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The 10 greatest international tournaments in the history of football

With the European Championship and Copa America set to kick off in little more than two months, Miguel Delaney looks back at the 10 greatest international tournaments in football history.

10. 1958 World Cup | Winners: Brazil | Runners-up: Sweden

The birth of Brazil's legacy of World Cup glory, led by a 17-year-old Pele. It's fitting, then, that this was the birth of the modern World Cup. It was the first to adapt a modern structure, with a symmetrical 16 teams and four groups of four playing a round robin, but perhaps just as fitting it still produced football from an old era.

This was the last World Cup before Catenaccio began to take a tactical hold on the game and duly saw floods of goals, none more so than from 13-goal record French scorer Just Fontaine, a supreme Swedish forward line and then Brazil's young virtuosos Pele, Vava and Garrincha. Eight years after the Maracanazo, when Uruguay beat Brazil in their own stadium, Pele's side enjoyed emotional release.

9. Euro 1992 | Winners: Denmark | Runners-up: Germany

This offered one of international football's finest modern underdog stories, as Denmark won the tournament after being let in because initial qualifiers Yugoslavia disbanded following the start of the Balkan war, but had none of the negativity or minimalism of Greece's 2004 win. Whereas that later tournament saw many star teams underperform, this was the opposite. The Danes came through a group involving a brilliant Tomas Brolin-fired Sweden, a star-laden France led by Eric Cantona and Graham Taylor's England before beating the Netherlands in the semifinals -- in which Marco van Basten missed a penalty -- and then world champion Germany in the final.

8. 1987 Copa America | Winners: Uruguay | Runners-up: Chile

It ended in the anger of a notoriously tempestuous final that saw Uruguay beat Chile 1-0, but that only reflected the depth of emotions this tournament drew out. There was only depression in the host nation of Argentina on semifinal day, as Uruguay beat Diego Maradona's world champions in the Monumental on the country's national day, with River Plate forward Antonio Alzamendi hitting the goal.

An electric Chile had themselves made it that far by destroying Brazil 4-0 in the group stage. That was the glory of this tournament. Often, some tournaments are anticlimactic because there are too many shocks early on and the remaining teams aren't that good. That was not the case here.

7. 1954 World Cup | Winners: West Germany | Runners-up: Hungary

With an attention-holding average of 5.38, this was the World Cup with the most goals per game, but this was no shallow entertainment. It's hard to find a final richer in narrative, for one.

West Germany celebrate at 1954 World Cup
West Germany emerged victorious in 1954 from the tournament with the most goals per game in World Cup history.

In the "Miracle of Bern," West Germany won the tournament just nine years after the end of World War II, also overcoming the exquisite Hungary side that had beaten them 8-3 in the group stage. On the other side of that, of course, the Hungarians themselves became the game's greatest losers, perhaps the best side never to win such a tournament.

It was a tournament that had so many angles, and so much shooting from so many angles. Hungary also beat Brazil in the famous "Battle of Bern" quarterfinal, as Austria also beat Switzerland 7-5 before losing 6-1 to the growing West Germany. This was simply a tournament in which the action never stopped.

6. Euro 1984 | Winners: France | Runners-up: Spain

It seems so quaint now that the European Championships could have just eight teams, but that merely meant an intense concentration of quality. In some ways, this was a prototype for Euro 2000 -- right down to an attacking France winning it -- but that still makes it better than so many other tournaments. It was a festival of high-scoring games between highly open sides, with the French hosts themselves involved in two separate 3-2 wins, one of them the fantastic semifinal against Portugal.

5. 1986 World Cup | Winners: Argentina | Runners-up: West Germany

There has never been a tournament so singularly dominated by one player as 1986 was by Maradona, making that feat the threshold for every player compared against him since. But it is all the more impressive an achievement because this was such a vivid and rich event. You only have to look at the four minutes that defined the player and the tournament, perhaps the most famous four minutes in football history: Maradona's two hugely different but equally distinguished goals in the quarterfinals against England.

