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
The Bosnia & Herzegovina squad of the present day may not have achieved a great deal on a global stage, but in terms of surprise factor, they rank high. Bosnia is a nation that is not steeped in soccer tradition. Prior to 2014, Bosnia hadn't qualified for a single major tournament since being part of Yugoslavia. Yet they topped their qualifying group for the finals in Brazil, finishing third in the group stages at the tournament proper. Their current crop of players include the likes of Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begovic and Miralem Pjanic.
9 Nigeria - 1994-1998
After Nigeria won the 1993 FIFA U-17 World Cup, their emerging group of players were heralded as a golden generation, and they did go on to make some history for the African nation. In 1994, they won the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 14 years, and that same year they qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history, repeating the feat in 1998. In both '94 and '98 Nigeria remarkably topped their groups, ahead of nations such as Argentina and Spain. They did even better at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, where they beat Argentina and Brazil to win gold. Nigeria's golden generation included players such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Findi George and Nwankwou Kanu.
8 Australia - 2004-2007
Australia are another country who are not used to success in soccer. A country with exceptional sporting pedigree, their success tends to come in rugby and cricket, with soccer only recently growing in popularity. In the early 2000s that looked like it could be about to change as the Socceroos brought through their most impressive group of players yet. With talented players like Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Australia had unprecedented success. They won the OFC Nations Cup in 2004 and qualified for their first World Cup in 32 years in 2006. They got through a tough group featuring Brazil, Japan and Croatia at the 2006 World Cup, before being beaten 1-0 by eventual champions Italy in the knockout stages.
7 Ivory Coast - 2006-2015
Pele once boldly predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the turn of the millennium. He was wrong of course, but the Ivory Coast should probably have come close less than a decade after that with the impressive squad at their disposal. They qualified for their first ever World Cup in 2006, but put in a poor showing, doing likewise in 2010 and 2014. They produced players such as Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure, Wilfried Bony, Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboue, Gervinho, Arouna Kone and Cheick Tiote during this period. They did finally have something to show for their quality when, this year, they won the 2015 African Cup of Nations.
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.
They had their best ever World Cup in 2014, losing to Argentina in the quarterfinals, but a young squad still has time to improve, with the 2016 Euro in France a great opportunity to show their quality once 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.
Despite these players having wonderful club careers, at international level they were largely a disappointment. Managers struggled to find a way to accommodate all three of their gifted central midfielders, and England's best performance probably came at the 2002 World Cup, where they were narrowly beaten in the quarterfinals by eventually winners Brazil.
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.
Their first success in 1998 came on home soil, as they defeated Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final, and they beat Italy 2-1 in the Euro 2000 final. After a shocking 2002 World Cup, Italy exacted revenge on France's golden generation, beating them in the 2006 World Cup final, featuring an infamous headbutt by Zinedine Zidane.
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.
Other notable players of Austria's Golden Generation include Josef Smistic, Walter Nausch and Josef Bican. During this time they beat Germany 5-0 and 6-0, Switzerland 6-0, Hungary 8-2 and Italy 4-2. They were huge favorites at the 1934 World Cup, and only the corruption of Mussolini stopped them from doing so. The team was brought to an abrupt end by the Anschluss, after which Austrian players were made to play for Germany. Sindelar famously refused, and died shortly after under mysterious circumstances.
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.
They won the European Championships in 2008, their first victory in the competition for 44 years, beating Germany in the final. Going into the 2010 World Cup, Spain were big favourites, despite having never progressed beyond the quarterfinals at a World Cup (although they did finish fourth in 1950 under a different format). They were a class apart and despite aggressive tactics used by Holland in the final, Spain won their first World Cup. They cemented their place as one of the greatest national teams ever at Euro 2012, thrashing Italy 4-0 in the final to make it three successive major trophies.
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.