Team Spirit: Legendary squads in football

Mats Hummels – Borussia Dortmund Homecoming

In the world of football, there always comes a phase when a team catches the imagination of fans and followers of the game that they were given tagged with nicknames based on the character of their plays (whether good or bad) which eventually become etched in history as their legacy to the sport.

Now, we look into some of these very memorable squads who were immortalised with their catchy labels that continue to ring a bell to fervent football fans around the world.


The Old Invincibles (Preston North End 1888-89 season)

Old Invincibles Legends

The champions of the inaugural Football League, the oldest league competition in modern football, Preston North End were able to achieve the feat with 18 wins, 4 draws and 0 losses. To make their invincibility even more notable, The Lilywhites also won the FA Cup that season in “perfect” fashion by not conceding a goal to achieve the first ever “Double” in the English game.

Up until this very moment (as of this writing), of all the teams that achieved the Double in England, only Preston North End have attained such feat without experiencing defeat.

This instant breakthrough of the squad put The Lilywhites’ class of 1888-89 into the folklore of English football which cannot be easily replicated. They’re truly LEGENDS of the game.

Notable Lineup:

Robert Mills-Roberts (GK-Wales), Bob Howarth (DF-England), Bob Holmes (DF-England), George Drummond (MF-Scotland), David Russell (MF-Scotland), Johnny Graham (MF-Scotland), Jack Gordon (FR-Scotland), Jimmy Ross (FW-Scotland), John Goodall (FW-England), Fred Dewhurst (FW-England), Sam Thomson (FL-Scotland)


La “Furia” Roja (Spain National Team – 1920 Olympics)

La Furia Roja Legends

Spain’s first ever foray into international football happened in the 1920 Summer Olympics held in Antwerp, Belgium.

Before the Spanish national team became known most recently with their highly technical and intricate passing game that became known as “tiki-taka”, La Roja during its first ever debut in international football employed a more direct and aggressive style of play, influenced by the sizeable Athletic Bilbao players in the squad’s core.

Athletic Bilbao then were known to play with a notable level of physicality hence the term furia. This characteristic spilled into the 1920 team that they were eventually labelled as La Furia Roja on the way to claiming the olympic silver medal, with the and eventual gold medallists Belgium as the only team that defeated them.

With now legends of Spanish football such as Ricardo Zamora, Josep Samitier, Felix Sesumaga, the immortalised Pichichi (the namesake of LaLiga’s award for the season’s top goal-scorer), and towering midfielder Belauste leading the band, their breakout tournament has been an instant success and earned them the monicker that has stuck to the national team for its succeeding editions.


Domingo Gómez-Acedo (FW – Athletic Bilbao), Patricio Arabolaza (FW – Real Unión Club de Irún), Mariano Arrate (DF – Real Sociedad), Juan Artola (FW/MF – Real Sociedad), Joaquín Vázquez (FW – Deportivo de La Coruña), José María Belauste (MF – Athletic Bilbao), Sabino Bilbao (MF – Athletic Bilbao), Ramón Eguiazábal (MF – Real Unión Club de Irún), Moncho (FW – Sporting de Vigo), Ricardo Zamora (GK – FC Barcelona), Silverio Izaguirre (MF/FW – Real Sociedad), Pichichi (FW – Athletic Bilbao), Luis Otero (DF – Vigo Sporting), Francisco Pagazaurtundúa (FW – Racing Santander), Josep Samitier (MF – FC Barcelona), Agustín Sancho (MF – FC Barcelona), Félix Sesúmaga (FW – FC Barcelona) and Pedro Vallana (DF – Arenas Club)


Wunderteam (Austria National Team 1930s)

Wunderteam Austria Legends

The 1930s, it was a decade when Austria were considered as one of the best sides ever in international football.

Under Head Coach Hugo Meisl’s guidance and forward thinking approach, led by FK Austria Vienna’s star forward Matthias Sindelar and with Rapid Wien midfielder Josef Smistik captaining the side; their scintillating style of play was believed by many to be the precursor to Holland’s famous ‘Total Football’ decades later.

