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The Greatest Football Teams to Never Win the World Cup

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Johan Cruyff, star of the Netherlands team that dazzled crowds at the 1974 World Cup.

Johan Cruyff, star of the Netherlands team that dazzled crowds at the 1974 World Cup.

In football, as in many other sports; some teams seek to win at all costs, while others seek to win the hearts of the crowd. The FIFA World Cup provides the perfect stage for this clash of philosophies.

Here, teams that play to win have the better chance of clinching football's ultimate prize, but those that play to entertain will earn the admiration of an audience that spans the entire globe.

Whatever your preferred philosophy, the old adage "history only remembers the winners" does not hold true. Here are some of the teams that were so celebrated for the way they played, their failure to win the World Cup only enhanced their legend.

Austria (1934)

A Kingdom of Italy stamp for the 1934 World Cup.

A Kingdom of Italy stamp for the 1934 World Cup.

Fresh off a 14 game winning streak that included victory at the Central European International Cup (predecessor to the European Championships); the Austrian Wunderteam entered the first European World Cup in 1934 as firm favourites to take home the trophy.

They utilised quick passing and dynamic movement, making them an early proponent of the "Total Football" style of play that would revolutionise the game in the 1970s.

So why didn't they win the World Cup?

Host nation Italy, inspired by their home support (and the stern gaze of onlooking Italian Duce Benito Mussolini) were able to defeat Austria in the semi-final.

There were some questions raised about the officiating of referee Ivan Eklind, who allowed a particularly controversial goal to stand (the Austrian goalkeeper was seemingly bundled over his own line by Italian players while holding the ball).

That said, Italy would go on to win the 1938 World Cup as well, leaving little doubt that they were indeed the best team in the world at the time; but the Austrian team will always be remembered for the way they played. Unfortunately, the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938 brought an abrupt end to the country's thriving football culture.

Coach: Hugo Meisl, was inspired by English coach Jimmy Hogan to develop a style of football that favoured keeping the ball on the ground over aerial play.

Star Player: Centre-forward Matthias Sindelar - nicknamed Der Papierene (the paper-man) due to his slight build, was capped 43 times and scored 26 goals for Austria, but refused to play for Germany following the Anschluss.

He was later discovered dead in his apartment in Vienna. Carbon monoxide poisoning was cited as the cause, though whether or not it was accidental remains a mystery.

Hungary (1954)

Ferenc Puskás, star of the great Hungarian team of the 1950s.

Ferenc Puskás, star of the great Hungarian team of the 1950s.

The “Mighty Magyars” famously humiliated England on their own patch, when they beat them 6-3 at Wembley Stadium in a game that shook English football to its core.

It was an invaluable football lesson that may have actually contributed to England's 1966 World Cup win by forcing them to rethink their approach.

But at the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland, it would surely be Hungary – unbeaten in 32 games — that would claim the trophy.

So why didn't they win the World Cup?

No one was counting on German resilience. While they may now be regarded as a traditional football powerhouse, in 1954 West Germany were minnows who had done well to even reach the final. What's more, they had already suffered an 8-3 defeat to Hungary in the group stages.

But following a rainy, windswept tournament in Switzerland; the Germans were well prepared for the muddy conditions of the pitch in Bern. Much has been made of their specially designed football boots – the first to feature screw-in studs — but it was sheer determination and grit that enabled them to fight their way back after Hungary took a two-goal lead.

The final result was 3-2 to West Germany – a massive upset that would lift the spirits of a nation still recovering from Nazi rule, and forever be remembered by German football fans as Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Bern).

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Coach: Gusztáv Sebes; a former trade union organiser, and yet another disciple of Jimmy Hogan. He is credited with being one of the first to use a deep-lying forward (commonly referred to as a 'false nine').

Star Player: Left-footed forward Ferenc Puskas scored 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary, and was one of the stars of the Real Madrid side that won three European Cups.

His international teammate Jeno Buzanszky said that “If a good player has the ball, he should have the vision to spot three options. Puskas always saw at least five.”

Named player of the tournament at the 1954 World Cup, he participated in the final despite carrying a hairline fracture to his ankle and put Hungary in the lead with the opening goal. In the dying minutes, with Germany leading 3-2, he scored a dramatic equaliser that was subsequently ruled out for offside.

Holland (1974)

Two legends of the game — Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer — come face-to-face at the 1974 World Cup final.

Two legends of the game — Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer — come face-to-face at the 1974 World Cup final.

As hard as it is to believe, the country that has produced so many legends of the game was once a complete non-entity in world football. That changed in the 1970s when they shook the world with a scintillating style of football that made them firm favourites among the neutrals.

Initially developed at Ajax Amsterdam, and subsequently adopted by the national team, the style of play was dubbed totaalvoetbal (Total Football) by the Dutch media. It required that every player (except the goalkeeper) be able to play every position, allowing for dynamic movement that confused the opposition.

So why didn't they win the World Cup?

Crushing traditional football powerhouses such as Brazil and Argentina on their way to the final, Holland came up against host nation West Germany. This West German side, unlike the scrappy underdogs that overturned Hungary in 1954, was a world-class outfit, featuring superstars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller among their ranks.

