Switzerland 1954: lost 4-2 to Uruguay
England made their second World Cup appearance in the year postwar rationing finally ended and life was beginning to improve back home. They weren’t particularly impressive but exited with their heads held high after producing their best performance of the tournament against the reigning champions. Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney got England’s goals but Javier Ambrois snuffed out their hopes of a thrilling fightback six minutes from time. Gil Merrick’s errors in goal proved crucial and he never played for his country again.
Chile 1962: lost 3-1 to Brazil
An uncapped Bobby Moore was the surprise pick in England’s squad and, after one appearance in a pre-tournament friendly, made his competitive debut in the opener against Hungary. “It wasn’t an easy baptism for him,” teammate Jimmy Armfield later remembered, “but one thing you did notice was that he was unflappable.” England progressed in typical style with a goalless draw against Bulgaria, and Pelé’s injury offered a window of opportunity in the last eight, but Garrincha had other ideas. The “Little Bird” scored twice in a display of wizardry up there with the greatest individual performances in World Cup history.
England 1966: beat Argentina 1-0
The first World Cup in the English-speaking world was boycotted by African teams after Fifa refused their demand for a guaranteed place. Things got more heated when England met Argentina in the last eight, a match still referred to by La Albiceleste as “el robo del siglo” (the robbery of the century). Argentina’s captain, Antonio Rattín, was sent off for foul language and dissent, even though the referee could not understand what he had said. Rattín refused to leave the pitch and insisted a Spanish translator be called before he was taken away by the police. Geoff Hurst scored the winner and the rest is history …
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Mexico 1970: lost 3-2 to West Germany (aet)
England’s preparations were hampered by the arrest of their captain Bobby Moore in Colombia for allegedly stealing a bracelet and in the last eight they met West Germany in a repeat of the 1966 World Cup final. Alf Ramsey’s side let slip a two-goal lead before Geoff Hurst had a goal disallowed and Gerd Müller rammed in the extra-time winner. Peter Bonetti was in goal after Gordon Banks went down with food poisoning, or to be accurate, beer poisoning. “I thought Peter should have had it,” Martin Peters said of the Franz Beckenbauer goal. “I’m pretty certain that Banks would have stopped it.”
Mexico 1986: lost 2-1 to Argentina
One of the biggest grudge matches in World Cup history ended in Rattín’s revenge for Argentina – and a bit of Falklands retribution – courtesy of possibly the greatest goal of all time, then the most controversial. Maradona was mesmeric, deceiving England’s defenders with his dancing feet and the match officials with his chutzpah. “Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios,” was his legendary description of how he scored the winning goal. A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.
Italy 1990: beat Cameroon 3-2 (aet)
Gazza’s tears, Lineker’s reaction, Platt’s volley and Bobby Robson’s empathy: Italia 90 was the World Cup when England rediscovered football, as Matthew Engel recalled four years ago. But this was also the tournament of Roger Milla. The 38-year-old striker with the dazzling hips had inspired Cameroon to within seven minutes of becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final before Gary Lineker scored two penalties to see England through. “We pulled it out of the fire and I don’t really know how,” Robson said.
South Korea/Japan 2002: lost 2-1 to Brazil
With Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell at the back, David Beckham and Paul Scholes in midfield and Michael Owen up front, England dared to dream but their hopes of becoming world champions came to a shuddering halt against Brazil. Owen scored a thrilling opening goal before England wilted, Rivaldo equalising then David Seaman blundering for Ronaldinho’s free-kick winner. Even a red card for Ronaldinho with 32 minutes left to play did precipitate a comeback, and Brazil went on to lift the trophy.
Germany 2006: lost to Portugal 0-0 aet (3-1 penalties)
“We weren’t ready to win in 2002, but we were in 2006 and should have gone all the way,” Sven-Göran Eriksson said recently. England’s golden generation came up short with Cristiano Ronaldo the chief villain after he urged the referee to send off his Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney then winked. Not far behind in the blame game were Victoria Beckham and the Wags living it up in Baden-Baden. “We became a bit of a circus,” Rio Ferdinand said in 2008. “People were worrying more about what people were wearing or where people were going than the England football team.”
Russia 2018: beat Sweden 2-0
When Sam Allardyce’s one-game reign ended in disgrace following an undercover tabloid sting, England turned to Gareth Southgate and he cultivated a refreshingly mobile and likable young team at his first tournament. Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli sunk Sweden and took England to their first World Cup semi-final since Italia 90. They came unstuck against Croatia but there was a sense of something stirring. “We’ve come an incredibly long way in a short space of time,” Southgate said. “Tonight we weren’t quite there. But the team will be stronger for it.”