The 30 greatest international teams of all time

Introduction

Contents

Pelé and Bobby Moore at Mexico 1970

A moment of mutual respect between Pelé and Bobby Moore at Mexico 1970

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.

That’s exactly what Spain did in the Soccer City final as they eventually added the efficiency of their 2010 World Cup to the euphoria of Euro 2008.

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.

Share your opinion

120 comments
quinnap
quinnap

 @SamHowlett Bayern München 2013 are not one of the greatest international teams of all time. Nor are they an international team. But maybe you mean they should be included on the club page.

quinnap
quinnap

Tiny point, there are only 10 players in the USSR 60-68 best 11. I vote for the inclusion of Mamykin because he sounds like a pet name for one's Mum. Or Chislenko, coz he sounds handsome. Although there are probably enough forwards.

SamHowlett
SamHowlett

Perhaps you are overrating Spain (2007-10). The 2nd  best team of all time? What happened to Argentina 86, Netherlands 74? So I’m watching the best soccer of all times when Spain plays? I doubt so with all due respect

MVirt
MVirt

I have to correct one thing: in 1970 Brazil didn't win 7 matches out of 7 because the tournament only had 16 teams and six matches for winners. That Brazil did however also win all their qualifying matches. 

Fluminense
Fluminense

Hey Hendrik what do you smoked? Nothing can be compared to Brazilian football...The best football was Brazil 70/73 ... after the Brazil 58-62 ... but ... Let´s compared the titles of Brazil 2002/2006 against Spain today:  see ...1 world cup unbeaten, two confederations Cup and more two American Cup ...The actuality of Spain does not compare with the facts, the statistics and the magic of Brazilian football ...

HendrikMartz
HendrikMartz

Spain has to be No 1. No other Team did what they did. Surely not pretty all time, but then again who plays pretty all time, eh?

Spain all the way. The best Team of all time. 

Sablicious
Sablicious

People who know football (beyond "oh! spain teh best, yo!") know 'The Golden Team' of Hungary c.1950s is the best team.  Not only for how long they stayed on top, but also who and HOW they beat them.

 

The only blemish is being robbed of the World Cup by Adi Dassler football studs.

vellhuan
vellhuan

this needs an update!

 

GuillaumeKosmala
GuillaumeKosmala

You're going to have to update the list with what Spain just did. Do you think they now deserve the top spot?

Filipe Guerra
Filipe Guerra

I've only seen the teams who missed out now. I have to agree!!! :(

Filipe Guerra
Filipe Guerra

But Portugal had a great side. One player doesn't do it all

Derek Hopper
Derek Hopper

I'm not sure they'd have beaten North Korea without Eusebio :)

Filipe Guerra
Filipe Guerra

How come the portugal 66 doesn't have space in the big 30? The qualification was great and the world cup fenomenal. There is also portugal 2000 - 2006. Surely one final and two thirds isn't easy to get!

Football Pantheon
Football Pantheon

Haha, know what you mean. Whatever way you dress it up though, they lost all three games to the teams who won their tournaments. That has to stand against them.

Derek Hopper
Derek Hopper

Last week I predicted Brazil '70 and the Mighty Magyar team to be numbers one and two. But having pored over the top ten as is I think you did really well. There is obviously a mathematical system to it but I can't help thinking the Dutch mid-70s team was hard done by with that tenth place finish!

Derek Hopper
Derek Hopper

Would Hungary have been further up the list if they'd won the World Cup in '54?

Derek Hopper
Derek Hopper

Good to see the Danish Dynamo team from the mid-eighties being acknowledged. They played some mighty football. I remember pretending to be Jesper Olsen when I got my first Man United shirt.

Al3x
Al3x

Cameroon not Colombia, sorry, and they didn't get past quarter finals either.

As for Euro '92, we never had much luck in the Euro competition, we finished 3rd in the qualification at that time, with 10p same as Switzerland, and Scotland was first with just 11p. As you can see it was a very close group and luck and misfortune decided the winners, not the players kill. We qualified for Euro '96 though, but we were in group with Spain and France and was very difficult eliminate one of them so we didn't get to quarter- finals. Bad luck was out the window in Euro 2000 when got passed the toughest group, Group A with Germany, England and Portugal but we found it once more with the allucky Italy and we lost 2-0 after a tense match. There you go! So... all in all I think you are just making excuses for you're choices! Peru won a very weak competition, once, and Scotland's first team was a unimpressive team who won nothing. I really don't understand you, you say Romania don't deserve to be there but some of you're facts are wrong, you can't justify you're choice and neither the choice for selecting these teams I showed you. So to say we won something, cause you say football isn't only about World Cups, I can say we won the Balkan Cup 4 times, a record. That was a small competition like CONCACAF and lasted until 1980 so we didn't with that with our '94 team. If this doesn't solve your negative retrospective of Romania 1990-2000 I don't know what will.

