The term 'Golden Generation' in sports, and in particular in soccer, is used to describe an exceptional gifted group of players of a similar age who all emerge at one team at one time, with greater expectations and ability than that team is accustomed to. This can sometimes be the result of a specific national focus upon facilities or coaching which can see an influx of talent, but at other times it can be completely random and unexpected.
Sometimes teams such as the Manchester United and Ajax teams of the 1990s and more recently Barcelona's crop of excellent youngsters are described as Golden Generations, but the term is generally used in reference to national teams, and that is what we will be focusing on. Teams such as the current German team and Brazil team of 1958-1970 were all made up of terrific footballers, but both nations have consistently had excellent teams that have been expected to win major trophies, hence their absence. It is up to debate as to which German or Brazilian squads truly are the best of their nations' history.
The list is ranked based on a number of factors. Firstly, the players themselves, and how good they were/are. Secondly, the achievements of said players, particularly when they came together for their national teams. Lastly, the surprise nature of such a team coming about, especially from a country not steeped in soccer excellence. Here are the top 15 golden generations in soccer history:
15 Sweden - 1950s
While their most recent generation has included none other than Zlatan, the Swedish team of the 50s were on the cusp of greatness and it took Pele and his daunting Brazilian squad to crush their dreams. Sweden got a chance to host the 1958 World Cup and it seemed they were on their way to winning as hosts. They finished at the top of their group, ending Hungary's run of dominance and would beat the Soviet Union and West Germany to advance to the final. Brazil was just too much though, as they would win 5-2 over the hosts in the final.
14 Holland "Total Football" - 1970s
Led by Johan Cruyff, this generation of Dutch football saw the introduction of "total football" and the brand led the Dutch to two consecutive World Cup final appearances. While they would lose to Germany and Argentina in those finals. Along with Cruyff, the generation was led by Piet Keizer, Willem van Hanegem, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens. The fact that they were a revolutionary squad gives them a spot here, even though they would fall short.
13 Colombia - 1986-1994
It is a generation marred with controversy, but it was at the time, the most talented Colombian squad. Perhaps the current squad can surpass this one, but the late 80s began to see a rise in talent from Colombia. This era included the likes of Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama, René "El Loco" Higuita, Leonel Álvarez, Faustino "El Tino" Asprilla, Freddy Rincón and Adolfo "El Tren" Valencia. The group came into the 1994 World Cup with much anticipation, but a shocking own goal by Andres Escobar resulted in their elimination. Escobar would be killed weeks later back home. ESPN's 30 for 30: The Two Escobars gives great insight to this generation and its ties with Pablo Escobar and how the drug lord's downfall also had an affect on the national team.
12 Portugal - 2000-2006
The Portuguese squad of the early 2000s never quite reached the top of the mountain, but the amount of talent they had was extraordinary. Think of having Luis Figo,Rui Costa , Carvalho , Deco , Baia , J.Andrade , Pauleta , Nunu Gomes , Simão... then getting a young Cristiano Ronaldo. Adding Ronaldo in his prime to this squad undoubtedly would have given them more hardware, but their shortcomings included a semifinal loss at the 2000 Euros. After a disappointing 2002 World Cup, Portugal was upset by Greece in the 2004 European Final. Portugal again fell to France in the semis, this time at the 2006 World Cup. The group just came up short, but it certainly was a more well-rounded squad than the current edition, which often tends to depend solely on Ronaldo.
11 Italy - 1998-2006
The amount of elite defenders the Italians produced in the late 90s, early 2000s was quite extraordinary. Looking at some of their squads, the 2006 triumph really was a last gasp, as they arguably had more talented squads in 2002 and 1998. This period saw players like Roberto Baggio (albeit on the tail end of his career) Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gianluigi Buffon and eventually Andrea Pirlo, it's easy to see why this was seen as a golden era for the Azzurri. The results included a loss in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks to France in 1998, a loss in the Euro Cup final in 2000 to France and a controversial loss to Korea in 2002. A bounce here and there, and this generation could have easily been higher on this list.
10 Bosnia & Herzegovina - 2013-Present
9 Nigeria - 1994-1998
8 Australia - 2004-2007
7 Ivory Coast - 2006-2015
6 Belgium - 2013-Present
The second Golden Generation that is currently on going and we are yet to see the true fruits of what an exceptionally gifted group of Belgian players can achieve. Barring an impressive run at the 1982 World Cup, the Belgian national team have never achieved a great deal, and certainly never had a squad as good as their current one.
Featuring a number of current Premier League players, their golden generation includes the likes of Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelan, Jan Vertonghen and many more.
5 England - 2001-2006
Probably the most well-documented and most hyped/talked about golden generation in history, the term golden generation has become almost synonymous with the England national team around the turn of the millennium. It was a fantastic group of players that emerged for the creators of the game, with David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole and Michael Owen being just some examples of the quality England produced.
4 France - 1998-2006
Unlike England's golden generation which failed to turn quality into trophies, France's golden generation had no such problems. A crop of players which included some of the world's most gifted footballers such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly, Robert Pires and more, went on to win both the World Cup and European Championships.
3 Austria - 1931-1938
Into the top three and we are now talking about three of the most talented and influential national teams that the game has ever seen. The Austrian side of the 1930s was probably the first ever golden generation, made all the more remarkable coming in a country with a population of fewer than 10 million people. The Austrian team of the 30s was nicknamed the 'Wunderteam'. Influenced by Englishman Jimmy Hogan and manager Hugo Meisl, Austria had an incredibly gifted team, especially in an attacking sense. Despite their wealth of talent, one man still stood out, Matthias Sindelar. Sindi, as he was known, was probably the greatest of all the pre-war players, and changed the face of football forever.
2 Spain - 2008-2012
One of the most successful group of players, at club and international level, that the game has ever seen. While Spain had some decent teams over the years, they had always been international football's nearly men, and had never assembled a truly great team, just as they had by 2008. Spain's squad, predominantly made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid players, included such stars as Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Sergi Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Fernando Torres, David Villa and many, many more incredibly gifted players.
1 Hungary - 1950-1956
The greatest golden generation of all time is without doubt that of Hungary in the 1950s. In the introduction of the article we outlined three factors by which each team would be measured, they were; the players themselves, their achievements and the surprise nature of the team. Hungary ticks all three boxes, with only the second having any question marks hanging over it. Known as the 'Magical Magyars' or 'Golden Team', Hungary were simply irresistible throughout the period.
They lost just one game in six years, beating Sweden 6-0, Italy 3-0, England 6-3 and 7-1, West Germany 8-3, South Korea 9-0 and many more famous results in the process. Stars of the Hungarian side included Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti, Zoltan Czibor, Gyula Grosics, Jozsef Bozsik and of course, Ferenc Puskas. The only tragedy of this great side was that they never won a World Cup. Having eased to the final, they lost 3-2 to West Germany in one of the shocks of the century, known as the Miracle of Bern. Hungary have had a relatively poor team both before and since the Magical Magyars, making their existence all the more extraordinary.
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