With most of Austria’s wins that time turning out to be comfortable routs in their favour, the team has been tipped to win the 1934 World Cup only to come up short in the semifinals when they lost by a solitary goal against the hosts Italy in what was considered a game tainted with controversy in the officiating.

During the existence of the core of players that made up the Wunderteam, they were only able to win one trophy, the 1934 Central European International Cup. Meisl’s death in 1937 from a heart attack started the end of their era which fully folded a few years later when the Second World War broke out and Austria has been annexed by Germany ending the squad’s existence prematurely.


La Maquina (River Plate 1940s)

La Maquina Legends

In the 1940’s one team has been known to play the most stylish football in the decade, and it was River Plate all the way in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

If offensive talent is the name of the game this 1940’s vintage River Plate squad riding on the offensive quintet of Juan Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Ángel Labruna, and Félix Loustau would definitely give other squads a run for their money.

With the five immensely talented forwards playing together to beautifully devastating effect, River Plate were able to amass four Primera Division titles from 1941 to 1947.

Their legend even became more apparent as the actual core of the five main strikers were only able to play together on the pitch 19 times during their existence as a squad thus adding more colour and depth to their mythos.

Many can attest that River’s style then, which was then coached by Renato Cesarini, could have been a progenitor to The Netherlands’ Clockwork Orange of 1974, in the same way as the Wunderteam of Austria a decade ago.

But one notable aspect of River’s La Maquina was that they weren’t infallible. Sticking to their principle of playing attacking football, the team was unbalanced, hence there were times that they get beaten on a few uninspired performances up front.

However, what really made them a memorable squad was the way they played football with beauty and flair to great effect most of the time as the title hauls attest to.


The Golden Team (Hungary national team of the 1950s)

Golden Team Legends

Sandor Kocsis, Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor, Nandor Hidegkuti, and The Match of the Century. The Mighty Magyars. Legends.

These names and words describe Hungary’s Golden team of the 50s that blazed a trail in international football for half a decade.

The Hungarian squad employed modern tactics that considered advanced in their time and were gifted with a generation of superbly talented individuals who play as a unit and in-sync with the system. The melding of these two characteristics is a potent concoction for football supremacy.

Winning the 1952 Olympic Games and the 1953 Central European Championship were testament to the squads ever increasing greatness. But the Mighty Magyars stamped their reputation in an away friendly against England dubbed as the “Match of the Century” where they defeated the hosts by a score of 6-3; a breakthrough achievement as England haven’t tasted defeat at home yet at the hands of a team outside of Britain.

But with all the star-studded lineup and the immense firepower the team possessed, Hungary came up short in completing their age of dominance by narrowly losing in the 1954 World Cup Final against West Germany; the game dubbed as The Miracle of Bern, which despite the technically superior Hungarians going 2-nil up early in the game, the underdog Germans were able to complete a comeback towards a 3-2 result.

Despite the Golden Team’s failure to win a World Cup, such was the talent and superiority of the Magyars that they were able to influence the world of football with their tactics and style.


The Busby Babes (Manchester United mid-1950s)

Youth and talent nurtured by the great Matt Busby, Manchester United’s promising squad is already starting to reap rewards hinting to a dynastic domination of England with the 1955–56 and 1956–57 titles.

But the 1957-58 season was turning out to be an almost watershed season with the club made up of just twenty-somethings were on course of winning the league and the European Championships (the precursor to the Champions League). Everything was on course for something big to be achieved by an English football club, that is, until fate intervened.

Right after qualifying to the European Championship semis and eliminating Red Star Belgrade (which was then under Yugoslavia) via aggregate, their plane crashed in Munich after a stop-over during their return flight to back to England.

