Euro 2016: Which is the greatest team in history of international football?


Xavi, Zinedine Zidane, Johan Cruyff and Ronaldo

Which team can claim to be the greatest international side of all time?

It is a question that has long seemed impossible to answer, since players from different decades can never face each other at their peaks.

Add in an element of nostalgia – who doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of the teams they watched as a child? – plus the fact that fleeting glimpses of star players have been replaced by wall-to-wall television coverage, and it is quite a challenge to consider the merits of teams across eras.

Here, with the help of SAM, the super computer built by Salford University professors Ian McHale, Rose Baker and others, BBC Sport assessed every side to have played an international match and analysed every international result.

Taking into account a range of factors – including goals scored, goals conceded, the strength of the opposition faced and whether or not results were achieved in major tournaments – we have come up with the top 10 teams of all time.

There are no English or Italian teams. As for the winners? You might well be surprised.

10. West Germany 1974

Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck and Gerd Muller (right) celebrate winning the World Cup
Gerd Muller (right) was the top scorer in the Bundesliga for seven seasons in the 1960s and 1970s
West Germany 1973-75
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Avg. goals for Avg. goals against
30 63 20 17 1.8 0.7

Line-up: Sepp Maier, Berti Vogts, Franz Beckenbauer, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Paul Breitner, Rainer Bonhof, Uli Hoeness, Wolfgang Overath, Jurgen Grabowski, Gerd Muller, Bernd Hölzenbein.

West Germany had come close to winning the World Cup twice in the preceding decade, losing 4-2 to England at Wembley in 1966 and 4-3 to Italy in a spectacular semi-final in Mexico four years later – so the stage was set for it to be third time lucky for veteran coach Helmut Schoen and his team as the host country in 1974.

They were guided on the pitch by an all-time great in the shape of Franz Beckenbauer. They had world-class defender Berti Vogts in their ranks. Wolfgang Overath was the midfield strategist and in attack they had the marksman supreme in Gerd Muller, scorer of 14 goals in 13 World Cup matches.

Their meeting with the Netherlands in the final got off to the worst possible start when they conceded a first-minute penalty, but through sheer determination, and no little quality, they fought their way back to win through Paul Breitner’s penalty and, inevitably, a winner from Muller.

This West Germany side will not be remembered with the same fondness as some of the teams on this list but, like so many of their compatriots down the years, they got the job done.

Line-up: Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu, Patrick Vieira, Didier Deschamps, Youri Djorkaeff, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Christophe Dugarry.

Just look at that line-up! Built around star midfielder and three-time world player of the year Zinedine Zidane, this was the team that began the Euro 2000 final, a side so strong that two of Europe’s finest players at the time, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, could not get in the first XI.

It was a group consisting largely of the players who won France’s first World Cup in 1998, but with a few tweaks.

One, in particular, took the French to the next level. Out went striker Stephane Guivarc’h, scorer of just one goal in 14 internationals, and in came 22-year-old Thierry Henry, a forward who would go on to score 51 goals in an international career spanning 13 years.

With Laurent Blanc in for Frank Leboeuf in defence, Patrick Vieira replacing Emmanuel Petit in midfield and attacker Christophe Dugarry taking Christian Karambeu’s place, France became the first team in 26 years to win a World Cup and European Championship back-to-back – West Germany won the Euros in 1972 and followed that by claiming the 1974 World Cup.

Line-up: Sergio Romero, Walter Samuel, Gabriel Heinze, Martin Demichelis, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi.

Think Argentina and the mind instantly conjures images of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Two iconic players, global superstars, both of whom led their sides to World Cup finals – Maradona winning one in 1986 and losing one in 1990, Messi losing out in 2014.

But none of those three teams make it in to our top 10, and there is space for only one of Argentina’s two most famous players.

For all Maradona’s individual brilliance, the 2010 side featuring Messi – as well as Carlos Tevez, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain – are considered the best Argentina has produced. Bear in mind the fact Sergio Aguero was predominantly only a substitute and you get a sense of their attacking strength.

“To any football fan, it is odd that the results show that the 2010 team would beat the 1986 team,” says Professor McHale.

“But there are some things that data and statistics can’t pick up on – the human spirit, mental fortitude, attitude when things aren’t going for you. There is only so much it can tell.

“The 1986 team lost 11 times in the three-year sample period, in part because they often played weakened teams in friendlies for a variety of reasons. That helps to explain why a team as brilliant as Maradona’s 1986 side do not make the list.”

While Argentina 2010 are perhaps the surprise entry on this list, their results in the period suggest they deserve their place. Less than two months after Spain won the World Cup, the world champions were thrashed 4-1 in Buenos Aires, a result Argentina followed up two months later with a 1-0 win over Brazil.

Line-up: Felix, Carlos Alberto, Everaldo, Brito, Piazza, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostao, Pele.

For many, the greatest team of all time. But not when judged by cold, hard stats.

