The Rundown

Top 10: The luckiest teams and sports stars of all time

The Rundown

The Americans have a saying: "You're better off being lucky than good... and you'd better be lucky, because you're no damn good."

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John Terry's 'clearance' that never was

Over the past 10 days the exploits of Roy Hodgson's England have given this a whole new meaning. In the first match the side saw dozens of shots on goal by France fizz just wide of the goal, while a solitary attempt on target at the other end found the back of the net. Then, against Sweden, Theo Walcott's speculative punt goalwards somehow got lost behind a sea of defenders, wrongfooting the goalkeeper on its way in. And on Tuesday night, Ukraine were denied an equaliser when John Terry was wrongly adjudged to have cleared the ball off the line, a blunder that appears to have finally undone Michel Platini's insistence that an extra pair of human eyes will do a better job than a digital camera shooting 1000 frames per second and reporting back to a top-of-the-range computer.

So lucky were England, in fact, that the Ukrainian's phantom goal could have been given and the hosts scored again without stopping the Three Lions from roaring into the quarter-finals. That's because France's capitulation against Sweden would have left England able to lose by one goal and still progress on goals scored.

Fans and pundits alike are asking how long that luck will last - but when you start getting the rub of the green in a big tournament, history suggests that it lasts until the end, as our round-up of the top 10 luckiest sports stars and teams of all time shows.

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Fred Couples at the 1992 Masters

The loveable American golfer's attempt to win The Masters at Augusta in 1992 looked doomed when his tee shot to the terrifying par-3 12th started rolling back down the slope towards Rae's Creek. Somehow, though, his ball defied the laws of physics to stop half-way down an incline so steep that Couples could struggled to take his stance to play his next shot.

Local journalist Furman Bisher claimed he had never before seen a ball stop on that slope in 42 years of covering the Masters, but Couples took full advantage of what he called "the biggest break in my life" to save par and go on to win by two shots.

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FOOTBALL 1986 World Cup 1986 England Argentina Maradona 'hand of God' - 0
Diego Maradona gets away with worst handball ever

The Argentine superstar was many things, but tall was not one of them. Yet it apparently never occurred to either referee or linesman that the only way the 5'5" striker could have outjumped 6'1" Peter Shilton for a ball was by using his hand. Yet that's what he got away after 51 minutes of the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup against England in Mexico. Maradona's second goal three minutes later is probably the greatest ever scored in the history of the game, but England pulled one back and were rightly aggrieved to go out 2-1.

Boston College Eagles beat Miami Hurricanes to NCAA title

72,319 people were at The Orange Bowl in 1984 to witness one of the craziest finishes ever seen in an American football game. Boston trailed 45-41 deep in their own half with only 28 seconds left, while home side Miami's players admitted later that they "thought they had won" already since they merely needed to keep their opponents battened down.

But Boston were doubly lucky: after creeping up towards the half-way line on fourth down and with only six seconds left, quarterback Doug Flutie narrowly avoided getting sacked before heaving the ball as hard as he possibly could from his own 37 yard line into the 30mph wind blowing straight at him. The crowd watched in amazement as his superhuman throw somehow made it towards the end zone, gasped as Miami defenders Reggie Sutton and Darrell Fullington ran into each other, ooohed as the duo regathered themselves to jump for the ball, winced as it carried on sailing clean through their outstretched hands, and were finally left open-mouthed as Boston's Gerry Phelan managed to grab it for a winning touchdown just as the clock ran out.

Steven Bradbury wins Olympic speed skating gold

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Steven Bradbury crosses the line with his rivals sprawled on the ice

The Australian short track speed skater was happy just to have made it to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and thrilled when a series of freak collisions and disqualifications somehow helped him make the final. What came next, however, was a masterstroke of riding your luck: like a Blackjack player sticking on 12 and hoping the dealer busts, he skated around in the final a clear 20 yards behind the four runaway leaders. It looked to have backfired when the race came into the final bend with the Aussie still miles behind, but the leading quartet all took each other out as they jostled for the win, leaving Bradbury to skate over the line and collect the Aussie's first ever Winter Olympic gold.

