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.
10 England 1966-1968
9 Brazil, 1998-2002
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.
7 West Germany, 1972-1974
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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