Qualify for 2022, make a run in 2026. I feel like I wrote that many times regarding the United States men’s national team during the previous World Cup qualification process. With more major-club talent and more youth than ever, the U.S. seemed in a position to maintain the same roster core over a pretty long period of time.
Exorcizing old qualification demons and getting young guys experience in Qatar seemed like reasonable goals, and those goals were achieved. The U.S. not only qualified for the World Cup with what the CIES Football Observatory deemed the third-youngest squad in the world in 2022; it also survived a tricky group to advance to the knockout rounds.
That was 2022. What about the 2026 run, then? The next World Cup will be played on home soil — and in Mexico and Canada too — and in theory, the next U.S. World Cup roster could end up boasting as much upside, experience and continuity as ever before. Granted, we don’t know who will be managing said team, and we don’t know who will emerge to fill in necessary roster holes at positions like center-forward. But there’s certainly reason to be intrigued by this team’s possibilities in the years to come.
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What exactly is the upside we’re dealing with, however? How often does a country go from fielding a team at the top-15 or top-20 level to genuinely fielding one of the world’s best? And what are the most important factors in such a rise?
As we embark on the first of many international windows in this World Cup cycle, I thought I’d dive into the history books to find out.
Below are eight countries that, within the past 30 years or so, pulled off a rise similar to what American fans are hoping for. Without any recent history of massive success, these eight teams rose into the top five of the FIFA rankings for a reasonably extended amount of time. Some of them made World Cup runs while others peaked between World Cup cycles, but they all displayed the sort of sustained form the U.S. will hope to deliver.
The U.S. itself rose into the FIFA top five once, of course, but only briefly. Following its 2005 Gold Cup title and some impressive spring friendly performances, it ranked either fourth or fifth from March to May 2006. But it faded as the 2006 World Cup approached, losing friendlies to Germany and Morocco then pulling just one point from three World Cup matches. The Americans ranked in the 30s by the end of the year. (Heading into Friday night’s CONCACAF Nations League game with Grenada, the U.S. rank 13th.)
The teams below, on the other hand, held their peak form a bit longer. And for each of them, roster continuity became an incredibly important factor. For many, so did being able to import chemistry from a dominant domestic league team.
Peak years: 1992 to 1994. It reached the semis of both the 1992 Euros and the 1994 World Cup (losing by one to Germany and Brazil, respectively) and spent much of 1994 at either second or third in the FIFA rankings.
The list begins with a team that both peaked and faded earlier than expected. Coach Tommy Svensson boasted more attacking talent than usual in this range: Forward Tomas Brolin played for Serie A’s Parma at the time and contributed six goals and three assists from 22 chances created in the 1992 Euros and the 1994 World Cup. He scored a pair of match winners in the Euros, including one that eliminated England from the competition.
Meanwhile, Borussia Monchengladbach’s Martin Dahlin and Lille’s Kennet Andersson contributed 10 goals in these two competitions and the midfield trio of Napoli’s Jonas Thern, PSV Eindhoven’s Klas Ingesson and Benfica’s Stefan Schwarz added creativity with five combined assists from 41 chances created. By 1994, future Barcelona goal scorer Henrik Larsson was emerging as an option up front, as well. He scored in their third-place match against Bulgaria.
Sweden has produced plenty of high-end talent through the years, but this amount was impressive.
They also benefited from the depth provided by a dynamite domestic club, IFK Goteborg, which provided seven members of the 1994 World Cup team. Goteborg was at an all-time peak in this era, winning 10 domestic titles between 1982 and 1996, reaching the semifinals of the European Cup/Champions League in 1986 (when they lost to Barcelona on penalties) and 1993 and reaching the quarters in 1985, 1989 and 1995. The early to mid-1990s were boom times for clubs of this stature; the early shift to the Champions League gave them a financial boost to help them dominate in their national leagues, while Europe’s most powerful clubs had not yet distanced themselves from the field in continental tournaments. The Goteborg team that supplemented the Swedish team in 1994 would go on to beat Barcelona and Manchester United (and nearly Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals) in the 1994-95 Champions League.
Most of Sweden’s best players were in the age range of 23 to 26 in 1994, which suggested that further heights were possible. But they faded pretty quickly. Brolin was forced to retire from injuries at age 28, and while Sweden has remained solid since — it has qualified for three of seven World Cups and most Euros, plus you may have heard of a guy named “Zlatan Ibrahimovic” — a brief funk knocked it out of qualification for Euro 1996, and the golden age quietly died out.
If there’s a lesson to take from that, it’s that you can’t really plan your peak; in theory, the U.S. has already wasted one potential World Cup run by merely making the round of 16 in 2022.
Peak years: 1993 to 1995. From March 1993 to June 1995, Norway lost only four of 29 matches and rose as high as third in the FIFA rankings in the spring of 1994. But neither timing nor luck was on its side when it came to scoring big in a major competition.
