The game of football has grown tremendously over the past 50 years, both on and off the field. The concepts created by some of the game’s greatest minds helped to produce amazing teams, while specific players are responsible for challenging the limits of what can be done with a ball.
Over time, we have seen each decade defined by these players and teams to the point where the methodologies are recycled and tweaked into the modern game that you see today. Of course, the influence of each era on the history of the game varies, so here is a ranking of the most influential decades in football over the last 50 years.
Between 1989 and 1998, the Italian Serie A had at least one team reach the UEFA Cup final in nine of the 10 seasons. The success of the league made most of Europe try to emulate the tactical discipline of Italy's top clubs.
But the biggest impact of this decade probably came from the Dutch. Domestic club Ajax rose to European prominence in this decade, while individual stars like Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit proved that Holland was producing the best players of the era.
As a manager, Dutchman Johan Cruyff infused Barcelona with the concept of "Total Football" throughout the '90s. It did not take off for Barcelona right away, but Cruyff’s influence is a big reason why Barcelona, and Spain for that matter, have developed the highly skilled, aesthetically pleasing styles that you see today.
The central midfielder played a key role in this decade, as players like Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldhino were the most advanced players of their time. Zidane, in particular, was a transcendent player who won a UEFA title, a World Cup and 3 Ballon d’Or awards in his career.
Other Frenchmen played a prominent role in the decade as well. The early-to-mid-2000s were defined by Arsenal, with Arsene Wenger’s teams playing some of the most advanced soccer of the decade. Highlighted by "The Invincibles" in 2003-2004, Wenger’s teams coincided with the monetary explosion of the English Premier League. With just two of Arsenal’s first 11 being from England, Wenger also played a major role in the influx of foreign players to the world’s most popular competition.
The two most memorable moments of this decade, and potentially in the entire history of the game, happened in one match on June 22, 1986. The 1986 World Cup Quarterfinal between England and Argentina was a contentious battle, and in Argentina’s 2-1 victory, Diego Maradona provided both one of the greatest and most controversial goals that the world had ever seen.
Those two goals symbolize the dichotomy of Diego Maradona, who was easily the most influential player of the decade.
As we approached the late '80s, the power in Europe began to shift toward Italy. Maradona brought Napoli to prominence, while Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan teams brought an innovative sense of tactics that had never been seen before. Sacchi’s high-energy, pressing defensive style provided more entertaining soccer, and for a few years changed the entire perception of Italian football.
There were many great players throughout the 1970s, but this era will be remembered most for the system of "Total Football" that Rinus Michels brought to the game. Highlighted by Johan Cruyff, the system was often imitated throughout the '70s, but never duplicated.
However, in attempting to imitate the interchanging positions that encompass total football, players were pushed to be more well-rounded in their skills. Defenders could no longer be just hard tacklers, while strikers could no longer rely on just speed and grit. Michels' style raised the skill level across every part of the field.
The 1970s also had its fair share of individual talent. German Franz Beckenbauer perfected the "sweeper" role that was prominent over the next 30 years, while his compatriot Gerd Muller was arguably the best pure finisher in the game. But in many circles, Cruyff stands above both men, as the "Total Football" concept is something that continues to live on today.
This decade was the prime of Pele, who is arguably the best player the game has ever seen. His impact alone might have made the '60s the greatest decade ever, but other pioneers like Eusabio, Garrincha and goalkeeper Lev Yashin were also responsible for pushing the game forward.
The 1960’s were also the start of Manchester United’s rise to prominence. The "Holy Trinity" of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best were each named European Footballer of the Year between 1964 and 1968. And Best, in particular, brought a new, rock-star element to the game, which transformed the way that fans and media covered its on-field heroes.
There is plenty of time to see how the rest of this decade plays out, but there is certainly potential for it to be the most influential for generations to come.
As the best player on the most influential team of this generation, Lionel Messi’s place in history will certainly be heightened by the fact that he plays in a more advanced era, both on and off the field. Tactically, it looks like there are advances as well, with teams evolving into four lines of positions (i.e. 4-2-3-1), as opposed to the traditional three lines that we have seen for decades.
There is also the influence that a heightened sense of analysis will play in the game. Although the game will never lose its free-flowing nature, the ability to track a player’s technical abilities, and even sprint movements, will naturally enhance the level of the game.