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The 11 Greatest National Soccer Teams Of All Time

by: Esteban On  Monday, July 2, 2012


With their resounding 4-0 win over Italy yesterday in the finals of the 2012 UEFA European Championship—aka Euro 2012—Spain wrote itself into the history books as one of the greatest national soccer squads of all time.

Or at least, that’s what all the soccer experts are saying. Personally, I don’t take the hyperbole of pundits all that seriously, so I decided to look into the matter for myself.

The results of my inquiry? Yeah, the pundits are right. This Spanish side really is one of the greatest ever. But I don’t expect you to just take my word for it, which is why I’ve put together this list of the greatest national soccer teams of all time.

So how does one begin to rank the greatest national soccer teams of all time? Well, major championships won is obviously the starting point. You can easily identify 10 of the top 15 or so simply by looking at who won the big games.

However, you also have to consider a team’s reputation at the time. In fact, when it comes to separating the legendary teams from the great teams, this is even more important than the wins and losses. After all, we’re talking about a sport often referred to as “the beautiful game,” so style matters.

Anyway, have a look and decide for yourself where Spain belongs in the pantheon of the worlds greatest soccer teams.

11. Argentina, 1985-90

argentina maradona world cup 1986

Argentina always seems to have a tumultuous squad, and the “Maradona era” team was no exception. Sometimes they played out of their minds. Other times, they looked downright ordinary. But their results in major competitions cannot be ignored.Argentina won the World Cup in 1986 thanks to one of the single greatest performances in the history of the tournament (by Diego Maradona) and a tactical approach (3-5-2)  that was developed to complement his abilities. They weren’t quite as dominant in the next two big competitions, getting eliminated in the semifinals of the Copa America in 1987 and 1989. However, at the 1990 World Cup, they made it back to the finals before losing to West Germany.So while Maradona’s Argentina was kind of all over the place, this team has to make the cut. How could you exclude it? It’s not like winning one World Cup then making it to the finals of the next one is easy or anything.

10. France, 1982-86

france 1984 euro

This team never won the ultimate prize—a World Cup—but they came pretty close. This France squad finished 4th in 1982 and 3rd in 1986. In between those strong showings, they gave one of the greatest Euro performances ever, winning the European Championship in dominant fashion in 1984. There, they were led by Michail Platini, who scored a whopping 9 goals in just 5 matches.

So yeah, that’s dominant. Unfortunately, this group of Frenchmen just peaked at the wrong time—in between World Cups—or else they might be higher up on this list.

9. Brazil, 2002-2007

Brazil-World-Cup 2002 ronaldo rivaldo

Admittedly, Brazil had an easy grouping at the 2002 World Cup. They had to play Turkey, Costa Rica, and China in their opening three games, which is why they went 3-0 with a +8 goal differential—not exactly the “group of death.” But then they went and won their next four games decisively, too, taking home the country’s 5th World Cup.

Following their 2002 World Cup victory, this squad led by the three R’s—Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho—went on to win the 2004 Copa America, the 2005 Confederations Cup, and then the Copa America again in 2007. Oh, and they made the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup—not the greatest showing, but not an embarrassment, either. If you want, however, you can cut this team’s reign of greatness off at 2006. They’d still place 9th. I chose to extend it to 2oo7. Either way, this was a great run for Brazil.

8. Netherlands, 1974-78

NETHERLANDS_1974 soccer

This is without a doubt the greatest team not to win the World Cup.

The Netherlands were the team the beat in the 1970s. Their brand of soccer—dubbed “total football”—revolutionized the game, and for a while not a single team on the planet could really keep up with them. They dominated South America’s great powers (Brazil and Argentina) and ran circles around the Germans for most of the 1974 World Cup final. They only lost when they got too cocky and tried too hard to embarrass their opponents. After this “tragedy” (in the eyes of the Dutch), they learned their lesson and played with less cockiness. But legend has it they were royally screwed by officials at the 1976 Euro and again at the 1978 World Cup. So they never won a major championship.

Despite this lack of victories on the game’s biggest stages, the Dutch team from the 70s has to be considered one of the greatest ever. So it makes the list at #8.

