15. Uruguay 1950-54
When captain Obdulio Varela saw Rio newspapers already proclaiming Brazil as “world champions” on the morning of the 1950 final game, he was so enraged he bought every copy he could for the squad to urinate on.
But, better, he then showed similar irreverence in the game itself as Uruguay pulverised every single pre-match prediction. Varela inspired his side to an unexpected 2-1 win at the Maracana that Brazilians still call “our Hiroshima”.
Given the quality that Uruguay possessed in the likes of Alcides Ghiggia and Juan Schiaffino as well as Varela, the extent of the surprise now is a little difficult to fathom. But then that was the weight of Brazil’s wait for the World Cup, as well as the expectation that they had been destined to end it on their own patch.
In that sense, Uruguay may – like many tournament winners – not necessarily have been the most gifted team at that given time. But they did display a resolve that served them so well in short tournaments.
Tournament record: 1950 World Cup win, 1953 South American championship third, 1954 World Cup semi-finals
Manager: Juan Lopez Fontana, Juan Lopez
Best XI: Maspoli; Gonzalez, Andrade, Gambetta, Tejera; Varela, Pepez, Miguez; Ghiggia, Moran, Schiaffino
14. Argentina 1985-90
A one-man team? Rather, one that was very efficiently managed as Carlos Bilardo effectively invented wing-backs in order to get the best out of Diego Maradona.
“When we went out to play like that,” Bilardo would say of his new 3-5-2, “it took the world by surprise because they didn’t know the details of the system.”
The world may have been a little more aware of Maradon’s unique talent, but not his application. Up to then, it could possibly have been argued that the playmaker was something of an unfulfilled talent.
Before the tournament though, his friend Paolo Pauletti said he was taken aback by the player’s mental focus and physical preparation. “He seemed full of strength, resolution and youthful energy.”
By the end of it, Hugh McIlvanney was declaring that “never before in the history of World Cups has the talent of a single footballer loomed so pervasively over everybody’s thinking”. His utter domination of the event was encapsulated in the glorious 54th minute against England. But, even by then, Maradona had gloriously shown his hand.
The necessary adaption and dependence on the captain did, admittedly, bring some bizarre results for Bilardo’s team. Over five years, they had a win percentage of a mere 40%. The uglier side of the manager’s pragmatism was also illustrated in the 1990 final against West Germany.
But as the team’s record reveals, they didn’t win many games but had a habit of winning the ones that mattered.
Tournament record: 1986 World Cup win; 1987 Copa America semi-finals, 1989 Copa America semi-finals; 1990 final
Manager: Carlos Bilardo
Best XI: Pumpido; Brown, Cuciuffo, Ruggeri; Giusti, Olarticoechea, Batista, Enrique, Burruchaga; Maradona; Valdano
13. Argentina 1941-47
Argentina’s finest ever team, a fact which was all the more fitting given that they best exemplified the country’s football theory of La Nuestra – our way. Built on the base of the unique River Plate team of the ’40s known as the Machine, Guillermo Stabile’s team won four South American Championships out of five in exquisite fashion.
As Jonathon Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, it was “when football came as close as it ever would to Danny Blanchflower’s ideal of the glory game”.
The side were perhaps unlucky to have reached their peak at a period when Argentina enforced relative isolationism and international football itself was still recovering from the second world war along with the rest of the globe.
“What would have happened if Argentina had played in the World Cup at that time?” asked attacker Rene Pontoni. “I feel like I have a thorn stuck in my side that has not gone away over the years. I don’t want to be presumptuous but I believe that if we’d been able to take part, we’d have taken the laurels.”
Tournament record: 1941, 1945, 1946, 1947 South American championship wins; 1942 final
Manager: Guillermot Stabile
Best XI: Cozzi; Marante, Sobrero; Yacano, Rossi, Pescia; Boye, Mendez, Di Stefano, Moreno, Loustau
12. West Germany 1988-90
Italia 90 was very far from a wondrous tournament but West Germany were worthy champions. Brimming with genuinely world-class players such as Lothar Matthaus, Andreas Brehme and Jurgen Klinsmann they also had a very healthy balance between art – Thomas Hassler, Pierre Littbarski, Andreas Moller – and craft: Jurgen Kohler, Klaus Augenthaler.
Indeed, that came across in the very tournament itself. Their effervescent attack thrashed all-comers early on (12 goals in four games) before that backline brought them through the closer closing games. In essence, it’s all enough evidence to suggest they would have been highly competitive in any World Cup – as emphasised by a solitary competitive defeat in three years.
Tournament record: Euro 88 semi-final, 1990 World Cup winners
Manager: Franz Beckenbauer
Best XI: Ilgner; Berthold, Brehme, Augenthaler, Kohler, Buchwald; Hassler, Matthaus, Littbarski; Voller, Klinsmann
11. Brazil 1993-95
Far from the most beautiful Brazil team but one of the hardest to beat. Carlos Alberto Parreira necessarily hardened the side to bring a first World Cup in 24 years as well as a three-year undefeated reign.
Only once in America did they really cut loose, in the second half against the Dutch. Even that game, however, was settled by a defender as Branco burst the net with a free-kick from 30 yards. After it, he complained that he was underestimated as a footballer in Brazil. He might have been talking about the team as a whole. Because, at the very least, both Romario and Bebeto added some fantasy and finesse to a whole lot of function.
Tournament record: 1993 Copa America quarter-finals; 1994 World Cup winners; 1995 Copa America final
Manager: Carlos Alberto Parriera
Best XI: Taffarel; Jorginho, Branco, Aldair, Marcio Santos; Mauro Silva, Dunga, Mazinho, Rai; Romario, Bebeto