It's a cliché that 'everyone forgets who comes second'. It's rubbish of course, every schoolboy knows that Buzz Lightyear was the 2nd man on the moon. Here we salute the great sides that fell short in football's greatest contest. Strangely, only three of our choices were actual finalists.
The team that invented modern football? Quite probably. That they were unable to crown their collective genius with the World Cup was almost a tragedy. Their incredible victories over England in the previous 12 months, 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest, had set this team up as the hottest tournament favourites in World Cup history. In the 1st round they despatched the little fancied West Germans by an astonishing 8-3 scoreline. Nine more were bagged against Korea. Brazil were then beaten 4-2 in the quarter finals (in what was remembered as the Battle of Berne) before Uruguay went home after the same scoreline. 25 goals had been pillaged in 4 games. In the final they were to play West Germany. The Germans had cunningly rested a number of key men from that first round battering. Imagine what Warnock would have made of that! A huge support had also come over the border, making the game a virtual home match. As it was, the great men - Puskas, Kocsis, Hidegkuti and the rest, were unable to overcome the well organised and resilient Germans, who triumphed 3-2.
Total football was the invention of this great side and its celebrated coach, a revolutionary football thinker, Rinus Michels. A team with class all the way through and a philosophy that allowed players to move with freedom through all domains on the field. Krol was the anchor at the back, a dream midfield and attack contained Rep, Haan, Rensenbrink, Neeskens, swapping positions almost at will. But the king of this team was Cruyff, and 1974 was to be his tournament. They played some sumptuous football, most notably in a 4-0 dismantling of Argentina. In the final the Dutch faced their old enemy West Germany. Taking the lead in the 1st minute from the penalty spot they committed the classic Dutch error of arrogance towards their great opponents. The Germans struck back with goals from Breitner, a contentious spot kick, and Muller. The dream was over, but the Dutch had moved the evolution of the game forward with their sophistication, tactics and talent.
For us thirty-somethings who aren't old enough to remember total football or Pele, we were gifted one last great team to adore. One last team who made football look truly beautiful, and for whom defending adequately was a somewhat distasteful pursuit. That team was Brazil in 1982. On roasting Spanish days and warm nights they transfixed the world in a way no other team has done since. The spectacular Zico, cerebral Socrates, thunderous Falcao, general Cerezo, Junior and magical Eder. Even the comically inept centre forward Serginho acquired a certain mystique. They outplayed the Soviets, Scotland, New Zealand and Argentina before foundering on an Italian rock called Paolo Rossi. His hat trick, helped hugely by a reluctant desire to tackle or mark, propelled the Italians through. It also sent us 10 year old kids back out to the park with the dream that we could emulate what we'd just witnessed. Guess what, we couldn't.
In 1982 a fine French team, built around the genius of Michel Platini, reached the semi finals and they were terribly unlucky not to beat West Germany in a thrilling match which was won on penalties. It was best remembered for the infamous 'Schumacher assault' on Patrick Battiston and, in one of football sickest ironies, it was Schumacher himself who was to be the hero of the shootout. In 1986 Platini, Tigana, Giresse et al were fancied to do well in Mexico. Though perhaps Platini was a little past his best, they beat holders Italy in the second round to set up a quarter final with Brazil. In one of the all time epic encounters the French eventually prevailed after another shootout to set up a rematch with the Germans. Yet again though, it wasn't to be. A terrible error by keeper Bats set their old enemies up for a 2-0 win.
The Dutch vintage for Argentina 1978 was not quite as memorable as the iconic 1974 team, shorn of Cruyff as it was, but they still played some marvellous football. Neeskens, Rensenbrink, Rep, Haan and Krol were still there and they had been supplemented by the Van der Kerkhof brothers and Ernie Brandts. After a defeat by Scotland in the 1st group stage they produced an exemplary display of total football to outclass Austria 5-1. A thrilling 2-2 draw with West Germany was followed up by a 2-1 win over Italy (after falling behind), and the final was reached. In the final against the hosts the Dutch dominated for long periods, but couldn't cope with Kempes and sadly, a second splendid Dutch side went home with the silver.