Al3x
Al3x

If you don't even know your facts why do you write about football??? Romania did not get knocked out of group stage in 1994, they made it to quarter-finals in 1994 ! They finished in Round of 16 in 1990 and 1998, all three ended with a draw and all lost on penalties! And your reasons are insufficient: Denmark didn't make it past quarter-finals and you put it twice, Peru stopped there too, Colombia only in last 16 and Scotland a crummy Round 1 as best performance, yet you still found a spot for them. They don't even come close to Romania '90-'98.

Al3x
Al3x

What about Romania '90 - '98, I seriously can't believe u didn't put it even on the teams that missed out !!! 2-0 URSS, 1-1 Argentina, 3-1 Colombia, 1-0 USA, 3-2 Argentina, 1-0 Colombia, 2-1 England. Trashing the top favorite teams to win in one sided matches even if the score doesn't suggest it, playing the most fluid football since Brazil 1970 and only missed out because of penalties and bad luck ! Most of those players had at least one UEFA Champions League Cup!

adamrhbrown
adamrhbrown

Again, cannot really argue against Brazil 1970 being the top choice, even if there is a strong case to be made for their immediate predecessors, who probably deserve to at least be second. Glad to hear this list will be expanded to 50 teams. Harder though to measure definitive results for international sides I'd have thought though. Look at the anomalies that even the definitive World Rankings throw up from time to time. Host nations go two years without playing a proper match for a start (and have that crucial advantage when they do).

And look at what that ONE defeat - coming after they'd been unfairly knackered by a World Cup draw born of timeless FIFA idiocy - does for the rating of that Hungary team! Defines the unfairness of ranking based on knockout football. Similar for Holland of the 70s.

Have to say that, for me, the best in my (brief) lifetime would be turn-of-the-millennium France rather than modern Spain, who may win all their games but lack the cut-and-thrust spark you really want to see (unlike the Barcelona team some of them play in I have to say). Hypnotism rather than exoticism. Though I was happy they won the 'double'. At least they know what to do with the ball.

dony
dony

Sorry, but are you serious? try to check player by player the top 3 teams, if you do not have a clue 5 out of starting 11 of the Brazilian team at WC 1958 are considered the best-all time in their position in Brazil, Gilmar, Didi,Djalma Santos, Pele and Garrincha ( Brazil never lost a match with Pele and Garrincha palying together), that national team won the WC 1962 without Pele!, and the Brazilian team without Pele was a fiasco in 1974!, also you are NOT really caring about the quality of opposition that Brazilian team destroyed the French team with Kopa and Fontaine, also was the only South American team which won a WC in European soil...................

diskomonkey
diskomonkey

The 1970-73 Brazil team probably was the best team of all time, but going on your scoring system, surely the 58-62 team is better?

Boydo
Boydo

Where does the Dutch side of 1992 - 1994 fit in. The arrival of Dennis Bergkamp and the young Ajax players makes it a different team than the 88 - 90 generation. WC Quarterfinal against Brazil in Dallas was 45 minutes of great football.

ChristianMohrBoisen
ChristianMohrBoisen

Nice. HOWEVER, you need to check the stats AND the reports/archives on Denmark 1981-86 once again. You need to read what Bobby Robson, Michel Platini, et al, have said, then and in retrospect, about this outstanding team.

je_mc2
je_mc2

Miguel, this is a great list. i just wonder why Egypt 2006-2010 are missing. 3 Nations' Cup trophies in a row, 19 games unbeaten at the tournament. They are most consistent African side of the last decade. The only blemish is that they never made the '06 or 2010 World Cup.

adamrhbrown
adamrhbrown

 @SamHowlett The order is calculated by how dominant a team is in their given era, not necessarily where the authors think they'd be in a league table, and certainly not by how exciting they were to watch. As the site says, it's the only given that you can truly compare teams of 10/25/50 years difference with - their numbers.

 

Course, the best side doesn't always win a cup competition but there are so many variables that it's impossible to draw up a truly calculated list. And, being stats-based, this is probably still closer than someone's opinion. Probably.

