retires.

It isn’t hyperbolic to talk about this era of Barça dominance as one of the most impressive ever. Six league titles and three Champions League Cups in eight years is incredible. It puts them in rarefied company. How rarefied? Take a look.

(Note, talking about dynasties isn’t necessarily the same thing as talking about the greatest team. Teams are hardly ever the same year-to-year, and it’s difficult to decide what parts of a team’s history should get lumped together. So, how did I determine it? A few general (and, as we’ll see, not without exception) rules. 1) In general, an “era” shouldn’t be more than ten to twelve years. Much longer, and the connection between teams becomes flimsy. 2) Dynasties typically coincide with a player or group of players’ years there. This is why the Bob Paisley’s Liverpool could reasonably be thought of as a fifteen year dynasty. The great players there, from Emlyn Hughes to Graeme Souness to Kenny Dalglish all played with and overlapped one other. While no player defined the period of 1975-1990, there enough continuity existed to call it a single “era.” 3) League cups aren’t considered, for the simple reason that winning them can add to a team’s greatness, but not winning them doesn’t really take anything away. It’s sparkle, and little more.)

The first great dynasty since the founding of the European Cup in 1955 was the team that won it for the first five years: Real Madrid. Alfredo Di Stéfano joined the club in 1953, and during his ten seasons at the club, they won the Liga eight times and the European Cup five times. Even when adjusting for era-specific differences, that’s still a monumental achievement. In terms of sustained dominance, Di Stéfano’s Madrid are the standard.

The next club to approach Real Madrid’s dominance was the Ajax of Johan Cruyff. During an eight year period, they won seven league titles and three European Cups. As soon as Cruyff left for Barcelona, the balance of power shifted to Bayern Munich. The team, led by Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller won their league four times during an eight-year period, and won the European Cup three times in a row from 1974-1976. Equally as impressive, Bob Paisley’s Liverpool won the English league title ten times in fifteen years (1975/76-89/90), and won the European Cup four times (out of five finals) during that same period.

The last European club to make an argument for themselves is the AC Milan of Marco Van Basten, a team which won Serie A five times from 1987-1994, and won the European Cup three times (out of four finals) during that period.

Since that time, Barcelona are the only team to sustain success at a rate comparable to the teams listed above. Of those, their achievement is probably better than Milan’s and Bayern’s and not yet as impressive as Madrid’s. They are likely on par, if not better, than Ajax and Liverpool. This is admittedly kind of a brutish comparison, as it doesn’t (and can’t possibly) look at teams on level terms. There’s no simple way to make era-specific adjustments, and so we just have to look at the teams’ trophy hauls as if each trophy were equal. A European Cup in 1956 = a Champions League Cup in 2009.

We know that isn’t true, though exactly how it isn’t true is up for debate. The current format of the Champions League has made it more difficult to win, while at the same time, exploding revenues, reduced (or eliminated) caps on foreign players, has probably made it somewhat easier for big clubs to win their leagues. And then, there’s the omnipresent luck factor. What accounts for a team winning three European Cups rather than two, or four rather than five? Usually, it’s stuff we don’t see, or don’t remember. It’s an injury, a suspension; it’s Messi’s league-winning goal being wrongfully ruled offside. That sort of thing. With Cup tournaments in particular, it often comes down to the fact that games can be random and weird, and without time to sort out the noise, sometimes the better team doesn’t win.

Still, everyone has to deal with those same constraints, and Barça have negotiated them better than almost any team in history. And they are still going. They still have opportunities left to add to this already staggering legacy. They will be back next season, and will (justifiably) be favoured in every competition. That’s the most amazing part of all: they aren’t done. Yesterday wasn’t the last parade.

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