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Football’s Greatest Clubs

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How does one go about measuring greatness in football? I mean real, obvious, blatant greatness; that rarest of qualities. Today “greatness” is such a woolly, over-used term that sometimes we lose its meaning and start labeling all sorts of mundane, workaday things as “great”. The evolution of language has distilled its meaning, reduced its potency, but we still know greatness when we see it.

However, the very idea of finding some sort of gauge on which to measure greatness, particularly in sport, can be extremely problematic. The main issue with bestowing greatness upon an individual athlete is that it is near impossible to avoid straying from objectivity and into the territory of personal, subjective judgments.

To one man Pele might be the greatest of all-time, to another it will be Maradona and to another perhaps Di Stefano. When it comes to the greatness of individuals, the subjective cannot be avoided because the statistics don’t always add up. George Best never inspired Northern Ireland to World Cup success, Gianfranco Zola never fired Chelsea to a Premier League title, but that does not mean they were not great players.

Individual brilliance does not always shine through in statistical records, there is also an intangible quality that is almost impossible to describe. We just seem to know it when we are witnessing it.

When it comes to the records of clubs, however, it is possible to be a little more objective when forming opinions. Sheer weight of silverware is as good a gauge as any, a tangible measure by which to assess the relative “greatness” of some of the game’s most successful clubs.

In this article I will be using a simple formula to come to some sort of conclusion as to which are the most successful clubs in the history of the sport. Obviously it’s not flawless, I’m no mathematician, but it’s something.

By awarding 1 point for major domestic trophy triumphs (e.g. FA Cup, Coppa Italia), 2 points for a minor continental trophy (UEFA Cup, Cup Winner’s Cup, World Club Cup etc), 3 points for a league title and 5 points for a major continental trophy (Champions League, Copa Libertadores etc), I hope to reach a rudimentary verdict as to which clubs around the world can truly come to be considered “great”.

I have decided to exclude secondary domestic cup competitions (e.g. the Carling Cup) and titles which are decided by a one-off fixture (e.g. the European Super Cup) from the list, because they are not held in quite the same regard as the other competitions and, in the case of the Super Cup, can only be contested by clubs that have already won silverware the previous season.

For the European teams, to avoid clubs from smaller, less competitive leagues dominating the list through sheer weight of trophies won in relatively weak competitions, I will multiply each club’s league title points score by the UEFA coefficient of its domestic league to provide a more balanced figure. Hopefully all will become clear…

Most Successful Clubs by Region

AFC

(Asia & Australia)

Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (7 league titles, 1 domestic cup, 0 minor continental trophies, 1 major continental trophy) = 27

With the advent of professional football being a relatively recent occurrence in the Far East, the statistics for some of the region’s most successful clubs may not look particularly impressive, but this is an area where football is growing more rapidly than anywhere else on the planet and should not at all detract from the achievements of the AFC’s most dominant teams.

During the 20 years since the club’s foundation, South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma have grown quickly to become a dominant force in the Asian game. 7 K-League championships make the club the most successful in the relatively brief history of Korean professional football, whilst an AFC Champions League triumph in 1995-96 confirmed Seongnam’s position at the very pinnacle of Asian football.

CAF

(Africa)

Al-Ahly (34 league titles, 35 domestic cups, 4 minor continental trophies, 6 major continental trophies) = 175

Egypt’s Al-Ahly have dominated African club football for the best part of sixty years, serial successes making the club the most decorated outside of Europe. Not content only with domestic supremacy, Al-Ahly are also the most successful team in the history of the CAF Champions League with a highly impressive six titles, four having come in the last nine years.

Today “The Red Devils” continue to possess a highly talented squad, the likes of Ahmad Belal and Mohamed Aboutrika contributing to a smooth and aesthetic style of football which will, in all probability, lead to Al-Ahly continuing their ascendancy over the African game in the coming years.

CONCACAF

(North America, Central America & The Caribbean)

C.D. Saprissa (28 league titles, 0 domestic cups (n/a), 5 minor continental trophies, 3 major continental trophies) = 109

Although it is perhaps the Mexican sides who grab most of the headlines when it comes to Central American football, it is Costa Rica’s C.D. Saprissa who are the most decorated club in the region. With 28 domestic titles and 3 CONCACAF Champions League trophies to their name, Saprissa have secured their status as one of the very best sides in Latin America, but it was the club’s performance in the 2005 World Club Cup that gained them the most attention.