Busby Babes Legends

The accident was tragic as it claimed the lives of of eight players Roger Byrne (28 y.o.), Eddie Colman (21 y.o.), Mark Jones (24 y.o.), Duncan Edwards (21 y.o.), Billy Whelan (22 y.o.), Tommy Taylor (26 y.o.), David Pegg (22 y.o.) and Geoff Bent (25 y.o.) all of which were promising, with young Edwards being touted as the one with the most immense potential.

The loss of lives was such that it also hit the club hard in terms of competitiveness due to the loss of their core starters; a void that would take at least 10 years before Manchester United came back to being a force to reckon with once again.

The legacy that the tragic squad has left in the club football is with their haul of accolades (2x First Division, 2 FA Charity shields) in just a short span of time is a showcase of how having faith and developing young talents from the academy and up the ranks can be an effective approach for a club’s competitiveness compared to buying talents from other clubs.


El Antifutbol (Estudiantes de La Plata late 60s)

Going back to Argentina, in contrast to the beautiful football exhibited by River Plate’s La Maquina two decades ago, followed a philosophy that is to be considered as its complete antithesis; The Antifutbol of Estudiantes de La Plata.

Estudiantes Antifutbol Legends

The brainchild of head coach Osvaldo Zubeldia, a former striker who played for Velez Sarsfield and Boca Juniors at some point in his career, the footballing philosophy of the club in his era is rooted at one thing: Win at all costs.

His managerial style was known to be an approach that is obsessed with tactical preparation. Whether set-pieces, throw-ins and analysing tapes of their rivals’ past matches, all were covered to put the team in the best possible position to win. Employing a disciplined approach of executing offside traps to a deliberate effect is also one of the highlights of his tactical ideas that still applies to this day.

And then, there’s the “myth”; whether true or not, it has been always a point of discussion that Zubeldia’s Estudiantes have been known to employ dirty tactics on the pitch. Some accounts, were even to an extreme in which the players were alleged to have been armed with pins they use to prick their opponents with. Also, the use of psychological warfare through verbal abuse and statements to rival players that aim to unsettle their opponents, Estudiantes at the time of Zubeldia have been a thorn to any squad they played against.

Estudiantes might have played with a very negative approach but they were able to amass a haul of honours which was unprecedented for the club. One Campeonato Metropolitano (1967) and most importantly three Copa Libertadores titles (1968, 1969, 1970) and a 1968 Intercontinental Cup title which they won against Manchester United have been the pinnacle of their achievements as a football club.

Zubeldia’s legacy eventually influenced one of his Estudiantes wards, a certain Carlos Bilardo, who turned out to be one of the most successful Argentine managers who guided a Diego Maradona-led La Albiceleste to a World Cup triumph in 1986.


Clockwork Orange (Netherlands National Team early 70s)

Total football, Johan Cruyff and head coach Rinus Michels. These were the elements that make the Netherlands stand out as a national team during the early 70s.

But it was not Cruyff though. The famous Number 14 also had a talented enough supporting cast who can execute the Total Football philosophy effectively. The concept is pretty simple, all ten outfield players depending on the situation can switch and play different positions, but is hard to execute and requires players with high football IQ’s to seamlessly apply on the pitch as a unit.

The 1974 World Cup squad has been the best example of Netherlands’ Total Football as they were able to reach the final. However, they came up short in the title match against West Germany bowing out with a slim 2-1 loss.

TOTAL Football Legends

Such was the disappointing end of the campaign for The Netherlands that up until this very moment, the 1974 ‘vintage’ eleven have been dubbed as on of the greatest teams never to win a world cup.


Dream Team (Barcelona 1990s)

Long after Johan Cruyff’s playing days have ended, he transitioned to be a manager, particularly in FC Barcelona; a role he was able to pull off successfully. His highest point as Barca’s gaffer has been assembling a team that was eventually known as the Dream Team.

Laudrup Legends

It turned out to be a well-balanced squad with enough flair and stability that was able to rack up a a highly notable amount of accolades with four straight La Liga titles (1990/91 – 1993/94), and the 1992 European Cup (the precursor to the UEFA Champions League).

