There is something rather poignant about wonderful football teams who failed to win the greatest prize of all, despite their collective talent.
A new book called Danish Dynamite tells the story of one such team - the Denmark side from 1986 - in compelling fashion, so we asked co-author Mike Gibbons to give us his list of the five best sides never to win the World Cup.
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Had FIFA rankings existed in the first half of the 1950s they would have read 1 - Hungary 2 - Light years 3 - Everyone else. The Magical Magyars of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti (pictured above) didn’t just beat teams. They obliterated them with a style of football the like of which the world had never seen, utilising a deep-lying centre-forward over half a century before the phrase ‘False Nine’ became so ubiquitous. Going into the 1954 tournament in Switzerland they were reigning Olympic champions and unbeaten for 27 games. During that run they trounced England twice with ice hockey scores, 6-3 at Wembley and then 7-1 in Budapest.
At the tournament they began swatting aside the opposition. They scored 25 goals in four games on the way to the final, hammering Turkey and West Germany in the group stages before besting Brazil and then reigning champions Uruguay in the knockout rounds without the injured Puskas. The Galloping Major would be back for the final against West Germany, which looked a formality. Unfortunately for the Hungarians, something else the world hadn’t seen to date was about to appear – the resilience of the West German football team.
Hungary went 2-0 up in eight minutes, before something that would seem inevitable now but impossible then occurred: West Germany were level 10 minutes later, Hungary would see shots hit the post and cleared off the line before Helmut Rahn settled the argument with a late winner for West Germany. Puskas had a late equaliser controversially disallowed, and it summed up their afternoon. A great cliche of sport is that so much of it is ‘on the day’. For Hungary, a rare off day just happened to be the day of the World Cup final.
Few teams have had such a transforming effect on a World Cup as the Dutch did with their Total Football in 1974. It very nearly didn’t happen at all; one hooky offside decision disallowed a legitimate goal against them in last minute of their final qualifier against Belgium, which would have knocked them out. How different modern football – playing it, thinking about it, writing about it – might have been. No matter; the butterfly effect of that bad call favoured Netherlands and they would become the darlings of the football intelligentsia with their performances at the 1974 World Cup.
Everything about them seemed different – the languid style, the imaginative interplay and use of space, even the love beads some players wore. They were even pioneering – against Sweden in the first round Johann Cruyff unveiled to the world the now famous turn that bears his name. The second round saw them definitively wrestle away control of the beautiful game from South America, hammering Argentina 4-0 in a downpour and then beating Brazil with goals by Cruyff and Johann Neeskens, with the incumbent world champions forced into hoofing the Dutch players into the air to keep the score respectable.
In the final against hosts West Germany they won a penalty inside a minute before a German player had even touched the ball, which Neeskens lashed home. The Dutch then decided to try and lord it over their opponents – an unwise move, as West Germany could play their own brand of not dissimilar stylish football. With Cruyff noticeably radged off to the point of distraction a combination of fate, momentum and Gerd Mueller turned the game around and West Germany won 2-1.
Very occasionally you get quality in quantity. Tele Santana’s Brazil team at the 1982 World Cup were so good that they ran the goal of the tournament competition in-house. The variety of their strikes – headers, volleys, chips, screamers, free-kicks, team goals – made for an astonishing portfolio for just seven-and-a-half hours of work. During their brief summer in Spain they reached a level of aesthetic purity unmatched at the World Cup ever since, a seduction that left the watching world utterly, hopelessly in love.
The side hinged on an interchanging midfield quintet of Cerezo, Falcao, Eder, Zico and Socrates, with the left-back Junior popping up anywhere and everywhere to join in. They were dazzling, but not without problems. Serginho, the much-maligned forward, wasn’t of the standard required of World Cup winners. When he was substituted against New Zealand the former Brazil manager Joao Saldanha cruelly remarked: "Now the ball is round again." At the other end of the field the defence was porous, with only New Zealand failing to score against them.
The latter of those problems would be their downfall. In perhaps the greatest World Cup match of all-time against Italy they went behind three times to strikes by Paolo Rossi. Despite scoring two stunning goals through Socrates and Falcao, and needing only a draw to reach the semi-finals, it was too high a mountain against a well-organised defence. Brazil went out, and a world wept.
It took Denmark over half a century to make their debut at the World Cup. When they arrived in Mexico, they played football from the future. Under the guidance of Sepp Piontek the Danes had a team packed with star players from the best clubs in Europe, laid out in a flexible 3-5-2 formation and fronted by the peerless striking partnership of Preben Elkjaer and Michael Laudrup.
Denmark were drawn in the Group of Death with Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany. When the Grim Reaper turned up at their door he was told he had the wrong house and was quickly shuffled off the premises. The Danes electrified the tournament in the first round by winning all three games, the highlight being a 6-1 hammering of South American champions Uruguay, the tournament villains for their brutal style of play. The victory was lauded in Mexico and all over the world and made Denmark serious contenders for the trophy. And just as everyone was enjoying themselves, the end came.
In the second round Denmark were 1-0 to the good against Spain and looking comfortable when a stray Jesper Olsen back pass fell to Emilio Butragueno, who equalised. Although the collapse wasn’t as immediate as some remember, it was in the post; Spain ran out 5-1 winners and Butragueno finished with four goals, football’s saddest, maddest thrashing. Denmark’s stay was brief, but it was also brilliant; no World Cup debutant has ever had such an impact on the tournament.
If you can imagine a team where Lionel Messi is a back-up option rather than a necessity, then you’d be thinking of this lot. With the young genius only earmarked for cameo appearances the responsibility of being the creative pivot for Argentina fell on Juan Roman Riquelme, who helped elevate his team-mates in Germany to become greater than the sum of their considerable parts.
During their celebrated 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro, Riquelme was the principle conductor of the Marmite goal of modern World Cups. Depending on your standpoint, the goal finished off by Esteban Cambiasso after 24 passes through nine Argentine players is either a geometric wonderment or a training ground exercise against a team that couldn’t be bothered to tackle. There were few complaints about the booming volley by Maxi Rodriguez that did for Mexico in the second round, which then set up a quarter-final against hosts Germany.
This was arguably a disaster of coach Jose Pekerman’s own making. At 1-0 he had an inexplicable fit of caution and substituted Riquelme to try and defend, a move that backfired spectacularly as Germany equalised and went on to win on penalties. However they play Argentina rarely exit World Cups quietly; noggins went on both sides and a few hooks were thrown in a centre circle melee after the shootout.
Follow on Twitter: @DanishDyn86
Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team is published by Bloomsbury. You can buy the book here on Amazon.
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