Going into the competition as, on paper at least, the weakest side in the tournament, Saprissa beat Sydney F.C. 1-0 in the quarter-final before putting in a decent performance against Liverpool, eventually going down 3-0 to the European Champions. The club’s performance in the tournament equaled the best ever by a team from the CONCACAF region and further raised the growing international profile of the prolific Saprissa.

CONMEBOL

(South America)

C.A. Penarol (46 league titles, 0 domestic cups (n/a), 0 minor continental trophies, 5 major continental trophies) = 163

Uruguay, one of world football’s earliest powerhouses, may have seen its influence on the global game diminish with the passing of the decades, but Penarol, the South American nation’s most prestigious club, have continued to be a significant force on the continent despite their country’s gradual decline on the international stage.

With 46 league titles, the last being won in 2003, Penarol are certainly well established as the strongest side in Uruguay and, despite perhaps lacking the worldwide profile of the likes of Boca Juniors and River Plate, their five Copa Libertadores triumphs show that the club deserve to be more widely recognised as one of South America’s most prestigious footballing establishments.

OFC

(Oceania)

Auckland City F.C. (4 league titles, 0 domestic cups (n/a), 0 minor continental trophies, 2 major continental trophies) = 22

Although, with the move of Australia into the Asian zone, the OFC region is almost certainly the weakest of FIFA’s global administrative areas in plain footballing terms, Oceania does possess a number of successful clubs that will be hoping to develop a more global presence as the game continues to develop in the region.

New Zealand is the strongest football nation in the region and it’s most prominent club, Auckland City F.C., can lay claim to being the best in the OFC. The club has won four domestic titles in the last four seasons and is the current holder of the Oceania Champions League title, having won it in 2008/09 and also three seasons earlier in 2005/06. If Auckland – and OFC football in general – can find the greater investment needed to develop the game further, then there’s no reason why club’s like Auckland can’t establish themselves as a more significant international force in the years to come.

UEFA

(Europe)

Real Madrid C.F. (31 league titles x 74.266 UEFA coefficient, 17 domestic cups, 2 minor continental trophies, 9 major continental trophies) = 159 (without coefficient) 2330.246 (with coefficient)

Although Rangers are the most decorated football club in Europe, when adjusted by the UEFA coefficients it is, almost poetically, Real Madrid who come out on top. The world’s richest, most glamorous club have dominated Spanish football since the 1930s and were voted the most successful club of the 20th century in FIFA’s official poll.

A club with a gloriously rich history, some of the game’s greatest ever players have plied their trade for Madrid during its 107 year existence. It is names like Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Butraguengo and Zidane that have established Madrid as the best club in Europe over the last century and give the club its air of grandeur and majesty. With a new generation of galacticos now in residence at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu it’s almost certain that Real Madrid will continue to be a major force in world football for the foreseeable future.

European Top 10 (Using UEFA coefficients)

Real Madrid (2330.246)

Juventus (1713.570)

Rangers (1483.500)

Barcelona (1443.054)

Liverpool (1355.982)

Manchester United (1355.982)

Bayern Munich (1210.595)

Celtic (1205.750)

Ajax (1157.770)

Benfica (1157.322)

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Comments (35)

  1. Nice article. However few flaws I would like to bring up.

    You cannot award points for a trophy like the Uefa cup. A team wins the Uefa cup and gets points for it whilst a team gets knocked in the semis of the Champions league, but gets no points?

    In my opinion, a quarter final place in the Champions league is equivalent to winning the Uefa cup.

    The right way to do it would be to measure 3 trophies only.

    1 point= Fa cup or equivalent.

    2 points= Domestic League
    3 points= Champions league.

    All other trophies are irrelevant.

  2. what about the fact that rangers play in the scottish league that most the teams in it are at the same level of Englands Championship League… quality of league should count for something if the likes of man united or Barcelona player in scotland then they would be the greatest club ever in your system

  3. this article is pure bullshit. Firstly, spanish league, scottish league each have like 2 challengers every year really. Secondly, the 9 champions league titles madrid won, 5 of them were in like the first 5 years of the competition when quality was shit. Milan won like 7 major euro titles when the tournament was well established. They are the best ever. And im not biased towards milan, im a united fan.

  4. Madrid, United, Pool in no particular order

  5. The top 10 clubs according to UEFA is, in my view, a very accurate list. I think it’s a real shame that some of Europe’s truly great clubs, the likes of Celtic, Rangers, Ajax and Benfica, now struggle to compete due to a lack of TV money in their home countries. Still, little that can be done about it I suppose…

  6. In response to Diego – it does take it into account. Rangers have won their league over 50 times. UEFA don’t give Scottish League titles as much weight as English or Spanish ones, hence Rangers not being right at the top.

