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Greatest Soccer World Cup Teams in History
The FIFA World Cup has been coming around every four years since 1930 (with a slight interruption for WW2), and it is generally considered to be the most important international soccer tournament going. Continental championships, such as the European Championship, African Cup of Nations, and the Copa America, obviously rank fairly highly.
But the famous gold trophy is the one that all players want to win.
Down the years, we have marveled at the skills and talent of teams from across the globe. Some have been well known, but others have picked their perfect moment to shine in front of the world’s glare.
I thought it would be good to take a look at some of the best World Cup teams of all time and why they are still remembered to this day. Not all of the ones profiled ended up winning the trophy, but they have all enthralled soccer fans at some point in history and performed at the greatest show in international soccer.
The early incarnations of the World Cup had been successful but had been blighted by huge swathes of the globe not being able to compete due to logistical reasons. The Uruguay team that famously won the World Cup against Brazil in its own Maracana Stadium in 1950 just missed out on this roll call. But the Hungary team that competed in the next installment was one of the greats.
The Magnificent Magyars have been called the greatest soccer team of all time, and for a spell in the 1950s, there was no doubt that it was. Between 1950 and 1956, it played 50 games and lost just one — the final of the 1954 World Cup. The true originators of “total football,” it used a flexible 2-3-3-2 system that allowed all players to be involved as much as possible.
There were stars such as Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti, but the entire team was an absolute wonder to watch.
The team had really announced itself on the world in 1953 when it became the first ever to beat England on home soil. That 6-3 thrashing was followed up with a 7-1 win over the “home of football” the next year, and the Magnificent Magyars were hot favorites to win the 1954 World Cup. In the group stage, it scored 17 goals in just two games, including eight against the hosts West Germany.
Brazil was beaten in a feisty quarterfinal, and World Cup holder Uruguay was eliminated in the semifinal without the influential Puskas, who had been injured in the previous game. He returned for the final against West Germany, and even though he was not fully recovered, he opened the scoring in the sixth minute.
Another goal came just two minutes later, and it looked as though this incredible side would finally win the most glittering prize of all.
But the hosts fought back, and by the time the halftime whistle blew, the scores were level at 2-2. West Germany looked better in the second half, but Hungary missed a number of chances before conceding again just six minutes from time. Puskas managed to get the ball in the net soon after, but the goal was controversially disallowed for offside.
There was also some question later over whether the West German equalizer should have been allowed, too.
Although the team played together for a few more years, it never did win the World Cup, and many of the top stars appeared for some of the very best club sides outside Hungary. But the new tactical approach introduced by manager Gusztav Sebes lived on and became hugely influential, and the Magnificent Magyars became known as the greatest team never to win the World Cup.
In all honesty, there could probably be an entirely separate article devoted to the greatest Brazil World Cup teams of all time. It was in Sweden in 1958 that a 17-year-old called Pele burst onto the international scene. He didn’t even play in Brazil’s first two group games. But he went on to score in each of the knockout rounds, culminating in a famous brace in the final against the hosts.
With an even greater television audience around the world, the 1970 Brazilian team is one of the most famous. There is something about the quality of the pictures beamed back from Mexico that year that evokes a certain moment in soccer history. The soccer kits all looked fashionable, and the players are some of the most well-known in the game.
Pele scored, once again, in the final against Italy, and it is his layoff pass to Carlos Alberto to score the final goal in the 4-1 win that has been endlessly repeated over the years.
But it’s another Brazil World Cup team that might be able to rival even those winners as the best of the lot.
Much like the 1970 World Cup, Spain was bathed in glorious sunshine for the duration of the 1982 tournament. But even in the heat, there were some enthralling performances from some amazingly talented teams. Northern Ireland famously beat the hosts in Valencia, and we witnessed possibly the finest-ever Poland team in action. But it was the likes of Zico, Socrates, and Eder that live longest in the memory.
