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Ranking the Top 20 Nations in the History of the World Cup

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2014

Ranking the Top 20 Nations in the History of the World Cup

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    GIANNI FOGGIA

    The World Cup is football's premier competition. Freed from the rigours of the club game once every four years, players from across the planet compete for national pride and the chance for unparalleled glory that could come just once in a lifetime. 

    In its 84 years of existence, the competition has seen countless memorable matches and wonderful teams. But who, across World Cup history, has the right to call themselves the greatest?

    Tallying points and matches won since the very first tournament in Uruguay, here is a statistical analysis of who have been the most successful teams in World Cup history. 

Methodology

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    Associated Press

    Here is the criteria for judging the most successful teams in World Cup history. First and foremost, nations will be separated on the points they have gained for winning or drawing fixtures at the tournament. 

    To ensure fairness, all games are scored with the modern system of three points for a win, one for a draw. The knockout stages give the winner an extra three imaginary points for each match. 

    In the case of penalty shootouts, the game is treated as a draw, with both sides awarded one point. 

    In the case of two or more teams finishing level on points, the number of World Cups won by a country would be the first and most important tie-breaking condition. Next, points-per-game as an average, followed by goal difference across the history of the competition. 

    All data is courtesy of the official FIFA website

    Note: Czech Republic includes tournaments played by the former Czechoslovakia. Serbian points include those tallied by the former Yugoslavia, Russia is considered the heir of the ex-Soviet Union national team. Germany's results include West Germany's performances prior to unification in 1990. 

20. Chile

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Games Played: 29

    Games Won: 9

    Games Lost: 14

    Games Drawn: 6

    Total Points: 33

    The Andean nation, South America's fourth representative on this list, actually comes in joint 20th in the World Cup rankings. On both points and points average, they are tied with Switzerland, who miss out by virtue of a slightly worse goal difference over the years. 

    The Roja's finest football moment was hosting and finishing third at the 1962 World Cup, taking down Italy in the process during a game so violent it has been dubbed "the battle of Santiago." Regional competitiveness, however, has arguably hurt the South Americans. 

    The fierce fight for CONMEBOL places at the World Cup means that Chile have played consecutive World Cups just twice in their history; in 1962 and 1966, and now in 2014 after reaching the last 16 under Marcelo Bielsa four years ago. 

19. Belgium

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    Games Played: 23

    Games Won: 12

    Games Lost: 8

    Games Drawn: 3

    Total Points: 39

    The Belgium national football team are tied on points with Portugal. However, thanks to the latter's superior points average, the nation are pushed down to the penultimate position in our list. 

    The nation has been a frequent entrant at the World Cup. Once at the tournament, however, results have been rather disappointing. With their best performance coming in the semi-finals of the 1986 edition, Belgium have made it past the first round in just five of the 11 tournaments they have contested

18. Portugal

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    Matthias Schrader

    Games Played: 23

    Games Won: 12

    Games Lost: 8

    Games Drawn: 3

    Total Points: 39

    It is incredible to think that with the class of talent Portugal have enjoyed over the years, they have only been present at five World Cups. Indeed, if not for the magic of one Cristiano Ronaldo, the Lusitanians may well have been sitting out Brazil 2014 as well. 

    But once at the finals, Portugal tend to make a splash; hence their points average of 1.7 that is far superior to any other team occupying positions 20-11 of this list. Two semi-final appearances (1966 and 2006) and a run of four consecutive qualifications suggest the future is bright for the nation. 

17. Austria

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    JONAS EKSTROMER

    Games Played: 29

    Games Won: 12

    Games Lost: 13

    Games Drawn: 4

    Total Points: 40

    As a football power, Austria's best days appear to be firmly behind them. The nation made the semi-final stage in the first two World Cups they entered, while 1938 and 1950 saw them miss out due to the before-and-after effects of Germany's annexation and the Second World War. 

    The country has now been absent from football's biggest international tournament for 16 years, their last appearance coming in France 1998. One has to go back to 1982, meanwhile, to find the last time that Austria managed to get past the first round. 

16. Czech Republic

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    Antonio Calanni

    Games Played: 33

    Games Won: 12

    Games Lost: 16

    Games Drawn: 5

    Total Points: 41

    The Czech Republic national team has struggled to reproduce the form seen on a regular basis since splitting with Slovakia in 1992. As Czechoslovakia, however, the side came close to glory on a number of occasions. 

    The nation went all the way to the final before going down to Italy in 1934. In 1962 they reached the same stage, playing off against Brazil in the decider. Czechoslovakia briefly led in that game before the Selecao's strength paid off, and they prevailed 3-1. 