  7. @Rami

    Call it bullshit if you want, your opinion is perfectly valid (although not particularly eloquently put across), but I didn’t just make the list up, I used a set formula and those were the results. I couldn’t just change the formula to make allowances for the teams who have dominated the game in recent years. I didn’t just think of the best European clubs off the top of my head and write them down in the order I felt like.

    I agree that the results are a little skewed, but football didn’t start in 1992 with the advent of the Premier League, there were, in case you hadn’t realised, a good 60 or 70 years of professional football before that which also affect the results.

    Also, if you think that the quality of the European Cup was “shit” back when it started then you should really read up on your football history and maybe we should also revoke United’s first title in 1968.

    Regarding your point about Milan, the club may have been very successful in Europe, but they have not always been so strong domestically. Real Madrid have been very consistent in Europe and domestically for the best part of 70 years.

    It’s not all about Europe and it’s not all about the modern game.

  8. @diego

    The quality of the league does count for something in my system, for the European teams I used the UEFA coefficients which give each European league points based on its quality and competitiveness. That’s why Madrid came out ahead of Rangers, if it had been done solely on the amount of trophies won, Rangers would have finished comfortably on top.

  9. I agree with Rami, Milan did it the hard way.

  10. The fact that the two Milan clubs are not on here while Rangers, Celtic and Ajax make the list shows that this is surely flawed.

  11. To be honest, Saprissa has no competition whatsoever in their league. None. When they face a Mexican team 9 times out of 10 they come out losing.

  12. Really, given the current state of football, the coefficients should be: 2, for Spain, England, and Italy; 1, for France, Germany, Holland, and Portugal; and 0 for every other competition.

  13. @z

    I think your comment is indicative of how football fans in countries where the leagues are particularly strong often get blinkered in their approach to football in other parts of the continent.

    The Russian league is strong and getting stronger all the time, Shakhtar Donetsk showed that the Ukrainian league deserves respect by winning the UEFA Cup last season, Olympiakos and Panathanaikos of Greece are consistently competitive in the Champions League and Turkish sides (Fenerbahce in particular) have caused “big” clubs from England, Spain and Germany problems in the Champions League in recent seasons.

    To dismiss the majority of European leagues out of hand is to be extremely arrogant and blind in your perceptions of European football.

  14. All you fools should bow down and realize Madrids greatness. No one has a more storied history.

  15. U kidding me z.Bayern and st. Etienne practilly owned euro football in the late 70s and to this day bayern is a power house.the fact that there arent even any french team on the list and “benfica” makes show this is some dumn limie rubbish.

  16. I’m from NZ and can vouch that the dominant clubs in the NZFC (NZ football championship) are Auckland City and Waitakere United (both from Auckland) and the “Auckland Derby” is usually intensly played with alternating winners. This year Waitakere were the dominant side, beating Auckland City 4-1 but an unlucky goalkeeper blunder gave Auckland the victory in the final.

  17. Snob: You will never be bigger than Manchester United FC

  18. Zola?

    A great player?

    Yikes.

  19. Z-are you kidding?”given the current state of football”:More like 2 for Spain,England and Germany(after this year ahead of Italy(look at 5-years point standing),in my opinion in the future dominant together perhaps with France because of financial fairplay and new built stadiums(WC98,WC06),1.5 for France and Italy and 1 for the Rest.
    Concerning League Competitors it is more like 2 for Germany(6-10 possibile League-winners),Italy(6-8),Netherlands(4-6)1.5 for England(4),France(4), and 1 for Spain(2)

  20. I think some of you that have commented have somewhat missed the point of the article and without wishing to presumptuously speak for its author I would like to offer my own clarification of what he intended.

    The point of the above is a valiant attempt to codify something that is intangible, ‘Greatness’. Greatness is more than a reflection of simply what you see in front of you, it must also be a reflection of what preceded this.

    For instance Sir Alex Ferguson is as much a ‘great’ manager for his humanitarian work (particularly his work with UNICEF) his commitment to his players past and present (supposedly knowing the names of wife’s, partners and children of all those at the club, helping those released find new clubs, and going to court to help a past injured player gain compensation) and his recognition of the wider responsibility his position gives him in the community (attending funerals, awards ceremonies ect) as he is for the 44 major trophies he has won throughout his managerial career.

    Likewise Manchester United is a ‘great’ club not just for its 18 League titles, 11 FA Cups, 3 Champions Leagues, and more, but for continuing to recognise those responsible for that success (the continuing tributes to the Busby Babes, the recently built statue of Law, Best and Charlton, the lead up to Old Trafford is called Sir Matt Busby Way and much more). Even above all this, the club is synonymous with three knights, an award which transcends mere sporting achievements.

