Thursday, December 8, 2011
Football's Greatest World Cup Teams
5. Brazil 1982
On many levels, World Cup tournaments transcend the mere functionality of winning.
For a start, the nuances of knockout competition often mean that the best team does not actually triumph. Because, while league tables may rarely lie, cup competitions frequently do. For some teams, four years of dominance can evaporate on a single bad day. Certainly, that was what this Brazil team found.
Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - many people measure their lives in World Cups. The touchstone moments become milestones burned on the memory.
As such, since we looked at the most successful international teams on these pages recently, for this list we decided to pick the most memorable - the teams that illuminated World Cups rather than necessarily won them. There's little argument that this Brazilian side did the former. Indeed, they might well have been the most entertaining team to ever play at the tournament.
For four and a half games out of five, they were utterly captivating. In total, Brazil scored 15 goals in five games. And almost every one of them was exquisite - from Zico's inch-perfect free-kick against Scotland to Eder's chip and Socrates' piledriver. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, Tele Santana's side played "an effortless, fluid game full of deliciously angled passes and fearsome long-range shooting".
When it came to the crunch against Italy, however, they couldn't rein themselves in. Rather than play out the draw that would have seen them progress to the semi-finals, Brazil kept pushing forward - playing right into a counter-attacking Italian side's hands.
When the Azzurri eventually won 3-2, Zico called it "the day that football died". But Brazil 1982's refusal to compromise their creativity means their legacy will live on forever.
4. Italy 1982
It's highly unlikely that Enzo Bearzot's team were the best Italian side to play at a World Cup. Their predecessors, after all, had stormed to successive trophies in 1934 and 1938, and the 2006 squad secured the tournament's finest ever defensive record on the way to winning it unbeaten.
Indeed, it's arguably even less likely that Italy were the best team at Spain 1982. But what Bearzot's team did provide was probably the most dramatic narrative the World Cup has ever seen: a classical story of redemption and overcoming the odds that only enhances the mythology of the tournament.
Among the obstacles that Italy faced were a betting scandal, utter public dissatisfaction, three dire opening draws, a barrage of criticism, Diego Maradona and a Brazil team many saw as champions-in-waiting. They overcame all of that for the most cathartic World Cup win of all.
Fittingly, the resurgence was personified by Paolo Rossi and encapsulated in the brilliant 3-2 win over Brazil. In that match, the striker put two years of suspension and misery behind him to finally click and claim the hat-trick that sent Italy on their way.
Even more famously, all of that emotion came pouring out in Marco Tardelli's joyous clincher against West Germany in the final.
3. Hungary 1954
For four years leading up to the summer of 1954, and three weeks during it, Hungary were by far the world's finest side. The 6-3 annihilation of England heralded as much, and the 31-game unbeaten run proved as much. When it came to crowning as much, though, Hungary just fell short.
And yet the 1954 World Cup perfectly illustrated how the short period of an international tournament can exaggerate an array of unfortunate events enough to deny justifiable winners. Certainly, every one of Hungary's momentous matches seemed to take something away from the side.
In saying that, though, it's hard to think of a team to have offered so many epic games or so defined the grandiose, self-contained nature of a World Cup.
Because, despite their eventual failure, Hungary still provided the most brilliant attack the competition has seen. In five games, they scored a scarcely believable 27 goals.
Admittedly, that tally was boosted by the opening 9-0 and 8-3 wins over South Korea and West Germany respectively. But not without a cost. While those victories fuelled complacency, they also took away a fully-fit Ferenc Puskas as he limped out of the latter match.
The quarter-final then consumed some of the team's aggression as they engaged in the infamous 'Battle of Berne' with Brazil - winning 4-2 but losing some dignity in a mass brawl. And the semi-final then sapped their energy. Although Hungary stormed into a 2-0 lead against Uruguay, they were still brought to extra-time in an eventual 4-2 victory that has gone down as one of the greatest games of all time.
And that fatigue wasn't eased by the build-up to the final. A brass band kept Hungary up all night while a downpour diminished their passing game. The Hungarians still claimed their customary 2-0 lead. But, this time, they lost their way and - for the first time in six years - lost a game, 3-2.
That happened for a combination of reasons. But Hungary 1954 will always be remembered for so many more.
2. Netherlands 1974
Ruud Krol was unabashed. According to the Dutch defender, had Netherlands got to play defending champions Brazil in the 1974 final and hosts West Germany in the semi-final group stage - as opposed to the other way around - then they would undoubtedly have delivered the World Cup.
Of that 2-0 win over Brazil, Krol said: "That was the best game, the hardest game - it had everything. There was nice football, nice combinations, dirty football. It was a game on the limits."
Many have used those exact same words about that Dutch side. Indeed, respected coach Foppe De Haan has argued that they were the "perfect football team", the peak possible arrangement of an XI.
Whatever the truth of that, their groundbreaking approach resulted in so many significant moments in football history. For a start, the sophistication of their football seemed a quantum leap from everything that had come before. That was personified by Johan Cruyff's pioneering turn against Sweden. And it was emphasised by the manner in which they rendered South American football irrelevant through that win over Brazil as well as the six goals they put past Uruguay and Argentina.
Even the notorious final provided one of the most perfect minutes of football ever seen: West Germany hadn't touched the ball by the time Johan Neeskens powered it into the net with the opening penalty.
Of course, it was Netherland's quest for perfection that arguably cost them. As many team members have admitted since, they didn't just want to beat the Germans. They wanted to embarrass them.
Ultimate defeat, however, has almost added to the mythic dimensions of the team.
1. Brazil 1970
"Our team was the best," Gerson proclaimed. "Those who saw it saw it. Those who missed it will never see it again."
What they missed was near perfection.
Yet, because of the manner that Brazil floated through the 1970 World Cup, it's often forgotten how formidable the field of that tournament was - arguably the strongest in history.
There was an Italian team that were European champions and set the stereotype for so many diligent Azzurri defences; England's greatest ever side; a burgeoning West Germany who would go on to dominate the next decade; and a particularly brilliant Peru who would upset the old order in South America.
What was most impressive about Brazil's ultimate victory, however, wasn't that they effortlessly overcame that field. It was that they were so many levels above it. As much as they dynamically dominated every match they played, their rousing route to glory was signposted by so many transcendental moments.
There was Rivelino's free-kick against Czechoslovakia, Pele's shot from the halfway line and dummy against Uruguay, the array of evocative incidents against England - and, finally, Carlos Alberto's crescendo.
All lifted the spirits. And all epitomised what the World Cup is all about.
• Miguel Delaney is a freelance football journalist and owner of Football Pantheon. You can follow him on @DelaneyST
• ESPN's series on the greatest teams in sport is in partnership with Samsung Mobile Project Teamwork.