Leeds gifted Challenge Cup final by Don Fox

Wakefield trailed arch-rivals Leeds heading into the final few minutes of the 1968 Challenge Cup final at Wembley, but Wakefield gritted their teeth and scored an amazing try under the posts with the final move of the match. All the veteran kicker had to do was knock over the conversion and Wakefield would win the match 12-11. Somehow, however, he spooned the kick wide of the uprights to make Leeds the luckiest winners in the tournament's history.

Nick Faldo wins five Majors thanks to others woes

He is England's most successful golfer of modern times, but Faldo is also its luckiest, at least when it came to his Major victories. He won the 1987 Open when Paul Azinger bogeyed the final two holes; the won the 1989 Masters when Scott Hoch missed a 12-inch putt on the first hole of a play-off; he won the 1990 Masters thanks to Ray Floyd hooking his ball into a pond on the second hole of a play-off; he won the 1992 Open thanks to John Cook missing a three-footer on the penultimate hole and bogeying the last; and he won the 1996 Masters thanks to Greg Norman producing perhaps the most incredible meltdown ever seen in the game as he blew a six-shot lead. Sure, he was good enough to be the next best player on the day and inherit those wins - but without a healthy slice of luck he'd never have pocketed five of his six Majors.

Allan Wells becomes fastest man in the world

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Allan Wells (bottom) dives for the line at Moscow 1980

The Scottish sprinter was doubly lucky to become the Olympic gold medallist at the 100m in Moscow in 1980. Firstly, most of his main competitors for the medal were not even at the Games thanks to the US boycott. And secondly, a split-second decision to chance a glance across at Cuba's Silvio Leonard during the race told him that he needed to dip through the tape to have any chance of a win. He dipped at a crazy angle, and though both runners were given a time of 10.25 seconds (in cold and blustery conditions) it was Wells who came out on top of the photo finish. Wells, incidentally, later beat the USA's top two sprinters that year, Mel Lattany and Stanley Floyd, in an exhibition showdown.

Chicago Bulls end up getting Michael Jordan

The Bulls had only the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft, but luckily for them the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers were both in desperate need of defensive players. That left the Bulls free to pick College Player of the Year Jordan... who went on to become player of the century.

England win the 2005 Ashes

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England celebrate after winning the Ashes in 2005

Michael Vaughan's team - including Freddie Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Trescothick and Simon Jones all at the height of their powers - looked on course to get blown away in the 2005 Ashes after being destroyed by Glenn McGrath in the opening Test at Lord's. But then McGrath injured himself treading on a ball while warming up ahead of the second Test at Edgbaston. England looked to have got themselves into a winning position, only for a late stand to bring Australia within two runs of victory. Enter Lady Luck once more, however, when Michael Kasprowicz was wrongly given out to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat for England and level the series.

It was the second-closest margin of victory ever in Test cricket, and set England on the road to victory - helped by more luck that included another injury to Glenn McGrath, substitute fielder Gary Pratt running out Ricky Ponting at a key moment of the fourth Test to help England win, and a string of uncharacteristic dropped catches by the tourists, including Shane Warne on the final day of the series, shelling Pietersen on 15, and allowing the batsman to go on and score 158.

Lleyton Hewitt wins the US Open and Wimbledon

Sometimes luck is a dumb fluke, sometimes it's an opponent's misfortune, and sometimes it's a power vacuum to let lesser stars shine more brightly. That was the case for Australian tennis star Hewitt, a former world number one whose career peak happened to coincide with the lull in between the decline of Pete Sampras and the emergence of Roger Federer. Hewitt - US Open winner in 2001 and Wimbledon champion in 2002 - was not the only player to benefit, with the same era also witnessing two other journeymen world number ones in Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya. Harsh judgement? Perhaps, but then consider how many more Grand Slams Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would both have won had the other not been active at the same time.

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