Led by manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen, Norway beat Netherlands and England to qualify for the 1994 World Cup from a tough group then drew another tough group in the World Cup itself: It beat Mexico and narrowly lost to eventual finalist Italy but lost a second-place tiebreaker to the Republic of Ireland. Norway began qualification for the 1996 Euros in grand form, but a brief, late-1995 funk resulted in another lost second-place tiebreaker and failed qualification.
The what-ifs were heavy here because this was a heck of a team. The 1994 World Cup squad boasted 10 players from English club rosters, including Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Erik Thorstvedt, Liverpool defender Stig Inge Bjornebye, Blackburn defender Henning Berg, Swindon Town forward-turned-ESPN commentator Jan Age Fjortoft and a 21-year old Nottingham Forest defender named Alfie Haaland. It also boasted strong continuity: Nine players have recorded more than 80 caps for the Norwegian national team, and four of them played in the 1993-95 range: Berg, Thorstvedt, Oyvind Leonhardsen and Kjetil Rekdal.
Like Sweden, Norway also got a strong boost from a domestic club. Rosenborg was in the middle of its own peak, winning 13 straight domestic titles from 1992 to 2004 and beating both Goteborg and AC Milan on the way to the Champions League quarterfinals in 1996-97. It provided Leonhardsen and a few others from the 1994 World Cup squad.
This roster base remained solid as it aged in the years following the narrow World Cup and Euro misses, and they rebounded to reach the round of 16 at the 1998 World Cup and qualify for the 2000 Euros, but it hasn’t been to either tournament since. The current squad has impressive upside from the likes of Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard, Real Sociedad’s Alexander Sorloth and, of course, Alfie’s son, Erling Haaland (Manchester City), but successful local clubs like Bodo/Glimt and Molde aren’t threatening to reach the Champions League quarterfinals at the moment, and Norway’s overall depth doesn’t appear as strong.
Peak years: 1993 to 1997. This was a story of two peaks: From March 1993 to April 1995, Denmark lost only four of 20 matches and from April 1995 to September 1997, it lost only two of 20. Denmark won the 1992 Euros in strange fashion — it failed to qualify initially but ended up taking Yugoslavia’s place then won the whole thing despite only outscoring opponents 6-4 in five matches — but started actually playing like a European contender in the years that followed and spent most of 1997 ranked from third to fifth in the FIFA rankings.
The mid-1990s were pretty incredible for Scandinavian soccer, but Denmark followed a different recipe than its neighbors to the north. These awesome teams were a bit more star-heavy at the top: Michael Laudrup (who played for Barcelona until 1994 then moved to Real Madrid), Brian Laudrup (Rangers) and Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United) led the way with 219 combined caps, and Udinese full-back Thomas Helveg added another 108 during this period. And while Denmark also leaned heavily on domestic club talent for depth, said talent didn’t come from just one club. The 1996 Euros team, for instance, featured both five players from Brondby (which would reach the UEFA Cup quarterfinals in 1997) and three from Odense (which beat Real Madrid in 1994 UEFA Cup qualification, its biggest win ever).
The Danes used up all of their good breaks and good timing with the 1992 run. Despite losing only once in eight matches, they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, finishing one point behind Spain and, like Norway, losing a second-place tiebreaker to Ireland. They qualified for the 1998 field with a worse record and worse team and reached the quarterfinals. Their stay in the 1996 Euros was a short one thanks to a shocking 3-0 loss to Croatia, but they did manage to snare one trophy during this peak: They beat Argentina 2-0, with goals from Michael Laudrup and Peter Rasmussen, to win the 1995 Confederations Cup. (It counts!)
As with Sweden and Norway, regression in the domestic leagues has taken its toll on the national team’s overall depth, but Denmark has shown a bit steadier upside than other Scandinavian countries, as well. Denmark spent parts of 2012, 2018 and 2021 in the FIFA top 10 again, reached the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup and surged to the semis in 2021’s Euros. If you’re looking for a recipe for the U.S. to follow, this one’s probably more applicable than other Scandinavian examples, even if Christian Pulisic hasn’t exactly been Michael Laudrup thus far in his career.
Peak years: 2002 to 2004. Despite strong levels of competition, Turkey lost only seven of 33 matches between June 2002 and June 2004, spent this entire period in the FIFA top 10 and peaked at fifth during a four-match winning streak in 2004.
Unlike Norway, for instance, Turkey timed its rise well from a tournament standpoint. It was brilliant in the 2002 World Cup, losing by scores of 2-1 and 1-0 to eventual champions Brazil but otherwise winning four, drawing one and finishing in third place. A year later, Turkey showed well in the Confederations Cup too, drawing with Brazil, losing 3-2 to France and beating Colombia for third place.
