1998 saw the biggest field of participating nations the World Cup had ever seen; eliminating the potential for a third-place team to advance out of group play. This new era of the tournament was simple, finish in the top two of your group to advance. With each round, half of the field gets cut while the other half advances. There have been changes to the World Cup since 1998, but nothing has changed as significantly as eight additional teams participating.
Some would argue that the modern era of soccer began in the late 1960s, or early 1970s, with high-pressing defenses, or in 1992 with the introduction of the back pass rule. However, the definition of modern that we will use today will refer simply to the tournament format. The way the World Cup has been played for the previous 24 years.
Here we will rank, and compare, the top ten nations of the World Cup’s modern era. We won’t be using any point system to determine this order, rather prioritizing particular categories such as World Cups won, consistently progressing far into the tournament, and overall record in the event. This list is based strictly on the men’s national team results in the seven World Cups from 1998 to 2022.
10 (tied). Belgium
2018 was the year Belgium was building to following their disappointing quarter-final loss to Argentina in the 2014 World Cup. Six of the nation’s 12 wins in the modern era came in 2018 which culminated in a third-place finish.
10 (tied). Portugal
Outside of the 1998 World Cup, the Portuguese have been mainstays in this competition. More often than not they reach the knockout stage and twice have made it to the quarter-finals. 2006 saw the best Portugal team of the modern era finish fourth after a close loss to France in the Semifinals.
It may come as a surprise that the 2006 World Cup winner ranks this low. Italy failed to reach the knockout stage in 2010 and 2014, but even worse, failed to make the competition altogether in 2018 and 2022.
With a pair of third-place finishes in 1998 and 2022, and a runner up finish in the 2018 World Cup, Croatia has made some deep runs in the tournament. Conversely, the Croatians failed to reach the knockout stage from 2002 to 2014, failing to qualify for the 2010 edition.
For the exception of 2014, the English have advanced to the knockout stage in all other World Cups in the modern era. They are the highest ranked team to not play in a final. Three tough quarter final finishes, and a one goal semi final loss to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup, keep the Three Lions firmly in the top ten.
6. The Netherlands
Shockingly the Dutch failed to qualify for the 2002 and 2018 World Cups. However, a deep run to the final in 2010, and a pair of semi-final exits in 1998 and 2014, position the nation as the highest-ranked country to not win the cup.
The Spanish have been ordinary outside of their World Cup run in 2010. They have reached the knockout stage five times, but only reached the quarter-finals twice. Their 2010 run relied on four straight 1-0 victories to hoist the cup.
The 2022 World Cup cemented Argentina in the top four as they beat France in a thrilling 3-3 match that had to be settled by penalty kicks. With three quarter-final finishes and a 2014 runner-up on top of the recent title, Argentina is a frequent customer at making deep runs in the World Cup’s modern era.
Failing to reach the knockout stage in the 2018 and 2022 editions of the World Cup, Germany’s rise to the top of this ranking has taken a major blow. However, from 1998 to 2014 the Germans boast a pair of third-place finishes, a 2002 runner-up finish, and a 2014 championship over Argentina. The 2014 team tied Brazil’s 2002 squad with 18 goals scored. The most in a single World Cup during the modern era.
The Brazilians are a model of consistency having reached the quarter-finals in all seven World Cups since 1998. With the most wins in the World Cup’s modern era, there is little room for debate in this nation’s ranking amongst the top. Brazil’s best finishes include a semi-final exit in 2014, a runner-up to France in 1998, and the World Cup title over Germany in 2002.
France’s deep cup runs make up for failing to reach the knockout stage in 2002 and 2010. The French have reached the quarter-finals five times which include four finals runs that have led to two World Cup crowns. The most by any team in the modern era. Most recently defeating Croatia 4-2 in 2018.
History of World Cup Expansion
The Men’s World Cup was first played in 1930 with 13 nations participating in the inaugural tournament hosted in Uruguay. The quadrennial event was formalized with 16 nations partaking from 1934 to 1978, with the exception of the 1942 and 1946 World Cups which did not get played due to the impacts of the second world war. In 1982 the World Cup expanded to allow for 24 nations. After only four editions of the 24-team format, FIFA approved expanding the tournament once again to allow for 32 nations in 1998. The 2022 World Cup was the last edition of the 32-team format as 2026 will see the world’s most-watched sporting event expand a third time to include 48 nations.