Following John Kirwan’s recent claim that “the current ‘All Blacks’ are the greatest team ever in any sport “, others have suggested alternatives and the lists are dominated by football sides. To widen the parameters considered here is a top five in which no sport features more than once.
West Indies 1976-89 (Cricket)
Seldom has a team dominated any sport like this outfit achieved from the late seventies through the 1980’s. The fact that the team represents an unlikely alliance of differing nations combined into one makes this an even more remarkable team. In addition the significance, from a social history point of view, of this team goes far and beyond the game they played and crosses boundaries of race, colour, creed, colonisation and politics makes them unique.
To unite several nations under one flag and then represent them all with such style and passion was the remarkable accomplishment of Clive Lloyd the captain. The ever replenishing quartet of fast bowlers included many who are regarded as some of the best ever including Holding, Roberts, Marshall, Garner, Ambrose and Walsh. Batting was equally impressive, with Greenwich and Haynes being in the elite of all time opening pairs, Kalicheran, Richardson, Hooper, Gomes and of course the great IVA Richards who later captained the team’s second incarnation.
For more than a decade the Windies were almost unbeatable. Many series were won with what became known as blackwashes and the brand of tough aggressive cricket was applied to the newly popular one day game as well. The first three world cups finals all featured these remarkable characters and the first two West Indies were victorious. This team changed a culture, wrote a history and taught many a lesson or two along the way.
The Dream Team 1992 (Basketball)
For the first appearance of the NBA players in the Olympic games this team could scarcely be christened anything else! The fairytale of Magic Johnson being included, despite suffering from HIV, would have been enough in itself. Yet add Michael Jordan, Charles Barclay and Larry Bird and even Magic did not know who to pass to.
The eventually assembled side won the Barcelona Olympic Gold with ease and were the hottest ticket in the games. Even Mohammed Ali attended the games (somehow he was still the star!). Although teams have been sent to all Olympics since and have delivered Gold at each, and included almost all modern greats, the original and best has to be the 1992 edition.
The success of this team laid the foundation for many more professional sportsmen to compete at the Olympic games, Tennis and Golf now have the opportunity to grace the finest multi sports stage. Rugby sevens and maybe 20/20 Cricket may follow the trail set by the NBA men.
Team GB 2008 – 2013 (Cycling)
From joint 6th in the medal table for Sydney 2000 GB Cycling began a monumental improvement curve that may qualify them as the greatest team ever. From initial guidance and structure building from Steve Keen the baton of leadership was passed to Sir David Brailsford in 2003, it is safe to say that for the next decade GB cycling never looked back. The peak of the remarkable run appeared to come at the Olympic games of 2008 in Beijing. Team GB topped the medal table and achieved an unprecedented 8 Golds medals including 7 on the track. The remarkable team included Sir Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Rebecca Romero, Nicole Cooke and others who would become the next generation. Such was the phenomenal success of the team that Road Racing was added to the priorities both in amateur and professional worlds. Over the next five years Brailsford conducted an orchestra of success. Cycling’s governing body altered the entry rules and the events held, possibly in order to reduce the likelihood of one country dominating again, which led to fierce competition within the ranks of GB Cycling pushing them to even greater highs.
The foundation of Team Sky, by Brailsford in 2010 led many to question whether he would be so successful in Olympic competition, for the home Olympics of 2012, and to question his sanity when the new teams stated aim was to win the Tour de France within five years, clean and with a British rider. In 2011 a clear indication of the likely success of the double mission was demonstrated by Mark Cavendish becoming only the second Briton to win a road racing professional world title. The strategy and planning for the day had been in the making since they had seen the course nearly three years earlier. The execution of team work delivered on the day and the way in which the team completely controlled the race and delivered “The Manx Missile” to within 700 metres of the finishing line was one of the best examples ever seen of teamwork, strategy and individual brilliance combining to achieve a stated aim.
2012 produced what many thought was impossible, in more than one field. Delivering on their promise team Sky delivered Bradley Wiggins to victory in the Tour incredibly they also filled second place on the podium with Chris Froome. Wiggins then hurried to London to ring the Olympic bell at the opening ceremony of London 2012. What followed on the road and in the velodrome are now the stuff of legend! Again eight gold medals were achieved, again seven out of ten track golds were claimed and the medal table topped by team GB. In addition Bradley Wiggins became Olympic champion and Chris Froome bronze medallist in the time trial event.
