The Six Greatest Sides Never To Win the World Cup

Eusebio in '66, Cruyff in '74, Socrates in '82. They may not have won the Jules Rimet but they stole our hearts
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Eusebio in '66, Cruyff in '74, Socrates in '82. They may not have won the Jules Rimet but they stole our hearts


The boys from Brazil

Portugal, 1966
1966 was the first time Portugal qualified for the Finals and their run in the tournament was not so much about a great team, as a great player: Eusebio.
Reminiscent of Maradona some 20 years later, Eusebio single-handedly carried his country through the tournament. In the first round group stage he tore Brazil to shreds, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory which ultimately saw the defending champions – whose side included Pelé and Jairzinho – eliminated. Portugal trailed 3-0 in the quarter-final against North Korea, only for Eusebio to go on the rampage, orchestrating an astonishing comeback, scoring four times to lead his country to a fabled 5-3 win.

Portugal’s dream was then destroyed in the semi-final by hosts England. While home fans rejoiced in a 2-1 victory, many shared Eusebio’s tears, sorry to see ‘The Black Pearl’ on a losing side as the sheer gusto of his play had lit up the tournament. Consolation came by way of a bronze medal after a 2-1 win against the Soviet Union in the 3rd/4th place play-off. Eusebio also won the Golden Boot after netting nine times, and the hearts of all, leading to a waxwork being created of him at Madame Tussauds.

It would have been fitting for one of the greatest strikers in the history of the game to lift the Jules Rimet trophy but it wasn’t to be as Eusebio never took part in another Finals, the Portugal sides he later played in bowing out in the qualifying stages in both 70 and 74.

Holland, 1974
This was the year the legacy of the doom-ridden maxim, “never underestimate the Germans” gathered pace, the host nation confirming their status as serial party-poopers.

There’s no denying West Germany were a quality side with the great Franz Beckenbauer marshalling the defence and the deadly Gerd Müller leading the attack, but many believe Holland – the blueprint of visionary coach Rinus Michels and affectionately tagged ‘Clockwork Orange’ for their precision passing – were the more deserving winners.

Despite poor pitches due to incessant rain, Holland’s fluid interplay and attacking joie de vivre shone through, inspired by captain and playmaker Johan Cruyff. Indeed, this is a World Cup best remembered for the moment he bamboozled Swedish right-back Gunnar Olsson with his iconic ‘Cruyff turn’ in their Group C encounter (which actually finished 0-0), a piece of such pure footballing artistry it left even the most hard-nosed hack sobbing uncontrollably as he tried to put into words what he had just witnessed.

Cruyff was aided and abetted by the mercurial midfielder Johan Neeskens, dubbed ‘Johan The Second’, and a man born with a name that had ‘unstoppable 30-yard screamer’ written all over it – the irrepressible Johnny Rep. In the second group phase Holland annihilated Argentina 4-0, Cruyff bagging a brace. Next to feel the unstoppable force of ‘total football’ were defending champions Brazil, who were summarily dismissed 2-0, the great man again scoring.

Then, during a spellbinding opening passage of play in the final, fans of the beautiful game dreamed that the future was indeed bright, and orange, as straight from kick-off the Dutch goaded the Germans with a period of supreme, come-and-get-it-off-us-if-you-think-you’re-good-enough possession which finally saw Cruyff set off into the box on a darting run, only to be scythed down without a single German having touched the ball.

The resultant spot-kick was duly dispatched by Neeskens before the Germans re-grouped and staged a comeback in trademark style, going on to win 2-1. Cruyff would never play in the Finals again and a vintage Dutch side were left rueing a tournament they should have won.

Brazil, 1982
Arguably, this was the best attacking Brazil team ever seen, even surpassing the great 1970 side. The sublime samba skills of Zico, Eder, Socrates, Junior and Falcao were stunning to behold. This was pure footballing nirvana: silky smooth passing and movement interspersed with fancy flicks, spectacular long range strikes, and perfectly executed, curling free-kicks.

Initially, Brazil looked unstoppable playing some heaven-sent football based around the beguiling ethos: you score two, we’ll score three. In the first group stage they toyed with the opposition and scored for fun, netting ten times in their games against the Soviet Union, Scotland and New Zealand. The second phase saw them drawn in the ultimate ‘Group of Death’ alongside Argentina and Italy, only the winner progressing. After a sumptuous 3-1 demolition of the defending World Cup holders, it came down to an all or nothing match up with the Italians.

