The old proverb has an undeniable truth to it: nothing succeeds like success. One look at the world of professional football will tell you that. Out of the thousands of clubs that have competed at professional level during the past century, the same dozen or so names always come up when the notion of “overall success” is raised. Some might find it peculiar that all the greatest football clubs on the planet can be whittled down to less than 20 names with relative ease, but that’s sport for you. If you begin to win on a regular basis, the hunger for silverware only gets stronger.
As we scan the globe to pick out the most successful football clubs of all time, it makes sense to start in the UK – where the top tier (the Premier League) is widely regarded as the best of the best when it comes to football divisions. Recent years have seen both the English league and cup tournaments become increasingly competitive, though when it comes to overall success, it is Manchester United and Liverpool that reign supreme. The red sides of these north-west cities have amassed a combined total of 125 trophies between them, and remain miles ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of league titles (United on 20, Liverpool on 18).
Nottingham Forest have been stranded outside of England’s top tier for nearly two full decades, yet they also remain one of the most famous clubs in the UK. This is largely due to the success brought by Brian Clough during his 18-year tenure as manager, which included multiple European Cups and almost every possible piece of domestic silverware available. Forest have fallen on hard times since plummeting out of the Premier League in 1999, but Greek shipowner Vangelis Marinakis recently announced that he is moving to become the majority shareholder in the club – which would give him increased incentive and opportunity to invest. With his financial backing, Forest could finally lay fresh foundations to mount a title challenge and get back to the Premiership – a place where many football fans feel the famous club belongs.
Venturing north, it appears that Celtic deserve a nod at the very least for their overstuffed trophy cabinet, which is home to more than 100 pieces of silverware. However, their stature as a “big club” is routinely debated in Britain, as the playing standards in Scotland are much lower than England as a whole.
Moving overseas to Spain, we have two of the silkiest, classiest clubs of the modern era: Real Madrid and Barcelona. Like Manchester United and Liverpool, these two teams belong to different cities but play out their own “derby” fixture that bears huge significance every season. Barça have picked up 69 domestic trophies and five European Cups in their history, while Real have collected 62 honors in Spain and 11 European Cups. Both the Nou Camp and Bernabéu have also been the home to many of the greatest footballers throughout history, from Michael Laudrup, Luís Figo, Raúl, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Zinedine Zidane, to current superstars such as Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrés Iniesta, and Lionel Messi.
Across the border in Portugal, Benfica and Porto have shaken European football to its very core at various points throughout history. Both sides have enjoyed incredible success on a domestic level, with Lisbon-based Benfica winning 67 domestic leagues and cups and Porto etching their name onto 76 Portuguese trophies. One of the most successful managers of modern times also cut his teeth during his prosperous stint at Porto – the inimitable José Mourinho.
Turning attention to southern Europe, Italy boasts a trio of top clubs in the shape of AC Milan, Internazionale, and Juventus. These three giants have been formidable presences in global football since time immemorial, with gifted players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo, Michel Platini, and Roberto Baggio starring in Serie A over the years.
Last but certainly not least, there’s Ajax – the team that have been flying the flag for Dutch football for decades. While the likes of PSV and Feyenoord have contested for honors in Eredivisie, it has been Ajax that have dominated the Netherlands’ league overall, claiming 33 league titles and four European Cups. Their team of the late 1960s and early 1970s is still regarded as one of the best starting XIs ever built, with the likes of Johan Cruyff, Piet Keizer, and Sjaak Swart lighting up stadiums with their astonishing ability.
These clubs with the overlong honors lists are the reason that the beautiful game is as popular as it is today. They are the best of the best – the most successful football clubs in the entire world.