Top 10 Greatest National Teams In History

Ever since the first ever international match in 1872 which took place in Glasgow between England and Scotland, international soccer has been seen as the pinnacle of the game. In recent years, for the

Ever since the first ever international match in 1872 which took place in Glasgow between England and Scotland, international soccer has been seen as the pinnacle of the game. In recent years, for the first time, some have come to consider club soccer as being of greater importance than international soccer. Managing the national team of England or Spain probably no longer has the draw of managing Manchester United or Barcelona, and many people now believe that the Champions League is a tougher competition to win than the World Cup.

Today, there are 209 FIFA recognized national teams. Over the years, some national teams have remained great. The Germans, the Italians and the Brazilians, for example, have consistently had very strong national teams, qualifying for almost every World Cup and competing in the latter stages of many. Meanwhile, some national teams come and go, seeing so-called ‘Golden Generations’ be very successful before experiencing long barren spells, struggling to even qualify for tournaments. The Brazilian national team is the most successful of all time, with five World Cups, eight Copa Americas and four Confederation Cup titles.

This list is in regards to the greatest individual teams, not which international team has been the greatest over their entire history. Of course, there is no definitive criteria by which ‘greatness’ can be defined. Having said that, one would expect a truly ‘great’ team to win the vast majority of their games, most likely win a major competition and play with a certain style which captured public imagination or left a lasting impression upon the sport.

Continue scrolling to keep reading

Click the button below to start this article in quick view

Start Now

10 England 1966-1968


The England team of 1966 had a backbone of truly great players. Starting with Gordon Banks in goal, Bobby Moore on defence and Bobby Charlton in midfield. The aforementioned three are all three of the finest players in their respective positions in the history of the game. Added to these three was the emergence of Geoff Hurst, most notably in the World Cup final. Hurst was not a starter for England but an injury to Jimmy Greaves during the group stages gave Hurst a first team place and the rest is history; he remains the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Any team must expect to face tough opposition in the quest to win a World Cup but England had it particularly tricky on home soil in 1966. They faced Uruguay, Argentina, Portugal and eventually West Germany on the road to lifting the cup for the only time in the country’s history.

9 Brazil, 1998-2002


The star-studded Brazil squad of 1998-2002 included the likes of Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Dunga, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka, which made for a terrific national team. It was little surprise that they lifted the World Cup in South Korea/Japan 2002 and some believe they would have won the tournament in 1998 if it weren’t for Ronaldo suffering a convulsive fit and unsettling the squad. Dubbed the ‘three R’s’; Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho formed an incredible trio of flair and goalscoring prowess, admired the world over. Between them they amassed 269 caps and scored 130 goals. This team's crowning moment came in Yokohama in 2002 when Ronaldo avenged his woes from four years earlier, scoring a brace as Brazil overcame Germany 2-0 to win the World Cup for a record fifth time.

8 Netherlands, 1974-1978


Remarkably the Holland team of the 1970’s did not win a major tournament, coming third in the European Championships of 1976 and reaching the World Cup final in both 1974 and 1978 but losing out on both occasions. The Netherlands team introduced a brand of football that had never been seen before, coined ‘Total Football’. The premise of the system is that any player can move into the role of any other player at any other time, with the obvious exception of the goalkeeper.

Whilst such tactics placed a great emphasis on teamwork, there was still one man who stood out, namely Johan Cruyff. Widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, Cruyff epitomized balance, poise and technique, and along with Rinus Michels, he is credited as the inventor of ‘Total Football’. Although the Netherlands never won a major trophy playing the system, Ajax did, winning five Eredivisie titles and three European Cups.

7 West Germany, 1972-1974


One of the reasons that famous Netherlands team did not lift a trophy was because of the West German team of this era. Where Holland had Johan Cruyff, the Germans had Franz Beckenbauer. Captaining the side, Beckenbauer was playing in his third World Cup at the age of 28 and arguably his finest. At the other end of the pitch, West Germany had Gerd Muller. The legendary Bayern Munich striker scored four goals at the 1974 World Cup including a decisive one in the final as West Germany came from behind to see off the Netherlands 2-1. Muller also scored four and picked up the Golden Boot in the European Championships of 1972, two years earlier, which West Germany also won, beating the Soviet Union in the final, 3-0.

6 France, 1998-2000


Everything seemed to come together perfectly for the French national team over this two year period. They were to host the World Cup in 1998, and as the tournament dawned it became clear they had a very strong squad, well capable of winning the competition. The likes of Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit were all at the peak of their powers, whilst youngsters such as Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet all burst onto the scene.

Unarguably, however, the most important player for France was Zinedine Zidane. One of the finest and most complete midfielders in the history of the game, Zidane was integral to both European and World Cup successes in 1998 and 2000. They beat the excellent Brazil team 3-0 to win the 1998 World Cup and were even better at Euro 2000 as their promising youngsters were beginning to fulfill their potential. They beat Italy in extra-time in the final to make it back-to-back major trophy wins.

