Ranking the Top 10 International Teams in History
The debate about where exactly the current Spain side sits among the pantheon of great international football sides opened up again earlier this month when Vicente del Bosque's side won Euro 2012.
What with it being La Furia Roja's third consecutive tournament triumph—the first nation to achieve such a feat—they have a very strong case for being regarded as the best international side ever to play the game.
But are they the best ever? And who are they up against for that award?
Here are 10 teams that have earned the right to be called great, by virtue of their excellence over a sustained period or by the lasting mark of their brief brilliance left on the game.
No doubt there will be disagreements with this list, so feel free to leave your comments and your own rankings below.
10. Hungary 1950-56
Although Hungarian football holds onto only one Olympic title as a tangible reminder of their nation's Golden era, the Magical Magyars side, managed by Gusztav Sebes and starring Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti, changed the face of modern football.
During this glorious period, they destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest and defeated the exalted likes of Brazil and Uruguay with their revolutionary brand of attacking football, tactical versatility and superior technique.
The only match they lost in 52 games during this period was, sadly, the one that really counted—the 1954 World Cup final against West Germany.
9. Netherlands 1974-78
Another team in the top 10 that won neither of the big two prizes.
Regardless, the Dutch were consistently at the top of the international game during the 1970s, and their part in the legacy of "Total Football" has continued to shape the sport ever since.
Driven by a large contingent of the Ajax side, which won a hat-trick of European Cups between 1971-73, the Dutch were unfortunate to meet the home nation in successive World Cup finals and to lose the semifinal of the intervening European Championship in extra time.
8. Brazil 1982
Now widely recognized as the best team ever to compete in a World Cup and fail to win the competition, 1982 is perhaps the last time Brazil were true exponents of the swashbuckling, samba football for which they are famed.
After this campaign, pragmatism began to creep into the mindset of the Seleccao.
A team comprising Zico, Eder, Falcao and the inimitable Socrates arrived in Spain as pre-tournament favourites. However, the cruelly short group format meant that even a win over Argentina was not enough for Brazil to last longer than two games, after they were beaten by Paolo Rossi's hat-trick in a thrilling 3-2 loss to Italy.
7. Italy 1934-38
One of only two teams to win back-to-back World Cups, the Azzurri laid the foundations for their current status as the second most successful side in the competition's history.
Legendary players like Giuseppe Meazza (after whom the San Siro is now officially named), Giovanni Ferrari and Silvio Pioli won glory in Rome (in extra time) and then Paris four years later.
An unfortunate association with this great team is how they were the first to have their success exploited as propaganda by a fascist regime. Sadly, they were not the last.
6. Uruguay 1923-30
Go ahead and scoff, but a look at the record books will tell you that Uruguay—a small nation which, even now, is home to fewer than 3.5 million people—won six international trophies in just a seven-year period.
In that time, La Celeste won back-to-back Olympic golds, three South American Championships (the pre-cursor to the Copa America) and the first-ever World Cup in their own back yard in 1930.
Even when considering the standard and volume of competition back then, that is still a phenomenal achievement.
5. France 1998-2000
So many questions were asked of France in the build-up to hosting the World Cup in 1998.
They had reached the semifinals of Euro '96, but would two years without any competitive games be enough to prepare the clutch of burgeoning young talents at Aime Jacquet's disposal for such a demanding campaign?
The answer was an emphatic yes, as Zinedine Zidane and Co. stormed through their group and dug deep to negotiate the knockout phase before brushing Brazil aside in the final.
Just to prove it was no fluke, they lived up to what you would expect of a team that included Zidane, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry by winning Euro 2000 as well.
4. Brazil 1970
Though they had retained several stars who had begun the last decade on glorious style, Brazil had plenty of newer faces in their ranks to go with the exuberant Technicolor of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Tostao, Rivelino and Jairzinho all shone alongside veteran superstar Pele, and when captain Carlos Alberto smashed home the fourth goal against Italy in the final—the archetypal team goal which has been so lovingly rendered in this amazing gif—their place among the greats was assured.
3. West Germany 1972-76
Built around a core of Bayern Munich players who won three consecutive European Cups,
West Germany came agonizingly close to achieving the feat of the current Spain team almost 40 years earlier.
Franz Beckenbauer's warriors in white were reigning world and European champions when they came to defend their continental crown in the 1976 final against Czechoslovakia.
It took Antonin Panenka's iconic "falling leaf" penalty in the shootout to deny Der Kaiser and Co. a historic hat-trick.
2. Brazil 1958-62
Still smarting from the Maracanazo—the defeat to neighbour, Uruguay, in the 1950 World Cup final on their own turf—and then in the Copa America final to Paraguay three years later, Brazil finally left their first indelible mark on world football around the turn of the 1960s.
A glut of legendary players such as Garrincha, Nilton Santos, Mario Zagallo and, of course, Pele, won back-to-back World Cups in Switzerland and Chile to begin what remains international football's most glittering dynasty.
1. Spain 2008-12
A painfully predictable result, but then again, that's Spain.
Over the past four years, a victory for the Spanish has almost been a cast-iron certainty, particularly when they strung together a 35-match unbeaten run of matches between 2007 and 2009.
It is not just the fact that they have won a World Cup sandwiched in between back-to-back European triumphs, but the way they have done it. Rarely has a team been so dominant over virtually all-comers, with even the best the rest of the world has to offer wilting at the prospect of taking Spain on their own terms.
In Xavi and Andres Iniesta they have two players for whom history will have to find a prominent place for, while Iker Casillas and David Villa—national record-breakers in caps and goals respectively—are not far behind.
The curious thing during Euro 2012 was the groundswell of opinion that Spain were boring to watch. That has a lot more to do with the opposition's inability to compete than their own technical majesty.
Perhaps in a decade's time, when the world's top teams are winning and losing matches and tournaments with more regularity, as things are supposed to be, even the doubters will appreciate Spain's true brilliance.
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