Best non-World Cup winners
History is written by the victors and no one remembers the losers – what a load of rubbish. Many of the World Cup’s most iconic – and best – teams didn’t get their hands on the trophy, but that doesn’t mean their greatness can’t be acknowledged.
In this slideshow, we pick out the strongest sides not to win the tournament – featuring Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas and a young Lionel Messi…
The inaugural World Cup was a very different beast: no qualification, 13 teams, three venues, one city (Montevideo). Having popped across the River Plate to Uruguay, Argentina edged out nine-man France but then larruped Mexico 6-3, Chile 3-1 and, in the last four, the United States 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 period, but Uruguay scored three unanswered goals.
Tactically adept, disciplined and unusually professional for the era, Hugo Meisl’s Wunderteam gained their creative fulcrum when Meisl recalled Matthias Sindelar – nicknamed 'The Paper Man' for his lack of physicality and 'The Mozart of Football' for his virtuosity.
At the World Cup in Italy, they beat Hungary 2-1 in the quarter-finals before facing the hosts in the semis. A pre-match downpour spoiled their passing game, Luis Monti kicked Sindelar all over the show, sidekick Johann Horvath was already injured and Benito Mussolini’s pet team went on to lift the trophy.
There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and in 1938 Brazil fell the wrong side of it. In their first match, 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 for the semi-final against Italy in Marseille. The Selecao were made to pay, losing 2-1 to the holders, and then 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.
Brazil were so determined to triumph on home soil in 1950 that they paid coach Flavio Costa a stunning £1,000 per month and locked the squad away for four months before the big kick-off. The Selecao began with a 4-0 triumph over Mexico, then thrashed 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 “football of the future”. Two hundred thousand exultant fans packed the Maracana to see those pesky Uruguayans come from behind to the win the match and the tournament.
The Germanic reputation for pragmatism can be traced back to 1954. 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 by Horst Eckel, and other legends like Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Jozsef Bozsik couldn’t produce their usual tactics on a swamp, tiring as the Germans came from two down to win.
England have rarely ceased banging on about 1966, but they arguably weren’t the best team at that tournament. Portugal scored 17 goals to the hosts’ 11 and were involved in most of the classic games.
They were built around Eusebio, 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, midfielder Jose Augusto, winger Antonio Simoes and forward Jose Torres. Hungary (3-1), Bulgaria (3-0) and 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 last four.
West Germany (1970)
The 1966 finalists had matured four years later, and their pool had deepened. Franz Beckenbauer was now all of 24, as was his terrifyingly prolific Bayern team-mate Gerd Muller. Captain Uwe Seeler, at his fourth World Cup, dropped into midfield. Sailing through their group, they came from two down in the Leon heat to eliminate holders England (scorers: Beckenbauer, Seeler, Muller).
Then in the semi-final, later christened the 'Game of the Century', they equalised in injury time – but Italy found three goals in riposte to send the Germans home… where they would win the next tournament against another superb losing side, more on whom later.
There's a certain Anglocentric egotism in lauding a team who lost two of their four games, but man for man the squad was arguably better than the 1966 winners. A maturing spine – Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst – was augmented by improvements: Brian Labone, Alan Mullery, Colin Bell, Emlyn Hughes, Peter Osgood and Allan Clarke.
Clearly struggling in the noon heat, England nonetheless did enough to win two of their group games and, in a 1-0 loss, they gave Brazil as good a game as anyone all tournament. Their collapse from 2-0 up against West Germany solidified several English beliefs for generations: never sit back, never sub your key man (Bobby Charlton), and never expect to beat the Germans.
The Dutch hadn’t qualified for any finals since the Nazis threw their bikes in the canal, but Ajax had won the European Cup for three successive years and this was a special bunch of players, a futuristic ‘Clockwork Orange’ whirl of passing and movement with Johan Cruyff the on-field general for visionary coach Rinus Michels, supported by the slippery Johan Neeskens, hard-shooting Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink and the rest – all switching positions at will.
Argentina were annihilated 4-0, champions Brazil 2-0. And in the final they were ahead within two minutes, but taunted their German hosts rather than get a second goal. Big mistake: the Mannschaft came back to win 2-1.
After Italy’s triumphs in 1934 and 1938, Mexico '70 was the only time they cleared the first hurdle until Argentina '78. They would win it again in 1982 but this was arguably the better team, with playmaker Giancarlo Antognoni plus nine regulars lifted from the Juventus team who’d won Serie A five times in seven seasons.
Italy beat all three opponents in the first group, and in the second – effectively the quarters and semis – they drew 0-0 with holders West Germany, dismissed Austria 1-0 and were easily beating Holland by the same scoreline... until Enzo Bearzot subbed mercurial winger Franco Causio to save his legs, Italy sat back and they lost to two 40-yarders.