In a contest often cited as the greatest World Cup game ever, the Brazilians’ Achilles’ heel of lackadaisical defending was exposed by the sinnewy assassin, Paolo Rossi, whose hat-trick earned Italy a dramatic 3-2 win. The match ebbed and flowed with the boys from Brazil spurning chance after chance as they lay siege to the Italian goal.

When, finally, Falcao buried the ball past Zoff to level the match 2-2, everyone watching, bar the odd Italian, shared his euphoria as he celebrated, arms outstretched, veins bulging. A draw would have been enough to see this beautiful Brazilian team progress, but Rossi’s winner 15 minutes from time – a scrambled effort that juxtaposed so sourly set alongside the dreamy aesthetics of Brazil’s golden goals – gave the Azzuri the semi-final berth and we all wept with Rio.

"The 'Cruyff turn’ - a piece of such pure footballing artistry it left even the most hard-nosed hack sobbing as he tried to put into words what he had just witnessed."

France, 1982
A classic World Cup sees the inclusion of a second great side, France. Les Bleus played with consummate flair courtesy of the holy midfield trinity of Platini, Giresse and Tigana. This elegant trio were the nucleus of a majestic French team (which would justly go on to taste European Championship glory two years later) and bestowed with such vision, verve and originality they were worthy of their own wing at The Louvre.

A campaign that started with an ignominious 3-1 defeat against England – Bryan Robson famously opening the scoring in the first minute – slowly gathered pace reaching its tragic denouement in an epic semi-final clash against arch scoundrels West Germany who had earlier conspired with Austria to knock Algeria out.

In the second half, France’s Patrick Battiston was played clean through with only German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher to beat. Schumacher launched himself at Battiston in sickening fashion, his hips smashing into the Frenchman’s face, leaving him unconscious with a broken jaw.

The German keeper should have received a straight red and a penalty awarded to France but the referee, Charles Corver from Holland, made one of the most scandalous decisions ever seen, turning a blind eye to Schumacher’s savage challenge. To the disgust and horror of all those watching, the German keeper’s near decapitation of Battiston went unpunished, Corver merely awarding a German goal-kick.

With the game drawn 1-1 after 90 minutes, extra-time was needed. The wheels of justice appeared to be in full motion when Giresse put France 3-1 up, only for those pesky Germans to once again prove themselves the most obstinate of World Cup opponents as they clawed the game back, a Klaus Fischer scissor-kick levelling the match 3-3.
In the World Cup’s first ever penalty shoot-out, the villainous Schumacher emerged as the most undeserving of heroes, saving Maxime Bossis’ key spot-kick, before Horst Hrubesch scored to send the Germans through.

Purists would have loved to have seen France and Brazil, exponents of the most effervescent football of the era, meet in the final, but yet again it went down in the annals of football history as a story of what might have been, their heart-wrenching demise brought about by a combination of German steel and wily Italian counter-attack.

Italy, 1990
Some pundits besmirch Italia 90 for its paucity of goals and defence-minded football, but that is to under-estimate a spine-tingling tournament fondly remembered by England fans for the team’s heart-stopping run to the semis, and the BBC’s evocative choice of Nessun Dorma, a fitting soundtrack to the magnificent amphitheatre of the Italy-hosted tournament.

Many a partisan would argue for England’s inclusion on this list, as memories of Gazza’s tears and a rapping John Barnes on New Order’s ‘World In Motion’ during that tumultuous summer come flooding back, but the outstanding side, along with eventual winners West Germany, were undoubtedly the host nation.

Baresi, Maldini, Giannini, Donadoni, Schillaci... The names of the players flowed from the lips as poetically as the ball was passed on the pitch. Roberto Baggio’s virtuoso goal versus Czechoslovakia in the group stage had the look of a player, and a team, that felt this was their time, their date with destiny, with fellow artisan Giuseppe Giannini, the crown Prince of Roma, adding further lustre to a high class midfield.

