The 5 Greatest Teams Not to Win The World Cup

As the World Cup ticks ever close here’s a look back at the greatest teams never to win football’s biggest prize.

5. France (1986)

Who were they?

France entered Mexico ’86 as the most fancied of the European sides having made the semi-finals in Spain 4 years earlier and then won Euro ’84 at home. The team had one of the greatest midfield quartets in history- the tigerish box to box man Jean Tigana, silky playmaker Alain Giresse, deep-lying midfielder Luis Fernandez and most importantly 3 time Ballon d’Or winner Michel Platini. Platini was by now 31 and Mexico represented his last realistic chance to win the one prize that had eluded him.

How did they get on?

A slow burner- France progressed untorubled through the group stage making steady progress and building momentum. But they found an extra gear in the last 16 and easily despatched defending champions Italy to book a date with favourites Brazil. In a classic match the two best teams in the tournament slugged it out with Platini drawing the French level in the first half. Then Brazil sent on Zico who remarkably missed a penalty in normal time. The game continued all the way to penalties and despite Platini missing the French won through and ‘keeper Joel Bats was briefly a national hero.

Platini send Italy packing

What went wrong?

The victory over Brazil set up a semi-final rematch with bitter rivals West Germany:  the team who’d knocked them out at the same stage 4 years earlier thanks largely to the controversial antics of German ‘keeper Harold Schumacher. But the French seemed exhausted by their quarter-final exploits and a mistake from Bats gifted the Germans an early lead. They came close to an equalizer late on when Patrick Battiston (who’d been famously cleaned out by Schumacher in the 82 semi) found himself clean through but stood on the ball. It was symptomatic of the performance and France went out and we never got to see the great final showdown: Maradona vs Platini.

After the tournament the French had to move on without their star midfielder and entered the footballing shadowlands not reappearing at the World Cup until they hosted and won it in 1998 under the stewarship of another great number 10- Zidane.

4. Italy (1994)

Who were they?

Under the management of the legendary Arirgo Sacchi Italy entered the 1994 World Cup with the defensive backbone of Sacchi’s great AC Milan side of the late 80’s in Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. In midfield they had  the creative Roberto Donadoni & Nicola Berti and the more combative Antonio Conte & Dino Baggio. Up front they had Gianfranco Zola & Pierluigi Casiraghi. But the crown jewel was the Ballon d’Or holder, the devine ponytail himself Roberto Baggio.

How did they get on?

It started disastrously, Italy crashed to shock opening day defeat to Ireland and then lost goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca to an early red card against Norway. Baggio was subbed to howls of derision but his namesake Dino dug Italy out of trouble and a draw with Mexico saw Italy scrape through. But if there’s one thing you can guarantee about Italy it’s that they come alive in the knock-out phase and Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Ponytail- Baggio smashed 5 goals in the next 3 games to drag Italy to the final and a showdown with Brazil.

Roberto Baggio in full flow

What went wrong?

Baggio was injured in the semi final and was at best 50% fit for the final. Italy’s ever reliable backline marshalled Romario and company with few alarms but Baggio just wasn’t fit enough to breakdown the Brazilians and a penalty shootout ensued. Shockingly it was Italy’s 2 best players Baresi and unforgettably Baggio that missed their spot kicks and Italy went home runners-up having finished 3rd as hosts in 1990.

Sacchi stayed on for Italy’s disasterous Euro ’96 campaign with Baggio absent and the manager last seen wandering the Old Trafford touchline resembling a lost child.

3. Brazil 1982

Who were they?

The magical Samba boys of 1982 were the last truly inspirational Brazilian World Cup side. Blessed with brilliant expressive talents this side had flamboyance like no other with the likes of Eder, Falcao, Zico & Socrates they were the ultimate box office side.

Brazil 1982- their last truly inspirational side

How did they get on?

They lived up to the hype and then some. They started by having to come from behind to beat a tough Soviet Union side with Falcao selling a sublime dummy for Eder to score a spectacular winner at the death. They then fell behind again to Scotland thanks to David Narey’s vicious volley but as Gordan Strachan recalled “I think we’ve upset them” and  Brazil responded with 4 of their own. They then took apart New Zealand to make it into the second group phase where they would first face defending champions Argentina.

The ultimate South American face off saw Brazil score early through Zico and they dominated proceedings knocking in 2 more before Diego Maradona got frustrated and saw red meaning all Brazil needed was a draw with Italy to book a semi-final spot.

What went wrong?

The only problem with having a side full of flamboyant players is you can turn into Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle at the back and Brazil had already conceded 3 goals when suddenly Paolo Rossi homed into view.

The Italian poacher had looked rusty in the group games but came to life when it counted and gave Italy an early lead. Brazil quickly responded through Socrates and a classic match unfolded. Brazil’s glass jaw was exposed when a causal back-pass was intercepted by the razor-sharp Rossi and Italy were ahead. Falcao scored a spectacular equalizer to seemingly pull Brazil’s collective nuts from the fire when Rossi popped up again to lash home his third and Brazil were out.

The harsh lesson of 1982 was all the talent in the world can’t win you a tournament without sound defending and Brazil started moving away from their beautiful football to a more prosaic approach. It worked a treat in the 1990’s whilst they had the genius attacking players- Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho as Brazil added 2 more World Cup’s to their collection. But post 2006 the increasing dependence on negative tactics and physicality lead them down the path to hometown humiliation in Belo Horizonte and that 7-1 hiding from Germany. It seems 2014 has prompted the biggest Brazilian rethink since 1982 and now we’ve finally got ‘our beautiful Brazil’ back.