Pele led the way for Brazil during this period, but the names of his colleagues roll off the tongue as a list of the game’s greats: captain Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Tostao, Jairzinho, Rivelino.

In 1970 alone, they played 14, won 12 and lost only once, scoring four or more goals five times. Therein lies part of the explanation as to why they do not feature further up the list – their opponents were often relatively weak, meaning victories earned them less credit in our ranking system.

This team, though, were the stuff of fantasy, regrouping after a below-par performance in England four years earlier when Pele was kicked out of the tournament. Mexico 1970 was the great man’s World Cup finale after his first win in Sweden in 1958 and he bade farewell in style.

England pushed them closest in a classic group game in Guadalajara settled by Jairzinho’s goal, and this was a team so good they were even able to carry a goalkeeping liability in Felix with no ill effects.

The final against Italy in Mexico’s Aztec Stadium was their showpiece. Goals from Pele, Gerson, Jairzinho and the brilliant flourish of passing to set up Carlos Alberto for the most famous goal in the 4-1 win was the crowning glory for an utterly brilliant side.

6. Netherlands 1974

Johan Cruyff
Johan Cruyff won the Ballon d’Or – then the award for Europe’s best player – in 1971, 1973 and 1974
Netherlands 1973-75
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Avg. goals for Avg. goals against
26 54 23 23 2.2 1

Line-up: Jan Jongbloed, Ruud Krol, Wim Rijsbergen, Wim Suurbier, Wim Jansen, Arie Haan, Wim van Hanegem, Johan Neeskens, Johan Cruyff, Rob Rensenbrink, Johnny Rep.

One of the greatest teams never to win the World Cup. The Dutch were masterly throughout the 1974 tournament, demonstrating a tactical and technical ability far above every other team, guided on the pitch by the brilliant Johan Cruyff and off it by the master of “Total Football”, the visionary coach Rinus Michels.

Cruyff led a team full of talent in defender Ruud Krol, midfielders Arie Haan and Johan Neeskens as well as forwards Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink.

In the goalless draw against Sweden, the “Cruyff turn” was invented, as the great man bamboozled Jan Olsson with a piece of football ballet that will forever bear his name.

The Netherlands then gave masterclasses against Argentina, who they beat 4-0, and the fading reigning champions Brazil, where they won 2-0. The victory was far more convincing than the scoreline suggests.

There was a touch of arrogance about this side and it cost them in the final against West Germany in Munich. Instead of capitalising on Neeskens’ first-minute penalty they wanted to humiliate their opponents – allowing the ruthless hosts to recover and claim the World Cup with a 2-1 win.

How Netherlands' team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

5. Germany 2012

Germany 2012
Five of the Germany team that started the Euro 2012 semi-final were in the side that won the European Under-21 Championship three years earlier
Germany 2011-13
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Ave. goals for Ave. goals against
38 68 19 13 2.6 1.3

Line-up: Manuel Neuer, Holger Badstuber, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Philipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Thomas Muller

This was the team that laid the foundations for the World Cup win that was to follow in 2014.

A side which mixed the experience of Miroslav Klose (who would go on to become the all-time World Cup top scorer with 16 goals) and Bastian Schweinsteiger with a younger generation that included Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller, their quarter-final win against Greece at Euro 2012 was their 15th consecutive competitive victory.

The defeat by Italy in the semi-finals of that tournament would prove to be little more than a blip, as Joachim Low’s side embarked on a new run of 18 competitive matches unbeaten, a sequence which included a remarkable 7-1 thrashing of hosts Brazil and ended with a World Cup final victory against Argentina.

How Germany's team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

4. Brazil 2013

Neymar celebrates with the Confederations Cup trophy
Neymar inspired Brazil to the Confederations Cup in 2013 – but could not repeat the feat at the World Cup a year later
Brazil 2012-14
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Ave. goals for Ave. goals against
47 77 13 10 2.7 0.9

Line-up: Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Marcelo, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Bernard, Paulinho, Oscar, Hulk, Neymar, Fred

A year away from hosting their own World Cup, Brazil could hardly have been better positioned to succeed on home soil.

An 11-game unbeaten run in 2013 culminated in five straight wins at the Confederations Cup, a tournament which doubled as a dry run for the main event the following summer. Not only did Brazil win that competition but they did so in style, beating France 3-0 and Italy 4-2 before hammering world and European champions Spain 3-0 in the final.

They were the world’s in-form team and, with Neymar as their talisman, continued their impressive record in to World Cup year, recording 10 wins in a row and 13 out of 14 in total.

Yet for all that promise, this will be a team forever associated with one of the great humiliations in modern sport. A game away from a final at the Maracana in Rio, Brazil were 5-0 down to Germany in the semi-final inside 29 minutes and were eventually demolished 7-1.

It was a one-off – Brazil went on to win 11 straight matches after the World Cup, including victories against Argentina and France – but that defeat by Germany is a result that will always define them.

