5. West Germany 1972-76
West Germany were beaten finalists at the 1966 World Cup, going down 4-2 to England at Wembley. They failed to qualify for the four-team European Championship a couple of years later, but recovered to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in Mexico in 1970.
Their first trophy of the period came at Euro 1972, when contained Franz Beckenbauer, Wolfgang Overath, Gunter Netzer, Gerd Muller, Sepp Maier et al. produced some brilliant football to see off England in a play-off and Belgium and the Soviet Union in the tournament proper. They didn’t stop there: glory was also attained at the 1974 World Cup, although West Germany operated far below their optimum level of performance for much of the competition. When it mattered, though, they came up trumps, coming from behind to defeat the Netherlands 2-1 in the final.
Die Mannschaft almost made it three in a row, but Czechoslovakia put an end to their run in the final of the European Championship in 1976, with Antonin Panenka famously netting the winning penalty.
4. Hungary 1950-56
The winner of the World Cup isn’t always the greatest team in the world. Indeed, if the objective was purely to identify the strongest national side on the planet, a lengthier league format would make more sense than a month-long contest featuring multiple knockout rounds.
Take Hungary. Heading into the 1954 World Cup, the Mighty Magyars had gone 28 successive matches unbeaten. Able to call upon such talented stars as inside-forward Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti – an early pioneer of the false nine role – clinical frontman Sandor Kocsis and sweeper-keeper Gyula Grosics, Gusztav Sebes’ outfit were overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy when the action got under way. Their destruction of England at Wembley a few months earlier – the 6-3 scoreline genuinely flattered the hosts – was demonstrative of both their quality and their revolutionary approach to the game, which many have labelled a precursor to the Dutch’s Total Football.
Hungary breezed past South Korea (9-0), West Germany (8-3) and Turkey (who they didn’t actually face) in Group 2 in Switzerland, before beating Brazil and defending champions Uruguay in the knockout phase. Another meeting with the West Germans followed in the final, but this time Hungary were defeated by three goals to two. It was their only loss in 50 games between 1950 and 1956. Over 60 years on, they remain the best team to have never won the World Cup.
3. Brazil 1958-62
The most important goal of Pele’s career, according to the man himself, came at the 1958 World Cup. The 17-year-old forward didn’t appear in Brazil’s first two matches, a 3-0 triumph over Austria and a goalless draw with England, but was thrown into the starting line-up for the final group encounter against Soviet Union.
Vava’s two strikes secured a 2-0 victory, but it was Pele who was the hero against Wales in the quarter-final, scoring the only goal of the game and convincing coach Vicente Feola that he deserved to keep his place for the remainder of the tournament. A hat-trick in the last four against France and a brace in the final against hosts Sweden saw Pele finish as his side’s top scorer and, more importantly, Brazil crowned kings of the globe. It was the first time a nation had won the World Cup on another continent.
They repeated the feat back on the other side of the Atlantic in 1962, after finishing as runners-up at the 1959 South American Championship. Pele was now 21 and even better than he had been four years previously, but the Selecao were far from a one-man team: Vava, Djalma Santos, Garrincha, Nilton Santos, Amarildo, Didi and Mario Zagallo were all fine players in their own right.
After qualifying from a group containing Mexico, Czechoslovakia and Spain, Brazil turned on the style in the knockout phase. England were beaten 3-1 in the quarter-finals and hosts Chile seen off 4-2 in the last four, a win which set up a final against Czechoslovakia. Josef Masopust opened the scoring in the 15th minute, but goals from Amarildo, Zito and Vava ensured it was Brazil who got their hands on the silverware. No country has retained the World Cup since.
2. Spain 2008-12
No team in the history of the game has dominated international football to the same extent as Spain between 2008 and 2012. Not only did La Roja win three tournaments on the bounce, they only occasionally allowed their opponents to touch the ball – let alone score a goal.
Spain’s era began at Euro 2008, when Luis Aragones’ men ended the country’s trophy drought thanks to a 1-0 win over Germany in the final. Yet perhaps the most important game of that competition came two rounds earlier; many Spanish players, indeed, have pointed to the penalty shoot-out defeat of Italy in the last eight as the moment in which the country shed its inferiority complex on the football field.
The 2010 World Cup started badly, as Switzerland recorded a surprise 1-0 win against the pre-tournament favourites, but Spain beat both Honduras and Chile to advance as group winners. In the knockout rounds, three straight 1-0 wins against Portugal, Paraguay and Germany set up a final with the Netherlands, who were also beaten by a single goal in Johannesburg. Some were bored by Spain’s possession obsession by the end of the competition, but others heaped praise on their undeniable technical supremacy.
That divide became even starker at Euro 2012, with Spain occasionally fielding six midfield playmakers at the same time: Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. Undeterred, the defending champions continued their astonishing record of not conceding a goal in the knockout rounds of a tournament since 2006, before turning on the style with a 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the final.
1. Brazil 1970
You’ve seen the goal.
The move begins deep in Brazil’s half, with centre-forward Tostao regaining possession for his side close to the left flank. The Selecao stroke the ball about as they assess their options, before Clodoaldo brilliantly resists the Italian press with some sublime close control and trickery. Four men are completely taken out of the game thanks to the defensive midfielder’s dribble, and Brazil don’t need a second invitation to take advantage of the additional space.
Rivelino is next to receive the ball but, sensing the need to increase the tempo, he doesn’t hold onto it for long. A quick pass is fired down the left for right-winger Jairzinho, who has drifted out to the opposite side of the pitch in an attempt to bring Italy left-back Giacinto Facchetti with him.
Brazil’s No.7 cuts infield and squares the ball to Pele, who doesn’t even need to look to know that right-back Carlos Alberto is bombing forward on the overlap. The pass to him is weighted perfectly, and Brazil’s captain duly dispatches the ball into the bottom corner to give the South Americans an insurmountable 4-1 lead. It was the perfect team goal and one which encapsulated exactly what this Brazil side were all about: individual brilliance fused with an appreciation of and subservience to the collective.
Brazil’s tournament had begun with a 4-1 dismissal of Czechoslovakia, before England were beaten 1-0 in a classic World Cup encounter. A battling 3-2 defeat of Romania saw Mario Zagallo’s charges qualify for the next stage as Group 3 winners; once there, they eased past Peru 4-2 and Uruguay 3-1. Much like Italy in the final, neither was a match for the mighty Brazilians.
“Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy,” lamented Socrates after the Selecao failed to win the 1982 World Cup despite a handful of glorious performances.
The Brazil of 1970 had both.
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.