FIFA World Cup

Data check: From Pele’s Brazil to Low's Germany, which was the greatest World Cup team?

Perhaps the best judgement of a team’s skill is its Elo rating. The measurement takes into account parameters like home advantage and goal difference.

Some of football’s greatest players and teams have reached Russia as the greatest sporting show on earth is about to commence.

The Fifa World Cup has thrown up many surprises, but it’s hard to compare the greatest teams across generations. Was it Brazilian Samba of the 1970 tournament, Puskas’ Hungary in 1954, or the German Mannschaft in 2014?

Which team was the greatest at the sport’s most important tournament? Perhaps the best judgement of a team’s skill is its Elo rating. The measurement, unlike the world rankings, takes into account parameters like home advantage, goal difference and even the opponent’s ability. For example, a team with high Elo rating gains little from winning against a lower-ranked team.

These ratings fluctuate a lot during the World Cup due to high-ranked teams playing each other. The Elo rating is considered a much more realistic measurement of a team’s ability.

By that measurement alone, Germany and Brazil have arguably produced the best World Cup teams and with good reason, winning nine trophies between them.

Since 1970, Brazil have been outside the top four teams only once, living up to their perennial favourites tag. Germany don’t have the same dominance across tournaments, but during their 2014 campaign, their Elo rating of 2,223 was the highest ever for a team at the World Cup.

A top Elo rating isn’t a guarantee to win either. Brazil have been considered the best team at the tournament nine times, including this year’s World Cup. They’ve converted that only five times. Germany on the other hand, have won the cup four times, but have only topped the Elo rating thrice, converting all three into wins.

Since 1986, the team with the highest Elo rating won the World Cup. Out of the last 20 tournaments, the top Elo ranked team has won 15 times. Uruguay’s triumph in 1950 is the only time a team outside the top 3 Elo ranked teams has taken home the cup.

The next successful set of teams consists of Italy, Argentina and Uruguay. All three have had fluctuating fortunes. Italy’s failure to qualify for the tournament this time around was the latest was emblematic of their slump post their 2006 win.

Uruguay are arguably one of the most volatile teams during the World Cup. They peaked during at the inaugural tournament in 1938 and scraped through to a victory in 1950.

Their continental rivals, Argentina, tasted success much later – Mario Kempes in 1978 and Diego Marradona in 1986. Oddly enough, both teams have the exact same Elo rating of 2,039, but both aren’t Argentina’s best eleven at the world cup. Lionel Messi’s 2014 team with a rating of 2,064 is considered slightly better, but only picked up the runner-up medal.

Unfortunately, this year, La Albiceleste isn’t as formidable.

For a handful of teams, there has been a single run at the World Cup that has eventually seen them lift the trophy once. England, France and Spain are always contenders and round up the top teams.

England have only reached the last four twice. Winning in 1966 and the semi-finals in 1990, but as a team their average Elo rating at the World Cup is a formidable 1,970.4, the third highest after Brazil and Germany.

The French team, on the other hand, are an anomaly. Les Bleus have wrangled top-four finishes at five World Cups, but going by their Elo alone, it wouldn’t seem likely.

A lot of France’s successful runs have been around a talisman. Just Fontaine in 1958, Michel Platini in 1982 and 1986, but their 1998 and 2006 campaigns had their strongest teams, centred around Zinedine Zidane. But despite periodic successes, France’s Elo rating ebbs and flows from the bottom to top.

The Spanish mirror World Cup form like their English counterparts. They’ve squeezed into the last four only twice, winning recently in 2010 with one of the best teams at a World Cup. According to their Elo scores, their most recent triumph is fifth best team at the World Cup.

But there are a few teams that, despite a very high rating, haven’t managed to clinch the trophy. Ferenc Puskas led Hungary was arguably the greatest team to never win a World Cup. Most recently, the Netherlands led by Robin Van Persie is sixth best World Cup team of all-time, but never lifted the trophy.

The Dutch consistently finish within the top four, but have lost all three finals they’ve made. Though their 2014 team is their best, they only made the semi-finals.

Top 10 Elo ratings at the World Cup

Team Rating Won the World Cup Year
Germany 2223
Yes 2014
Brazil 2194
Yes 1962
Hungary 2186
No 1954
Brazil 2173 Yes 1970
Spain 2165
Yes 2010
Netherlands 2154
No 2014
Brazil 2142
No 1978
Brazil 2142
? 2018
Germany
2141
Yes 1974
Brazil 2139 Yes 1958
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