Read an extract

The Captain Class

Several years ago, Sam Walker set out to answer one of the most hotly debated questions in sport: what are the greatest teams of all time? 

Sam devised a formula and applied it to thousands of teams across the world from the English Premier League to the NFL. When he was done, he had a list of the 10 most dominant teams ever. At that point he became obsessed with another, more complex question: what did these freak teams have in common?

The Captain Class is guaranteed to spark endless debate and heated argument among fans of every sport, but here is an extract where Sam ranks the top teams in European Football.  

 

1. Barcelona, 2008-13

Led by captain Carles Puyol, Barcelona won a total of fifteen trophies: four Spanish titles, two Champions Leagues (while reaching the semifinals for five consecutive seasons), two FIFA Club World Cup titles, two UEFA Super Cups, two Copa del Rey titles, and three Spanish Supercopas. It won or drew 92% of its league matches—one of history’s best marks—and outscored opponents by 3.5 goals to one. Its 2011 Elo rating is the highest ever recorded for a club team.

 

2. Ajax, 1969-73

Holland’s best-ever team, captained by the great Johan Cruyff, came within a hair of matching Barcelona. It won or drew 92 percent of its matches, winning three European Cups in four seasons (to Barça’s two) in addition to one Intercontinental Cup and several domestic titles. But it finished number two in the Dutch league in ’71, didn’t win as many overall titles as Barça, and did not match Barça’s Elo rating.

 

3. Real Madrid, 1955-60

Won five European Cups in a row (a record) and an Intercontinental Cup and posted two of the top four Elo ratings in history behind captains Miguel Muñoz and Juan Alonso but failed to win the Spanish league in three of those five seasons.

 

4. Bayern Munich, 1971-76

Franz Beckenbauer’s team won three consecutive Bundesliga titles and three straight European Championships over five seasons but twice failed to win a domestic title, once finishing tenth.

 

5. AC Milan, 1987-1996

Gli Immortali (the Immortals), captained by the legendary Franco Baresi, won three of nine European Cup/Champions League finals while winning five Italian titles and two Intercontinental Cups. It went unbeaten in 1991–92 during a 58-match streak. But this team finished third and fourth in Italy in two seasons and finished one season with no trophies. Its peak Elo rating also failed to crack the top fifteen.

 

6. Liverpool, 1975-84

Won seven English titles and four European Cups in nine seasons under Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, and Graeme Souness but stumbled to a fifth-place league finish in the 1980–81 season.

 

7. Manchester United, 1995-2001

Captained primarily by Roy Keane, this team won five English titles and two FA Cups and made it to at least the quarterfinals of the Champions League in all but one season, winning it once in a season where it completed the first-ever English treble. But by failing to win a second Champions League, it couldn’t match the records of other elite teams.

 

8. Internazionale, 1962-67

Captain Armando Picchi’s “Il Grande Inter” won three league titles plus two European Cups (with a semifinal and one runner-up), plus two Intercontinental Cups over five seasons, and won or drew 70 percent of its matches in the Italian league. Nevertheless, it did not win its domestic league in two seasons, lost to Celtic in the 1966 European Cup.

 

9. Benfica, 1959-65

Portugal’s best-ever team, captained by José Águas, won five of six domestic titles, two domestic cups, and two European Cups in four trips to the final but failed to dominate a relatively shallow domestic league and lost the ’61 Intercontinental Cup to Peñarol.

 

10. Celtic, 1965-74

Scotland’s best-ever team, captained by Billy McNeill, won nine straight league titles and a ’67 European Cup but played in a relatively weak league and lost the ’67 Intercontinental Cup.

 

Ajax

1969-73

Holland’s best-ever team, captained by the great Johan Cruyff, came within a hair of matching Barcelona. It won or drew 92 percent of its matches, winning three European Cups in four seasons (to Barça’s two) in addition to one Intercontinental Cup and several domestic titles. But it finished number two in the Dutch league in ’71, didn’t win as many overall titles as Barça, and did not match Barça’s Elo rating.

3

Santos

1961-65

Behind Pelé and captain José Ely de Miranda, or “Zito,” this team won five straight Taça Brasil league titles, four of five São Paulo state championships, two South American titles, two Intercontinental Cups, and four major titles in a single season twice. Its only blemish was losing the ’63 São Paulo state title to rival Palmeiras.

4

Real Madrid

1955-60

Won five European Cups in a row (a record) and an Intercontinental Cup and posted two of the top four Elo ratings in history behind captains Miguel Muñoz and Juan Alonso but failed to win the Spanish league in three of those five seasons.

5

Bayern Munich

1971-76

Franz Beckenbauer’s team won three consecutive Bundesliga titles and three straight European Championships over five seasons but twice failed to win a domestic title, once finishing tenth.

