With the 2014 FIFA World Cup set to commence in Brazil on June 12th, fans have an excellent opportunity to look back and think about the best teams to compete in the tournament. The World Cup has grown significantly since the inaugural tournament in 1930, which included only 13 teams, four of which required a lengthy boat trip from Europe to make the tournament. Today, the tournament includes 32 teams, lasts for a month and has an estimated finals audience of over a billion people worldwide (according to FIFA’s estimates). When considering the great teams of World Cup past, the usual powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands come up, as do many of history’s greatest players, like Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Zidane and Ronaldo. The greatest teams span several decades, multiple continents and multiple generations of fans, ensuring a list that will satisfy most fans (except for England fans, as the 1966 team failed to make this list).
10. Italy, 1982
In a tournament that featured the likes of Diego Maradona for Argentina, Zico and the brilliant Socrates for Brazil and Michel Platini for France, it is a testament to his talent that Italian forward Paolo Rossi won both the Golden Ball (MVP) and Golden Boot(leading scorer). Rossi had just completed a two-year suspension for playing a role in a match-fixing scandal, and failed to score in any of Italy’s first three games, but his performance when it mattered most returned him to the hearts of Italy fans across the globe. Rossi’s cold start corresponded with a weak start for Italy, who drew each of their first three games, thereby placing them with Brazil and Argentina in the second group stage (the tournament had recently expanded from 16 to 24 teams, and had two group stages followed by a semi-final and final). Italy, however, defeated Maradona’s Argentina 2-1 before Rossi scored a hat-trick to achieve a 3-2 victory against one of Brazil’s best ever teams a few days later. The Azzurri then comfortably overcame Poland 2-0, with Rossi scoring both goals, while West Germany overcame France in penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw in the best game of the tournament. The Germans, still exhausted, however, could not match the Italians and lost 3-1, Rossi contributing the first goal to Italy. Rossi’s late heroics, and the heroic play of 40 year old keeper Dino Zoff, place this team onto this list, albeit by only the slightest of margins.
9. West Germany, 1974
Victors over the incredible Dutch team, the West Germans failed to dominate the tournament in the same way as their legendary finals counterparts but played their best when it counted most. After a group stage that saw them lose to East Germany and receive boos from some of their own fans in a 3-0 win against Australia, they turned it on when necessary. With players like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Uli Hoeness and Bertie Vogts, however, the Germans were able to overcome early struggles to produce a series of excellent performances, defeating Yugoslavia and Sweden before overcoming the high-scoring Poles to make the final. The Netherlands took the lead before the Germans tied it in the first half, and Muller’s second half goal ensured West Germany’s second World Cup. Their finals victory proved the lasting importance of opportunistic scoring partnered with exceptional defence, and the extraordinary impact a defensive force like Beckenbauer can have in a game.
8. Hungary, 1954
Hungary’s team in 1954 failed to win the tournament, but still hold multiple offensive records for the tournament. The Hungarian national team entered the tournament on a four-year undefeated streak, and had become the first team to defeat England at Wembley Stadium the previous year. Led by forwards Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis, Hungary humiliated South Korea by a score of 9-0, which is still tied for the largest margin of victory in a World Cup game, before crushing West Germany 8-3. Hungary remains the only team in World Cup history to score 8 goals or more in back-to-back games. Hungary then defeated Brazil 4-2 in the quarter-finals and Uruguay 4-2 in extra time, before meeting West Germany a second time in the finals. Though Hungary took a 2-0 lead within 10 minutes, a torrential rain changed the game and West Germany tied the game 2-2 before the 20 minute mark. Eventually scoring a third goal during the second half, the Germans won the game to complete the largest comeback in a World Cup final game. Hungary’s 27 goals still stands as a tournament record, however, and remains unlikely to be touched, as no other team has reached 20 since 1958.
7. Uruguay, 1930
As the first host nation, Uruguay delighted their fans by also becoming the first of six hosts to win the tournament in the same year. After defeating Peru 1-0 and Romania 4-0 in the group stage, Uruguay handily trounced Yugoslavia 6-1 to move onto the finals against Argentina. The Argentines, led by Golden Boot winner Guillermo Stabile (who scored 8 goals in 4 games), held a 2-1 lead at halftime, but Uruguay stormed back to win the finals 4-2. The team’s final goal was also scored by Hector Castro, who had lost one of his arms in an accident as a boy. Though the team’s players have not lived on in legend as those of other teams on this list, it’s impossible to deny a team who led the tournament with 15 goals in 4 games, winning all four and conceding only three times in the tournament, the lowest of any team.
