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Football's Greatest International Teams

5. West Germany 1970-76

Whether rightly or wrongly, West Germany have always been presented as the villains in the Netherlands' great 1974 tragic narrative. But the truth is, while that Dutch team were defeated in a series of high-profile games across the '70s, the Germans had heroically mastered victory. What's more, the initial patchy form in that tournament was only a blip born of frustration. Two years beforehand, Helmut Schoen's side had actually equalled the Dutch for style with their own template of 'Total Football'. Having seen them gloriously glide to the Euro 72 title and win 3-1 at Wembley along the way, L'Equipe wrote that the Germans had "no equal in Europe" and that this was "football from the year 2000". Unfortunately, the nearer future only brought disputes over prize money which threatened to tear the team apart ahead of 1974. But Franz Beckenbauer just about managed to rally the squad together. As Uli Hesse wrote, the Germans "willed themselves into playing decent football again through determination". It was to start a habit. And, after Paul Breitner put away a penalty to claim an unlikely equaliser against the Dutch in the final, the squad admitted to suddenly feeling "turbo-charged". That 1974 World Cup win marked the high point of the most sustained period of tournament progress Europe has seen. The Germans lost only two competitive games in six years while winning international football's first double - a heroism the Dutch couldn't get near.

4. France 1998-2001

In terms of open, attacking football and great players actually performing at their peak, there is a strong argument that Euro 2000 was the finest international tournament of the last four decades. And its champions best exemplified all of those qualities. France put on a carnival of creative football, with Zinedine Zidane orchestrating a carousel of interchanging attackers. As the playmaker himself said in a rare instance of arrogance before the final, "at 28, I'm at the pinnacle of my art". And so were France. One of the more impressive aspects of that victory - beyond the eviscerations of the Czech Republic and Denmark and overpowering of Spain, Portugal and Italy - was the quantum leap it represented from 1998. Before that World Cup, France had been written off by their press. Yet, thanks to defensive resolve and Aime Jacquet's drive, they gritted their way through the tournament. The trophy was eventually won with the best defensive record ever seen at a World Cup - two goals in seven games. That cathartic win gave them the confidence to properly express themselves and complete a rare international double in two very different styles.

3. Brazil 1958-62

It's difficult now to imagine just how unsure Brazil were ahead of their last, crucial group game against USSR in 1958. They hadn't, after all, won a World Cup yet. Moreover, they hadn't even started Pele or Garrincha at that point. Until, finally, they broke the mould. In multiple ways. By pioneering a 4-2-4 formation, Brazil blew away football history as well as almost everyone that came up against them. USSR were crushed in a 2-0 win that could have been five. In the semi-finals, they finally managed that amount against a fine French team before doing the same against hosts Sweden in the final - beating both 5-2 "There was no doubt this time," as Brian Glanville wrote in his history of the World Cup, "that the best, immeasurably the finest, team had won." With Nilton and Djalma Santos pounding up the wings, Didi controlling games, Mario Zagallo cutting inside, Garrincha outside and Vava scoring, opposition sides simply had no answer to their perfect balance. And, to top it off, there was Pele. But even when he got injured in 1962, Garrincha merely stepped up his game and Brazil theirs. The only thing that keeps them off the top of this list is that they couldn't claim a South American Championship in between - losing a final and finishing third. But they remain the last team to retain the World Cup, having done so in resounding fashion.

2. Spain 2007-10

Should Spain retain the European Championships next summer, then it will be hard to argue that they shouldn't be top of any such lists. A run of two Euros and a World Cup would represent the greatest sequence of successive tournament victories that international football has ever seen. Unparalleled domination. Of course, some complaints would persist. After all, many remain dissatisfied with Spain's sequence of successive match victories in last year's World Cup. Four 1-0 wins in a row hardly seems befitting of a team proclaimed as one of the best of all time. But then that in itself remains a fairly reductive way to look at the numbers. Particularly when the rest of the stats are so compelling. Those victories over sides of the calibre of Portugal, Germany and Holland contributed to a period in which the Spanish won 49 games out of 54 - a sensational 91%. Quite simply, there's never been a run in international football like that either. It was superior to Hungary's in the '50s and, unlike the Magyars, Spain at least crowned theirs with victories in the matches that mattered. One of them was the euphoric Euro 2008 win. The sweeping openness of that campaign was at a far remove from the asphyxiation of 2010. But then that's also the point. The exquisite nature of that European Championships win - and the dominance of the Barcelona core thereafter - ensured that virtually all opposition teams were afraid to go toe-to-toe with Spain thereafter. Thierry Henry exasperated "you just can't get the ball off them". As the possession stats indicate, no other international team has played games on their own terms to that extent; no other international team has had such a deep effect on how the opposition approach games. Instead, most merely sought to congest the space for Spain's passing - resulting in so many tight matches. As Xavi argued on the eve of the 2010 final: "What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3-0? Do they not realise how hard it is? There isn't a single metre, not a second on the pitch. Always 10 men behind the ball putting pressure on." And, yet, Spain persevered, adding pure resolve to purism. The question now is whether they can still do so for Euro 2012. As it stands, they've combined a double with an almost invincible period of dominance.

1. Brazil 1970-73

When it comes to the great Brazil side of 1970, it can be hard to look past so many classic moments that will forever remain burned on football's collective memory: Pele's dummy, Jairzinho's run, Roberto Rivelino's free-kick... But what's often forgotten is that the team itself looked well past them. After that World Cup - and until the retirement of Pele, Tostao and Gerson - Brazil went unbeaten for three years. That very record illustrates that their magnificence in Mexico 1970 was much more than the result of the right conditions. Because, sure, Brazil were probably fortunate to find a framework that fitted so many playmakers just before the tournament began. And, yes, the searing conditions undoubtedly suited their technical style. It also remains highly doubtful whether, in today's game, a manager could just "let great players play" in the manner that Mario Zagallo facilitated. But the point is that Brazil did much more than make the best of the conditions. For an attacking team, they reached perfection: six wins out of six and 19 goals scored. Aptly, it all culminated in Carlos Alberto's final goal. "Those last minutes," Hugh McIllvaney wrote at the time, "contained a distillation of their football, its beauty and elan and almost undiluted joy ... it was the apogee of football."
• 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 Team Work.

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