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Champions in all but name: Seven star-studded teams that failed at the FIFA World Cup

Being a World Cup favourite is one thing. Being the best in the tournament is another. And being the ultimate winner yet another.

England's 2006 World Cup squad in Germany England’s 2006 World Cup squad promised plenty with its ‘Golden Generation’. (Source: AP File)

It is logical. The World Cup should be won by the best team. But then football is like life, so logic often goes right out of the window. The World Cup has had its share of great teams, and the irony is that many of them have never even touched the trophy. Being the favourite is one thing. Being the best in the tournament is another. And being the ultimate winner yet another. Far too often, great teams have been undone by a twist of fate, an inspired opponent or simply by that bugbear – a bad day at the office. If that seems too bad to be true, check these seven teams. Each legendary in their own right. And none of them have won the World Cup.

Brazil (1950): Maracanazo!

The initial editions of the World Cup had largely followed predictable lines, with the best teams coming out on top (although Argentina might feel they were a bit unlucky to lose to Uruguay in the first edition in 1930), but the first really great team that perhaps came a cropper at the World Cup was the Brazilian football team of 1950. Although England were considered favourites by some of the European media (after all, it was the country that gave birth to football), there was no doubting that Brazil were the overwhelming favourites for the 1950 tournament. The Brazil team had built a formidable reputation, scoring 46 goals in winning the Copa America in 1949. And right through the 1950 World Cup, they played fantastic football. The tournament was to have no final, but the best four teams would play each other and the team with best record would be given the trophy. Brazil, Uruguay, Spain and Sweden were the final four. Brazil hammered Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1, while Uruguay escaped with a draw against Spain 2-2, and barely edged out Sweden 3-2. The last match of the tournament therefore literally became a final – Brazil needed a draw, Uruguay had to win. Brazil had thumped Uruguay 5-1 in the Copa America, so were overwhelming favourites,. Such was the confidence around the Brazilian team that medals were printed with the players’ names on them and a victory anthem composed in advance. And then it all went horribly wrong. At the Maracana, in front of perhaps the largest crowd ever to view a sporting event (some insist it was almost 2,00,000), Uruguay shocked Brazil 2-1. A great team had been humbled. And the event is believed to have so scarred Brazil that it has gone down in history as the ‘Maracanazo’ – the Maracana blow.

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Hungary (1954): Magical Magyars Grounded

Uruguay’s victory over Brazil in 1950 had been a shock. Four years later, Fritz Walter’s Germans (West Germany at the time) served up one that was almost as big when they beat one of the great teams not just of the tournament, but perhaps in football history. Captained by the amazing Ferenc Puskas, Hungary had revolutionised football in the 1950s, bringing in a system of play where players switched positions and attacked in a thrilling fashion. The team had been unbeaten since 1950, and had thrashed England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 at Budapest. Puskas was recognised as the best player in the world, perhaps of all time, and at the 1954 World Cup, the Magyars were in irrepressible form, with Sandor Kocsis seemingly scoring at will. Korea were demolished 9-0, Germany were hammered 8-3 in the group stages, Brazil humbled 4-2 in the quarter finals in one of the great World Cup games (the ‘Battle of Berne’) and then defending champions Uruguay were also beaten 4-2, in another ferocious contest. Perhaps the two matches drained the Hungarian team but they were still overwhelming favourites to beat West Germany. And sure enough, they went up 2-0. And then the form book was turned on its head as West Germany made the sort of comeback that would become their trademark. The West Germans won 3-2 in the end, although Hungary conntroversially had a goal disallowed. Despite it being a shock defeat, it did not dent Hungarian morale. The team’s record from 1950-56 was: played 50, won 42, drawn 7, lost 1. That one loss, that said, was in the World Cup final!

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Netherlands (1974 and 1978): Total Football, Zero Trophies

Very few teams had caught the imagination of the public and critics in the manner in which the Netherlands did in 1974. Spearheaded by the genius of Johan Cryuff, the Dutch played a free flowing style of football that was labelled ‘Total Football’ and was built around technical expertise, teamwork and the fact that any player could literally play in any role. The result was a team that simply was unpredictable and could ebb and flow across a football pitch in seemingly random patterns. They destroyed Argentina 4-0, stunned Brazil 2-0, and went into the final against hosts West Germany as overwhelming favourites. And proceeded to deliver the most stunning start ever to a World Cup final – a goal in the first minute without a German player even touched the ball. Just as their counterparts had twenty years ago against Hungary, however, the West Germans had not read the script and refused to lie down and die. They scored twice and then weathered a sustained Dutch onslaught to win the Cup 2-1. But there was no doubting which was the team of the tournament. Four years later, the Netherlands were again favourites to win the tournament, although Cryuff was absent from the squad. They were not as dominant as in 1974 but made the finals, where they went down 3-1 to Argentina, after some churlish behaviour by the champions, who kept the Dutch waiting before kick off and also objected to the bandage worn by one of their players. It would be the last high of the ‘Total Football’ squad, and even though they won no trophies, they would be remembered as the best football team of the seventies.

