Identifying the World’s Greatest Teams
This was not the first time I had taken a stab at ranking the world’s greatest sports teams. It was, however, the first time I’d attempted this while sober.
There is no better, faster way to start an argument with another sports fan than to trot out the name of a team that you consider to be unrivaled in its accomplishments. Once you go down this road, you’re in for a long night. The only redeeming quality of this line of debate is that the more rounds you buy, the sharper your analysis seems to become.
I had never written any of my own rankings down, but I knew that others had. So I decided to launch my study by gathering up every such list that had been published anywhere in the world, from the page of prestigious newspapers to the most homespun websites to see if they had come to any consensus. I found about ninety of them.
After I spread them out on my dining room table and attacked them with a yellow highlighter, it was immediately clear that this genre of sports-page punditry suffered from some empirical weaknesses. Some of the lists didn’t bother offering a methodology—their conclusions were based on the collective opinions of a bunch of guys in the office. The ones that did use numbers were often statistically dubious.
The most common procedural error was something known as “selection bias,” a gaffe which has long plagued all kinds of polls, surveys, and scientific experiments. This occurs when researchers base their studies on samples that aren’t large enough, or random enough, to offer a representative cross section of the whole. The telltale sign was that most of these lists had a suspiciously regional flavor. Rankings from England, for example, were clogged with the names of soccer clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United, while those from Down Under went heavy on rugby, cricket, and Australian rules football.
What this told me was that these list-makers had failed to cast a wide enough net. In many cases, they hadn’t even considered teams from outside their own national borders.
Another problem was that the same gangs of standbys kept showing up over and over. In the United States, for instance, the 1927 New York Yankees, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 1990s Chicago Bulls, and the New England Patriots of the 2000s made nearly every list. The only difference was the order in which they were ranked. This suggested that my fellow analysts had probably allowed themselves to be prejudiced by the candidates other people had already anointed.
To build a proper list, I realized, I would have to ignore all the others, put on blinders to block my own assumptions, and start fresh. I would have to consider every team from every major sport anywhere in the world through the fullness of history.
The first step was to locate reliable historical records for every professional or international sports league, association, confederation, or annual tournament, from Australia to Uruguay—and to isolate every team that either had won a major title or trophy or achieved an exceptional winning streak. This process, which took months to complete, yielded a spreadsheet of candidates that ran into the thousands.
To set some parameters for my research and filter this group down to a more manageable number, I set out to answer three fundamental questions.
Question 1: What qualifies as a team?
Most of the rankings on my dining room table neglected to deal with one vital issue: What constitutes a team in the first place? A sport like ice dancing, where two people perform together in front of a panel of judges, was often given the same weight as a sport like rugby union, where two groups of fifteen athletes compete head-to-head. The members of Olympic boxing teams, who enter the ring alone, were lumped together with volleyball players, who compete side by side.
The dictionary definition of “team” is about as bare-bones as it gets. It’s defined as any group that works together on a task. When it comes to horses or oxen, a team starts with two and goes up from there, but there is no conventional view of how many humans are required. Is a group of two people a team or a partnership? And do three people make up a team or a trio?
To settle the matter, I decided that a group of athletes can only be considered a team in the fullest sense of the word if it meets the following three criteria:
A. It has five or more members.
One thing we can say with certainty is that the smaller a team, the more its results depend on individual performances. If a team has two members, for instance, each person’s contribution should account for something close to 50 percent of the outcome. If one athlete performs spectacularly, or chokes miserably, there’s a strong possibility that they might single-handedly determine the result.
To limit my sample to teams where the collective performance of the group will nearly always matter more than the contribution of any one member, I decided to eliminate all teams that involve dyads: doubles tennis, doubles luge, Olympic beach volleyball, pairs skating, and ice dancing. I also eliminated curling, which involves teams of three. Only polo teams have four members, but that sport was nixed for another reason (see Question 2, Section A). In the end, the smallest units I included were basketball teams, which field five members, and where the average contributions of the players at each position should theoretically account for about 20 percent of the team total.
B. Its members interact with the opponent.
A big part of the mysterious alchemy of a team is how well its members respond in real time to another set of athletes that is trying to clobber them. This kind of synchrony is obviously a big part of football, soccer, basketball, water polo, and ice hockey, where the athletes spend the whole game engaging with their adversaries on both offense and defense. But there are some sports in which teams don’t interact with the other side. A few examples of these discards: rowing, team cycling, judged competitions like gymnastics and synchronized swimming, and timed events like running and swimming relays.
C. Its members work together.
In some so-called team sports like Olympic wrestling, boxing, and skiing, the athletes show up together wearing the same uniforms but compete individually. In golf and tennis team competitions like the Ryder Cup and Davis Cup singles, the players also contribute to an aggregate score but compete as individuals. Because the athletes on these teams never physically interact with their teammates, I eliminated them.