15. Hungary

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    Associated Press

    Games Played: 32

    Games Won: 15

    Games Lost: 14

    Games Drawn: 3

    Total Points: 48

    Hungary's greatest football days now belong firmly in the past. But few teams influenced modern football as much as the "Mighty Magyars" as the game began to change in the 1950s. After finishing second in 1938, it was the team influenced by Ferenc Puskas and Co. 16 years later that left its mark on the sport. 

    Hungary lost out to West Germany in that year's final, having scored an astounding 27 goals in their five games and humiliating the eventual winners 8-3 in the first round. 

    But the team would never return to those heights and have failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1986. 

14. Mexico

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    John Cowpland

    Games Played: 49

    Games Won: 12

    Games Lost: 24

    Games Drawn: 13

    Total Points: 49

    Only four teams have qualified for more World Cups than Mexico, in great part thanks to their place as a football nation in the relative backwater of North America and the Caribbean. Once at the greatest show on earth, however, the Tricolor's form has been variable. 

    With an average of just one point per game, Mexico are comfortably the least effective nation in our list; such footballing giants as Cameroon, Jamaica and Slovakia boast the same record. But there have been memorable occasions for one of the few nations (alongside Italy, France, Germany and, soon, Brazil) to have been at so many World Cups.

    Quarter-final finishes in 1970 and 1986 were the highlights for the Mexican national side, who nevertheless have made the last 16 for each of the last five World Cups. 

13. Poland

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    Associated Press

    Games Played: 31

    Games Won: 15

    Games Lost: 11

    Games Drawn: 5

    Total Points: 50

    Like Iron Curtain neighbours Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, Polish football also enjoyed a golden spell in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nation was a world force during the 1970s and '80s, making a mark on the World Cup before fading away again. 

    Poland took the world by surprise in finishing third at the 1974 World Cup, a best-ever performance for the nation. Strong showings in 1978 and 1982 (with another third-placed finish) helped the side climb these rankings; 12 of the 15 wins at a World Cup came in those three tournaments. 

12. Russia

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    Associated Press

    Games Played: 37

    Games Won: 17

    Games Lost: 14

    Games Drawn: 6

    Total Points: 57

    Given its size and range of playing talent it is able to call on, one cannot help but feel that Russia should be far higher up this list than 12th position. In the days of the Soviet Union, this was even truer as the best of Ukraine, Belarus and the USSR's myriad constituents all represented the superpower. 

    The heyday of Soviet football came in the 1960s, where the team lifted the 1960 European Championship, finished fourth in England in 1966 and being among the top eight sides for four straight World Cups. But despite possessing wonderful players, they could never repeat that form, and Russia on its own is yet to make it past the group stages. 

11. Serbia

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    Simon Bruty/Getty Images

    Games Played: 43

    Games Won: 17

    Games Lost: 18

    Games Drawn: 8

    Total Points: 59

    The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s came at possibly the worst footballing moment for the nation. A squad containing the talents of Robert Prosinecki, Alen Boksic, Davor Suker, Dragan Stojkovic and many more stars had secured a quarter-final place at the 1990 World Cup, and was one of the favourites for the 1992 European Championships before crisis hit. 

    The nation's previous golden era came in the post-war decade, with two quarter-final finishes and a last four in the 1962 edition. But as Serbia and Montenegro and now Serbia, three World Cup appearances have all ended in the first round. 

10. Sweden

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Games Played: 46

    Games Won: 16

    Games Lost: 17

    Games Drawn: 13

    Total Points: 61

    Sweden come in at 10th place as a testament to their solidity and consistency when it comes to the World Cup. The Scandinavians may rarely get a mention when it comes to naming the strongest teams in the world, but their performances deserve to be recognised. 

    The Swedish team finished fourth in 1938 and third in 1950, with the noticeable handicap of fielding teams composed entirely of amateurs. The first professional side reached the final against Pele's Brazil in 1958; and yet another semi-final appearance in USA '94 makes the nation a perennial contender at the World Cup. 

9. Uruguay

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    ARIS MESSINIS

    Games Played: 47

    Games Won: 18

    Games Lost: 17

    Games Drawn: 12

    Total Points: 66

    Uruguay were the world's first football powerhouse. As well as World Cup titles in 1930 and 1950, the Charrua won two Olympic gold medals in the years before the tournament was recognised by FIFA as a top-level trophy. 

    Since those glory days, however, the nation has been somewhat on the wane. But a semi-final in 2010 signalled a return to the top level; and they remain comfortably the smallest country to have ever lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy. 

8. Netherlands

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    Peter Hillebrecht

    Games Played: 43

    Games Won: 22

    Games Lost: 11

    Games Drawn: 10

    Total Points: 76

    The Oranje are cursed with an unwanted record. Having finished runners-up in 1974, 1978 and 2010, no other team has played as many finals without ever lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy.

    That failure perhaps does more than anything to explain the Netherlands' turbulent history in the World Cup. 

