It doesn’t do any of us any harm to occasionally remind ourselves of the sheer blustering pomposity of the biggest clubs in football. Tonight’s ambassadors for “giving the fans what they want” (as ever, a thin mask for “making more money for ourselves”) are Milan, who had some very important opinions to give on the subject of a European Super League. “”I still believe a European league will be an unavoidable step, though it may take more time than expected,” said the Milan director Umberto Gandini. “Between the 50 most important continental clubs, none would give up playing in their respective countries”.
Disregarding the increasingly popular opinion that perhaps the “most important” clubs should perhaps be expelled from all other competitions, packed onto a space shuttle with anyone that likes the idea of Milan playing Manchester United every week for the rest of eternity and sent to Jupiter so that they can get on with it there without inflicting it upon the rest of us, the use of the phrase “most important” which is the giveaway. The winding up of G14 and subsequent inclusion of the biggest clubs into the European Clubs Association was supposed to put an end to all of this, but it was simplistic to assume that the more atavistic tendencies of the biggest clubs would vanish merely because Michel Platini invited them for tea and biscuits at UEFA’s top table.
However… “most important”? I beg to differ. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in the “all creatures great and small” view of the world, this idea that (with all due deference to George Orwell) all football clubs are created equal, but some are more equal than others is a pretty repugnant one. So, with tongue planted firmly in cheek (before anyone starts complaining), here are the real twenty most important clubs in the history of world football. And Milan aren’t even on it. After all, Milan aren’t even Inter’s biggest rivals. As any Milanese football afficianado will tell you, Inter’s true local derby is the Derby D’Italia, played against Juventus. Five years without a Scudetto seems to be affecting the judgement of those running the Rossoneri.
1. Sheffield FC: The oldest football club in the world. They may not have won anything of note since the FA Amateur Cup in 1904, but Sheffield FC are the only club in the world besides Real Madrid to have been awarded the FIFA Order of Merit. Other winners of this award include Nelson Mandela, Henry Kissinger and the Uruguay Football Association.
2. Queens Park FC: The Glasgow amateur club remain the only side ever to have reached the finals of both the English and Scottish FA Cups, and were ten times winners of the Scottish FA Cup. Their passing style of football revolutionised the way that football was played worldwide, and their home stadium, Hampden Park, was the biggest football stadium in the world until the Maracana was built for the 1950 World Cup.
3. Darwen FC: When this unassuming club from Lancashire signed two players, Fergie Suter and James Love, from Partick Thistle in 1879, they became the first English club to pay their players. The days of the amateur gentlemen were numbered and professionalism had arrived. Within ten years, all of the best clubs paid their players.
4. Preston North End FC: “The Invincibles”. The first winners of the Football League went their entire season unbeaten in 1888/89 (a record that wouldn’t be equalled until Arsenal managed it in 2004), and won the FA Cup into the bargain. The year before, they had set another record, beating Hyde 26-0 in the FA Cup, a record which does survive to this day.
5. U.S. Pro Vercelli Calcio: Italy’s oldest club, U.S. Pro Vercelli Calcio were founded in 1892. They won the Italian championship five times in six years between 1908 and 1914, and were also the club of Silvio Piola, widely credited as the inventor of the bicycle kick. One of their current players, curiously, is the former Italian international and Serie A stalwart, Maurizio Ganz. They play in the fourth division of Italian football.
6. Sport Club Rio Grande: Sport Club Rio Grande are the oldest club in Brazil, and one of the oldest in the whole of South America. They may have only won two regional championships in their 109 year history, but they were instrumental in the development of the game in the country that is now commonly regarded as its natural home.
7. Exeter City: Exeter’s footnote in the history of football is a very significant one. They were one of the first English clubs to go on a high profile trip abroad when they toured South America in 1914. One of their matches on this tour was played at the Laranjeiras Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, and was the first ever match played by the Brazilian national side, who won 2-0.
8. Torino: The Superga air crash in 1949 immortalised the Torino side known as “Il Grande Torino”. They won five successive league championships and are still held up as possibly the greatest Italian club side of all time. They regularly made up eight of the eleven places in the Italian national team and were also one of the first sides in the world to play a 4-4-2 formation, which is to this day the most commonplace team formation in the world.
