Rated! The greatest sides NOT to win the World Cup
The inaugural World Cup was a very different beast: no qualification, 13 teams, three venues, one city (Uruguayan capital Montevideo). Having popped across the River Plate, Argentina squeezed past nine-man France but then larruped Mexico 6-3, Chile 3-1 and, in the semi, the US 6-1. In the final, they came from behind to lead the hosts 2-1 at half-time.
At the break, two sinister chaps warned Luis Monti – arguably the planet’s best player – that if Argentina won, his mother and sister would be killed. Maybe it was a thigh injury that slowed him in the second half, but Uruguay scored three unanswered goals. Monti joined Juventus, naturalised as an Italian citizen and won the 1934 World Cup on his new home soil instead.
No hipster worth his beard oil should omit to mention Hugo Meisl’s Wunderteam. Tactically adept, disciplined and unusually professional for the era, they gained their creative fulcrum when Meisl recalled Matthias Sindelar – variously nicknamed 'The Paper Man' for his lack of physicality and 'The Mozart of Football' for his virtuosity. They went to Italy as one of the favourites, especially after marking the February opening of Turin’s Stadio Mussolini by humping the hosts 4-2 in a friendly.
At the World Cup, they beat local rivals Hungary 2-1 in a bruising quarter-final before facing Italy in the semis. A pre-matched downpour spoiled their passing game, Luis Monti kicked Sindelar all over the show, sidekick Johann Horvath was already injured and Mussolini’s pet team went on to win the tournament.
There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and in 1938 the first great Brazil team fell the wrong side of it. In their first game, they put six past Poland – but conceded five and needed extra time, which they also used to beat Czechoslovakia 2-1.
Perhaps it was tired legs that made the coach rest a number of first-teamers, including four-goal star Leonidas, for the semi-final against Italy in Marseille. Maybe it was just good logistical prep to book every seat on a flight to Paris the next day for the final. "What if you lose?" said Italy's coach to Brazil's. "We won't," came the reply. They did – and had to make their way to Bordeaux for the bronze-medal match, in which Leonidas bagged two to win a hypothetical Golden Boot as non-existent as Brazil’s Jules Rimet trophy.
You might have noticed that the Brazilians love football. So when they hosted the first post-war World Cup – a year after an eager FIFA had wanted it held – they expected to win. They paid coach Flavio Costa a stunning £1,000 per month and locked the squad away for four months. They started with a 4-0 victory over Mexico, then Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 to set up a coronation finale against Uruguay.
Across five games they’d scored 21 goals, eight of them going to the graceful Ademir and the rest shared between another six players exhibiting what Brian Glanville called “the football of the future”. Two hundred thousand exultant fans packed the Maracana – and watched the Uruguayans come from behind to the win the match and the tournament. They called it the Maracanazo; Brazilian author Nelson Rodrigues called it “our Hiroshima”.
Whether or not you buy the idea that it comes at a loss of romanticism, the Germanic reputation for pragmatism is well-founded. For the final against the Magical Magyars, unbeaten in 30-odd games and undoubtedly the planet’s finest team, much of the 'Miracle of Bern' victory came down to Adi Dassler providing the team with long studs on a rainy match day.
Hungary weren’t at their best: Ferenc Puskas wasn’t fully fit, Nandor Hidegkuti was man-marked to silence by Horst Eckel, and other legends like Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Jozsef Bozsik couldn’t produce their usual liquid tactics on a swamp, tiring as the Germans came from two down to win. But across the finals, Hungary scored 27 goals in five matches, entering legend as one of the finest teams never to win the World Cup. Do the Germans care? Not really.
History is written by the victors and England have rarely ceased honking on about 1966, but they arguably weren’t the best team at that tournament. Portugal scored 17 goals to the hosts’ 11 (more than a third of which came in that final you’ll have heard of) and were involved in most of the classic games.
They were built around Eusebio, 'Europe’s answer to Pele' (actually born in Mozambique) who top-scored with nine, and another half-dozen of his Benfica side who’d reached four European Cup finals in six years – including captain Mario Coluna, creative midfielder Jose Augusto, tiny winger Antonio Simoes and 6ft 3in forward Jose Torres. Hungary (3-1), Bulgaria (3-0) and holders Brazil (3-0) were dispatched in the groups and North Korea hit for five after having the cheek to go 3-0 up in the quarters, before the hosts prevailed in the semi-finals. Portugal wouldn’t qualify again for another 20 years.