- Teams 30-26
- Teams 25-21
- Teams 20-16
- Teams 15-11
- Teams 10-6
- Teams 5-1
- How it works
- Numbers breakdown: the best represented countries and decades
- The teams who missed out and why
- The full list
It’s astonishing how close the world came to being denied perfection. Not to mention how fragile the conditions are that foster it in international football.
Three months before Mexico 1970, Brazil gave no indication they were about to produce the most sumptuous tournament performance ever seen. Indeed, they had just been beaten at home by non-qualifiers Argentina after a display that led defender Roberto Perfumo to describe them as “the poorest Brazil I have played against”.
So scared was then coach Joao Saldanha that he dramatically scaled back the team’s attacking approach and publicly admitted he might drop Pele. The actual response, however, was to sack Saldanha and instate Mario Zagallo. The rest, well, made history.
By imposing a loose system designed to let “great, intelligent players play” and “seeing where it takes us”, Zagallo facilitated a wondrous World Cup that transcended the sport itself. Individuals as uniquely talented as Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Tostao and Pele were all integrated in an ideal formation at the very peak of their powers.
Coincidentally, it was another inspired – yet entirely improvised – movement of Zagallo that allowed Brazil the freedom to lift their next most legendary World Cup.
Indeed, it’s inconceivable to imagine now how unsure the 1958 team must have been as they approached their crucial final group game against the USSR requiring a win. Not only did they have the pressure of progression but also that from 28 barren years without the trophy they craved most. As a result, they also approached the game without any of the terror subsequent World Cup wins have placed in the opposition.
Instead, it was Brazil who were intimidated here. Caution had dictated Garrincha and Pele were dropped from the opening two games until coach Vicente Feola realised putting the responsible Zagallo on the left would balance the brilliance of the two virtuosos.
Not that Feola was completely convinced yet. Fearing USSR physicality, the coach decided the only way to victory was to frighten the Soviets with sheer ability early on.
“Remember”, he reminded Didi, “the first pass goes to Garrincha.”
Within a minute, the winger had beaten Boris Kuznetsov four times, left Yuri Voinov on the ground and smashed the post. Sixty seconds later, Pele hit the bar before Vava scored from an exquisite Didi pass. Gabriel Hanot, the inventor of the European Cup, called them the greatest three minutes ever played.
Perhaps the fact those minutes were in newsreel black-and-white rather than newly vivid Technicolor ensures the 1970 side will always remain burned on the football public’s consciousness in the way the 1958 team never can be. That’s open to argument. What isn’t is the excellence of either victory.
Yet both evidently came close to evaporating before they even happened.
Such what-if moments emphasise how elusive and arguably illusory true achievement in international football really is. The infrequency of matches and necessarily random knock-out nature of the competitions have meant that teams such as Hungary 1954 and Holland 1978 have suddenly found four years of dominance made a memory on a single off-day. Whether that is down to bottle or just very bad luck is debatable and must be compared against past results. But, clearly, the very best keep their nerve over even the chaos of cup football.
Indeed, unlike clubs, very few countries have even put together such commanding runs of trophies. But are such rallies really more convincing than one absolutely perfect campaign? Should a single unconvincing tournament conquest matter more than four years unbeaten?
In order to attempt to find out, the Football Pantheon has come up with a formula that hopes to balance all factors.
Just like with our list of the 50 greatest European club sides, the key figure was dominance. Once a side’s ‘span’ was determined – depending on characteristics such as defining individuals, core of players, philosophy or simple period of time when performances were at their peak – their success in actual tournaments was weighted and measured. So, as a most basic example, three victories in three successive tournaments were 100%… and 100 points.
It is acknowledged, however, that brilliance in international football need only be brief. A team may only be unbeatable for the month of a tournament that mattered and still thereby etch their name into history. The most obvious example is Argentina 1986, who had a dismal record leading up to the tournament. Since high performance in competitions is the effective currency of international football – as also continuously illustrated by generations of German teams – our second figure was impact.
In this instance, single-tournament performance was quantified. The more perfect a tournament, the more points a team won. So, the 19 points gleaned from six wins and a draw were taken as a percentage from the 21 available for a seven-game tournament. Bonuses were also awarded for particularly stand-out achievements such as best attack, best defences or 100% records.
Since such tournaments may still have been chance aberrations, it was decided to place them into the wider context of a team’s consistency. Much like with the tournament displays themselves, total wins and draws of a team’s spans were taken as a percentage of the number of games they played.
Finally, the figures were added together.
As ever, they are from perfect. But we hope they all add up to a thought-provoking read. And, once again, any comments or suggestions that will help us refine and eventually enhance our findings are always welcome. Otherwise, enjoy our second list.