By Rob Smyth
May 28, 2010

The former Notts County manager Jimmy Sirrel once said, "The best teams wins, the rest is gossip." If that's the case, there's been an awful lot of idle talk during World Cups. Some of the greatest teams to play the game did not lift the trophy; here's a subjective list of the top 10:

1. Hungary 1954

Before every World Cup there is a favorite; before the 1954 tournament there was a certainty. Hungary's "Magnificent Magyars" were light years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of talent and tactics. In particular, Hungary's revolutionary use of Nandor Hidegkuti as a deep-lying center forward was a puzzle nobody could fathom, never mind solve. Up front, Sandor Kocsis and the incomparable Ferenc Puskas scored a mind-blowing 159 goals in 153 appearances. Hungary was unbeaten in 27 games going into the tournament. After romping through the group with 17 goals in two matches, including an 8-3 thrashing of a weakened West Germany side, it reached the final with rugged 4-2 wins over Brazil and Uruguay in the quarters and semis. The Magyars managed those two victories without the injured Puskas, who was back for the final, albeit half fit. Hungary's victory seemed written in the stars, especially when it went 2-0 up in the first eight minutes of the final. But if there was one thing more powerful than destiny in the 20th century, it was the West German football team: it came back to win 3-2 in an extraordinary final.

2. Holland 1974

Johan Cruyff's "Total Footballers" will forever be the darlings of the football intelligentsia. They played fluid, languid, effortlessly cool soccer, and with their hippie aesthetic they made 1974 soccer's summer of love. In the first stage, Cruyff unveiled the famous Cruyff turn against Sweden. In the second the Dutch really hit their straps, thrashing Argentina 4-0 and disposing of the champions Brazil with an emphatic 2-0 victory. In the final Holland took the lead before West Germany had touched the ball. Ever get the feeling things are going too well? Holland lost its way in the game some say because of a post-War desire to humiliate the Germans and were 2-1 down by halftime. With the totemic Cruyff having the most disappointing day of his career, man-marked with ruthless zeal by Berti Vogts, the Dutch could not come back.

3. Brazil 1982

In 1996, Dutch star Ruud Gullit coined the phrase "sexy football." Lord knows how he would have described this bunch. Just look at this portfolio. Some of their goals beggared belief. It was all fueled by an astonishingly good, two-tier midfield of Toninho Cerezo, Falcao, Socrates, Zico and Eder, all buzzing waspishly behind the lone striker, the much criticized Serginho. Brazil scored 15 goals in five games, but a hopeless defense cost it in a 3-2 loss to Italy in a match it only needed to draw to reach the semifinals. Still, Socrates & Co. are deservedly more celebrated than the sides that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002. There probably is a word to describe them, but as this is a family website we'll let you work it out.

4. Brazil 1950

The prototype for 1982. The similarities are eerie. A team of stunningly accomplished inside-forwards Jair, Ademir and Zizinho smashed goals galore (22 in six games) but were let down by a diabolical excuse for a defense. As in 1982, Brazil tumbled out because it wasn't able to play cagily in a game it only needed to draw, this time that seismic 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final group game.

5. Uruguay 1954

Improving on World Cup winner is not easy, but Uruguay's 1954 vintage probably tasted slightly sweeter than the 1950 victors. It had the same formidable spine in the terrifying, indomitable captain Obdulio Varela, the accomplished defender Victor Rodrigues Andrade and the remarkable forward Juan Schiaffino, but it had a higher quality of flesh around the bones. Especially on the wings: it had lost the marvelous Alcide Ghiggia, its matchwinner in 1950, but added the arguably superior pair of Carlos Borges and Julio Cesar Abbadie. Uruguay had also discovered Jose Santamaria, the central defender who would become a Real Madrid legend. It spanked Scotland 7-0, beat England with only eight fit men in the quarterfinals, before losing an epic semifinal to Hungary, 4-2 after extra-time. Had the inspirational Varela been fit, they might have well have won the entire thing again. This was a comedown from 1950, but only by the very harshest standards.

6. France 1986

Few, if any midfields have been as celebrated as France's "Carr Magique" (Magic Square) of Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez, Michel Platini and Alain Giresse, who moved the ball around with the lazy serenity of slackers sharing a spliff. They inflicted death by silk on Hungary with one of the goals of the tournament, coolly disposed of the champion Italy and beat Brazil on penalties in a classic quarterfinal. But its West German nemesis, who had beaten it in the 1982 semifinal, repeated the trick with a 2-0 victory, when France had oodles of possession but finally paid for its lack of a decent center forward. For once, not even its Magic Square could make up for that.

7. Holland 1998

You could make the case for a lot of teams from the underrated 1998 finals: the charming Croats, Argentina, Brazil with a fit Ronaldo. But there was something about Holland. Sceptics will say it won only three of seven games, and two of those with last-minute goals, but everything just felt right. They had a loose-limbed majesty and telepathic interplay, most obviously in evidence with Patrick Kluivert's stunning goal in the quarterfinal against Argentina. Then there was individual flair, most notably evidenced by Dennis Bergkamp's absurdly accomplished winner in that Argentina match. At the back, Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam were a formidable pair. The Dutch played beautifully in an outstanding semifinal against Brazil before losing sadly, inevitably on penalties.

8. Brazil 1986

The shirts are yellow but judgements of Brazilians sides are almost always black and white: they are either swashbuckling exponents of joga bonito who can't really defend (1970, 1982), or a cagey European-style affront to the beautiful game (1990, 1994). Yet 1986 had the best of both worlds. It was excellent at the back, where the central defensive partnership of Julio Cesar and Edinho ceded only one goal in five games, and superb going forward, with an aging but high-class midfield feeding the magnificent Careca up front. It scored 10 goals without reply in winning its first four games, but then went out unluckily on penalties, having dominated that epic quarterfinal against France.

9. Argentina 2006

If only Jose Pekerman had not been such a tinkerman. Pekerman, the Argentina coach, had built a beautiful attacking team around the talents of the playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. It famously trounced Serbia & Montenegro 6-0, and was so good that, incredibly, there was no room for Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez. Yet when it took the lead in the quarterfinal against the hosts Germany (them again), Pekerman lost his nerve, taking off Riquelme and trying to hold on to a 1-0 lead. It backfired, with Germany equalizing and then winning on penalties.

10. Italy 1990

No country does football melodrama like Italy, and it's hard to imagine a nation that has ached to win a World Cup as much as when Italy played host in 1990. The Azzurri breezed to the semifinal with a flurry of 1-0 and, if they were feeling frisky, 2-0 wins, with most of their goals coming from the previously unknown Salvatore Schillaci, a carpe diem mentality in boots. Goalkeeper Walter Zenga set a World Cup record of 517 minutes without conceding a goal, but his mistake allowed Argentina to equalize in a semifinal of operatic intensity, and as the game rumbled on to penalties the whole of Italy began to fear the worst. Misses from Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena in the penalty shootout confirmed it.

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