The best ever international teams: Part one

Which is the greatest national team of all time? Our football writer Greg Lea ranks them, starting with numbers 10-6.

10. Argentina 1986-91

Mention Argentina and 1986 in the same sentence and only one person springs to mind: Diego Armando Maradona. The then-Napoli forward inspired his country to their second World Cup trophy that year, with his otherworldly displays against England and Belgium in the knockout rounds immediately becoming the stuff of legend. His goal against the former is still the greatest the storied competition has seen.

It’s tempting to label 1986 Argentina a one-man team, as many have done, but such a tag is unfair. Maradona was clearly head and shoulders above every other individual in Mexico that summer, yet Carlos Bilardo deserves credit for establishing a solid platform upon which his star man could perform. Jorges Burruchaga and Valdano could play a bit, too, while Oscar Ruggeri was a rock at the back.

The Albiceleste weren’t quite as good in Italy four years later, but they still made it to the final, where they only narrowly lost to West Germany by a single goal. Twelve months after that, they proved that life after Maradona did indeed exist by winning the Copa America in Chile.

9. France 1982-86

France’s 1982 World Cup campaign got off to a bad start, as England ran out 3-1 winners in the two teams’ opener in Bilbao. Les Bleus bounced back from that disappointment by overcoming Kuwait 4-1 a few days later, but a 1-1 draw with Czechoslovakia – while good enough to qualify them from Group 4 – didn’t seem to indicate that Michel Hidalgo’s men were genuine contenders to take home the trophy.

Yet defeats of Austria and Northern Ireland in the second group phase set up a semi-final meeting with West Germany, which is widely considered one of the most entertaining World Cup games of all time. It was the Germans who held their nerve in the penalty shoot-out (surprise, surprise) to advance to the showpiece event in Madrid, but France licked their wounds and responded by winning the European Championship on home soil two years later. At the 1986 World Cup, meanwhile, they were again eliminated by West Germany after previous triumphs over Italy and Brazil.

The most notable feature of the French setup was the Carré Magique, or the ‘Magic Square’. The term referred to the side’s four-man midfield, which at its best in 1984 featured Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez and Michel Platini. Each member of the quartet was supremely technically gifted, and France were duly capable of some stunning football on their day.

8. Italy 1934-38

Italy’s on-field achievements in the 1930s were somewhat overshadowed by the actions of the country’s leader off it. Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini, who first came to power in 1922, was fully aware of football’s influence and set about using the sport to further his own political ends.

Winning the World Cup on home soil in 1934 was an essential part of Mussolini’s plan to unify the population behind the national team, while victory in France four years later was equally relished by Il Duce. There were mass anti-fascists protests at the latter tournament, but Italy shrugged off the criticism – they infamously donned all-black shirts when facing the hosts in the last eight – to successfully retain the Jules Rimet trophy.

While it’s important not to gloss over matters such as those discussed above, it must also be pointed out that Italy were an excellent football team. Manager Vittorio Pozzo was ahead of his time in terms of physical preparation and sports psychology; he was tactically astute, too, creating the ‘Metodo’ formation which saw Italy swap the popular 2-3-5 for a 2-3-2-3. Giuseppe Meazza was the side’s key player, but the contributions of Raimundo Orsi, Silvio Piola, Luis Monti, Giovanni Ferrari and Giuseppe Ruffino were also crucial.

7. Netherlands 1974-78

The 1974 World Cup final couldn’t have got off to a better start for the Netherlands. Little over a minute was on the clock when Johan Cruyff was felled in the penalty area, giving Johan Neeskens the chance to open the scoring from 12 yards. West Germany, it seemed, had a mountain to climb.

Holland had dazzled the watching world with their glorious brand of Total Football earlier in the tournament, but they failed to kill the game off and were left devastated when West Germany scored twice to claim the crown. The Dutch returned to the final in Argentina in 1978, this time without Cruyff, but were left to rue another missed opportunity as the hosts emerged victorious.

Yet despite the oft-repeated maxim that no-one remembers the losers, the Netherlands side of the 1970s remains one of the most celebrated in football history.  

6. France 1998-01

The pressure was on France ahead of the 1998 World Cup. Every host nation is expected to deliver when a tournament is taking place on their own patch, and that feeling was even more pronounced given that Les Bleus had failed to win any of the other nine editions in which they participated.

That’s not to say the local public were overly confident before the action began; quite the opposite, in fact. France hadn’t even qualified in 1990 and 1994, but Aime Jacquet succeeded in fashioning a solid unit which was incredibly difficult to break down: the hosts, who could call upon Lillian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu at the back, conceded just a single goal in the group stage, before keeping further clean sheets against

Paraguay in the round of 16 and Italy in the quarter-finals. They then dispensed of Croatia to set up a final against Brazil, which was won 3-0 thanks to Zinedine Zidane’s two headers.

France were even better two years later, triumphing at the European Championship in Belgium and the Netherlands. Zidane was sublime, winning the Player of the Tournament award, while Les Bleus – in keeping with the competition as a whole – were more attacking and adventurous. Their run continued with success at the 2001 Confederations Cup after defeats of South Korea, Mexico, Brazil and Japan.

They may have crashed and burned at the 2002 World Cup, but their exploits in the four years before that mean France deserve their spot in the top 10.

Find teams 5-1 here.

By Greg Lea

Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.