2. Holland (1974)

Who were they?

A new footballing superpower emerged at the 1974 World Cup, a new nation with a whole new philosophy, this was total football from Johan Cruyff’s Oranje-men Holland.

Observers of European Club Football weren’t surprised- Cruyff’s Ajax had won 3 successive European Cup’s in the early 1970’s. Captain Cruyff had moved on to Barcelona but the Ajax spine ran through the national team in centre back Ruud Krol, dynamic midfield duo Arie Haan & Johan Neeskens and young striker Johnny Rep.

How did they get on?

Brilliantly from the start- Rep scored a brace in their opener and after being held to a draw by Sweden they dominated Bulgaria with Neeskens hitting 2 penalties and Rep adding another in a 4-1 win.

In the second group phase Holland moved up a gear and trounced Argentina 4-0- with Cruyff netting twice before seeing off East Germany 2-0 to set up a decider against holders Brazil. Cruyff turned in a masterclass (quite literally!) with the Dutch running rings around the champions with Cruyff & Neeskens scoring second half goals and the nation in their first post-war World Cup were in the final.

Cruyff downs Brazil

What went wrong?

Seen as outsiders 3 weeks earlier Holland entered the final as hot favourites against hosts and European Champions West Germany. Whilst nobody expected Franz Beckenbauer and co to be a pushover the nature of Holland’s passage to the final had most expecting a coronation of Holland akin to Brazil 4 years earlier- all they needed was a good start, and they got one!

Holland knocked the ball around and penetrated the German back line in the first minute leading to a penalty and Neeskens gave the Dutch a 1-0 lead before the Germans had touched the ball. The Dutch continued to knock the ball around with confidence but simply didn’t push hard enough for the killer second goal and the Germans are nothing if not tenacious. The hosts gained a foothold and won a penalty of their own on 25 minutes.

The Dutch were shell-shocked and suddenly found themselves behind when Gerd Muller prodded home a second before half-time. Holland came out fired up for the second half but the Germans held firm and despite defending ever deeper West Germany held on to be crowned World Champions. Cruyff wouldn’t play another World Cup although in his absence Holland made the final 4 years later only to be denied by a goal post! Holland remain the most celebrated footballing nation not to win the game’s biggest prize.

1. Hungary (1954)

Who were they?

Hungary- The Magical Magyars were the first truly great international side of the post war era. Lead by the genius Ferenc Puskas the Hungarians took technical football to a new level and won 42 and drew 7 of the their games 50 games between 1950- 1956. Puskas was the leader but this was far from a one man show, there was his deadly strike partner Sandor Kocsis, creative midfielder Nandor Hidegkuti, winger Zoltan Czibor and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics who formed the backbone of the side.

They arrived in Switzerland for the 1954 World Cup as Olympic Champions and having beaten England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest, they were overwhelming favourites to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy in Bern.

How did they get on?

It started brilliantly with a 9-0 thrashing of South Korea and then an 8-3 destruction of West Germany, Kocsis alone scored 7 times in the 2 group games that put Hungary into the quarter finals. But the cynical tactics employed by the Germans saw Puskas suffer a hairline fracture of the ankle and he seemed unlikely to play the rest of the tournament.

Initially it seems the Hungarians wouldn’t miss their superstar with a comfortable 4-2 win over much fancied Brazil setting up a semi-final with defending champions Uruguay. The semi-final started well with Czibor scoring early and the Hidgekuti made it 2 just after half-time. But the World Champions fought back and 2 last Juan Hohberg goals forced extra time. But in the second period of extra time Kocsis bagged a braced taking him to an astonishing 11 goals and the Magical Magyars had a date with destiny.

What went wrong?

The final was expected to be a formality against a West Germany side still technically classed as amateurs and whom the Hungarians had tonked in the group phase especially when Puskas was deemed fit enough to play.

After 8 minutes it looked like being another walk over with Puskas getting the first and then Czibor scoring yet again. But within 10 minutes the Germans were level and at half-time it was 2-2. The Hungarians swarmed forward in the second half but German ‘keeper Toni Turek pulled off an inspired series of saves and then Helmut Rahn scored 6 minutes from time to give West Germany the lead. Puskas thought he’d equalised but a dubious offside ruled the goal out and the Germans had achieved ‘The Miracle of Bern’ to lift the World Cup.

The Hungarians were devastated, angered by the dodgy refereeing and there were even (unproven) stories of doping. The Magyars left Switzerland with their only defeat but rolling on until 1956, confident of another chance of winning the ultimate prize in Sweden come 1958. But there was political unrest at home and the Hungarians revolted against Communist rule leading to the team breaking up with most of the best players including Puskas and Czibor heading for the West.

Since 1956 Hungary have failed to produce a team anywhere close to the Magyars and haven’t played in a World Cup since 1986. Their appearance at Euro 2016 and unexpected run to the last 16 has regenerated interest in the game in Hungary and for their youngsters taking up the sport they couldn’t have a better role model to live up to than their Golden Boys of the 50s.

The legendary Magical Magyars of Hungary

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