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The Greatest World Cup of All-Time? | @Alfieeswilson

The World Cup is the greatest of all sporting tournaments, stirring memories in all who love the beautiful game. Be it nostalgia of youth, moments of glory or shocking scenes of controversy, the World Cup every four years never fails to amaze. @Alfieeswilson saw TFHB's Tweet about the first World Cup that our followers remembered and shared with us his spreadsheet about how to find the greatest competition of all-time. He will share that with you today...

The mind wandered for everyone during lockdown. Some baked banana bread. Some started painting. Some leaped on the opportunity to start a new exercise regime. Some, like myself, decided it the perfect opportunity to start new fairly pointless football spreadsheets. One of which was my own plan for a Europe United trip, inspired by the excellent book by Matt Walker who travelled to all 55 UEFA member nations to watch a football match in each. But the one I’ll share in this article is less niche; an attempt to scientifically rank the best World Cup. 

1970 is often considered the best...

Now, one may think this is an impossible task- memories of youth and iconic teams form intense nostalgia on an individual basis. No more so is this the case than me - a 17 year England fan experiencing a summer with no exams, tinnies by a grassy riverbank, a 4 week long heatwave, schooldays finishing at 1pm on half the weekdays and Gareth’s confusing yet functional 5-3-2 led to, probably, the best summer of my life. It will likely always be my favourite World Cup, assuming England don’t ever lift the trophy again. 

However, for my Dad, the 1982 World Cup will remain his favourite - end of his second year of uni, with England’s first World Cup appearance for 12 years, was sent into one of the best summers of his life after Bryan Robson’s goal inside the first minute against a legendary France team. It’s likely that most England fans, and Ireland fans, remember Italia '90 as their favourite, yet the football at the tournament was absolutely dire. It’s all subjective of course, and so trying to rank them is a near impossible task. Yet what if there were a formula to take all these elements into account, to calculate, objectively, the best World Cup? 

My personal preferences aside, the 2018 World Cup was surely the best of, as Barney Ronay puts it, the corruption-ball World Cups, after a defensive 2006 World Cup, flat 2010 World Cup and a 2014 World Cup where the narrative on Messi and Brazil’s respective missions was too overpowering. 

I have chosen 9 categories to form this ranking, each to be given a score out of 10 for each World Cup. The categories are Goals, Quality of Football, Teams at their zenith/great teams, ‘Stories’, Culture, ‘Diversity’, Great Games, and Iconic Performances. Other categories would be welcome suggestions. Two problems arise with these categories, however. Firstly, the controversy category points scoring is difficult. There can be controversy for the better- for example, the Battle of Santiago in 1962 if the kind of thing that, to quote commentators, “nobody wants to see” (commentator David Coleman was slightly more strong in tone in his iconic speech on the matter), yet everybody in actual fact does definitely want to see. 

But there can also be horrific controversy - the Disgrace of Gijón in ‘82, Escobar’s murder in ‘94, corrupt refereeing in 2002, the Argentinian Junta and the ‘78 World Cup, and many more. To that end, I’ve decided to give negative points to these horrific moments and positive points for the good. The second issue is that all the categories have the same value, with all being scored out of 10. Personally, I would weigh goals, culture and diversity more heavily than great games or great individual performances, but each to their own, which is why I have decided to put all the categories on an equal standing, but if others want to change the weighting then feel free. 

Alfie's World Cup spreadsheet...

In terms of clarifying some of the intangibles, the first three are self-explanatory (with the quality of football I have decided to measure it relatively - we all know that even sides who don’t qualify for a World Cup now are a world away technically from 1954 finalists Hungary, yet at the time they were revolutionary). ‘Stories’ refers to endearing stories of the big teams (e.g. Brazil’s mystifying failure in ’82), the host nations (the Black-Blanc-Beur of France in ’98, or Germany’s first hosting as a unified nation in ’06), the small teams (Iceland in 2018, North Korea in ’66) and certain players (Maradona in ‘86 or Roger Milla in 1990). 

'Culture' refers to the general vibe surrounding the tournament, for example 2006 has low score due to the lack of memorable buzz surrounding it, but Italia '90 with Nessun Dorma and World in Motion, or South Africa with Wavin’ Flag, Waka Waka and just being the first World Cup to be held in Africa score very highly. ‘Diversity’ refers to how much of World Cup that World Cup was. Naturally, the scores increase toward the modern day, with more spaces going to countries in Asia, Africa, and North America. 

No score is atrocious, after all, at every World Cup in history there has always been a debutant, a record which will extend to 2026 with Qatar qualifying as hosts for 2022. Scores in this category also consider new teams from new continents however (for example Slovenia, Slovakia and Greece emerging from the European contingent in 2010, or Angola and Togo from Africa in 2006). I have tried to take into account the limitations of the years before the 24-team tournament (1974 scoring highly with the additions of Australia, Haiti and Zaire). Great games and iconic performances are also self-explanatory. 

Milla at Italia 90 is what the World Cup is all about

The full spreadsheet is attached. Only a score is given for each category, so some of them may be confusing, but other explain themselves. For example, 10s for the quality of football at the 1970 and 2006 World Cups, 10 for ‘Stories’ at Italia 90 and a 10 for culture at Italia 90 as well. 

So according to Alfie, the Top 3 Greatest World Cups of All-Time are:

3. The 2006 World Cup in Germany
2. The 1974 World Cup in West Germany
1. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico 

Feel free to get in contact with me for new category suggestions, asking about why I’ve given a certain score for a certain category for a certain tournament, or tell me why I’m completely wrong. I haven’t amended the scores since May 2020 so some are almost definitely strange. 

Enjoy the spreadsheet, I hope it stirs some deep thinking, imagination, and most importantly, great memories. 

This piece was written for @TFHBs by Alfie Wilson, find him here: @alfieeswilson 

If you want to give it a go and provide your own personal choice - click here for a blank version of the spreadsheet. Click 'make a copy' and fill it in! 

Our book is available to buy here!

©The Football History Boys, 2020
(All pictured borrowed kindly & not owned by TFHB)

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