SamHowlett
SamHowlett

Maybe you should add Bayern München 2013

QuangPham
QuangPham

 @MVirt But they won all 6 matches in the qualification (total 12 matches) which made them the only team to win every single match that involved with the World Cup. They were also unbeated for 3 yrs from 1970 to 1973 and only defeated after Pele and other players in squad retired.

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x You also seemed to have failed the grasp of 'cycles' in teams. Hoe exactly could we include Romania's Balkan Cup wins in with the sides from 1990-98... they were completely different teams, with different players and managers. Have you got any grasp of what this list is about at all? Did you not noticed the way there are a number of Brazil teams here?

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x By the way: you see the way you confused Colombia for Cameroon? That was the same way we confused 94 or 96. It was a momentary accident. We *knew* Romania got knocked out of the World Cup 94 in the quarter-finals. Our entire list is based on facts. Look through it properly.

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x Hang on a minute mate. Other than one comment which included a typo - and had absolutely nothing to do with how this list was ranked - absolutely none of our facts were wrong. They were all 100% right and we checked it.

I really don't see how a team who never got past a quarter-finals and never won an international tournament can be considered among the very greatest of all time.

Bear in mind, too, that those Peru and Scotland sides you mention are not in the list. They're in the teams that missed out.

And what, by the way, do you know about Scotland of the late 1800s, who you label as "unimpressive"?

And even if we had have included the Balkan Cup, it wouldn't have got Romania into this list.

And, once again, I'd like you to point out which of our facts are wrong? Go on? Tell us. Because I can assure, none of them in the actual ranking are.

Also, who said we were negative about Romania? They were a great team to watch. That's different to being one of the greatest ever though.

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x Plus, Romania didn't even qualify for Euro 92. International football isn't only about World Cups you know?

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x It was a typo mate. They got knocked out of the group stage in Euro 96.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@Boydo The fact they "only" got to the quarter-finals in 1994 mitigated against them unfortunately.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@ChristianMohrBoisen I have read everything they've said and they are one of my personal favourite teams of all time... but that doesn't alter the fact that they went out in the last 16 of the 1986 World Cup which heavily mitigated against them

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@je_mc2 Many thanks mate. And unfortunately that's precisely why. Given the high weighting of the World Cup in the formula, they missed out by about 30 or 40 points. Had they won that play-off with Algeria!

Al3x
Al3x

@MiguelDelaney :)) Ok, I see what you are doing here. If you have some grudge on our team for some matches your team may have lost, although I don't know your national team, then my words are pointless. I did say Romania wasn't even on the teams that misses out you put in your list, and If you think we didn't even have the Team to consider WC '94 a miss then...

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x Peru actually won a tournament. We were talking about the first Scotland team, not their entire history.

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@MiguelDelaney As for "knowing our facts", it's an obscure typo in a massive list man. We stand by our knowledge, which I think you'll find is difficult to pick holes in beyond simple mistakes. Again, Romania don't deserve to be there.

And where did you get Colombia from? They appear nowhere in the list!

MiguelDelaney
MiguelDelaney

@Al3x Why would we have a grudge against Romania?? They were great to watch. But we were trying to decide the most successful international teams of all time. Romania were successful. But they were not among the most successful of all time.

Al3x
Al3x

@MiguelDelaney Cameroon not Colombia, sorry, and they didn't get past quarter finals either.

As for Euro '92, we never had much luck in the Euro competition, we finished 3rd in the qualification at that time, with 10p same as Switzerland, and Scotland was first with just 11p. As you can see it was a very close group and luck and misfortune decided the winners, not the players kill. We qualified for Euro '96 though, but we were in group with Spain and France and was very difficult eliminate one of them so we didn't get to quarter- finals. Bad luck was out the window in Euro 2000 when got passed the toughest group, Group A with Germany, England and Portugal but we found it once more with the allucky Italy and we lost 2-0 after a tense match. There you go! So... all in all I think you are just making excuses for you're choices! Peru won a very weak competition, once, and Scotland's first team was a unimpressive team who won nothing. I really don't understand you, you say Romania don't deserve to be there but some of you're facts are wrong, you can't justify you're choice and neither the choice for selecting these teams I showed you. So to say we won something, cause you say football isn't only about World Cups, I can say we won the Balkan Cup 4 times, a record. That was a small competition like CONCACAF and lasted until 1980 so we didn't with that with our '94 team. If this doesn't solve your negative retrospective of Romania 1990-2000 I don't know what will.

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