This rule put two major sports on the bubble: baseball and cricket. In baseball, pitchers and catchers will interact throughout the game, and fielders often work together to make plays—but that’s about it. In cricket, there’s even less direct engagement. One teammate might relay the ball to another while stopping a boundary, and run-outs are often achieved by one player throwing to another at the stumps, but the most crucial things players do, whether they’re batting, fielding, pitching, or bowling, are generally done alone without any direct assistance from teammates. It’s impossible to say that direct, physical interaction between athletes is the key to success.
There is one aspect of both baseball and cricket that distinguishes these games from other low-interaction sports, however—the amount of teammate coordination. In cricket, for instance, players running between wickets have to keep close tabs on one another. The positioning of the fielders and the approaches taken by the batsmen, who work in partnerships, are all determined by a larger collaborative plan. A cricket bowler and wicketkeeper don’t exactly play catch, as baseball pitchers and catchers do, but they sometimes do strategize together on what deliveries to use for specific batsmen. In both sports, the importance of coordinating effort, and making split-second mental adjustments, overrides the fact that the players don’t physically engage very often. I decided to let both games play on.
Question 2: How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?
Question number one cut my list of candidate teams down by roughly a third, but there were still thousands left to analyze. My next job was to figure out some criteria to use to decide whether a team’s accomplishments belong in the highest echelon.
If the threshold for greatness in sports is simply winning lots of games over a lengthy period of time, then there is nothing distinguishing a multiple Olympic champion from a neighborhood beer-league frisbee team. To make sure only the most exceedingly credentialed teams were considered, I applied the following three rules:
A. The team played a “major” sport.
No team can claim freak status if it played an obscure regional sport with a modest fan base and a relatively limited talent pool. This rule led to some easy cuts, most of them involving non-Olympic team sports such as Brazilian footvolley, Scottish tug-of-war, Finnish pesäpallo, Japanese bo-taoshi, and American professional lacrosse.
Another group of relatively small non-Olympic sports was more difficult to judge. Australian rules football, Irish hurling, Gaelic football, Argentine polo, and netball in the Commonwealth nations are not globally popular, but they all enjoy huge followings somewhere, either in terms of spectator interest or participation. The trouble is that the countries that adore them just aren’t very big. To decide which ones to include, I resorted to looking at television ratings. Unless a sport’s premier matches attracted many millions of viewers, it was axed. The only sport that passed this test was Australian rules football.
The final six cuts here were the trickiest. When it comes to handball, women’s soccer, volleyball, field hockey, water polo, and rugby union, the international teams—the popular and prestigious ones you see at the Olympics or at World Cups—qualified for inclusion in my study. The professional teams in the same sports, which compete in relatively obscure domestic leagues in different countries, generally have smaller followings and less talent. They did not.
B. It played against the world’s top competition.
There’s an old saying in sports that to be the best, you have to beat the best. While many teams on my list regularly took on the fittest thoroughbreds of their sport, there were more than a thousand who faced a level of competition that paled in comparison to that found in a richer, more prestigious league somewhere else.
By culling these lesser leagues from the herd, I eliminated Canadian football, professional ice hockey in Russia and Sweden, and all European men’s and women’s domestic professional basketball associations, among others. This rule also disqualified intercollegiate team sports in the United States, where the player pool is limited to currently enrolled students and the quality of play is inferior to that seen in professional leagues or at the Olympic level.
C. Its dominance stretched over many years.
Anyone who witnessed Argentina’s “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup soccer quarterfinals, or David Tyree’s fluky “helmet catch” that allowed the New York Giants to win the 2008 Super Bowl, knows that luck plays an essential role in sports. No team has ever won a championship without benefiting from a few favorable bounces. But while some luck is essential, too much of it can camouflage the truth about a team, making it seem exceptional when it really isn’t.
Statisticians acknowledge the role of luck, and they have tied themselves in knots for years trying to develop formulas to account for it. They have calculated historical averages that can tell you whether a team is winning or losing more often than it should based on how many goals or points it scored versus how many it allowed. These kinds of statistics can make a convincing case that a team’s performance is unusual—but they still can’t tell you whether the culprit was luck or some other kind of anomaly.
The first assumption we can make about luck is that some teams probably owe their accomplishments to an extraordinary abundance of it. At the same time, we can assume that a handful of teams out there managed to win multiple titles despite having suffered more bad luck than good. It’s also possible that some teams control their own destiny by putting themselves in enterprising positions where a little luck goes a long way (have fun trying to measure that!).
Copyright © 2017 by Sam Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.