No other nation won more than a single gold in the entire event with team GB ‘s total medals double and treble that of those in second and third place.
As though that was not enough Brailsford and Team Sky delivered a second “le Tour” in 2013 with Chris Froome producing an imperious performance. Although outside the above time scale and probably passed their incredible peak, Bradley Wiggins won the Time Trial in the 2014 World Championships.
The ultimate combination of Talent, Organisation, Funding and Technology. From such lowly beginnings to imperious heights of achievement that may never be seen again.
So much has been written and said about this team that additional comment seems superfluous, yet to the idea of football being “The Beautiful Game” can be traced directly to the World Cup of 1970. The Brazilians did not have the perfect build up by any means, but Mario Zagallo’s team included some of the greatest talent to strap on a pair of boots, as a well as a sense of style that puts one in mind of the Harlem Globetrotters ( and they only play exhibition games).
The team had the benefit of being exposed to the full colour glare of the media for the first time and the booming popularity of football all over the world. They also had Pele! This however was a team in every sense, more than the sum of its parts and able to win in any style required. Whether to constantly chip away at the talented and organised England side early in the tournament or simply do what came naturally and demonstrate samba football to the world in a superb and entertaining final against Italy.
Many great football teams have graced the game since, from national sides such as the 1970’s Holland Total Footballers, the supremely organised German sides of the 1980’s to Barcelona and Spain’s recent Tiki Taka style dominance, all are compared to the 1970 Brazil side and as yet non has been deemed to have gone beyond the achievements of a team that played their natural game almost forty-five years ago.
Europe 2004 – Ryder Cup Golf
From the middle of the 1980’s European teams had turned an event which had been regarded as a joke, on the American side of the Atlantic, into a thrilling event that is now one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar. This turn around had begun with the addition of golfers from continental Europe including Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer. Langer’s mixed fortunes in the event ensured that when his opportunity, to Captain the side arrived, he was not to be found wanting. The resultant win by the record margin of 18.5 to 9.5 was also completed on American soil, was America’s worst ever defeat and established a new order that is yet to be reversed.
Langer’s two captain picks ensured that the European team, although underdogs on paper, were a superb combination of major winners, elite performers and Ryder Cup talismans. Colin Montgomerie was on his way to becoming the fully fledged Ryder Cup legend we are now aware of, the rookie inclusion of Ian Poulter ensured that the next European inspiration was born and Harrington was at the peak of his powers. Add Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, together with the Spanish contingent of Jimenez and Garcia, and a formidable combination of talent, passion and inspiration was assembled. Levet, Casey, Howell and future captain McGinley added solidity and quiet efficiency to this potent outfit.
Victory was considered unlikely by many, the USA team contained eight members of golf’s top twenty ( the Europeans had only four) and included Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, at that time out ranked the European side in almost every way.
The superbly assembled four pairs for the first session of day one shows the quality of the European side and its performance. Montgomery & Harrington defeated Woods & Mickelson in the opening clash of the titans. The laid back, fun-loving and hugely talented Clarke & Jimenez romped to a 5 & 4 win over Love and Campbell, then the steady and calm McGinley & Donald halved with Riley & Cink, removing any pressure on Westwood & Garcia who responded with a 4 & 3 win. The tone was set and with the exception of session 3 the European side took 3 or more points from every four player session.
Langer’s side then went on to the singles, were they could have been forgiven for being a touch complacent, and displayed a ruthlessness which would establish both a huge victory and a bedrock of players who would prove Ryder cup titans for another decade. The singles included victories for Ian Poulter and McGinley as well as the more established names. Sergio Garcia’s 3&2 win over Mickelson, Clarke’s half with Love and Monty’s customary point meant the rookies had the chance to turn the screw and as was this teams hallmark, they did not miss out.
It is difficult to separate many of the European Teams of the last 20-30 years. It is this team however that dealt a killer blow both to the USA team of that year but also to their hopes of re-establishing superiority for many years to come. Nine members of this team, from a total of twelve, made the 2006 team and delivered an identical 18.5 to 9.5 result under the amiable Welshman Ian Woosnam. Five members appeared in the side that performed the “Miracle at Medina” in 2012 and five plus Captain Paul McGinley retained the trophy a decade later in 2014! The 2016 is likely to have several representatives and again supply the captain. The performance and legacy of this team can barely be overstated!