6

AC Milan

1987-1996

Gli Immortali (the Immortals), captained by the legendary Franco Baresi, won three of nine European Cup/Champions League finals while winning five Italian titles and two Intercontinental Cups. It went unbeaten in 1991–92 during a 58-match streak. But this team finished third and fourth in Italy in two seasons and finished one season with no trophies. Its peak Elo rating also failed to crack the top fifteen.

7

Liverpool

1975-84

Won seven English titles and four European Cups in nine seasons under Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, and Graeme Souness but stumbled to a fifth-place league finish in the 1980–81 season.

8

Manchester United

1995-2001

Captained primarily by Roy Keane, this team won five English titles and two FA Cups and made it to at least the quarterfinals of the Champions League in all but one season, winning it once in a season where it completed the first-ever English treble. But by failing to win a second Champions League, it couldn’t match the records of other elite teams.

9

Peñarol

1958–62

Captained by William Martínez, this team won five straight Uruguayan titles and two Copa Libertadores. It defeated Benfica (below) in the ’61 Intercontinental Cup but lost decisively to Real Madrid (above) in the ’60 Intercontinental Cup and to Brazil’s Santos (below) in the ’62 Copa Libertadores.

10

Internazionale

1962-67

Captain Armando Picchi’s “Il Grande Inter” won three league titles plus two European Cups (with a semifinal and one runner-up), plus two Intercontinental Cups over five seasons, and won or drew 70 percent of its matches in the Italian league. Nevertheless, it did not win its domestic league in two seasons, lost to Celtic in the 1966 European Cup.

11

Benfica

1959-65

Portugal’s best-ever team, captained by José Águas, won five of six domestic titles, two domestic cups, and two European Cups in four trips to the final but failed to dominate a relatively shallow domestic league and lost the ’61 Intercontinental Cup to Peñarol.

12

Celtic

1965-74

Scotland’s best-ever team, captained by Billy McNeill, won nine straight league titles and a ’67 European Cup but played in a relatively weak league and lost the ’67 Intercontinental Cup.

13

Torino

1942-49

Won five league titles in a row in an era when top international teams rarely met (streak ended tragically when most of its members, including the captain, Valentino Mazzola, died in a plane crash).

14

Olympique de Marseille

1988-93

Captained by Didier Deschamps, this team won five straight French Ligue 1 titles (but had to forfeit one after a bribery scandal) and became the first French team to win the Champions League.

15

Manchester United

2006-09

Won the Champions League title in 2008 and three consecutive Premier League titles, one League Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup while winning 83% of its league matches under captain Gary Neville.

 

Ajax

1969-73

Holland’s best-ever team, captained by the great Johan Cruyff, came within a hair of matching Barcelona. It won or drew 92 percent of its matches, winning three European Cups in four seasons (to Barça’s two) in addition to one Intercontinental Cup and several domestic titles. But it finished number two in the Dutch league in ’71, didn’t win as many overall titles as Barça, and did not match Barça’s Elo rating.

3

Santos

1961-65

Behind Pelé and captain José Ely de Miranda, or “Zito,” this team won five straight Taça Brasil league titles, four of five São Paulo state championships, two South American titles, two Intercontinental Cups, and four major titles in a single season twice. Its only blemish was losing the ’63 São Paulo state title to rival Palmeiras.

4

Real Madrid

1955-60

Won five European Cups in a row (a record) and an Intercontinental Cup and posted two of the top four Elo ratings in history behind captains Miguel Muñoz and Juan Alonso but failed to win the Spanish league in three of those five seasons.

5

Bayern Munich

1971-76

Franz Beckenbauer’s team won three consecutive Bundesliga titles and three straight European Championships over five seasons but twice failed to win a domestic title, once finishing tenth.

6

AC Milan

1987-1996

Gli Immortali (the Immortals), captained by the legendary Franco Baresi, won three of nine European Cup/Champions League finals while winning five Italian titles and two Intercontinental Cups. It went unbeaten in 1991–92 during a 58-match streak. But this team finished third and fourth in Italy in two seasons and finished one season with no trophies. Its peak Elo rating also failed to crack the top fifteen.

7

Liverpool

1975-84

Won seven English titles and four European Cups in nine seasons under Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, and Graeme Souness but stumbled to a fifth-place league finish in the 1980–81 season.

8

Manchester United

1995-2001

Captained primarily by Roy Keane, this team won five English titles and two FA Cups and made it to at least the quarterfinals of the Champions League in all but one season, winning it once in a season where it completed the first-ever English treble. But by failing to win a second Champions League, it couldn’t match the records of other elite teams.

