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What if ... the FIFA World Cup had been played in a different year


You see, fans the world over debate whether the Brazil side of 1970 was perhaps the greatest that international soccer has ever seen. We are in awe too of the brilliant Dutch who were edged out by the Germans in 1974. But why should 1970 and 1974 be singled out -- what other potentially legendary sides might we have missed in the intervening years?

In club soccer we wouldn't settle for it. If the same principle were applied to the European Cup then we would be talking of the Feyenoord side of 1970, followed by the Bayern Munich of 1974.

The Ajax team that lifted the trophy in each of the three years in between would have gone without international silverware. Absent from the 1969-70 tournament and eliminated by CSKA Sofia in the second round of the 1973-74 competition, an outfit now widely regarded as the finest team of all-time (and the winner of SI's fantasy tournament of the greatest club teams) could have been reduced to a mere historical footnote.

And how about the 1980s. In terms of the European club game, it is probably defined by the all-conquering Liverpool side of the first half of the decade and the incomparable Milan of the second. And yet, extraordinarily, under a World Cup format we would be heralding only the 1982 winners Aston Villa and the 1986 victors Steaua Bucharest.

It's easy to wonder what great international sides the world could have overlooked. Bogged down by friendlies and qualifiers it is perfectly possible for them to have been ignored. So if the World Cup had been played, say, one year earlier, what teams could have lifted the big one instead? It is more than a look at the best teams not to win the World Cup. It's a search for those teams that could've dominated soccer's most famous tournament if circumstances had just been a little different ...

One of the enduring tragedies of the World Cup is that some of the greatest soccer players this planet has ever seen have not even played in it. And they don't come much greater than Alfredo Di Stefano.

The Real Madrid colossus missed the 1962 World Cup for his adoptive country Spain due to an injury. It was played in his native South America and was his last chance to star in a tournament he had contrived to miss despite (or indeed because of) representing three different countries in his career.

If the 1962 World Cup had been played just one year earlier then who knows what Di Stefano may have achieved. Just as significantly, the lure of a World Cup could have seen Ferenc Puskas utilize his Spanish citizenship a year earlier than he eventually did and see the two icons join forces to replicate the kind of damage they caused defenses while at Real Madrid.

The combination of the two veterans along with Francisco Gento and the best of the remarkable Real Madrid and Barcelona sides of that time would have been a frightening proposition. After all, in May 1960 Di Stefano and Puskas teamed up with seven Spanish internationals to win a fifth consecutive European Cup for Real Madrid in a famous 7-3 Hampden Park win against Eintracht Frankfurt -- with Di Stefano and Puskas scoring all seven between them.

Even without the maestro himself, Spain gave a good account of themselves in '62 -- only being eliminated after surrendering a lead to eventual winners Brazil in the final 20 minutes. With Di Stefano, one can't help but wonder if the result might have been very different.

The 1982 World Cup is remembered by many for the extraordinary Brazil side that so enraptured the viewing public. The genius of Zico, Falcao, Socrates, Eder and Toninho Cerezo in the Brazilian midfield was a match for any the world has ever seen. For many, there was one problem -- the lump up front called Serginho.

Such were the clumsy displays of the forward that, when substituted in a group game against New Zealand, former Brazil coach Joao Saldanha was prompted to exclaim: "Now the ball is round again." It seems harsh on a man with a fine goal scoring record and there have been revisionist attempts to re-evaluate Serginho's role in the side as a target man facilitating the wonderful play of others around him. He certainly cannot be blamed for Brazil's questionable defending.

However, it is difficult to ignore his woeful shooting in that tournament such as the squandered chance when 1-0 down to Italy that BBC commentator John Motson described as: "The sort of miss a Sunday morning player shouldn't be guilty of."

Serginho was only involved in the World Cup at all because of the late withdrawal through injury of the exceptional Careca and the more accomplished Reinaldo. Admittedly, if the tournament had come one year earlier it may well have been too soon for the young Careca. But it would certainly have been too soon for the man who eventually top scored in the tournament and whose hat trick eliminated Brazil.

Paolo Rossi was serving a ban for his involvement in an Italian betting scandal and played no soccer in 1981. He returned just in time to take his place in the 1982 Italy World Cup squad -- and shift the odds heavily in their favor.

The 1990 World Cup was a huge disappointment for a vastly talented Dutch side that were champions of Europe at the time. An ignominious exit at the hands of arch rivals Germany appeared to leave a sour taste in the mouth -- literally if your name was Frank Rijkaard. But the truth was that behind the scenes the Dutch imploded after winning the 1988 European Championships.

They managed to keep it together through 1989 -- edging the Germans into second place in their qualifying group. The problem was that Thijs Libregts had replaced the legendary Rinus Michels as coach because the latter did not feel able to continue through to the summer of 1990. Libregts was unpopular with many of the players, particularly Ruud Gullit, and a dressing room coup saw Leo Beenhakker take over just before the World Cup.

It was an unfortunate situation that could have been avoided if Michels had stayed on as coach, or indeed appointed Johan Cruyff as his successor as the players wished. As it was, the incident only added to the notion that this tournament had come at the wrong time for a supremely gifted, if volatile, set of players.