Brazil made easy work of the group stage, scoring ten goals in three games, even if there was a slight scare when David Narey put Scotland ahead in the second fixture. Because of the strange format used, the next phase consisted of four groups of three, and Brazil was drawn with Italy and Argentina.
Both Brazil and Italy were victorious in their first games, so it all came down to the final game in Barcelona.
Italy had suffered a betting scandal just before the tournament, but striker Paolo Rossi was now able to play and had looked very sharp in all the games before this one. It was he who opened the scoring, but it was the Brazil equalizer that became one of the iconic moments of the tournament. Socrates brought the ball across the halfway line before passing to Zico, who expertly controlled, turned, and completed the 1-2 to the advancing Socrates. He then took one touch to control before calmly placing the ball past Italian keeper Dino Zoff at the near post. The lack of power was the key to a magical goal.
Rossi scored another before Falcao equalized once again and produced one of the most famous goal celebrations of all time. But it was Italy who had the last laugh. Paolo Rossi was on hand once again to complete his hat-trick and an unlikely win over a remarkable Brazil side.
The Azzurri went on to win the final, but for many, the main memory of the 1982 World Cup is that iconic canary and blue kit in the heat of Spain.
Hungary may have invented total football, but the Netherlands team of the 1970s really exemplified the idea behind it. Every player was expected to be able to fulfill any job on the pitch, and it made for an exceptionally fluid formation and tactical display that blew away the vast majority of the teams that it came across.
Johan Cruyff is rightly remembered as the focal point of the Dutch team, but there were others such as Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens that were just as instrumental in providing fans with a style of soccer that plenty have tried to emulate but not many have managed to achieve.
The Netherlands team had already won the fans over before a single ball had been kicked, however. The 1970s were known for some fairly terrible fashion disasters, but this Dutch team, with their long hair, beads, and a general sense of cool, were everything that the counterculture of the late 1960s had promised.
These ideals may have been fading away by the time this tournament came around, but with Cruyff and the rest, it lived on.
The Dutch almost didn’t even qualify from their group, though. Uruguay was easily dispatched, but Sweden proved a harder battle, and a goalless draw was the outcome. Cruyff may have introduced the world to his new signature move, but his side needed to beat Bulgaria in its final game to go through. That was achieved, and after three more wins in the second round without conceding a goal, the Netherlands had made it to the final.
The Dutch got off to the best possible start by winning a penalty without a West Germany player even touching the ball. Neeskens fired the spot kick home, but that only seemed to awaken the hosts. In a spellbinding game, the Netherlands continued to play in its almost inimitable fashion, but West Germany equalized thanks to a penalty of its own.
There was still a full half left to play when the Netherlands went 2-1 down, but for all its effort, this team of complete soccer players could not find another goal.
In the final minutes, the Dutch even resorted to a long ball type of game that seemed so alien to the players on the field, but to no avail. Johan Cruyff said later that it had not been a failure because of the way his team had played. But it was West Germany that lifted the trophy for the second time.
The Dutch made it to the World Cup final four years later but lost again, this time to hosts Argentina. It may not have won a World Cup, but the Dutch team of the 1970s won the hearts of the world.
A huge earthquake had struck Mexico City the year before, putting the country’s ability to host the 1986 World Cup in doubt. But by the time the tournament came around, the sunshine of the 1970 edition had returned to the famous stadiums, and one man in particular is remembered as being the player of the summer.
The Argentina team that won the 1986 World Cup is harshly thought of as being a one-man band. It is true that almost everything went through Diego Maradona, and he was instrumental in most positive play, but there were a number of others that contributed greatly to the success.
Fellow striker Jorge Valdano was almost as prolific, and Oscar Ruggeri was a rock at the heart of the defense. A midfield five controlled the central area of the pitch while Maradona was given license to create chances for himself and the more advanced Valdano.