How Brazil's team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

3. Spain 2010

Spain team in 2009
Six of the Spain team that started the 2010 World Cup final were Barcelona players while another one, Pedro, joined the Catalan club that summer
Spain 2009-11
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Ave. goals for Ave. goals against
43 84 5 11 2.5 0.8

Line-up: Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Joan Capdevila, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, David Villa, Fernando Torres

The inventors of tiki-taka, Spain imposed their own brand of football on the world from 2008 onwards, helped in no small part by the success of a Pep Guardiola-inspired Barcelona, whose players formed the core of the national team.

With Andres Iniesta and Xavi the heartbeat of the side, Spain became the first team to win back-to-back European Championship titles (in 2008 and 2012), while they ended their wait for World Cup success when they became the first European nation to win the competition outside of their own continent by lifting the trophy in South Africa in 2010.

It was a period of unprecedented dominance. Under Luis Aragones and then Vicente del Bosque, Spain set a new world record of 15 consecutive wins and went unbeaten for 35 matches.

The team of 2010 boasts an 84% win percentage and the majority of the players above were involved in all three tournament successes, but that is not quite enough to make the top two.

How Spain's team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

2. Brazil 1997

Ronaldo’s record as the leading scorer in World Cup history was taken by Germany’s Miroslav Klose in 2014
Brazil 1996-98
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Ave. goals for Ave. goals against
53 74 15 11 2.7 0.9

Line-up: Claudio Taffarel, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Aldair, Marcio Santos, Dunga, Juninho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Bebeto, Romario

Brazil went unbeaten from November 1993 to January 1996, a period stretching 28 games, taking in a World Cup win and including victories against Argentina (twice), Netherlands and England, among many others. Their scintillating form continued, as they lost just once in 20 matches in the 1996-97 season, a campaign which culminated in a Copa America triumph.

Those runs are hardly surprising when you look at the players at manager Mario Zagallo’s disposal – he had three of Brazil’s six all-time leading goalscorers to choose from.

Ronaldo, scorer of 15 World Cup goals, was just three years in to his international career in 1997, working his way into a team which could boast two of the leading scorers at the 1994 World Cup – Romario (five) and Bebeto (three). Not a bad array of attacking power.

This side was made up of a group of players who won that World Cup and were beaten finalists in 1998 – a rare example of a team maintaining its strength over a four-year cycle and reaching consecutive finals.

How Brazil's team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

1. Hungary 1954

Hungarian team in the early 1950s
Ferenc Puskas (front row, middle) was the driving force as Hungary’s rise shocked the football world in the 1950s
Hungary 1953-55
Games Win % Draw % Loss % Ave. goals for Ave. goals against
30 80 17 3 4.1 1.2

Line-up: Gyula Grosics, Jeno Buzanszky, Mihaly Lantos, Borzsei Janos, Jozsef Zakarias, Jozsef Bozsik, Zoltan Czibor, Ferenc Szusza, Ferenc Puskás, Nandor Hidegkuti, Sandor Kocsis

Hungary, the best team of all time? Bear with us…

The Mighty Magyars dominated world football in the early 1950s, inspired by the genius of Ferenc Puskas. This was a team embarking on a run of more than four years without defeat, and they would go on to reach the 1954 World Cup final.

In 1953 they humiliated England, a stunning 6-3 victory at Wembley exposing the Three Lions’ deficiencies as they lost a home game to a non-British or Irish team for the first time. England hoped for revenge in May of the following year in the return fixture but were left embarrassed once more as they were thrashed 7-1 in Budapest.

So strong was the Puskas led-side that, in that summer’s World Cup, they would beat West Germany 8-3 and South Korea 9-0 in surely the greatest show of group-stage strength even seen at a major tournament.

They were only denied World Cup glory by the Miracle of Bern, with the West Germans defying the odds and memories of that heavy defeat weeks earlier to win the final 3-2 – after Hungary had gone 2-0 ahead in the opening 10 minutes. An ankle injury suffered by Puskas meant he was not fully fit in that game, hampering the Hungarians’ attempts to cement their place as the world’s greatest side.

For Hungary, their team of the time was perhaps the ultimate example of a “golden generation”. As the graph below shows, it has pretty much been downhill ever since.

How Hungary's team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

How the top three compare

Here’s how the top three nations look when plotted alongside one another.

How the top three nations compare when plotted alongside one another
Source: SAM the super computer

And what about England?

No English team makes it into the top 10, but which Three Lions side does the super computer rate as the best?

Despite the 1966 squad winning the World Cup, it is actually the team from 1986 that comes out as the strongest England has produced.

With Gary Lineker the tournament’s leading scorer, who knows how far they might have gone – and where they would appear in our top 10 – had Maradona and the Hand of God not intervened?

How England's team strength peaked and dipped in the course of their footballing history
Source: SAM the super computer

Additional words by Phil McNulty


[Source  BBC]