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Ruud Gullit had endured an injury-hit season with Milan, playing just three games all year, and was barely back to full fitness. Twelve months earlier he and Marco van Basten -- fresh from his greatest goal scoring season in Italy - had lit up the European Cup final with two goals each in a 4-0 demolition of Steaua Bucharest. One year on, the magic appeared to have temporarily deserted both men. So luckless were the Dutch that after finishing tied with Ireland in their group, the drawing of lots saw them face Germany in the second round while the Irish were handed the easier contest against Romania.

Much is made of Holland's near misses. The Dutch were, of course, twice runners-up in the 1970s and fell once again at the final hurdle in 2010. And yet, if ever there was a Dutch generation that failed to do itself justice at the World Cup it was this one. Having been unable to qualify for Mexico '86, circumstances dictated that Italia '90 would be Gullit and van Basten's only World Cup. What a disappointment then, that they could not showcase their imperious form of a year earlier.

Things unraveled so tragically for the Colombians at USA '94 that people can be quick to forget just how highly rated this side had been in the buildup to the competition. An unbeaten qualifying campaign had included an astonishing 5-0 destruction of Argentina in Buenos Aires. This was the highlight but it was no one-off -- Colombia went into the 1994 World Cup having lost just one game in the last 34.

Unfortunately for Colombia, they were without eccentric goalkeeper Rene Higuita for the tournament itself. Higuita was in jail for his involvement in a kidnapping case. South American soccer expert Tim Vickery says: "For me, it is one of the great "what ifs" of soccer history. What might have happened if Rene Higuita had been able to play in that World Cup?"

Although written off by some as a clown, Higuita's sweeper-keeper role was pivotal to the Colombians' success -- allowing them to play with a high line without fear of being caught out. With Oscar Cordoba as his replacement, Colombia had a weakness and it was duly exposed.

Defeats to Romania and the United States consigned Colombia to an early exit and the tragic Andres Escobar to his fate. The defender was shot dead one week after Colombia's World Cup adventure ended. A tragedy in itself, it was also an indicator of the pressure under which the team had been forced to play. It was a pressure that had been building up throughout their impressive run of results. Perhaps if the World Cup had come along a little sooner, some of this tension and expectation could have been controlled.

One team for whom the tournament came at just the right time was Brazil. If the World Cup had been played in 1993 it is possible that the eventual star of the 1994 show would not have even been in the squad. Romario was spectacularly recalled to the side for the final qualifier in September 1993 in which he scored two goals against Uruguay. It's difficult to imagine how the fortunes of Brazil and Colombia could have possibly contrasted more in such a short period of time.

While Romario might not have been around if the World Cup had been played in 1993, he most definitely would have been in the frame for a 1997 tournament.

For Brazil, this will be remembered as the year of the Ro-Ro partnership. A young superstar by the name of Ronaldo teamed with a wily goal machine called Romario. It was a match made in heaven and the two men each bagged hat-tricks in a 6-0 Confederations Cup demolition of Australia in December 1997.

But Romario missed the 1998 World Cup through injury. The loss on the field was significant as Romario's replacement, his 1994 partner Bebeto, struggled to recapture his form throughout the tournament.

However, Romario's influence was also missed in other ways. It is difficult to speculate on the causes of Ronaldo's ailments on the eve of the final itself but one of the oft-stated reasons given is the sheer weight of expectation he was feeling at that time. It's a pressure that would surely have been partially lifted by the presence of Romario -- the man that had carried Brazil to victory in the previous World Cup and not a character known for his self-doubt.

As it turned out, France ran out handsome winners in the Stade de France that evening with a 3-0 win over the Brazilians. Sadly, it was a Brazil without Romario in body and Ronaldo in spirit.

It seems a little churlish to suggest any team could have beaten Brazil to its 2002 World Cup win in the Far East. However, the landscape had looked a little different 12 months earlier. There would certainly have been no Ronaldo -- the brilliant Brazilian barely kicked a ball after sustaining a knee injury in November 1999, only recovering shortly before the 2002 tournament.

Without him, Brazil had struggled. The 2001 Copa America saw an embarrassing exit at the hands of Honduras and -- with Ronaldinho yet to leave Gremio and Romario in dispute with Luiz Felipe Scolari -- the fabled front-line of the Selecao was experiencing a rare lull. Fortunately, everything came together just in the nick of time.

For England, it was quite the opposite. Sven Goran Eriksson appeared to have instilled new belief into the players and this was never more apparent than in a 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich in September 2001.

But this proved to be a false dawn. Gary Neville was ruled out of the World Cup in late April and Steven Gerrard pulled up in Liverpool's final game of the season. Although David Beckham did make it to the tournament after recovering from a metatarsal injury, he was clearly less than 100 percent.

This proved to be critical in the quarterfinal against Brazil when Beckham pulled out of a challenge near the touchline. Moments later the ball was in England's net, the South Americans had equalized and the balance of power had shifted in what was arguably Brazil's toughest game on their way to winning the trophy.

Adam Bate is a freelance soccer writer based in the UK and is the editor ofGhostGoal. You can also follow him on Twitter:@ghostgoal.