Thirty-six years on, this Brazil side is still much more discussed than the Italian side which triumphed at Spain '82, or indeed the Brazilian one which ended a 24-year duck in 1994. Fans of a certain age go misty-eyed at the names: Zico, Eder, Socrates, Falcao – and that’s just the attacking midfielders.
But that’s the point: they were all attacking players – in the opening group they scored 10, then demolished holders and neighbours Argentina 3-1... meaning against Italy they only needed a draw. But how do you get those? Fired by Paolo Rossi and players who really did know how to defend, Italy prevailed 3-2.
It didn’t start well. Bryan Robson’s 27th-second goal set England towards a 3-1 win, and defensive midfielder Jean-Francois Larios was sent home, allegedly due to tensions over an extramarital affair with Mrs Platini. But cuckolded Michel and his top-class creative cohorts Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana started to click, beating Kuwait, Austria and Northern Ireland to reach a classic semi-final against West Germany.
Platini levelled Pierre Littbarski’s opener before German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher ended Patrick Battiston’s late offside-springing charge with a sickening assault. In extra time the French went two goals clear but, perhaps missing Larois, allowed the Germans back for – you guessed it – the penalty shootout win.
FIFA’s technical report isn’t always a riveting read but it used precisely the right word for Denmark 1986: “spectacular”. Sport as spectacle, purveyed by what a Danish commentator called an “unconquerable team of optimists”.
The world’s finest young player, Michael Laudrup, was paired up top with wily Preben Elkjaer, who’d often have a cig at half-time. Behind them, Soren Lerby, Frank Arnesen and the rest kept out English-based heroes Jan Molby and Jesper Olsen. They played with a fluidity that evoked comparisons to Dutch total football, but after beating Scotland (1-0), Uruguay (6-1) and the mighty West Germany (2-0), they collapsed against Spain in the knockouts, losing 5-1.
The last World Cup before the prohibition of the backpass produced the lowest goals-per-game return, and Italy did their bit: in their six games they scored eight and conceded just one. In fact they’d only conceded one in a year: this was a team with Walter Zenga protected by Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi and Paolo Maldini. Further forward, the artistry of Giuseppe Giannini, Roberto Donadoni and Roberto Baggio was augmented by surprise top-scorer Toto Schillaci.
And then, in the semi-finals, they played Argentina in Diego Maradona’s adopted back yard of Napoli. One up, they sat back and couldn’t respond to Claudio Caniggia’s equaliser over a flapping Zenga; by contrast, Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea made two shootout saves to break the hosts’ hearts.
Few teams can have gone through such reinvention between World Cups as this Argentina side. Under Alfio Basile, the nation had swung back from Carlos Bilardo’s 'anti-futbol' to something more resembling the swagger of Cesar Luis Menotti’s 1978 winners. Diego Maradona was thin as a whippet, supported by Fernando Redondo and protected by Diego Simeone behind Claudio Caniggia and Gabriel Batistuta.
Playing fast-moving, intelligent football, they demolished Greece 4-0 and then came from behind against the highly-fancied Nigerians to win 2-1. But Diego’s drugs disbarral dismantled their confidence, and they lost their final group game 2-0 to Bulgaria before losing a 3-2 thriller to Romania. Bilardo, presumably, threw his hands in the air.
Yugoslavia didn’t qualify for USA '94; having been barred at the last minute from Euro '92, the country was busy atomising into Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and (eventually) Serbia and Montenegro. This was a great pity for the 1987 World Youth (U20) champions, who defeated each of the other three semi-finalists and the defending champions.
Emerging from the rubble, Croatia reached the Euro '96 quarter-finals and France '98 semis, each time losing narrowly to the winners. Now imagine that squad bolstered by other ex-Yugoslavs: Slaven Bilic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Igor Stimac and Dario Simic in defence; Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic, Zvonimir Boban, Dragan Stojkovic, Vladimir Jugovic and Aljosa Asanovic in midfield; and up top, Davor Suker, Darko Pancev and Alen Boksic.
Jose Pekerman’s Argentina had terrifying firepower: Hernan Crespo, Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez and little Leo Messi, with service supplied by Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar. They beat Ivory Coast and then pummelled Serbia-Montenegro 6-0, their second goal coming after a 25-pass move.
In the knockouts, Mexico fell to a gobsmacking Maxi Rodriguez volley to set up a quarter-final with hosts Germany. The visitors were in front until coach Jose Pekerman lost his nerve with three subs in 10 minutes, including withdrawing Riquelme and Crespo. Inevitably, Germany equalised; even more inevitably, Germany won the shootout.
Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who's filled in wherever FourFourTwo needs him since 2014. He became a Crystal Palace fan after watching a 1-0 loss to Port Vale in 1998, and once got on the scoresheet in a primary school game against Wilfried Zaha's Whitehorse Manor (an own goal in an 8-0 defeat).