So many other stories spun off from that Argentine victory, from a dazzling run by Belgium to face them in the semifinals, to Gary Lineker's golden boot and earlier rescue job for England, to the second-round elimination of Uruguay, one of the most aggressive sides to ever play at the World Cup. If they were ugly, there was only beauty in the gorgeous 1-1 quarterfinal between Brazil and France that saw Michel Platini and Socrates miss in a shootout. Then there was Denmark's rise (a 6-1 group-stage win over Uruguay) and collapse (a 5-1 last-16 defeat to Spain). This was a World Cup of so much wonder.

4. 2014 World Cup | Winners: Germany | Runners-up: Argentina

If it feels like Brazil 2014 has only been picked because it's freshest in memory, well just think of the facets of it that will never be forgotten as long as the game is played. It's actually difficult to pick what was the most historic storyline of 2014. Was it perhaps the greatest side ever suffering one of the worst collapses ever in Spain's miserable tournament, or the Mineirazo: Brazil's traumatic 7-1 defeat to Germany? Beyond that, there was Luis Suarez's bite of Giorgio Chiellini, Leo Messi's miss that prevented him emulating Maradona and the controversy over Neymar.

This all came amid some gloriously open football after years of more-constrained World Cups. This only saw glorious abandon.

David Luiz's post-game apologies couldn't soften the blow of an epic defeat.
Germany's 7-1 thrashing of hosts Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals is one of the tournament's defining moments.

3. 1982 World Cup | Winners: Italy | Runners-up: West Germany

Marco Tardelli's climactic scream on scoring the clinching goal in the final for Italy against West Germany is always the first memory when Spain 1982 is mentioned, but really, this tournament involved a series of climaxes. There was Maradona's World Cup debut, the hosts' stunning defeat to Northern Ireland, a series of sensational Brazilian goals, their own shock elimination to a resurgent Italy, Toni Schumacher's foul on Patrick Battiston in an exhilarating 3-3 semifinal between France and West Germany that saw the first-ever penalty shootout, and then Tardelli's coup de grace. His face summed up what this tournament was about: theatrical dramatics, in the best way.

2. 1970 World Cup | Winners: Brazil | Runners-up: Italy

This is the historic touchstone that all modern tournaments are measured against, and that is not just because of the transcendental beauty of Pele's Brazil. Mexico 1970 in some ways represented a crossroads in the history of the game itself, best illustrated, almost literally, by the fact it was the first recorded in technicolor. That was fitting, because it meant so many supreme Brazilian moments -- Pele's step-over and then header to bring Gordon Banks' save, Carlos Alberto's strike -- were captured in the way they should be seen.

The deeper point to this, though, was not just that this was a canvas on which Brazil could paint. There were some epic challenges alongside it that built up to a final in which one of the best defences of all time forced Brazil to produce one of the best attacking performances of all time.

Italy got there after a sensational 4-3 semifinal against West Germany, who had themselves got there by coming from 2-0 behind to beat defending champions England 3-2, who had themselves given Brazil one of the great World Cup games in a 1-0 first-round match. It had one of the best champions, some of the best challengers, some of the best games and some of the best moments. This was a complete tournament.

1. Euro 2000 | Winners: France | Runners-up: Italy

Current France manager Didier Deschamps has recalled that, as David Trezeguet thundered the ball into the top corner to beat Italy in the final of Euro 2000, he was thinking: "It can't get any better than this." The victorious French captain was referring to the fact France had just completed a rare historic double of World Cup and continental championships, but he might well have been talking about Euro 2000 as a whole.

This was a rare modern tournament, and arguably the last of an era, in which so many of the best sides performed at the top level and so many of the best players were the playmakers. Chief among them was Zinedine Zidane, who made Euro 2000 his own, but he was joined by Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Dennis Bergkamp and so many others who helped create a carnival of attacking football and a series of intense, high-scoring matches.

Among the best were England 2-3 Portugal, Yugoslavia 3-3 Slovenia, Yugoslavia 3-4 Spain and Spain 1-2 France; but it said much about the standard of the tournament that one of the few 0-0s was one of the most dramatic games, as nine-man Italy beat Netherlands on penalties in the semifinal. The joint hosts' elimination was just one of many illuminating storylines, from the resounding first-round failure that triggered Germany's modern football revolution to Slovenia defying the odds. In that regard, the tournament theatrically finishing with a last-minute Sylvain Wiltord equaliser and then a Trezeguet golden goal was so fitting.

Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.


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