7. Hungary, 1951-54

Hungary 1954 World Cup Final Ferenc Puskas

It was a tough call between Hungary at #7 and the Netherlands at #8. I was tempted to put the Dutch ahead of the Hungarians because I do consider them the greatest team not to win the World Cup; however, they also had a chance to win the Euro and failed. This Hungarian team, however, never got that chance because the first Euro Championship wasn’t until 1960. Thus, I had no choice but to put the 1951-54 Hungary squad ahead of the 1970s Netherlands.

Then again, these guys aren’t exactly chopped liver. Hungary pounded everybody for four years. That run includes the 1952 World Cup where, in the group stage, they beat South Korea 9-0 and beat West Germany 8-3.

No team came close to the Hungarians in terms of ability. The only reason they ended up losing the final of the 1952 World Cup to the same West German side was the incompetence and complacency of their coach. The West Germans adapted their strategy for the final, but the Hungarians did not. Thus, the West Germans came up with one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, and Hungary was denied a spot among the greatest teams ever.

6. France, 1996-2001

france 1998 world cup

Some might place the start of this great team’s reign at 1998, when they won’t the World Cup. However, that World Cup-winning team had 11 players from the 1996 Euro team (which made the semifinals and only lost there on penalty kicks), including Zinedine Zidane. So I say their run began in 1996.

In any case, this team was amazing. Anchored, this team won the World Cup in ’98, then the Euro in 2000 and the Confederations Cup in 2001. That is one hell of a run. If not for a shocking and bizarre first-round departure at the 2002 World Cup, these guys would have been even higher.

5. Italy, 1934-1938

italy world cup 1938

In the history of the World Cup, only two teams have repeated as champions. One of those were the 1934-38 Azzurri. This fact alone is enough to put this squad in the top 5. However, we cannot put them any further on account of the lack of secondary championships in their era. Today, teams have more opportunities to prove themselves, and the fields in every tournament are deeper thanks to the much more difficult qualification processes. So Team Italia from the 1930s will have to be content with being ranked the fifth greatest national squad of all time.

4. West Germany, 1970-76

west germany 1972 euro squad

West Germany’s victory of the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup was viewed as an upset at the time. However, this team was no fluke. They were semi-finalists at the 1970 World Cup, winners of the 1972 Euro, and then finalists at the 1976 Euro. That’s an awful lot of winning. So while the Dutch squad from this era may be more historic, you have to give the West Germans their place in history.

3. Brazil, 1958-62

brazil pele 1962

The only other team, besides Italy in 1934 and 1938, to win two consecutive World Cups? Obviously, that’s Pele’s Brazil. They won the Cup in 1958, then won it again in 1962.

In between, they did pretty good at the South American championships. However, that event wasn’t as organized or prestigious as it is today. Hell, they actually held two tournaments in 1959, crowning two separate champions. Thus, teams like Brazil didn’t take it seriously, and often did not send their top players like they do now. So you can’t count their lack of regional success against them. When it mattered most, this team showed up and dominated the competition.

2. Brazil, 1970

brazil 1970 world cup squad

With this team, I had a quandary. They only won one major championship. However, that championship—the 1970 World Cup—is considered by most experts to be the greatest ever played. And this team dominated the tournament like no team had ever done before. They went 3-0 in the group stage with a +5 goal differential. Then they won their knockout games by scores of 4-2, 3-1, and 4-1, playing what people said was the most beautiful soccer ever.

So despite the fact that this team was short-lived, I couldn’t very well leave them off the list. Their legend is too great.

(And no, it’s not the same Brazil squad that won the 1962 World Cup. The only holdover from that team was Pele, who obviously was not the same player in 1970 that he was in 1962.)

1. Spain, 2007-2012

Spain v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Final

Yep, it’s official. The current Spain squad is the greatest national soccer team of all time. And it’s not just because they won three consecutive major tournaments in an era where doing so is more difficult than it used to be. It’s also because they did it with such style. For 5 years now, this team has been almost invincible. They’ve lost only 2 competitive matches during that span. Two!

Some might look back at the 2010 World Cup and see that they won each of their knockout games by a score of 1-0 and say they were lucky. But if you watched the games, you understand. This team was so utterly dominant, so much better than their opponents, that the only hope their opponents had was to put all 11 players behind the ball at all times.

When other teams feel they have no choice but to take that approach, you’re pretty good.

Of course, Italy didn’t take that approach against them in the finals of Euro 2012 Sunday…and they got scorched 4-0.

So congrats to Spain: the most dominant national soccer team of all time.