From England's 1990 World Cup heartbreak to a night that changed European football, half a dozen goals that never were
If any disallowed goal has echoed loudest down the ages, this is the one. The Magical Magyars were hot favourites to win the 1954 World Cup from the outset and by the time they reached the final, having beaten the reigning champions Uruguay in the semi-finals and already trounced their final opponents West Germany 8-3 in the group stage, the result was considered a shoo-in.
So much for all that, of course. Ferenc Puskas opened the scoring after six minutes and embarked on what surely stands as the jazziest celebration in a World Cup final – according to Donny Davies in the Guardian he "stood with arms upraised like an Egyptian greeting the sun god Ra" – and Zoltan Czibor added a second two minutes later. But Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn had the scores level in the 18th minute and after a titanic struggle in the drizzle on a heavy pitch, Rahn pelted in the winner with six minutes to play.
There was time for one last fateful act, though. Two minutes after Rahn's second, Puskas made his way down the inside-left channel, received the ball and poked it under the West Germany goalkeeper Toni Turek and into the net. The equaliser, surely. But no: the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths had raised his flag for offside. Surviving television pictures offer no definitive evidence: the German striker Ottmar Walter claimed Puskas was "three yards" offside, while the player himself vehemently disagreed. "Why should the goal I scored have been disallowed?" he asked a couple of years later in his autobiography Captain of Hungary, although the question might have been rhetorical, as he went on to suggest Hungary's defeat might have been written in the stars anyway, as the team had been staying in a hotel patronised by Napoleon in 1797. "Napoleon was here and he lost his battle at Borodino. How strange and what a bad omen!" he wrote of a skirmish played out a full 15 years after the diminutive French belligerent hunkered down at Ferenc's pad in Switzerland. There's displacement for you.
When you reach the toppermost of the poppermost, the only way is down. Especially if everyone is out to get you. Real Madrid's 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final is still widely regarded as the greatest club performance of all time (even if the flat-capped Eintracht goalkeeper Egon Loy's laughably immobile performance – his range of movement makes Kraftwerk look like a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute act – compromises Real's slick stylings from a modern perspective). But having made it to the pinnacle, it did not take long before Real toppled over the edge.
Their very next tie in the competition was a second-round match the following season against, of all clubs, Barcelona, who had just won the Spanish title. (Real, as holders, had been given a bye past the first round.) In the first match at the Bernabéu, Real were looking relatively comfortable, 2-1 up with three minutes to play. But then Sandor Kocsis broke clear, and was allowed to play on by the referee and future It's A Knockout star Arthur Ellis, despite a linesman waving his flag like billy-o. Kocsis was brought down in the Real area, Barça equalised, and for the first time since the European Cup had been inaugurated in the late summer of 1955 a team had left the home of Real Madrid having avoided defeat. It had to be Barça.
And it had to be Barcelona who became the first club to knock Real Madrid out of Europe, although the deciding game at Camp Nou was not without controversy. Taking charge of this second leg was another English referee, Reg Leafe, and he took one out of Ellis's book with some decisions that would cause Alfredo Di Stéfano to wave his fists in the air while hopping around on alternate feet in comic-book rage.
Leafe disallowed four goals – four goals! – in this game. The first of the four in fact denied Barcelona, Evaristo's early strike being ruled out for offside. But the following three were all Real efforts. The flying winger Luis del Sol thought he had given Real the lead, but was penalised for handball. Pachín, whose own-goal had given Barcelona a half-time lead, looked to have redeemed himself with a leveller, but he too was ruled offside. Then Di Stéfano became the third Real player to be denied, the offside flag again doing for the reigning champions.
Evaristo made it 2-0 near the end with a spectacular diving header, and though Canário pulled a goal back, Real were out. "Uefa didn't like us dominating 'their' cup," said Di Stéfano later. "That's why they got English referees to make sure we didn't. After all, English referees were supposed to be the best. No one would suspect anything."
Barça's joy, and Real's radge, did not last long. Real beat Barcelona 5-3 at Camp Nou two weeks later on their way to regaining the Spanish title, then won five leagues in a row, a run which culminated in their sixth European Cup victory in 1966. Barcelona, by contrast, went on to reach the 1961 final, but were defeated by Benfica, and would have to wait another three decades before they tasted the ultimate European glory.
Liverpool have the dubious honour of "scoring" two of the greatest disallowed goals in the history of the FA Cup final. One such non-event cost them dearly in 1988 against Wimbledon, Peter Beardsley wriggling clear of Andy Thorn down the inside-right channel to draw Dave Beasant and dink a Puskas-esque ball into the left-hand corner, only for the referee Brian Hill's hair-trigger whistle to pull play back for a free-kick which John Barnes would send wantonly wide. An outrageous piece of refereeing by today's standards, though in fairness to Hill, referees rarely played advantage back in the day, the hideous jobsworths.
Liverpool had another goal unfairly chalked out in the 1974 denouement against Newcastle United, although as Bill Shankly's side went on to famously "undress" the Toon that year, the decision had no bitter repercussions. Still, a terrible shame, as it was a solo tour de force by the rampaging left-back Alec Lindsay, who robbed Jimmy Smith down the left, stormed forward, played the ball inside to Kevin Keegan and skelped the return past Iam McFaul from a tight angle, an unstoppable belt. The score stood goalless at the time, Lindsay's celebrations sickeningly halted by a linesman's flag, Keegan having been in an offside position. Problem was, the ball had actually come off the future Liverpool hero Alan Kennedy, then Newcastle's 19-year-old prodigy, and so the goal should have stood.