6. Brazil, 1958
Though Just Fontaine of France won the Golden Boot in 1958 by scoring a record 13 goals in 6 games, the tournament will forever be remembered for its Best Young Player Award winner, a 17 year old named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but best known as Pele. Brazil were less impressive early on in the tournament, defeating Austria 3-0 and the Soviet Union, led by their extraordinary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, 2-0, but only managing a scoreless draw against England. Brazil eked by Wales 1-0 in the quarters, before finally dominating their last two games, defeating France in the semis and Sweden in the finals by identical 5-2 scores. As Pele scored a hat-trick against France and two more goals in the Finals against Sweden, the future legend announced his presence as a star to the world in the first World Cup to be televised to a wide international audience, and cemented Brazil’s 1958 team as one of the best ever.
5. Argentina, 1986
Argentina may have defeated Lothar Mattheus’ West German team in the finals, but the tournament will forever be remembered for Argentina’s 2-1 win over England in the quarter-finals. England’s Gary Lineker led the tournament with six goals (the rest of his teammates, however, combined for a measly one goal in the tournament) but Maradona scored two of the most famous goals in the history of the sport during the game, contributing to his tournament total of five and his eventual status as Golden Ball winner (MVP). For his first goal, Maradona stuck his fist in the air to knock the ball into the net, a clear handball. The referee, however, failed to spot his infraction and counted it as a goal. Maradona did not admit the goal was an intentional handball, instead dubbing it “the hand of God.” Only three minutes later, Maradona thrilled fans by dribbling through several England players and their keeper, Peter Shilton, to score a strong contender for the tournament’s best-ever goal. Maradona then continued to dominate the tournament, leading Argentina past Belgium 2-0 in the semis and helping them defeat West Germany 3-2 in the finals. Argentina remained undefeated throughout the entire tournament, winning ever game except their 1-1 draw against Italy in the group stage.
4. France, 1998
The most recent team to win the World Cup as hosts, France was also the first team to win the tournament with 32 teams participating and the first team to score a golden goal to end the game in extra time, after Laurent Blanc scored in the 113th minute in their round of 16 match against Paraguay. France’s depth was one of its greatest strengths, with Blanc and Lilian Thuram in defence, Fabian Barthez in net, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires up front, and Patrick Viera alongside the indomitable Zinedine Zidane in midfield. Though Henry was the only French player to score at least three times, the team led the tournament with 15 goals and conceded only two. After winning all three games of their group stage and their victory against Paraguay, France finished the tournament by winning a scoreless draw with Italy on penalty kicks, defeating Croatia 2-1 in the semis and overcoming Brazil 3-0 in the finals. Zidane scored two headers from corners in the final to cement his status as a superstar capable of controlling a game by himself through sheer willpower, and one of the game’s best ever players.
3. Brazil, 2002
While other Brazilian teams may have played more stylishly, with more flair and excitement, none have so thoroughly dominated their opposition as their 2002 team. While South Korea thrilled fans and Germany’s Oliver Kahn produced the most dominant goalkeeping performance of a generation (with all due respect to Gianluigi Buffon‘s play in 2006), Brazil won all seven of their games in the tournament, four of which by at least two goals, and led the tournament with 18 goals total. Rivaldo’s five goals and Ronaldinho‘s two marked them as crucial offensive players, but none could touch Ronaldo’s tournament-leading eight. Ronaldo scored in every game but one and put in both of Brazil’s goals in the finals against Kahn’s Germany, an especially impressive feat considering he had missed most of the previous two years with a knee injury. Dominating from beginning to end, the team stands as a true World Cup great.
2. Netherlands, 1974
The second and final team on this list to fail to win the World Cup, the Netherlands teams of the 1970s were a necessary member on this list for the way they revolutionized the sport. Led by Johann Cruyff, the Dutch team in 1974 pioneered what is now called “total football,” a fluid, fast-paced style of play where possession is imperative, players ceaselessly run to take open positions on the field and the strongest defence is a good offence (though best known for their offensive prowess, the Dutch conceded only one goal in their six games before the final). Despite losing the finals against West Germany 2-1, as well as the 1978 World Cup finals to Argentina, their style influenced teams for decades to come, most recently Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Arsenal. Other teams have been more successful, but few, if any, have thrilled as many fans or had as great an impact on the direction of the game.
1. Brazil, 1970
Even as Gerd Muller of West Germany led the tournament in goals and Italy produced one of their finest teams, Brazil’s 1970 team demonstrated their class and talent to win the tournament. With an attacking force that included Pele in his final World Cup, Jairzinho (who scored 7 goals in 6 games and became one of just two players to score in every game of a six-game World Cup tournament), Gerson, Tostao and Rivelinho, the team won all six of their games and produced some of the most exciting and dynamic play ever seen in the tournament. Their 4-1 victory against Italy in the final is also considered one of the best games in World Cup history, and the team’s nineteen total goals is the best of any World Cup team since 1958.
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