    Ajax are perhaps the greatest testament as to why an explicit definition of greatness is hard to establish. Although the last decade has seen a gradual demise in terms of on field performance which has not seen them lift the championship since 03/04 and only twice in the last decade (their worst post-war return) they are still surely a ‘great’ club and precisely for those things which are intangible. Historically Ajax have been a force in world football, winning the Champions League no less than 4 times and being 1 of only 3 teams to ever win the competition 3 times in a row. As well as this they have provided the game with some of the best players to ever grace it from the 70’s and 80’s with Van Basten, Cruyff and Guillt and continuing into the modern era with Seedorf, Van Der Vaart and Sneijder.

    The Scottish League is another case in point of this, whilst it is no longer a force comparable with many of its European counterparts it was not always this way and both Celtic and Rangers have won European competitions, with Celtic winning the equivalent of the modern day Champions League, something that not many clubs can boast.

    The modern era of football has done more to suggest we must preserve this historical facet to greatness than ever before as now the whimsical notions of an international businessman or oligarch can transform the playing staff of any team, be it Notts County or Chelsea. However whilst money can transform a playing staff and help fill a trophy cabinet (when properly guided, substantiated by Chelsea’s success under Mourinho and Hiddink and relative failure under all others) it cannot buy greatness, a point comically displayed to me on a trip to see Liverpool play Chelsea last season when Liverpool fans regaled the travelling Chelsea support with a chorus of “CFC, you ain’t got no history,” (clean version) throughout the game.

    In terms of the greatness of Gianfranco Zola it cannot be accurately measured in terms of statistical data (as the article suggests). The impact of Zola, as well as others such as Dennis Bergkamp, transcends ratios such as goals to games and assists, they embodied an ethos that helped transcend the mentality of English football and create a Premier League which has been the envy of Europe for at least the last 5 years, not just for its pace and passion, but technique and skill also. This saw the league boast players such as Thierry Henry and, until an astronomical sum of money, something even rarer for English football the current Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo (only the second player since 1968 to win the award in England, with the other the strange decision to award it to Michael Owen in 2001).

    Many attribute this rise in the standard of English football to the significant rise in investment particularly over the last decade and undisputable there is a correlation between the increased investment, particularly foreign direct investment, into English football and the rise in its standard, and I am not here to refute it has had a significant impact, yet i do not believe money alone to be the all encompassing answer.

    However even if you subscribe to the theory that money alone bore the success of the contemporary English Premier League, and not pioneering talents such as Zola, I put forward that the ‘greatness’ of Zola is at least partly demonstrated by the advancement of the English national team since his arrival in England in 1996.

    England’s Euro 1996 squad (which came so close to providing the major international tournament trophy the nation thirsts for) had some players of unquestionable talent with Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince being those that perhaps standout most. However behind these names are others such as Steve Howey and Steve Stone, not the most technically gifted or versatile players and not players who would have been considered for the squads of nations such as Holland, Italy and Germany, and that is restricting England’s competitors to the confides of Europe.
    However when Fabio Capello goes to name his next England squad he will have not only more players who are world class in their respective positions in Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, Terry and Cole, but also in players such as Young, Walcott, Johnson, Defoe, Carrick and Lescott, players who can by and large play a number of positions, are technically proficient, and would challenge for a place in any national squad in the world.

    It would be unfair to suggest England’s footballers today are more talented than their counterparts a decade previous, yet due to the change in emphasis in English football brought about by witnessing the ‘greatness’ of players such Zola a stronger league and national team has emerged as a result.

  21. @Chris: Nice one! A good ranking system always gets the masses riled-up! :)

    @Lucas: Some excellent points, well made. That was nearly an article in itself….maybe you should contribute some??

  22. Celtic is no way better than milan :D

  23. Ishaq, you will never be more intelligent than my turd stains

  24. ….as opposed to The Soccer Snob….who probably shouldn’t! :)

  25. LOL This article is a joke, Inter, Milan and Benifca are far more succesful than Celtic, Rangers Man U. Get a grip Mr. Mann.

  26. Great educational article!

  27. The ranking system you’ve used is flawed.

    Before 1998 only the team that won their domestic league could enter the European Cup/Champions League. Since then an increased amount of teams who didn’t win their domestic league have gone on to win the Champions League e.g. Man Utd 99, Liverpool 05, Milan 07, Barcelona 09, to name just a few.

    Before this change the UEFA Cup was deemed the hardest to win because it included all the clubs who were developing into top teams or all the teams who previously were top teams but were in a slow decline.