The monumental trophy haul would serve as FC Barcelona’s best era for the 90s decade when they ended the domination of their fiercest rivals Real Madrid. Such a run of championships have never been matched until another decade when one of his Dream Team stars, Pep Guardiola, took the helm for the Blaugrana.

Dream Team 1992 European Cup Final starters

Zubizarreta (GK, Team Captain), Ronald Koeman (DF), Nando (DF), Albert Ferrer(RB), Juan Carlos (LB), Bakero (AM), Eusebio (CM), Pep Guardiola (CM), Michael Laudrup (AM), Julio Salinas (FW), Hristo Stoichkov (FW)


Galacticos (Real Madrid 2000s)

Fantasy football made REAL.

That’s what Real Madrid did in the early 2000s. Under the presidency of Florentino Perez, the club implemented a policy of acquiring the best marketable players that money can buy, the program and the resulting squad eventually came to be known as Los Galacticos.

The final product has seen the modern legends of the game such as Raul, Ronaldo (the original), Figo, Zidane, Beckham, Roberto Carlos and Iker Casillas playing together that, before, fans can only dream of.

Real Madrid delivered the goods in terms of marketability and raising their profile that expanded way beyond the world of sports. On the pitch the squad also provided the entertainment that fans craved as Los Blancos were rampant in notching the goals when the offence had been clicking.

But from a purely footballing standpoint and in terms of silverwares, the Galactico program underwhelmed and, with all its main intent of dominating the game and creating a dynastic reign in La Liga and the European stage, can be considered a slight fiasco as Real Madrid were only able to acquire four domestic trophies in staggered fashion.

Galacticos Legends

The acquisition of talented attackers and goal-scorers made the squad top-heavy making the lineup devoid of a solid spine especially in midfield and defence. The main contributors of which were when manager Vicente Del Bosque was undeservedly sacked while defence-minded and stability-inducing players such as Fernando Hierro and Claude Makelele were shipped out of the squad.

But in hindsight, the Galactico era had been fun while it lasted; maybe not in terms of acquiring trophies, but in terms of providing a spectacle to the fans.

From a legacy standpoint, Real Madrid’s Galacticos policy changed football forever in terms of inflating the transfer fees and creating super-teams. Real Madrid at the turn of the new millennium proved to the world of football that as long as there’s ample resources, assembling the best possible team (on paper) can be achieved.


The Invincibles (Arsenal 2003-2004)

Coming full circle 115 years after the Old Invincibles of Preston North End, rose the Modern Invincibles of Arsenal.

With the England’s top-flight now called the Premier League where professional football competition was already at its fiercest level with all the money and commercialism involved involved plus the global reach of the league itself with the multi-million pound deals for broadcast rights, top clubs have become stronger and stronger.

But Arsenal, then managed by Arsene Wenger, defied the odds as the Gunners staid true to their nickname by blowing away all the competitions, ending the 2003-2004 Premier League season undefeated.

Arsenal Invincibles

With a solid lineup led by a formidable frontline of Thierry Henry, David Bergkamp, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires aided by the midfield duo of Patrick Viera and Gilberto Silva, the North London club marched on unscathed at the end of the season with a 38-game record of 26 Wins, 12 draws, and 0 loss to claim the trophy in the most convincing fashion that was only achieved in the English game more than a century ago by Preston North End during the first ever Football League season.

Currently (as of this writing), Arsenal are in a transition and enjoying a relatively lacklustre run of results the past few years. Many fans harken back to the glorious 2003-2004 exploits at a time when The Gunners ruled the Premier League and were immortalised because of a full season that ended without the blemish of a loss.


These squads became memorable and were able to earn and etch their names in world football because of the way they play that changed the sport’s landscape.

And with the imaginative fans and media, were able to be known by certain nicknames that are easy to remember and fit their footballing characteristics well.

With these short yet memorable tags bestowed upon them, they were able to make a mark on the game and were immortalised in the annals of world football as “Collective Legends” of the sport.