It may be part of popular wisdom that “nobody ever remembers who came second”, but these words have been proven far from true in the world of football. Over the years, followers of the beautiful game have spared no affection or admiration for those players and teams who, even when missing out on major honours, have left an indelible mark on the sport.
These iconic performers include the Hungary side that wowed the world at the 1954 FIFA World Cup™, the Netherlands’ class of 1974 and the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and George Weah. Indeed, many of the most memorable moments in football history have been written by those who were denied the opportunity to lift the most coveted Trophy of them all.
Puskas and Cruyff thwarted
In Germany, the Final of Switzerland 1954 has become known as the “Miracle of Berne” and is seen as a fundamental event in the rebuilding of the nation’s morale after the Second World War. However, the rest of the world also has equally fond memories of the side which fell to a shock 3-2 defeat that day in the Wankdorf Stadion.
Hungary went into that game on the back of an unbeaten run stretching back four years, including victory at the 1952 Olympic Football Tournament and home and away thrashings of once-mighty England. What is more, the Magical Magyars strode into the Final on Swiss soil having struck 25 goals in just four matches, which goes a long way to explaining why the fame of Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Co has arguably endured longer than the players of victors West Germany.
Twenty years previously, Italy 1934 had witnessed the sinking of another renowned XI in the shape of Austria’s Wunder Team - which featured the genius of Matthias ‘The Paper Man’ Sindelar. Two decades after Switzerland 1954 came another triumph for West Germany against another team that had been wowing Planet Football: the Netherlands. The latter’s 2-1 reverse in the 1974 Final against the hosts has been analysed to the umpteenth degree, but it is perhaps best summed up by the Oranje’s star man, Johan Cruyff: “We were playing the best football in the world. We lost the Final but people have better memories of us than the champions.”
Many experts have also pronounced the Brazil squad that bid for glory at Spain 1982 as the finest side never to have won the FIFA World Cup, while there has been many a similar case at club level. Nobody in France, for example, will forget Bastia’s run to the final of the 1978 UEFA Cup or Saint-Etienne reaching the European Cup decider two years earlier. Italian fans too will wonder what further glories might have been achieved by Torino's greatest ever side, Il Grande Torino, who won a string of Serie A titles before the loss of virtually their entire playing and coaching staff in a tragic plane crash in May 1949.
Over in Mexico, followers of Cruz Azul still shake their heads when recalling their club’s penalty shoot-out loss in the final of the 2001 Copa Libertadores, while Spain’s Atletico Madrid came agonisingly close to a maiden European Cup success in 1974. In the event, however, Bayern Munich grabbed a 120th-minute equaliser after a shot from distance by Georg Schwarzenbeck evaded goalkeeper Miguel Reina, with the Bavarian outfit storming home 4-0 in the replay.
On the cusp of glory
There is little doubt that a debate still rages as to whether Pele or Diego Maradona was the best player the world has ever seen. Yet for earlier generations of football lovers another man’s talent shone even brighter: Alfredo Di Stefano, known as La Saeta Rubia, who won silverware galore at River Plate and Real Madrid.
Even Maradona himself agreed, as he explained in his book Yo soy el Diego. “I was really moved to have him there,” said El Diez, recalling an encounter with Di Stefano on a TV show in Naples in 1988. “When I went to Spain to play for Barcelona I realised what an incredible ambassador for Argentinian football he’d been. In my mind, and I’d swear to it, he was the greatest player of all time,” added El Pelusa, of a man whose poster had adorned his wall as a boy.
Even so, Di Stefano was never able to grace the final tournament of a FIFA World Cup. His native Argentina chose not to take part at Brazil 1950 or Switzerland 1954, while after he had taken Spanish nationality La Roja were unable to qualify for Sweden 1958. Finally come Chile 1962, when he was all set to break his jinx, an untimely injury prevented him from taking part.
“Football has given me everything, except the opportunity to play for my country at a World Cup,” said George Weah, another giant of the game whose career came and went without appearing at the global showpiece. The lethal striker and FIFA World Player 1995 battled in vain to drive Liberia through qualification, with the nation ravaged by civil war during his peak years. Weah did, however, help fire the Lone Stars to the verge of reaching Korea/Japan 2002, only for them to finish a single point behind African Zone Group 2 winners Nigeria.
And how can we conclude without touching on a host of other legendary players who took part in FIFA World Cups but failed to lift the Trophy. We have already mentioned Cruyff and Puskas, but what about Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Enzo Francescoli, Zico and Roberto Baggio? Finally, we must also add to that list the duo currently considered the finest footballers on the planet: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. For this outrageously gifted pair, however, time is at least on their side.