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Brazil (1982 and 1986): Santana’s Sorcerers


After winning the 1970 World Cup with arguably one of the greatest teams of all time (Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino, et al), Brazilian football went into a curious stage, trying to combine caution with flair. The results were not too bad – Brazil finished fourth at the 1974 World Cup and third in 1978 (very controversially, in spite of not losing a match) – but the style of football was not ‘Brazilian’ and seemed too defensive at times. That changed in the early eighties with Tele Santana taking over the team, and creating one of the most entertaining and attacking teams of all time, built around arguably the greatest midfield ever assembled – Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Junior and Cerezo. The team played breathtaking football, swapping short passes and moving forward with elegant inevitability and often scoring stunning goals. “If we play football, they play something else,” a rival manager was moved to say. Unfortunately, the team continued to have frailties in defence and also did not possess a lethal finisher. As a result, they created a lot of chances but missed most. Overwhelming favourites in 1982, they swept Scotland and defending champions Argentina aside with brilliant displays, but were undone by Italy’s clever counter-attacking strategy (and Paola Rossi’s clinical finishing) in one of the greatest World Cup matches. Four years later, the squad was older but was still everyone’s favourites after it beat Spain and Poland easily, but again wasted too many chances to go down on penalties to France, with both Zico and Socrates missing from the spot. They never even made the semi-finals, but Santana’s Sorcerers remain one of the greatest teams to have graced a World Cup.

France (1982 and 1986): Blues for Les Blues – no French Revolution

France had always been a strong footballing nation, but had never been considered serious World Cup contenders. That, however, changed in the late seventies, thanks to the emergence of one of its greatest generation of players – Michel Platini, Rochteau, Jean Tigana, Giressa, Genghini, and many others. They played sublime, often slow, football that took opponents apart with elegance rather than brute force. So much so that they were known as the “Brazilians of Europe.” But just like the great Brazil teams of 1982 and 1986, they too lacked a surgical striker. The result, as with Brazil, was that the French team would often dominate matches but would miss multiple chances and remain susceptible to counter attacking teams. After Brazil’s shock defeat in 1982, the French were most people’s favourites to win the tournament, but were defeated in a penalty shoot out by Germany in spite of leading 3-1 in extra time – the match was notable for one of the ghastliest fouls seen in football, when German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher knocked Patrick Battiston unconscious, and was not even penalised. Four years later, France were among the favourites for the title, and beat Brazil in a penalty shoot out in a World Cup classic, but once again were beaten by West Germany, after a horrendous goalkeeping error by Joel Bats. The tournament marked the retirement of most of the French team. It had no World Cups to its name, but would always be remembered with respect and affection. And nothing captured its spirit more than its tearful captain Platini holding the hand of an unconscious Battiston as he was carried off the pitch after being fouled by Schumacher on a Spanish night in 1982.

Netherlands (1990): No Dutch Delight…again

It might not have had the technical excellence or the radical tactics of its counterpart in the seventies, but the Dutch team that entered the World Cup in 1990 was considered by many to be the best in the world by some margin. In its ranks were the three AC Milan Dutchmen who many considered to be among the greatest alive – Rudd Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. There were others too – the redoubtable Hans van Breukelen in goal and the deadly Erwin Foeman who was a great defender and a dead ball expert. The team had won Euro 1988 with a stirring display of attacking football. It, however, faced the problem of the parts being greater than their sum – the team was not well integrated in strategic and tactical terms and often relied on moments of individual brilliance to win matches. The side was also riven by internal politics, ego battles and injuries. As a consequence, literally anything could happen when the Dutch took the pitch. Not surprisingly, they were shockingly poor in the group stages of the 1990 World Cup and drew all three matches against England, Ireland and even Egypt. They then came together to produce a World Cup classic against Germany in the pre-quarters. Ironically, it was not good enough, and they lost 2-1 to a more organised German side, inspired by a rampant Jurgen Klinsmann. It did not help that one of their key players Rijkaard got himself sent off in the early part of the match. It was typically temperamental, and typically Dutch. Holland would reach the World Cup semi-finals in 1998 and the finals in 2010, but neither of those teams were considered remotely as gifted as the one in 1990. What they did possess was teamwork.

England (2006): England, oh my England


They were considered promising in 1998, competent in 2002 but by the time the 2006 World Cup came around, England were supposed to be at the apex of their powers. In their ranks were the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Owen Hargreaves and of course, the talismanic David Beckham. The team was young (Beckham was one of the oldest at 31 and Rooney was only 20), had no evident weaknesses and had, if anything, an over abundance of stars in every department. What it DID seem to lack, a bit like the Dutch team of 1990, was a master tactician in the dressing room.Sven Goran Eriksson had many gifts but being able to harness the massive amount of footballing talent at his disposal was not one of them. Players were played out of position, absurd substitutions were made, and the team seemed to have no coherent approach. As a consequence, perhaps the strongest English team to play a World Cup since 1982 (where they went out despite not losing a single match) or perhaps even the strongest ever (player for player, they were better than the team that actually won the 1966 World Cup), never really looked convincing. They played well in patches, but in the end, stumbled out after a penalty shoot out against Portugal. England’s golden generation would win plenty of of domestic club trophies, but would fail on the biggest stage of them all.

First published on: 10-06-2018 at 09:00:05 am
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