Writing an article comparing teams from different sports isn’t easy. It’s extremely subjective, and does (whether I want to admit it or not) depend on my knowledge and passion for the sport being written about. For example, I know far more about hockey and soccer than I do basketball. After acknowledging this, I decided that the most difficult international tournaments to win, the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup of Soccer, and the UEFA European Soccer Championship would carry the most weight on this list. These are the tournaments where the world’s top athletes play for their countries to see who ultimately reigns supreme. There are plenty of great international teams that came before the twenty year window I’ve decided upon, but none of which I’ve witnessed first hand. That is why I’ve limited the time frame to the past twenty years; I’ve seen all of these teams in action, and witnessed their dominance over their global counterparts. Here are the top international teams by country and by sport of the past twenty years.
5. United States Men’s Basketball 1996-2012
The ‘Dream Team.’ The United States men’s basketball team is an obvious choice for this list. To some, they’re probably too low in the ranking, but of all the sports represented on this list, the U.S. is by far the most dominant globally in the sport of basketball. The NBA is the best basketball league in the world and is almost exclusively made up of American-born players. So when you take the best players from the best league that happens to be comprised almost entirely of Americans, the competition from other countries shouldn’t be that difficult. If the FIBA World Cup were any indication, one might wonder if the U.S. was as powerful on the court as it should be, with only two titles in twenty years, however, that tournament takes place before the NBA pre-season and many top-tier players opt out.
The Olympic Games is where the Americans have really flourished. The U.S. men’s basketball team has collected a total of four gold medals in the past five Summer Olympics, with arguably their biggest triumph coming in 1996 on home court in Atlanta, Georgia. You can’t argue with four gold medals; the U.S. men’s basketball team belongs on this list, but given the discrepancy in talent on the court from other countries, they don’t deserve to rank any higher.
4. Canadian Women’s Hockey 2002-2014
I know that women’s hockey isn’t exactly everyone’s favourite sport to watch during the Winter Olympics, but I also know that winning four straight gold medals, including one at home in Canada and another two on the ice of arch rivals counts for something; in fact, it counts for a lot. In Turin in 2006, the Canadian women won a gold medal on European soil before the men’s team did, and they also defeated their arch rival the United States in Salt Lake City for gold in 2002. Top it off with the miraculous comeback in the 2014 gold medal game against, yet again the Americans, in a hostile Russian arena and you have an argument for one of the greatest international teams of all time. Furthermore, the competition level in women’s hockey is extremely high. There are at least four or five teams each tournament that have a legitimate chance at winning the gold medal and yet Canada has triumphed four tournaments in a row.
3. French Men’s Soccer 1998-2006
Here’s an interesting case of going from glory to ruin and nearly back to glory again, culminating in the most infamous headbutt/red card in soccer history. In the late 1990s through the mid 2000s the French soccer team was comprised of some of the greatest players the ‘beautiful game’ has ever seen. Any team that boasts the talents of Zinedine Zidane, one of the most highly skilled players ever to set foot on a pitch, has a distinct advantage over the competition. Add a ‘supporting cast’ that includes the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, and former club captain Didier Deschamps to the mix and the French team during their run of victories was as good as anybody. Despite this talented squad, when France was selected to host the 1998 World Cup at home the team was ranked a lowly 18th out of the qualifying nations. The thought of victory, never mind on a home pitch, seemed improbable. And yet, against all odds, and backed by two goals from Zidane, the French managed to defeat number 1 ranked Brazil 3-0 in a shutout to capture the World Cup title. The following year the French weren’t done winning and took home the 2000 UEFA European Championship, followed in 2001 and 2003 by FIFA Confederations Cup titles. That is an impressive run of victories to say the least. The French nearly upped their ranking on this list when they reached the final of the 2006 World Cup vs. Italy. Then came extra time, and Zidane’s last act on a soccer pitch…
2. Canadian Men’s Hockey 2002-2014
Obvious I suppose. With the Olympic hockey tournament still fresh in mind, and being a Canadian and a hockey fan it’s easy to cry foul at the placement of Team Canada on this list, especially in light of their failure to capture a medal in both Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006. However, this isn’t about the medals Canada hasn’t captured, it’s about the medals they have. Salt Lake City in 2002; an embarrassing opening loss to Sweden, followed by then General Manager Wayne Gretzky’s tear-filled, impassioned plea to believe in the team and his guarantee of a gold medal. A gold medal Canada delivered by beating their rival Americans on U.S. soil. A poor performance at Turin followed, but it taught the Canadian brass one thing: the rest of the hockey-playing world has caught up in terms of skill. The era of hockey being Canada’s game was in question even before Salt Lake, and decisively lost post-Turin. It was now up to Canada to reclaim hockey as its game, and what better way to do it than to beat a very talented American team once again for the gold medal, this time at home in Vancouver.
The only thing a Canadian men’s hockey team had not done following the 2010 games was win a gold medal on European soil. They’d now defeated the Americans, their principle rival since the fall of the U.S.S.R., both at home and in the States. If those victories seemed daunting, winning a medal, never mind a gold, in Russia seemed next to impossible. Yet Canada dominated the 2014 tournament, putting on perhaps the greatest display of defensive hockey of all time to win their 3rd gold medal in the past 4 tournaments. Number 2? Deservingly so.
1. Spain Men’s Soccer 2007-Present
There is only one international tournament that is as hard to win as the Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament, and that is the FIFA World Cup of Soccer. The UEFA European Championship is a close second. The fact that the Spanish Men’s Soccer team has won not only a World Cup but also TWO European championships since 2006 makes them a lock for the number one spot on this list. At one point between 2007 and 2009 Spain went undefeated in 35 matches. With all of Spain’s successes, ‘La Furia Roja’ may not be quite ready to give up their number one world ranking just yet. The core of the team that started the winning streak with Euro 2008 has remained largely intact, even up to the most recent qualifying matches in preparation for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Though age may play a role in where Spain ultimately finishes, when a team can boast a midfield with the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso, and a keeper and captain like Iker Casillas, they can never be considered underdogs. The possession-based style of soccer the team deploys is so well-suited to the formidable midfield they possess that as long as Spain can maintain the ball more often than not during the World Cup, they may soon be adding another title to their legacy as the best international team of all time.