The four teams left vying for glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ are now within touching distance of their goal, but before allowing themselves to dream of contesting the Final they each have one last hurdle to clear.

Although posterity tends to recall the names of the victors alone, the history of the FIFA World Cup is littered with memorable semi-final meetings. As the Netherlands prepare to face Uruguay, and Germany gear up to tackle Spain, looks back at some of the most thrilling last-four jousts from years gone by.

Italy-Brazil, France 1938 (2-1)
Before they could get their hands on their second consecutive global crown, Italy found a confident Brazil team barring their path to the Final. So confident were the South Americans, in fact, that they left their first-choice striker and best player Leonidas on the bench to keep him fresh for the showpiece game. He and his colleagues would never make it that far, of course, as goals from Gino Colaussi and Giuseppe Meazza sent La Nazionale through, with Meazza needing to hold his shorts up in one hand as he buried the penalty winner after the elastic snapped during his run-up.

Brazil-Uruguay, Mexico 1970 (3-1)
A moment of audacious genius lit up this encounter as Pele pulled off one of the most memorable moves in the history of the game, feigning to control a pass when through on goal only to let it run beyond him and sprint around Uruguayan goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz to collect it in front of an empty net. Perhaps the fact that Pele then failed to hit the target with the goal begging merely added to the wonder of the attempt and the fascination of the man himself, particularly since he made up for his miss in the Final with a towering leap to head in and a superb blind pass for Carlos Alberto to round off the scoring.

Italy-West Germany, Mexico 1970 (4-3 aet)
A leading candidate for match of the century, this epic encounter ended with the two sides feeling vastly different emotions, but 40 years on both winners and losers share the sentiment of having participated in something special. The Azteca Stadium in Mexico City was the venue and 17 June 1970 the date as Italy and West Germany contested a tight affair for the opening 89 minutes, before an unleashing of drama in the closing moments that carried on into extra time. Roberto Boninsegna put La Squadra Azzurra ahead with eight minutes on the clock, only for Karl-Heinz Schnellinger to equalise as the seconds ticked down. Gerd Muller then nudged Die Nationalmannschaft into the lead four minutes into extra time, but Tarcisio Burgnisch responded merely four minutes later and Gigi Riva promptly put Italy back in front at the end of the first period. Undaunted, Muller again levelled for the defiant West Germans with ten minutes to go, but his side were stung again almost immediately afterwards as Gianni Rivera fired La Nazionale into a winning position for one, crucial, last time.

The seesaw scoring aside, the game has also entered legend for a number of stirring images, not least the sight of Franz Beckenbauer playing the last 20 minutes of normal time and the whole of extra time with a broken collarbone and his arm in a sling. Der Kaiser likewise caught the watching world’s attention by banging the turf in anger after going unspotted in an unmarked position as Muller spurned a chance.

West Germany-England, Italy 1990 (1-1 aet, Germany win 4-3 on penalties)
England’s penalty malaise dates back to a night of excitement and ultimately disappointment for the Three Lions at the Stadio Delle Alpi on 4 July 1990. The psychological advantage seemed to be with Bobby Robson’s men after they had recovered from conceding Andreas Brehme’s deflected free-kick, Paul Gascoigne turning the tide in midfield and Gary Lineker driving in a leveller ten minutes from time. But it took more than that to destabilise their rivals, who “always win” in the end according to Lineker’s famous saying. Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed from the spot as English hopes evaporated, but the abiding memory of the match remains Gazza’s tears, melting the hearts of spectators the world over after collecting a booking that would have ruled him out of the Final.

Italy-Argentina, Italy 1990 (1-1 aet, Argentina win 4-3 on penalties)
The city of Naples can never have been as divided in its sporting allegiances as it was for this last-four showdown between La Nazionale and an Argentina side led by Napoli icon Diego Maradona. In the end, El Pibe de Oro left the locals wrestling with the pain of defeat after having given them so much joy down the years, but it was Albiceleste goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea who deserved the plaudits as the real hero of the match. Back-up choice behind Nery Pumpido until the regular No1 broke his leg earlier in the tournament, Goycochea batted away penalties from both Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena to secure his side a second straight Final berth.

West Germany-France, Spain 1982 (3-3 aet, West Germany win 5-4 on penalties)
This was an encounter to take the breath away, and when it ended, the France team were left to reflect on one of their most agonising reverses, while their counterparts could bask in a triumph for the history books. The slick midfield play of Michel Platini and France’s Carré magique (‘Magic square’) met its match that day as Jupp Derwall’s men clawed back a two-goal deficit in extra time. The crowd crammed into Seville’s Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan eventually went home cherishing a long list of unforgettable moments. None was more spectacular than West Germany goalkeeper Toni Schumacher clattering into Patrick Battiston, leaving the forward unable to continue playing. France’s Manuel Amoros sparked a frenzy of his own when he rattled a shot against the bar at the end of normal time. Also memorable was Derwall’s decision to send on Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at 3-1 down and the substitute scoring five minutes later, before the penalty shoot-out yielded the sight of Uli Stielike collapsing in despair after missing his spot-kick only for Didier Six and Maxime Bossis to then fail with theirs and send Les Bleus crashing out. Germany were through, but the physical and mental strain of this match took its toll against Italy in the Final.

France-Croatia, France 1998 (2-1)
This classic was all about one man – Lilian Thuram – who during 142 appearances at the back for France only ever scored two goals. Both came within the space of just 22 minutes at the Stade de France to catapult Les Bleus into their maiden Final. Infuriated with himself after playing Davor Suker onside to break the deadlock immediately after half-time, Thuram’s fierce determination and look of near-confusion after slotting in his second have long since gone down in the annals of the game.

Germany-Korea Republic, Korea/Japan 2002 (1-0)
It was a case of what might have been for Michael Ballack in 2002 as the Germany midfielder flirted with glory only to experience dejection. On the losing side of the UEFA Champions League and German Cup finals with Bayer Leverkusen, who also finished runners-up in the Bundesliga, Ballack looked determined to make up for those disappointments as he led Germany to the last four in Korea/Japan. He even registered his team’s solitary goal against the hosts, only to pick up a yellow card that left him suspended for the Final. He will no doubt always wonder whether his presence would have helped Die Nationalmannschaft avert their 2-0 loss to Brazil.

Germany-Italy, Germany 2006 (0-2 aet)
The 65,000 Germany fans present for this semi-final in Dortmund awaited kick-off comforted by the knowledge that their team had never lost in the stadium. As hosts, Germany had surfed through the tournament on a wave of popular fervour and they prepared to tackle Italy in high spirits following their penalty shoot-out win over Argentina in the last eight. La Nazionale had yet to truly impress, in contrast, and found themselves on the back foot as Jurgen Klinsmann’s charges carved out the better chances. In particular, Gianluigi Buffon did excellently to deny Lukas Podolski in extra time, but as spot-kicks approached Marcello Lippi took a risk by sending on attacking duo Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alessandro Del Piero. His gamble soon paid off and La Squadra Azzurra advanced on the back of goals scored in the 119th and 121st minutes.