5 Italy 1934-1938


Having not entered the first ever tournament in 1930, the 1934 World Cup was Italy’s first and it took place on home soil. The Italians won the tournament and then repeated the feat four years later in France. Back-to-back World Cup wins is an achievement which has only been replicated once since, by the Brazilians, and the Italy manager Vittorio Pozzo remains the only man to have won two World Cups as a manager. A revolutionary coach, Pozzo invented the Metodo formation, a 2-3-2-3 set-up which allowed for greater defensive solidity and an ability to counter attack effectively.

Their first win in 1934 was shrouded in controversy, Mussolini used the tournament to promote fascism and an array of controversial decisions seemed to go in Italy’s favour which has perhaps sullied the legacy of this great team. However, there were no questions over their 1938 success and spearheaded by the legendary Giuseppe Meazza, this Italian team was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all-time.

4 Brazil, 1970


Probably regarded by most as the greatest national team of all time, the Brazil team at the 1970 World Cup did not just win, they won emphatically and in style. The likes of Pele, Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Rivellino, and Gerson played a brand of football which was thrilling in the first World Cup to be broadcast in color. Brazil won every qualifying game for the tournament and continued that record winning all six games in the simmering heat of Mexico.

Mario Zagallo became the first manager to win the World Cup as both a player and manager and he prepared the team excellently, training at high altitude ahead of the tournament, meaning the team were not only technically superb but also the fittest team competing. The team is best remembered and epitomized by their final goal of the World Cup final, a superb passing move culminating in a perfectly laid pass by Pele which Carlos Alberto struck cleanly into the bottom corner giving Brazil a comfortable 4-1 win over Italy.

3 Spain, 2008-2012


The Spanish national team may have come crashing back down to Earth in Brazil last summer, but from 2008-2012, they were one of the greatest national teams of all time. When Spain romped home 4-0 against Italy in the final of Euro 2012 to make it three major trophies in a row, many people declared that they were the greatest national team to ever take to the field. Largely made up of a blend of the excellent Barcelona and Real Madrid teams, their style of play was most similar to that of the former.

A glance at the team’s bench, often featuring the likes of Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Santi Cazorla was an indication of the sheer class of the side. Many teams tried various ways of stopping Spain from playing their passing game, most notably the Netherlands' aggressive tactics in the 2010 World Cup final. Spain eventually broke them down through Andres Iniesta to win their first ever World Cup. A trio of major tournaments ensures their status as one of the greatest national teams in history.

2 Hungary, 1949-1956


Some will argue that a team cannot be the second greatest national team of all time having failed to win a major tournament, but the Hungarian team of the 1950’s was great in so many ways. Although they never officially proved it at a World Cup, Hungary were the greatest national team in the early 1950’s, so much so that their defeat in the 1954 World Cup final became known as the ‘Miracle of Bern’, such was the surprise that West Germany won the game. From 1950 to 1956, Hungary won 42 games, drew 7 and lost just once (in that World Cup final), with an overall aggregate scoreline of 249-61, averaging almost a staggering five goals scored per game.

Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis are the two best remembered players of the Magical Magyars. Puskas scored 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary whilst Kocsis scored 75 in 68. The ‘Total Football’ of the Netherlands covered earlier can largely be traced back to this Hungary team. Their tactical approach to the game in which players contributed to multiple phases of play was revolutionary and later adopted by every country. The English were in shock after the Hungarians thrashed them 6-3 at Wembley, exposing their tactical superiority and Hungary ran out 7-1 victors in the return fixture on home soil.

1 Brazil, 1958-1962


Earlier, in the introduction, I outlined the basic principles by which ‘greatness’ could possibly be measured. Success at major tournaments, a distinctive footballing philosophy and a lasting legacy were the three main criteria, and this Brazil team had all three in abundance. Whilst the 1970 Brazil team are widely considered as the pinnacle of flair and style coming together to create a football machine, the Brazil team of 1958-1962 played with just as much elegance a decade earlier. Not only was this team, man-for-man, probably the greatest of all time, they also revolutionized the way in which the game is played. They introduced the defensive back four to the world, with both full-backs rampaging forward and joining in with attacking moves which blew teams away. They were the first team to begin experimenting with sports psychologists, as well as using doctors and physical specialists in a way no other team had previously.

At the tender age of 17, Pele introduced himself to the world at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Despite his limited years, he scored a brace in the final as Brazil thrashed the hosts 5-2. Pele is of course the best remembered member of this era of Brazilian football, but this team showed their greatness as a collective group when they lifted their second World Cup in four years in 1962, despite losing Pele in only the second game. Brazil never lost a game when Garrincha and Pele both played. The perfect combination of silk and steel, they won back-to-back World Cups in emphatic style and they still remain the only South American nation to win a World Cup in Europe. When one looks at what they achieved, both in their on-field success and revolutionary methods off the field, it is difficult to argue that they are the greatest national team of all time.

Give TheSportster a Thumbs up!

Looking for an AD FREE EXPERIENCE on TheSportster?

Get Your Free Access Now!

More in Soccer

Top 10 Greatest National Teams In History