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Oh captain, my captain – ‘The Captain Class’

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Book explores commonalities between the greatest teams in sport

Sports fans love nothing more than debating greatness. The notion of determining truly great teams is a topic of conversation atop barstools all over the entire world.

But what exactly does it mean for a team to be among the greatest? And how exactly does one determine the greatest among the great?

Author Sam Walker has taken on this monumental task with his book “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams” (Random House, $28). Walker – the founding editor of the sports section of the Wall Street Journal – spent years putting together a formula to determine the greatest teams of all time, honing his criteria with such precision as to whittle thousands of teams down to just 16.

From this remarkably thorough breakdown, Walker tried to determine what – if any – commonalities these 16 exceptional teams shared. As it turns out, there was a single factor shared by all of them. It just wasn’t the one that you might expect.

These teams ran the gamut in every way imaginable. There were teams from American pro leagues as well as notable soccer teams – both national and club squad make the cut. The post-“Miracle on Ice” Soviet hockey team – the 1981-84 stretch gets them on this list – is here.

But the list also includes plenty of less obvious choices. There are a handful of Olympic teams that dominated relatively obscure (at least to Americans) sports. Some particularly interesting dominance springs from Down Under; the earliest dominant team is the 1927-30 Collingwood Magpies Australian rules football team, while the only team to see two separate eras that make the list is the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union squad that merited recognition for its incredible 1986-90 and 2011-15 stretches.

(Note: If you’re wondering where your dominant team is, there are just over a hundred teams that just missed the cut – Walker refers to them as Tier Two – and are listed in a fascinating appendix. It’s an impressive list in its own right.)

So what could these wildly different groups possibly have in common? Walker explored an assortment of seemingly significant aspects that could signify success. He looked at some common sense ideas about sporting dominance, comparing his 16 teams with regards to things like elite talent on the field and deep organizational pockets off it. He looked at the overall team culture and how that might have impacted prosperity. And he took a long look at coaching and what – if anything – it ultimately contributed to the transcendent ascendency of each group.

Despite the disparity in era and sport, country and culture, money and coaching, ultimately, there was just one factor that all of these teams shared – one thing that appeared indispensable to each and every one of them. That shared component was … a captain.

But not just any captain, but a singularly gifted captain, one who brought an unorthodox and less obvious skill set to the table. The historically successful stretch for each of these teams essentially coincided with the ascendency of an individual to the captaincy … and that stretch’s end matched up with that same individual’s departure.

It’s the story of these captains that drives “The Captain Class.” These captains were players who weren’t necessarily the most athletically gifted or statistically impressive. While our inherent biases lead us to infer that the most spectacular talents are the leaders of spectacular teams, empirical evidence shows that that just isn’t the case.

That isn’t to say that these captains aren’t incredible performers – they’re elite, of course. But they aren’t necessarily the ones upon whom the attention of glory is heaped. They are the ones willing to do whatever it takes to lead their teams to victory, regardless of whether that requires them to assume a secondary role and subvert their own talent or – and this is true across the board – push up to or even beyond the edge of what is allowable by the rules, written and unwritten alike.

“The Captain Class” is absolutely enthralling. The years that Sam Walker has devoted to his research are apparent on every page; the meticulous nature of the compilation and breaking down of the data is simply spectacular. The argument that he makes – that a captain is what separates the great teams from the greatest teams – is antithetical to current thinking in many ways.

And yet … he makes a lot of sense.

Walker paints a thorough picture throughout, capturing specific moments where each of these captains were uniquely suited to ensuring victory for their team – the victory that, deep down, is the real reason any of them play these games. That raw desire, that purity of competitiveness – the conveyance of those elements is what truly shifts these ideas from the abstract to the concrete.

“The Captain Class” will fascinate any lover of sports history as it offers a thoroughly-informed and engagingly-written look at greatness. The depth of research is matched only by the depth of Walker’s passion – it is as effective as it is enthralling. If you’ve ever been curious regarding the “why” of historic team brilliance, you’ll never find a better explanation.

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