More than any team we’ve discussed so far, continuity was Turkey’s superpower. Of the seven most capped players in their history, six of them played in this period, as Rustu Recber, Hakan Sukur, Bulent Korkmaz, Emre Belozoglu, Tugay Kerimoglu and Alpay Ozalan combined for a whopping 619 caps between them. Two of Turkey’s three all-time leading scorers (Sukur and Tuncay Sanli) were from this era, as well, and so was their all-time leader in clean sheets (Recber).
As you might guess if you’ve read this far, Turkey also benefited from the presence of strong domestic clubs. Galatasaray was enjoying an all-time peak in this period — it won the 2000 UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup then reached the Champions League quarterfinals in 2001 — and provided five players to the 2002 World Cup team. Players from throughout Turkey’s domestic league filled most of the Confederations Cup roster too.
The ending for this group was rather unceremonious. Turkey finished second in its group during qualification for Euro 2004, just one point behind England, but suffered an upset loss to Latvia in the qualification playoff and then failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup as well. An older squad rebounded to make a run to the semis at Euro 2008, but the stars aged out — and aside from perhaps onetime Atletico Madrid star Arda Turan — the next generation wasn’t nearly as good.
In all, a lack of player development has bled into the quality of both the national team and the domestic league. Fenerbahce’s 2013 Europa League semifinal run was the last continental success of note, and Turkey has qualified for only two of the past seven major tournaments.
Peak years: 2003 to 2006. From February 2003 to October 2005, Mexico lost just five of 35 matches. The chain-smoking Ricardo La Volpe managed the team from 2002 to 2006, and Mexico spent much of that span ranked either fourth or fifth in the FIFA rankings.
Lose in the World Cup round of 16, win approximately every other Gold Cup. Mexico’s consistency over the past 30 to 40 years has been remarkable, but just as it has suffered a bit of a dip recently — Mexico bowed out in the group stage in Qatar (and it has gone winless in its past four matches with the U.S.) — it also enjoyed a particular peak in the years between the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Led by a huge batch of players aged 24 to 28, Mexico dominated the 2003 Gold Cup, beating Jamaica and the U.S. by a combined 10-1 in the final two rounds. In the 2004 Copa America, Mexico beat Argentina to win its group before falling to Brazil in the quarterfinals; a year later, in the 2005 Confederations Cup, Mexico beat Brazil to win its group before losing to Argentina in penalties in the semis (then losing to Germany in extra time in the third-place match).
This was a dynamite group. The six most-capped Mexican players of all time played in this era: Claudio Suarez, Rafael Marquez, Pavel Pardo and Gerardo Torrado were in their prime, while future stars Andres Guardado and Memo Ochoa debuted in 2005. And while some stars, including Marquez (Barcelona) and Torrado (Sevilla), did end up in Europe, most of the team was pulled from a number of Liga MX clubs, especially Guadalajara and Cruz Azul.
Like the U.S. in 2006, Mexico’s timing was a bit off, and its form had returned to regular levels by the World Cup, meaning it finished second in its group and bowed out in a competitive round-of-16 loss to, once again, Argentina. After four years, La Volpe left for Boca Juniors (another loss to Argentina!); no manager has stayed that long in the job since.
From a U.S. perspective, Mexico’s floor is something to strive for, but Americans are probably hoping for a higher World Cup ceiling come 2026.
Peak years: 2014 to 2017. Despite plenty of matches against South American powerhouses, Colombia lost only 10 of 45 matches between June 2014 and September 2017. It lost to Brazil in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals then to Argentina in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Copa America, but Colombia still spent most of late 2014 and early 2015 at third in the FIFA rankings. Then it finished third in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, as well.
Continuity? Check. Four of Colombia’s five most capped players — David Ospina (2007-present), Juan Cuadrado (2010-present), Radamel Falcao (2007-present) and Mario Yepes (1999 to 2014) all played during this era, as did two of its three most prolific goal scorers (Falcao and James Rodriguez, who won the Golden Boot at the 2014 World Cup).
Star power? Check. Twelve of Colombia’s players at the 2014 World Cup were playing in one of Europe’s Big Five leagues at the time, including Cuadrado (Fiorentina, then Chelsea in 2015), Ospina (Nice, then Arsenal in 2014) and Rodriguez (Monaco, then Real Madrid in 2014). Falcao was injured but coming off of a stellar stint at Atletico Madrid.
Stability at manager? Check. Jose Pekerman manned the squad from 2012 through its round-of-16 loss at the 2018 World Cup.
Depth from domestic talent? Sort of. The 2014 World Cup squad featured four players from Argentinian clubs and three from Colombian clubs, but the only South American club with multiple representatives was Argentina’s River Plate. The semi-local representation was even less strong on the 2015 Copa America team.