This was a side as pleasing on the eye as a Michelangelo masterpiece, resplendent in their royal blue shirts and with Latin good looks to spare; Madonna, on her Blonde Ambition Tour at the time, declaring her undying love for the Divine Ponytail.
A hugely talented side from front to back was built around classic Italian defence and the imperious Franco Baresi, but the fatal error coach Azeglio Vicini made was to resort to the old Italian ways of trying to defend a 1-0 lead in the semi-final versus Argentina. After Schillaci scored in the 17th minute, Vicini had the personnel to go in search of a second, but instead the Italians decided to close up shop. To be fair, Walter Zenga had not conceded a goal in the tournament – 517 minutes to be precise, a World Cup record – until Claudio Caniggia headed past him in the 67th minute to level the match 1-1.

The game went to penalties and in a match played at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, home of Napoli, it was ironically the city’s favourite son, one Diego Armando Maradona, who helped break Italian hearts on his home pitch, scoring with chilling certainty in the shoot-out. Argentine keeper Sergio Goycoechea proved himself a penalty-saving supremo, stopping Donadoni and Serena’s spot-kicks to send the hosts crashing out.

The diminutive Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci came from virtual obscurity to end up the tournament’s top goalscorer but this was scant consolation for teary-eyed Azzuri fans. Cue Pavarotti as a football-loving country went into national mourning.

"This was pure footballing nirvana: silky smooth passing and movement interspersed with fancy flicks, spectacular long range strikes, and perfectly executed, curling free-kicks."

Argentina, 1994
Aside from moans about a country foreign to football hosting, and the abiding image of Diana Ross missing an open goal from two yards during a cringeworthy opening ceremony that included an appearance from the queen of anodyne daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, USA 94 served up a feast of attacking football following FIFA’s introduction of the new backpass rule.

For England fans still bemoaning the ‘Hand Of God’ in 86, and the fact the team didn’t qualify for the Finals, Maradona’s ejection from the tournament after failing a drugs test felt like long-overdue retribution; for lovers of the beautiful game it was a desperately sad closure to the international career of a one-of-a-kind footballing genius, leaving the tantalising question of what might have been with the great man at the helm of the most thrilling Argentina team seen in years.

It’s a controversial selection in more ways than one but prior to Maradona’s expulsion Argentina had the look of winners-in-waiting. Coach Alfio Basile had assembled a team jam-packed with invention and attacking intent, and in their opening group game, a 4-0 demolition of Greece, they played with a swiftness of passing and fluidity of movement rarely seen before, or since, with their spiritual leader like a classical conductor directing the most mellifluent of symphony orchestras.

This was a generation of great Argentinean players; players, for the most part, at the height of their powers. Fernando Redondo was like the sorcerer’s apprentice weaving his magic brilliantly alongside the little maestro; Simeone, Maradona’s protector, and a highly adept holding midfield player; while Caniggia and Batistuta were a dynamic duo up front, with the classy Chamot stepping out of a full-back position to lend his support going forward.

Batistuta notched a hat-trick in a game Argentina so dominated it could have been 10-0, and a newly-slimline Maradona scored a stunning goal himself, leading to a wild-eyed roar to a pitch-side camera and an unusually pithy Bob Wilson declaring he would have received “the hand of Bob” if he had displayed such histrionics in front of him.

A follow up 2-1 win against the much fancied Nigerians reiterated the quality of this team, both goals scored by Caniggia, one of which a glorious curling top corner finish from a tight angle that had many a neutral spontaneously applauding.
Then, on June 30, all of Argentina cried when FIFA expelled Maradona after he tested positive for ephedrine – a scandal overshadowed at the time by events taking place on the Southern California highways as an escaping OJ Simpson was pursued by a convoy of LAPD police cars. For football fans the world over this was the day the music died. Shorn of their twinkle-toed general, a visibly shell-shocked Argentina imploded, losing 2-0 to Bulgaria in their final group game, before going out 3-2 in the second round against a Gheorghe Hagi-inspired Romania.

Brazil, who had gone on record as saying the team they feared most was their great South American rivals, were uncharacteristically dour and decidedly average winners. All connoisseurs of the game will argue that Maradona-led side was the best thing seen in the tournament; far superior, paradoxically, to the Argentina team that won in 86, while back in Buenos Aires fans were left berating FIFA for punishing their hero so severely, and effectively ending the career of a legendary player, a player so loved his number 10 shirt was duly retired.

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