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Greatest Teams to Never Win the FIFA World Cup
In the world of sport, there is a divide between those who believe in winning at all costs, and those who would rather win the hearts of the crowd. Few sporting events provide as dramatic a stage for this clash of philosophies as the FIFA World Cup.
After all, while the teams that play to win may have the better chance of clinching the prize, those that play to entertain will have the admiration of an audience that spans the entire globe. For some, this is more precious than any trophy.
But whatever your philosophy, what can't be denied is that the old adage “history only remembers the winners” does not hold true when it comes to sport. Here are examples of teams that were so celebrated for the way they played, their failure to win the world cup only enhanced their legend.
Having embarked on a 14 game winning streak that included victory at the Central European International Cup (predecessor to the European Championships), the Austrian “Wunderteam” entered the first European world cup in 1934 as firm favourites to take home the trophy. Their style of play relied on quick passing and dynamic movement, making them the prototype for many of the great national sides that would follow.
So how did they lose?
Inspired by their home support, host nation Italy were able to defeat Austria in the semi-final.
Of course, many believe it was actually the referee Ivan Eklind who was “inspired” by the home support, and by home support they mean the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini.
A few firm words from the fascist dictator would have been all the inspiration the ref needed, and an evaluation of his performance does little to dispel such conspiracy theories. The winning goal resulted from what appeared to be a foul on the Austrian goalkeeper, as he was bundled over his own the goal-line by the Italian players while holding the ball. The referee allowed the goal to stand, and went on to officiate in the final (which Italy won).
But the Wunderteam had a few world cups left in them, and surely it would only be a matter of time before they claimed football's ultimate prize? Perhaps they would have, if not for the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Austria, which brought an abrupt end to the country's thriving football culture.
Centre-forward Matthias Sindelar - nicknamed 'Der Papierene' (the paper-man) due to his slight build, was the captain and star of the Austrian Wunderteam. He was capped 43 times and scored 26 goals for Austria, but refused to play for Germany following the Anchluss in 1938.
He was later discovered dead in his apartment in Vienna. Carbon monoxide poisoning was cited as the cause, though whether or not it was accidental remains the subject of numerous conspiracy theories.
The “Mighty Magyars” famously humiliated England on their own patch, beating them 6-3 at Wembley Stadium in a game that illustrated just how far behind England had fallen in the sport that they themselves had invented.
It was an invaluable football lesson that forced the English to up their game. They would have their time in 1966, but at the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland it would surely be the Hungarians – unbeaten in 32 games - who would claim the trophy.
So how did they lose?
No one was counting on German resilience. Though now regarded as a football powerhouse, in 1954 West Germany were minnows who had done well to even reach the final. What's more, they had already suffered an 8-3 defeat to Hungary in the group stages.
But following a rainy, windswept tournament in Switzerland, the West German national side were well prepared for the muddy conditions of the pitch in Bern. Much is made of their specially designed football boots – the first to feature screw-in studs; but it was sheer determination and grit that enabled them to fight their way back after Hungary took a two goal lead.
The final result was 3-2 to West Germany – a massive upset that would lift the spirits of a nation still recovering from Nazi rule, and forever be remembered by German football fans as “Das Wunder von Bern” (The Miracle of Bern).
Left-footed forward Ferenc Puskas scored 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary, and was one of the stars of the Real Madrid side that won 3 European Cups. His international teammate Jeno Buzanszky said that “If a good player has the ball, he should have the vision to spot three options. Puskas always saw at least five.”
Named player of the tournament in the 1954 World Cup, he participated in the final despite carrying a hairline fracture to his ankle, and put Hungary in the lead with the opening goal. In the dying minutes, with Germany leading 3-2, he scored a dramatic equalizer that was subsequently ruled out for offside. As such, he would have no world cup winner's medal to go with his numerous other honours.