9

Peñarol

1958–62

Captained by William Martínez, this team won five straight Uruguayan titles and two Copa Libertadores. It defeated Benfica (below) in the ’61 Intercontinental Cup but lost decisively to Real Madrid (above) in the ’60 Intercontinental Cup and to Brazil’s Santos (below) in the ’62 Copa Libertadores.

10

Internazionale

1962-67

Captain Armando Picchi’s “Il Grande Inter” won three league titles plus two European Cups (with a semifinal and one runner-up), plus two Intercontinental Cups over five seasons, and won or drew 70 percent of its matches in the Italian league. Nevertheless, it did not win its domestic league in two seasons, lost to Celtic in the 1966 European Cup.

11

Benfica

1959-65

Portugal’s best-ever team, captained by José Águas, won five of six domestic titles, two domestic cups, and two European Cups in four trips to the final but failed to dominate a relatively shallow domestic league and lost the ’61 Intercontinental Cup to Peñarol.

12

Celtic

1965-74

Scotland’s best-ever team, captained by Billy McNeill, won nine straight league titles and a ’67 European Cup but played in a relatively weak league and lost the ’67 Intercontinental Cup.

13

Torino

1942-49

Won five league titles in a row in an era when top international teams rarely met (streak ended tragically when most of its members, including the captain, Valentino Mazzola, died in a plane crash).

14

Olympique de Marseille

1988-93

Captained by Didier Deschamps, this team won five straight French Ligue 1 titles (but had to forfeit one after a bribery scandal) and became the first French team to win the Champions League.

15

Manchester United

2006-09

Won the Champions League title in 2008 and three consecutive Premier League titles, one League Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup while winning 83% of its league matches under captain Gary Neville.

 

 

The majority of the teams were eliminated for the same reasons: They lacked sufficient opportunity to prove them­selves, or their achievements didn’t stand out

Nothing turned my hair grayer than trying to analyse club football. Because every nation has its own domestic professional league with its own slate of annual titles, the sport is maddeningly fragmented. While teams from top leagues in England, Germany, Spain, and Italy attract most of the attention, clubs from smaller countries like Portugal, Scot­land, and Uruguay sometimes put up similar numbers.

Worst of all is the fact that club teams from different nations don’t meet with any regularity beyond multinational competitions like the Champi­ons League and Copa Libertadores. The majority of the roughly three-dozen dynastic club football teams throughout history were eliminated from my list for the same two reasons: They either lacked sufficient opportunity to prove them­selves (many played before the big continental tournaments were founded) or their achievements didn’t stand out. But there were still a bunch of clubs that met both standards in some way. All of them balanced home-league domination with success on the international stage, and many could boast of being the best professional team a country had ever produced.

To whittle the list down, I took a closer look at the overall quality of the domestic leagues these teams played in and whether they “ran the table” during their dynasties without suffering some significant and unforgiveable losses. I also factored in the results of a handful of matches in which two of these teams actually met on the field.

In the end, it came down to Barcelona (2008-12) and Ajax (1969-73). To be honest, it was a toss up. Ajax lost its domestic league once, but to Feyenoord, a European Cup winner. And Ajax won more European titles than that Barcelona team.

In the end, I gave the nod to Barca for three reasons: It won so many different trophies, it had been an excellent team for a while before its peak, and it posted the highest club-team Elo rating of all time. 

More about the author

The Captain Class

Sam Walker

The secret to winning is not what you think it is.
It’s not the coach. It’s not the star.
It’s not money. It’s not a strategy.
It’s something else entirely.

The founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section profiles the greatest teams in history and identifies the counterintuitive leadership qualities of the unconventional men and women who drove them to succeed. Fuelled by a lifetime of sports spectating, twenty years of reporting, and a decade of painstaking research, The Captain Class is not just a book on sports; it is the key to how successful teams are built and how transformative leadership is born.

Several years ago, Sam Walker set out to answer the most hotly debated sports question: what are the greatest teams of all time? He devised a formula, applied it to thousands of teams and listed the 16 most dominant teams ever across all sports, from the English Premiere League to the NFL. But what did these freak teams have in common?

As Walker dug deeper, a pattern emerged: all teams were driven by a singular type of leader, a captain, but not one you might expect. They were unorthodox outliers – awkward and disagreeable, marginally skilled, poor communicators, rule breaking and rather than pursuing fame, hid in the shadows. Captains, in short, who challenge your assumption of what inspired leadership looks like.

Covering world renowned teams like Barcelona, Brazil, the All Blacks and the New York Yankees to lesser known successes of Soviet ice hockey or French handball, The Captain Class unveils the seven key qualities that make an exceptional leader. Drawing on original interviews with athletes, coaches and managers from two dozen countries, Walker questions if great captains are made or born, why teams pick the wrong captain and how the value of the captain can be revived.

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