9. Wolverhampton Wanderers: In the early 1950s, during the nascent days of floodlit football, Wolves were innovators in taking on all-comers in a series of friendly matches. After beating Honved, Racing Club of Argentina, Rangers , Real Madrid and Spartak Moscow, their manager Stan Cullis declared them to be the “champions of the world”, a statement that riled French journalist Gabriel Hanot so much that he led a campaign for a floodlit, pan-European cup competition. By 1955, the European Cup was born.
10. Real Madrid: No team has ever dominated European football the way that Real Madrid did in the first years of the European Cup. Winners of the competition nine times (including the first five years in a row), they were also involved in possibly the greatest European match of all time, a 7-3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt in front of a 130,000 crowd at Hampden Park in 1950. They’ve also won the Spanish championship a record thirty-one times.
11. AFC Ajax: The sudden explosion of Dutch football in the late 1960s again changed the way that the game was played worldwide. They were possibly the first club to properly introduce an academy system, bringing through Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens, Arie Haan and Ruud Krol at the same time, and winning the European Cup for three consecutive seasons at the same time. No other country has had such a rapid rise up the football ladder as the Netherlands did in the early 1970s and stayed there, and no other club had as much of an influence in that sudden explosion of talent as AFC Ajax.
12. New York Cosmos: Later dismissed as a gimmick, New York Cosmos were actually phenomenally successful during the late 1970s, and laid a considerable amount of the groundwork for the success that Major League Soccer has had in starting to embed itself into the national conciousness over the last twelve years or so. Football: the final frontier, indeed.
13. Al Ahly: Africa’s biggest side, Al Ahly (from Cairo) are said to have fifty million supporters in Egypt. They have been the champions of Africa three times in the last four years and, if FIFA ever gets around to bringing in a meaningful world club championship, they will be arguably the only African side capable of launching a serious bid to be the world champions.
14. Penarol: Supported by forty-five per cent of the entire population of Uruguay, Penarol are one of South America’s most successful teams, having one the Copa Libertadores five times and the champions of Uruguay forty-six times. Along with Montevideo rivals Nacional, they provided the backbone of the Uruguay teams that won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950.
15. Benfica: Benfica have fourteen million supporters worldwide and, with 160,000 members, are recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest registered supporters club in the world. In terms of their importance, well, Benfica gave European football one of its first black superstars in Eusebio, and they were also the club which broke Real Madrid’s stranglehold on the European Cup, winning it in 1961 and 1962.
16. Flamengo: With an estimated thirty-five million supporters, Flamengo are (somewhat inexplicably, considering their comparative lack of success) Brazil’s most popular club. They may have been a basket case both on and off the pitch, but they make this list because their alumni is little short of a who’s who of Brazilian football. Socrates, Junior, Zico, Garrincha, Alair, Romario and Bebeto are just a few of the players to have worn the Flamengo shirt.
17. Boca Juniors: Twenty-four Argentine championships and six times the champions of South America, Boca are arguably South America’s biggest club. They also gave the world Diego Maradona – possibly the greatest footballer of all time.
18. Kazhima Antlers: The youngest club on this list, Kashima Antlers have been the biggest success story in the short history of The J-League, which has established Japan as a potential force in the international game. Kashima have won six of the fifteen J-League championships since the competition’s formation and are, on a global scale, one of Asia’s most famous clubs.
19. Olympique de Marseille: Although their most successful years were blighted by fraud and financial irregularity, OM remain, in a country that has a curiously ambivalent attitude towards club football, an institution. With an average home crowd of over 50,000 and a list of former player list that includes Chris Waddle, Marcel Desailly and Claude Makelele, OM’s eight Championnat wins starts to look somewhat perplexingly light.
20. Enfield Town: You may have expected me to put AFC Wimbledon or FC United of Manchester in here, but Enfield Town are the grandfathers of the movement that uses supporters trusts for fans to create their own destinies and break free of the madness of some football clubs. Infuriated by a chairman that sold their ground and squandered the money, Enfield Town were formed by supporters of the former non-league giants, Enfield FC. They recently reached an agreement to move back into a renovated stadium near their old home, after eight years away.