For most observers the England team of 1970 was superior to the heroes of '66. The full backs were better, Labone was more mobile than Jack Charlton, and Ball, Peters and Hurst were at their peak. Then there was Gordon Banks. Oh and Bobby Moore, both of them the best in the world in their respective positions. Against that was the Mexican heat and altitude. Absurdly, FIFA and the European television companies had decreed that most matches should kick off in the searing midday heat. England were magnificent in defeat to The Greatest Team of All Time (TM), Brazil. The next major test was the quarter final match-up against West Germany, in Leon. England dominated the match and lead 2-0, but with Banks ill and Bobby Charlton substituted the Germans fought back to win 3-2. The only team the great Brazilians feared could disrupt their coronation was gone.
The great Austrian side of the 1930s, the 'Wunderteam', were to be first thwarted by the Italians on the field and then by Hitler's Germany off it. Coached by the visionary Hugo Meisl, an Anglophile and friend of Herbert Chapman, they were beaten by a single goal in the semi final of the 1934 World Cup by the Azzurri. It was a match that most had wished was the final. Two years later, at the Berlin Olympics they lost, again by a single goal, and again to Italy. In 1937 Meisl died and by the time of the 1938 tournament in France, Austria had been annexed by Germany. The best Austrian players were forced to represent the Germans. Thankfully, it did them little good. They were knocked out in the 1st round by Switzerland.
Inspired by the great Eusebio, Portugal were involved in most of the best games of 1966. The group stage victory over Brazil was notable not only for its fearsome tackling, but also some real quality from the Portuguese. Then came the 'Diddymen' of North Korea in the quarter finals. The east Asians who had sent Italy home to face the music (and the rotten fruit), threatened to do the same by racing into a 3-0 in the first half. However, Eusebio, Torres and the rest were not going to let lightning strike twice and roared back to win 5-3 in front of an enraptured Goodison Park crowd. Onto Wembley for the semi final and possible the best match of the tournament against the hosts...
Instead of their usual party pieces of cynicism, thuggery and shirt pulling, the class of 2006 really were the class of the 2006 World Cup. The flawless 6-0 obliteration of Serbia in the group stages was arguably the finest individual performance of recent tournaments. The goal scored by Cambiasso after a 24 pass move was almost freakish in its quality. They also participated in a splendid encounter with Ivory Coast in qualifying for the knockout stages. Once there they played Mexico in one of the best games of the tournament. It demonstrated everything that is best about the Latin game, and the volleyed, extra time winner by Maxi Rodriguez was stunning in its execution. They largely bossed hosts Germany in the quarter final before losing on penalties. This precipitated a almighty mass brawl, more Rosa Klebb toecaps than handbags. The Argies proving that even though they played the most stunning football of the competition, they hadn't lost their knack of creating mayhem when the occasion merited it.
In possibly the worst tournament of modern times, Italy stood out as the one team who tried to win the tournament by playing memorable football. The Azzurri started slowly with narrow wins over Austria and the USA before Baggio inspired them to a victory over the Czechs in the final group game. Uruguay and Ireland were also defeated in Rome and the semi finals beckoned. It wasn't the greatest Italian team of all time but they had a strong, uncompromising defence (Baresi, Bergomi, Maldini) a midfield that relied on width for invention, particularly from Donadoni (a hugely underrated player) and a forward line containing the young Baggio and a Sicilian who came from nowhere to score a succession of vital goals, Toto Schillaci. They couldn't turn their territorial domination into goals against the cynical Argentinians in the semi final and ultimately lost on penalties after a 1-1 draw. World football was therefore robbed of a potentially memorable final to rescue the competition.
1954 - Hungary Michael Russell-Yarde emailed us to say... "For the final, the pitch was not in a good state due to the appalling weather conditions beforehand and the Germans were wearing boots with the new screw studs, which enabled them to lengthen their studs and gain an advantage over the much fancied Hungarian side."