A convincing 3-1 win in the first game against South Korea started things off brightly before a 1-1 draw with holders Italy left Bulgaria as the final group stage fixture. An almost processional 2-0 victory saw Argentina progress to the next round where Uruguay awaited. Although the final result was only 1-0, Argentina completely dominated the game with Uruguay more intent on trying to stop Maradona than actually looking like getting an equalizer.
But it was the quarterfinal against England that virtually became the defining moment of Maradona’s time on a soccer pitch. The number ten was completely dominant, but he could not break down the England defense until he leapt upon a lobbed flick. As England keeper Peter Shilton came to punch clear, Maradona jumped and knocked the ball in with his hand. Despite prolonged protestations, the goal stood.
If the first goal was, let’s say “fortunate,” the second was sublime. Maradona picked the ball up just inside his own half and weaved through the England team at will before poking the ball past the onrushing Shilton. Gary Lineker got one back just before the end, but Argentina and Maradona had triumphed.
Belgium was pushed aside in the semis before a scintillating start from Argentina put the South Americans 2-0 up against West Germany in the final. The Europeans managed to get back into the game, but with six minutes to go, Maradona produced another piece of magic to play a ball through the West German defense for Jorge Burrachaga to slide into the net.
It had not quite been a one-man show, but Diego Maradona and “the hand of God” had assured their place in the World Cup history books.
World Cups in recent times have seemed to be less dramatic and more pragmatic. There have been exceptions, of course. The Germany team that won the 2014 tournament in Brazil became the first European nation to win the trophy in South America and made history by humiliating the hosts 7-1 in the semifinal. Spain’s victory in 2010 was also an exceptional display of tiki-taka, possession-based soccer. Xavi and Iniesta replicated their Barcelona form on the international stage.
But it is the France team of 1998 that should probably go down as the best World Cup team of the last 20 (and a bit) years. Les Bleus had not even qualified for the previous World Cup in the US, and there wasn’t much hope in the media about the team’s chances on home soil. But in a favorable group, a lot of pressure was released with a straightforward 3-0 win over South Africa in the first game.
A 4-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia followed by a narrow win over Denmark in the final game gave France maximum points and a groundswell of home support.
Although the country was beginning to get behind the team, it needed a golden goal from defender Laurent Blanc to get past Paraguay in the next round and a penalty shootout to eliminate Italy after a goalless 120 minutes. France avoided talented Brazil and Netherlands sides in the semifinal but still faced a tough challenge from a Croatia team that boasted some of the finest players in the world at the time.
After allowing Davor Suker in to score the opening goal just after halftime, Lillian Thuram immediately made amends by scoring his first-ever international goal a minute later. A glorious second goal with a shot from the edge of the area finished off a wonderful team move and sent France into the World Cup final. The “Allez les Bleus” chant was everywhere, but the team still needed to beat Brazil to lift its first-ever World Cup.
There is still some controversy over whether Ronaldo should have played in the final for Brazil, but whatever the reason, it was apparent that the phenomenal striker was not at his best. A shell-shocked Brazil was completely swept aside by a France team orchestrated by Zinedine Zidane, now regarded as one of the best soccer players of all time. He had not actually had the best of tournaments before then, but he turned it on in the semifinal and final, scoring twice in the first half against Brazil.
Emmanuel Petit scored a breakaway third in stoppage time, and France was World champions.
At a time of political and social upheaval, where racism and xenophobia had been on the rise, a France team consisting of a number of first- or second-generation immigrants had come together in the red, white, and blue to beat the world. Its impact was probably overstated in the aftermath of the triumph, but this team gave the whole of France a new way of looking at itself and a time to come together as one.
There are countless other teams that have excelled at World Cups over the years, and it is likely that everyone will have their own particular favorites. But these five were definitely some of the best ever to perform at the most important international soccer tournament.
As you can see, the “best” teams in this case do not necessarily have to be the ones that ended up lifting the trophy. But all of these made an indelible impression on everyone who saw them play, and that’s why the World Cup is still so treasured by so many today.