    With an average of 1.81 points a game, the nation comes in at fourth place on effectiveness. But despite possessing several wonderful teams, failures to qualify during the 1980s and disappointing campaigns afterwards mean the Dutch occupy a place in this table which is much lower than they deserve. 

7. France

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    Michel Lipchitz

    Games Played: 54

    Games Won: 25

    Games Lost: 18

    Games Drawn: 11

    Total Points: 86

    France are another country with a long and illustrious association with the World Cup. Its founder, Jules Rimet, was, of course, a Frenchman; and in 1930 the nation was one of only four European sides to brave the steamer ride over to Uruguay for the inaugural tournament. 

    Sustaining golden generations of talent into sustained success has been a big problem for France. Semi-final finishes in 1982 and 1986 were followed by two tournaments on the sidelines after the exit of stars such as Michel Platini and Alain Giresse left a gaping hole. 

    Similarly, that memorable home triumph in 1998 was accompanied four years later by a humiliating first-round exit; then a final and another group stage failure. 

6. Spain

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    Martin Meissner

    Games Played: 56

    Games Won: 28

    Games Lost: 16

    Games Drawn: 12

    Total Points: 96

    For years, Spain were considered the underachievers of World Cup football. Always blessed with a team full of talent until 2010 and the drama of South Africa, the Furia Roja had failed to break their Jules Rimet drought. 

    That fruitless spell, however, belies a record in international football's biggest competition that is more than respectable. Their worst spell coincided, paradoxically, with Real Madrid's dominance of the 1950s and 1960s. Since hosting in 1982, Spain have qualified and made the knockout stage of every competition. 

5. England

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    STR

    Games Played: 59

    Games Won: 26

    Games Lost: 14

    Games Drawn: 19

    Total Points: 97

    It is somewhat of a surprise to see England ranked so highly in the historic rankings. But once the Three Lions actually manage to qualify for a World Cup, they become tricky customers for most teams to handle. 

    Averaging 1.64 points a game, their efficiency compares favourably with nations such as France and Uruguay. Consistency also weighs heavy; in 13 World Cup appearances, only twice have England failed to leave the first round, the last time coming in 1958. 

    The Three Lions are also notoriously hard to break down. With just 14 defeats, England have lost fewer times than any of the teams with more than 50 World Cup matches under their belt. 

4. Argentina

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    David Cannon/Getty Images

    Games Played: 70

    Games Won: 37

    Games Lost: 20

    Games Drawn: 13

    Total Points: 124

    Few teams can boast as much controversy and as many purely heart-stopping moments as the Rioplatense side. But the Albiceleste, as well as winning the World Cup on two occasions, also possess one of the strongest records historically. 

    Finalists in 1930, the nation subsequently failed to make much of an impact on the competition, even pulling out for 20 years between 1934 and 1954. But in the modern era, they have become one of football's strongest proponents, driven by creative legends such as Diego Maradona, Juan Roman Riquelme and now Lionel Messi. 

3. Italy

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    Games Played: 80

    Games Won: 44

    Games Lost: 15

    Games Drawn: 21

    Total Points: 153

    The Azzurri are Europe's most successful side in World Cup competition, trailing only Brazil on the leaderboard with four Jules Rimet trophies. Despite this achievement, however, a chequered history in the competition consigns Italy to third place overall. 

    Back-to-back wins in 1934 and 1938 were followed by 20 years of failing to make it past the first round, despite Italian football in the 1960s being the richest financially and in talent on the planet.

    Italy have shown themselves more than capable of suffering ups and downs unheard of by perennial rivals Germany and Brazil. 

     

2. Germany

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Games Played: 99

    Games Won: 60

    Games Lost: 20

    Games Drawn: 19

    Total Points: 199

    Germany were somewhat late starters in international football. The nation competed in just two of the first four World Cups, mixing an encouraging third place in 1934 with an abject exit to Switzerland four years later as the spectre of war enveloped Europe. 

    West Germany put the nation's football back on the map with victory in 1954, however, and they have been close to the top ever since. 

    Excluding the slightly altered format in 1978, Germany or West Germany have reached the quarter-finals or further in every World Cup for the last 50 years, a feat unmatched by any other nation.

    This consistency also explains why they have played more World Cup games than anyone else: 99, compared to Italy's 80 in the same number of tournaments. 

1. Brazil

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    Associated Press

    Games Played: 97

    Games Won: 67

    Games Lost: 15

    Games Drawn: 15

    Total Points: 216

    No matter which way you look at it, Brazil come out on top as the best team in the history of the World Cup. With 19 total appearances at a finals, the nation has also played the most different competitions, having been present at every single World Cup since Uruguay in 1930. 

    Hosts this time around in 2014, the Selecao will inevitably be among the favourites to win their sixth title and further consolidate their place on the historical leaderboard. 

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