Dutch coach Rinus Michels cultivated a free-flowing, dynamic style of football that played to the strengths of the exceptionally talented group of players at his disposal. Dubbed “totaalvoetbal” by the Dutch media, it thrilled audiences at the 1974 World Cup, and made Holland a firm favourite among the neutrals.
So how did they lose?
Crushing all opposition on the way to the final, Holland had the misfortune to come up against football's perennial party-crashers – West Germany.
To be fair, this was a very different German side from the one that had shocked the football world twenty years previously. Their victory over Hungary in 1954 was a supreme case of giant-slaying, but in 1974 they themselves were a football powerhouse, featuring super-stars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller among their ranks. Furthermore, while the Dutch national side had won the hearts of football fans worldwide, West Germany were the host nation, and therefore had all the support they needed right there in the stadium.
Holland scored first, having been awarded a penalty in the opening minute after Johan Cruyff was brought down in the box. But West Germany fought back to win 2-1, and the Dutch side were accused of showboating (the Dutch players themselves later admitted that their desire to humiliate the Germans for their crimes in World War II may have caused them to lose sight of the prize)
Johan Cruyff is synonymous with the rise of Dutch football. A centre-forward who thrived when given the freedom to roam, he was a deadly combination of skill and intelligence. As Rinus Michels' protégé, he made significant contributions as both a player and a coach, laying the groundwork for future success during his time at Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona.
Brazil's 1982 world cup side failed to even reach the semi-finals of the competition, yet are more revered by their fans than the Brazilian teams that actually won the trophy in 1994 and 2002. According to their star midfielder Socrates, they were the last team to truly play football the Brazilian way, calling it “irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing” - in his mind a true reflection of the national spirit.
So how did they lose?
Simply put, they loved scoring beautiful goals, but hated defending. It wasn't just down to lack of discipline; they actually hated defending on principle. It was like a form of blasphemy to them.
As such, they were defeated by a more resilient Italian side, which then went on to beat West Germany in the final. A resentful Zico described their defeat by the defensively-minded Italians as “the day football died”.
The side was famous for fielding a 5-man midfield, in which each and every player was an all-round football genius. Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Cerezo and Eder; each would have been the primary creative force in a less gifted team.
So Brazil essentially had five playmakers, feeding a striker named Serginho who - contrary to the role usually played by strikers - ended up receiving most of the criticism and little of the glory. When he scored, it was only because the five geniuses behind him had made it possible; when he didn't, it was because he couldn't keep up with the five geniuses behind him.
At least, that's the way the devastated Brazilian faithful saw it when their heroes failed to clinch the prize; but in truth their defeat was down to the team's defensive failings, for which Serginho was unfairly made the scapegoat.
While not on the level of some of the other teams mentioned here, England's 1990 side boasted the likes of Chris Waddle, Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne; world-class talents who lit up what was an otherwise dismal world cup.
So how did they lose?
They came the closest of any England side since 1966, taking the eventual champions West Germany to the limit in a nail-biting semi-final that ended in defeat by penalty shoot-out (back when an England side losing by penalty shoot-out was still a dramatic spectacle rather than just a part of the world cup routine)
The 1990 FIFA World Cup was remembered mostly for the sheer negativity on display, which was in danger of bringing the game of football into disrepute. Its goals-per-game average of 2.21 remains the lowest of any world cup in history, and the final between West Germany and Argentina was a dirty, dull affair that summed up the tournament as a whole.
England's performance in the semi-final was one of the few redeeming elements. German left-back Andreas Brehme described it as “a fantastic match involving two great teams – it was the final before the final. For 120 minutes the game went one way and then the other.”
England had a dazzling winger in Waddle, and a world-class goal poacher in Lineker, but it was 23 year old Paul Gascoigne who stole the show. His skill and energy made him a firm favourite with football fans all over the world.
During the semi-final, after receiving a yellow card that meant he would be suspended for the final if England made it through, he famously burst into tears - a moment that did more to secure his place in football lore than any wonder goal he ever scored.