Holland scored first, having been awarded a penalty in the opening minute after Johan Cruyff was brought down in the box; but West Germany fought back to win 2-1. The Dutch side was accused of showboating after they had taken the lead (the players themselves later admitted that they wanted to humiliate the Germans as revenge for World War II).

Coach: Rinus Michels, who revolutionised the game with his "Total Football" philosophy. Following successful spells at Ajax Amsterdam (where he won the European Cup) and Barcelona, he took over the Dutch national side for the 1974 World Cup, and later returned to lead them to victory at the 1988 UEFA European Championship. His immense influence was such that he was named Coach of the Century by FIFA in 1999.

Star Player: Johan Cruyff is synonymous with the rise of Dutch football. A centre-forward who thrived when given the freedom to roam, he was a deadly combination of skill and intelligence.

He was influential as a player and coach, implementing the lessons he'd learned from Rinus Michels and helping to develop the famous youth academies at Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona, thereby laying the foundations for their future success.

In 1999, he was named European Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics.

Brazil (1982)

It's been said that in 1982, Brazil didn't lose the World Cup; the World Cup lost Brazil.

It's been said that in 1982, Brazil didn't lose the World Cup; the World Cup lost Brazil.

Brazil's 1982 World Cup side failed to even reach the semi-finals of the tournament, yet are more revered by Brazilian fans than teams that actually won the trophy.

According to their star midfielder Socrates, they were the last team to truly play football the Brazilian way, calling it “irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing”; a true reflection of the national spirit.

So why didn't they win the World Cup?

Simply put, they didn't like defending. It's not just that they were bad at it; they were actually against it on principle. It was like a form of blasphemy to them.

Of course, defending is pretty important, so Brazil ended up losing to a more tactically astute Italian side, which then went on to win the tournament, defeating West Germany in the final.

Coach: Telê Santana da Silva (aka Telê Santana) brought the jogo bonito (beautiful game) back to Brazil. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches and innovators in the history of Brazilian football, despite his failure to lead the national side to World Cup glory.

He would, however, win the world club title with São Paulo in the 90s, beating Johan Cruyff's Barcelona and Fabio Capello's AC Milan in the process.

Star Player: It's difficult to pick one stand-out from the team's immensely talented line-up. They fielded a five-man midfield of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Cerezo and Eder; and every one of those players could've been the main star in any other side.

The poor striker, Serginho, got all of the blame when the team lost, and none of the credit when they won. The fans only cared about the five football geniuses behind him. In truth, Brazil's defeat in the 1982 World Cup was down to their defensive failings, for which Serginho was unfairly made the scapegoat.

England (1990)

Paul Gascoigne playing for England during Soccer Aid in 2006.

Paul Gascoigne playing for England during Soccer Aid in 2006.

Some may be surprised to see world football's perennial underachievers featured here, but England's 1990 side lit up what was an otherwise dismal World Cup.

Italia 90 was remembered mostly for the sheer negativity on display, which was in danger of bringing the game of football into disrepute. Its goals-per-game average of 2.21 remains the lowest of any World Cup in history.

But England featured exciting players such as cunning goal-poacher Gary Lineker, dazzling winger Chris Waddle, and of course, the one and only Paul Gascoigne.

So why didn't they win the World Cup?

They came the closest of any England side since 1966, taking the eventual champions West Germany to the limit in a nail-biting semi-final that ended in defeat by a penalty shoot-out.

The final between West Germany and Argentina turned out to be a dirty, dull affair that summed up the tournament as a whole. German left-back Andreas Brehme described the semi-final against England as "the final before the final".

Coach: Sir Bobby Robson, the first coach to lead England to World Cup semi-final since Alf Ramsey in 1966, and one of the few English coaches to achieve success with top clubs on the continent, including Sporting Lisbon, Porto, and Barcelona (a young Jose Mourinho was his interpreter at Sporting, and his assistant at Porto and Barca).

During his time at Barcelona, he signed a 20-year old Ronaldo (the Brazilian version), who went on to score 47 goals in 49 matches. Ronaldo later said that "as a trainer without doubt [Robson] is one of the greatest in the world".

Star player: 23-year old Paul Gascoigne (known affectionately as "Gazza") stole the show. Regarded as one of the most talented players England has ever produced; he was an energetic box-to-box midfielder who combined Brazilian-style flair with a combative British bulldog spirit.

During the semi-final, after receiving a yellow card that meant he would be suspended for the final if England made it, he famously burst into tears — a moment that did almost as much to secure his place in football lore as any wonder goal he ever scored.


Wilson, Jonathan. 2006, 17 November. Best, Beckenbauer, Platini, Zidane: Puskas topped them all (The Guardian). Retrieved from

Hart, Simon. 2010, 30 May. Italia 90: When England were out of this world (The Independent). Retrieved from


Bin-tilmees on August 05, 2016:

Brazil 82 is the most entertaining team.

Hongary 54 & holland 74 are most devastating.

Barça 2011 most tactically overwhelming team.

abidareacode from Areacode , Kerala, India on June 26, 2014:

Portugal is the team which donated talented players like Luis Figo , Cristiano Ronaldo etc. But couldn't never advance to the finals of FIFA world cup.

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