    To write off the Cup Winner’s Cup as minor is also absurd. Look at Man Utd’s run in 84, they had to play a Barcelona team containing Maradona and Schuster, then Juventus who had Platini and Boniek. In 91 (after an easy route to the final) they beat a Barcelona team (Koeman, Laudrup, Stoichkov, Guardiola) that won the Champions League the following year.

    Madrid wouldn’t have won all those early European Cups if they hadn’t stolen Di Stefano from Barcelona. An illegal move made possible by Franco’s regime.

    A great club is not determined on how many trophies they have (Crewe Alexandra, Nottingham Forest and Preston NE to name some domestic examples).

    Go and read up on your football history, go to the grounds of as many clubs as possible, you’ll probably find there’s greatness on your doorstep.

    Lies, damned lies and statistics.

  28. EddieM, you can’t be serious! How can you compare the Fairs Cup/UEFA cup to the European Championship! That absurd comment doesn’t even deserve refuting. And get off your high horse, you want to talk about illegal moves, let’s talk about more recent history with Man U and Chelsea… Stop spewing your biased propaganda!

  29. @ Soccer Snob

    Doesn’t success in the UEFA Cup indicate a level of consistency in both domestic and European competition that should be rewarded?

  30. @ EddieM

    I’m not claiming this system is perfect, far from it. I’m not declaring which teams are the greatest, all I’m doing is using a system (one which is as objective as I could make it) to produce some results. I’m not an idiot, of course I know which clubs most people consider to be great, the results of my system do not necessarily reflect my views. It’s a system, these are the results. That is all this article is saying. That is all I intended it to say.

    Also, you clearly didn’t read the whole piece because I didn’t write of the Cup Winner’s Cup, I included it. Don’t comment before you’ve got a grasp of the article, it just embarrasses you.

    Can everyone please stop missing the point of this article!

  31. @ Rich

    I would refer you to the first paragraph of my response to EddieM.

  32. Morning

    @Chris

    I had read the article, I had read the comments, Chris you’ve started an interesting debate, I’ve added to it. I didn’t think I called you an idiot at any point. Apologies if it came across that way. There’s no malice in my comments (as you can tell by the lack of exclamation marks and capital letters). There is a bit of banter in there though.

    My main point was that the ranking system was flawed. I thought it may lead to some suggestions on how to improve it to give a less predictable result but without it becoming too convoluted. For example, make it up to 10 points;

    10 retaining European Cup/UEFA Cup/CWC
    9 winning Champions League post 98
    8 winning European Cup/UEFA Cup pre ’98
    7 Retaining domestic league
    6 Winning Cup Winners Cup/Winning domestic league
    5 Retaining domestic cup, winning World Club Cup/Intercontinental cup (means a lot in S America and some European countries)/UEFA cup post ’98
    4 Winning domestic cup/Euro Super Cup (when it was two legs)
    3 Winning minor domestic cup

    And so on. There may even be a case of points for losing finalists of major continental trophies (this would push Milan and Juventus up the list). Bonus points for a combination of domestic and continental trophies in the same season (Barca, B Munich, Milan and yes United would benefit here). The great Juventus team of mid-late 90′s made 3 CL finals in a row, that’s got to be worth something.

    @Soccer snob

    It’s not biased propaganda, yes I’m a Man Utd fan but at no point did I claim they were innocent in the transfer market. Football’s corrupt, we all know that. If I write a comment it’s going to be short and to the point, it wont be a book or an essay, I don’t have to qualify everything I say just in case your inferiority complex decides to pick holes in it.

    Gentlemen over to you

  33. i think this is fair. the point system is used by fifa, the governing body of world football. Rangers have won 52 league titles. Also lets be honest if man utd or real madrid etc where to play in the scottish premier league do u think they would beat Rangers or Celtic? No chance. There is no way that Real madrid and man utd could function in a league where there is no money at all whereas rangers an Celtic have always been major forces without the cash. Rangers and Celtic have the biggest fan base in the world fact. If Rangers and Celtic joined the premiership then after a few years they would be pushing for the top stop especially with all the extra funds that they have never had.

    In Scotland Rangers and Celtic get £700k a year for tv rights if there lucky In the english premiership teams like Man utd get £35-40m a year. If Rangers an Celtic had the extra funds from the premiership things would be so different and this is one of the main reasons that teams in the premiership don’t want Rangers and Celtic to join Englands top league which is a disgrace as they never had a problem letting teams like Cardiff and Swansea join.

  34. Hail Hail Stephen86….totaly agree

  35. world cup campions