Colombia has continued to lean on a lot of the same players, but age and lesser managerial stability — it is on its third manager since Pekerman left — have slowly taken effect. Colombia still ranks in the teens, and it finished third in the 2021 Copa America, but it’s really difficult to continue standing out in South America; tight losses and a high bar to clear meant Colombia missed out on 2022 World Cup qualification by one point.
Peak years: 2015 to 2017. As with the trio of Scandinavian teams at the start of this list, we saw two South American teams peaking simultaneously in the mid-2010s. From June 2015 to June 2017, Chile lost just nine of 36 matches and achieved great heights with an innovative strategy: winning a bunch of huge penalty shootouts!
On paper, Chile didn’t achieve quite the same heights as Colombia; Chile also peaked at third in the FIFA rankings but only for a couple of months in 2016. But Chile probably was OK with trading that for a pair of Copa America titles (2015, 2016). In 2015, it won Group A, beat Uruguay and Peru then took down Argentina in penalties. In 2016, Chile finished second in Group D but pummeled Mexico (7-0!), beat Colombia then again downed Argentina in penalties. For good measure, Chile beat Portugal in penalties in the 2017 Confederation Cup semis, before losing to Germany in the final.
Like Colombia, Chile wasn’t incredibly reliant on the domestic product. The 2015 Copa America squad, for instance, featured more players employed by Italian clubs (five) than Chilean clubs (four), and more players employed by European clubs (15) than South American (eight). And unlike Colombia, Chile succeeded despite constant manager churn: Jorge Sampaoli spent four years in charge (2012 to 2016), but Chile has employed four managers since.
That said, Chile made up for it with roster continuity. Its nine most capped players ever are all from this era, led by Alexis Sanchez, Gary Medel, Claudio Bravo and Arturo Vidal. Sanchez (50 goals in 152 caps) and Eduardo Vargas (40 in 106) are their all-time leading scorers too.
Age has begun to show. Forty-five different players saw the pitch during Chile’s failed 2022 World Cup qualification attempt, and 20 are currently 30 or older. (Bravo is 39.) Chile won only five of 18 qualification matches and nearly finished as close to last place as in one of the automatic qualification places. A refresh is underway, but this departing generation set the bar incredibly high.
Peak years: 2017 to 2022. On one hand, Belgium nearly had too much historical success to fit in this list; it was runner-up at the 1980 Euros, after all, and finished fourth at the 1986 World Cup. On the other hand, the depths to which it fell in the 2000s reset the scale. Belgium failed to qualify for five straight major tournaments and sank as low as 68th in the FIFA rankings in 2010. The U.S. was quite poor for a while in the 2010s and never fell lower than 35th.
Belgium needed a golden generation to act as savior… and it got one. Defender Jan Vertonghen made his debut in 2007, followed by midfielders Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard in 2008, defender Toby Alderweireld in 2009, lights-out stars Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne in 2010 and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and forward Dries Mertens in 2011.
That’s a golden golden generation. Marc Wilmots managed the team during a steady run of improvement from 2012 to 2016 then Roberto Martinez took over for the next six years. Belgium reached at least the quarterfinals in four straight major tournaments — 2014 World Cup, 2016 Euros, 2018 World Cup (in which it finished third) and 2021’s Euros. It finished fourth in the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League, as well. The FIFA rankings reward steady success above all else, and it’s hard to be steadier than this. Belgium spent five months at No. 1 in 2015 and 2016 then spent about 3½ years there from 2018 to 2022 before a tired and old squad bowed out quietly at the 2022 World Cup.
Maybe you would hope for some trophies from a team that stayed at the top that long, but it’s hard to find too much disappointment in that level of sustained success.
This generation of players was so strong that Belgium had little need for its domestic league. Its 2018 World Cup squad featured just one player from the Jupiler Pro League — midfielder Leander Dendoncker — that was less than the number of players employed by Chelsea (two), Manchester City (two), Manchester United (two) or Tottenham Hotspur (three). Just about every major club employed at least one Belgian player at this time.
This was obviously more of a storytelling exercise than a rigorous scientific study, but as one would expect, some themes emerged.
Most of these teams rose with exactly the kind of group of similarly aged major talent that the U.S. hopes it has in Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Giovanni Reyna and others.
Most teams were able to lean on this kind of group for a long period of time.
Most were able to create strong depth by combining players from major-level European clubs with more domestically based talent. (A lot of these teams had a domestic heavyweight to pull from, however, something that really doesn’t exist in the more parity-minded Major League Soccer.)
Some had a particularly adept, long-term manager pulling the strings, but others didn’t. Some timed their runs beautifully and snared some trophies or at least semifinal appearances at major tournaments, while others won lots of matches but ended up plagued with what-ifs. Some found soft landings back in the teens of the FIFA rankings, while some found themselves in a more long-term spiral. But all of them achieved unique heights in a way that the U.S. will hope to imitate in the coming years.