Do Golden Generations live up to the hype? - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment.

Today's featured excerpt comes from the September 2020 magazine. It's called, "Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

One of the great excitements of tournament years is identifying the nations with Golden Generations. These wunderkinds turned superstars represent the hope of a nation, the chance to lift a trophy on the biggest stages.

Successful World Cup appearances for England and Croatia got me thinking…these two squads exceeded expectations, but do most Golden Generation manage to live up to the hype?

Also, what are the requirements for achieving Golden Generation status? It seems like there are a few ways to understand the term.

In this data analysis, we’ll get to the heart of the term and identify some of the greatest Golden Generations in the modern game. Once those top-performing generations are identified, statistics will help us uncover some of the core features of Golden Generations, including how elite players fit into the picture. No data analysis is complete without wild speculations of future events, so I’ve also identified six nations that will capture the global imagination in the coming years, which is covered in the full article.

Identifying top youth tournament performers

Past performances will serve as the starting point for our understanding of Golden Generations. Though several Golden Generations were far more successful at the first team level rather than in youth play, we want to identify which youth programs sparked the hope of a nation. In fact, finding the top performing youth national teams and Golden Generations, then offering an analysis of those specific groups to see what kind of an impact these wunderkinds have at the senior level. That leaves some sides, like the current Belgian and Croatian teams, out of consideration. While they had some success at the youth level, they were not world-beaters.

One other note for consideration is that this data analysis uses youth tournaments to identify statistically superior generations of youth players, following their progress into the senior level. Since performance at the youth level is the foundation of the analysis, some Golden Generations, such as Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands and Pele’s Brazil, are not represented.

Moving into the analysis, our method starts with identifying the top-performing countries at the youth level. The first task is to identify the top youth footballing countries.

Casting a glance at the world map below, we get a sense of which countries have dominated the world of youth football. We’re identifying top performers on an orange-to-blue color scale with dark blue representing the highest total. The scale is set to identify youth-level World Cup and Continental finalists. In competitions where there was not a final, no winners were included in the dataset. This mostly occurred because the tournament was specifically limited to qualification spots for the World Cup or Olympics, so, without knockout rounds, the top teams were simply group winners. I’ve also decided to exclude the Oceania region since Australia and New Zealand have more or less split the trophy haul, leaving the latter to collect nearly all of the trophies since the Socceroos left for the Asian region.

From the extraordinary 58 youth trophies of Brazil to those countries that are happy to even have one title, the map gives a nice view of both the international and regional powerhouses. Spain rates second in the list with 46 youth trophies, followed by the 35 of Argentina and Mexico, who lead Germany’s 34 trophies. Nations such as Portugal, the United States, Italy, Nigeria and England all fall into the mid-20s, a tribute to their international and regional performances.

With a better understanding of the top historic youth national team programs, we now want to see which specific teams experienced the greatest degree of success. As we move forward, note that when you see a number listed next to a country, that number indicates the birth cutoff year of the group in question. For example, Luís Figo’s “71 Portugal” represents the cutoff year, so, like Figo, the players were more than likely born in 1972.

In the visual below, we see the 10 teams that made three total final appearances at the youth level, an extremely difficult feat to achieve.

One thing that was abundantly clear when crunching the numbers is that it almost seems absurd to count Brazil in the Golden Generation study. The South Americans are ever-present in the youth World Cups and Continental, finishing with at least a semifinals appearance in most tournaments. On this list alone, three Brazilian teams pop up in the list of 10 most successful youth teams. Had I expanded the list to two finals appearances, nearly every Brazilian age group would have qualified for our shortlist. With that in mind, we’ll move forward with the understanding that Brazil is in a sphere of its own, not dependent on Golden Generations, but, rather, a perennial power with an expectation for titles. Spain and Argentina are close to joining this elite status, but we’ll limit this to Brazil for now.

Looking at the senior-level contribution of these teams, only the 77 Spanish side lifted a World Cup trophy. The 90 Spain squad came just after the string of Spanish success, but they do have a continental runner-up medal to their name. That final Spanish side, the 00 squad, is one of the powerhouses to watch going forward.

Looking at the remaining nations, 81 Argentina was a World Cup runner-up, but none of the other groups placed higher than 4th (71 Portugal) at the World Cup. That said, those sides were highly successful in continental play, either winning their respective tournament or finishing as runners-up.

Since no Golden Generation is composed of a single birth year, finding supporting squads with above-average production is the next step. In fact, the most successful national teams will feature two to four regulars per birth year. Missing this component puts the status of the national team in jeopardy, much like the United States and Italy’s failure to reach the previous World Cup. Gaps in talent, especially from prime-aged players, are devastating.

Studying each country’s top youth performers, filtering for all tournament semifinalists at the youth World Cups and continental tournaments, I identified strings of highly successful youth squads. It’s these collections of successful youth teams that ticked all the boxes for Golden Generation status.

Grouping those teams and tracking their progress, we now have a list of Golden Generations. In the image below, we have the country, range of years for that Golden Generation, and their best senior-level results.

Global football’s powerhouses are well represented in the “Best World Cup Result” statistic category. Notice that it’s really only the traditional powers that secured World Cup titles from their Golden Generations. Several others came close, such as Portugal and Uruguay, but ultimately fell short.

Looking specifically at continental success, we see that this is where the second-tier nations generally come away with hardware. Nearly each of the elite Golden Generation teams earned at least silver status. Of those that didn’t make it to a final, three of the six were at least semifinalists.

For the full article, which offers far more insight into Golden Generations and players to watch (who are now coming of age), head to Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?