Had Lindsay's effort not been struck off, the scoring would have been topped and tailed by magnificent work from both Liverpool full-backs, Tommy Smith setting up Liverpool's late third with an out-of-character Garrincha dance down the right. Holland and West Germany were not the only teams playing high-profile Total Football in the summer of 1974.
An aesthetic belter, this one.
Ron Atkinson never had much good fortune at The Dell while manager of Manchester United. His team were skelped at Southampton's wondrous little hovel – without question English football's greatest and most atmospheric venue during the 1980s – in the 1983-84 season by three goals to nil. United lost there when the wheels were embarrassingly clanking off their title wagon at the tail end of their ill-fated 1985-86 season. And of course his team very famously had their arses tanned 4-1 in the Littlewoods Cup in November 1986, the catalyst for his sacking, and the advent of the Fergie Years.
It looked like he had had one hell of a stroke of luck here, though. United were leading the First Division at the start of December 1981, two points clear of surprise package Swansea City, 13 points ahead of the reigning champions Aston Villa, and 11 in front of Bob Paisley's Liverpool, who were looking like a right shower. With 20 minutes remaining against the fifth-placed Saints, United were comfortable at 2-2, happy to hold on for a point at a difficult venue. They were even happier when Kevin Keegan then lashed in an unstoppable volley, only for David Armstrong to be flagged marginally offside, despite having nothing to do with the move.
"Atkinson was honest enough to admit that the spectacular volley should have stood instead of being ruled out," reported the Guardian. A generous admission, especially as United looked like holding on for their crucial point – only to lose to a last minute goal from, of all folk, Armstrong. United never quite got their season's momentum back and ended the campaign in third, nine points behind Paisley's resurgent Reds, although they did manage to extend their lead over the outgoing champions Villa to 21. Villa won the European Cup, of course, but we are just tying up loose ends here.
There is a reason, by the way, why efforts such as Frank Lampard's ghost goal at the last World Cup against Germany are not featuring in this super soaraway Joy of Six. That is because there was no acknowledgement by the officials that a goal had even been scored, and therefore technically there is nothing to disallow. Splitting hairs, perhaps, but this is our backyard, and if you do not like our rules we are going in and taking the ball with us, so there.
Anyway, it is not as if England do not have enough bad luck to bitch about. There is Sol Campbell's disallowed header with nine minutes to go against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, a majestic leap that would have set the seal on a superlative 10-man rearguard performance in one of the very few classic World Cup matches of the last 20 years. Alan Shearer's flailing elbows put paid to that. Unfortunate for England, although probably the correct decision, and anyway it was worth it to see the panicked look on Sol's coupon when he realised the goal had been chalked off and he needed to chase back upfield after the Argentinians, who were skittering up the other end of the park tittering hysterically.
And it was deja vu six years later in Portugal, when the hosts knocked England out of the European Championships, but only after Campbell saw a last-minute header ruled out thanks to John Terry, who was getting involved in some shenanigans as per.
But perhaps the most poignant moment is one that is generally forgotten now, washed away from the memory by Gazza's tears. In the 1990 World Cup semi against West Germany, 11 minutes after that booking, Paul Gascoigne held the ball up down the right wing only to be kicked up the jacksie by Andy Brehme. There were no histrionics – Brehme was booked, though unlike his victim he would not miss the next game – and in an ironic twist, given what Gazza would be remembered for, the pair embraced in the sporting manner, you know, like players used to, like grown adults.
Chris Waddle took the free-kick, swinging it in towards Platt, who eyebrowed a nifty header past Bodo Illgner. Sadly for England, the 24 years of hurt would continue, as Platt had been flagged offside. Or was it Gascoigne, further down the line, when the Germans were frantically pushing up? It was as tight a decision as you are likely to see – Platt was level, Gazza fractionally off but not interfering – and by today's standards there would be a right hoo-hah. But by the standards of the day, no complaints.
England would get some karmic payback – a smidgen, but a smidgen's some – in the third-place play-off, Nicola Berti's wonderfully steered last-gasp header ruled out for offside, despite the Italian being three yards onside.
Three yards, though.
Has any disallowed strike disrupted the space-time continuum of the club scene like this? In the second leg of their second-round tie against Porto in the 2003-04 Champions League, Manchester United were ahead on away goals and cruising when Paul Scholes was put through just before half-time. Slotting home comfortably, United were inexplicably hauled back, even though three defenders were playing Scholes onside.
What would have happened next is a moot point, and it can be argued that if everything else that evening remained constant, the game would have gone to extra-time, and Porto might have still prevailed. But you know the narrative arcs of football are never mathematically perfect. Porto would more likely have been deflated after Scholes's "second", United building up a head of steam. In which case, José Mourinho does not go on to become the Special One of the Champions League, he does not get the newly vacant Chelsea job, Rafa Benítez leaves Valencia to take over at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2004 and the entire roadmap of European football changes completely (not to mention the rugged terrain in certain A4-sheet-of-paper-wielding Chelsea supporters' heads). Oh linesman!
Three defenders, though.