1) Hungary (finalists, 1954)The Best Team Never To Win The World Cup: it's the greatest prize in football. If you're not convinced of its glamour, first run your finger down the real roll of honour. With the exception of Brazil's 1958 and 1970 sides, you're unlikely to drift off into a romantic reverie too often. France 1998? Italy 2006? England 1966? Well played and all, everyone, but nobody is cheering except your fans.
Now consider the nearly men: the freescoring Brazil side of 1950, whose complete inability to defend scarred a young nation; Johan Cruyff's Holland, who added Technicolor to an austere 1974 World Cup only to spectacularly implode in the final; those 1982 Brazilians, channelling the spirit of 1950 in the modern age, a recklessness guaranteed to fail. The Best Team Never To Win The World Cup: it's the sexiest title in sport.
Heads and shoulders above the rest, though, is the Golden Team of Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Jozsef Bozsik – that went on a 36-game unbeaten run between 1950 and the 1954 World Cup final, en route winning the 1952 Olympic gold, humiliating England twice, and changing the face of world football for all time with tactics so liquid it's a shame it was the era of Wolstenholme rather than Partridge.
At the 1954 finals, they scored 27 goals in five matches – though they did ship nine. That defensive insouciance – in the year before the final, they shipped two goals five times, and three goals twice, only once failing to score more themselves – would contribute to their undoing in the final. West Germany scored three, coming back from two down, and this time Hungary couldn't outgun their opponents, all the stars aligning against them at once: a muddy pitch, Germany's innovative screw-in studs, rainy weather that favoured Germany's star man Fritz Walter, unfriendly woodwork, Horst Eckel's man-to-man job on Hidegkuti, and a contentious offside decision that denied Puskas a late equaliser.
Hungary were also physically spent: Puskas had been crocked by Werner Liebrich during their 8-3 group stage win over the Germans, while the entire team had engaged in a post-match brawl with their quarter-final opponents, Brazil, Puskas infamously hitting his rivals upside the head with a broken bottle. Not only that, while the Germans had sauntered through the semi-final stage with a 6-1 win over Austria, Hungary spent 120 minutes tussling with one of the other Best Teams Never To Win The World Cup …
2) Uruguay (semi-finalists, 1954)Hungary's four-year unbeaten run, and subsequent failure in the greatest game of them all, has ensured few recall how close Uruguay came to making it three World Cups out of three in 1954. (They'd not entered in 1934 and 1938, piqued at Europe's unwillingness to travel to South America in 1930.)
Uruguay were reigning champions, having done for Brazil in their own back yard in 1950. That side is shamefully underrated, cast in the shadow of Brazil's lop-sided bunch of losers, despite having a world-class attack in Alcides Ghiggia and Juan Schiaffino and a top-notch defence, bolstered by box-to-box genius Obdulio Varela. Their 1954 team would fade from the collective consciousness even more so, despite being even better: Ghiggia had decamped to Italy after being banned for a year for clocking a ref, but Uruguay could still boast Milan-bound Schiaffino, Varela, Óscar Míguez (who scored seven goals in two finals), the powerful man-marker Víctor Rodríguez Andrade, and flying winger Julio Abbadie.
Just like Hungary, Uruguay were adept at humiliating the old guard. In the group stage, they trounced Scotland 7-0, Schiaffino owning the Scotland captain, Willie Cunningham, to such an extent that team-mate Tommy Docherty road tested some fresh after-dinner quips – Cunningham had "twisted blood" and had suffered a "sunburnt tongue" while chasing after him, panting. They then walloped England 4-2 in the quarters, despite ending the game (in the days before subs) with eight fit players.
Their captain, Varela, was one of the injured, and missed the semi-final, a crucial loss against a Hungary side still freely scoring without Puskas. Yet they so nearly made it. Two goals down to the favourites with 14 minutes to go, Juan Hohberg scored twice to take the game to extra time, before a post denied him his hat-trick – and Uruguay, surely, a place in their third final – with 11 minutes of the added period to go. Two minutes later, up the other end – and with two Uruguayans struggling with injuries – Kocsis headed the decisive goal, then another in the dying moments. It was the first time Uruguay had lost a World Cup game, yet it was perhaps their best side of all; Hungary had four days to wait to claim their place in this particular pantheon.
3) West Germany (semi-finalists, 1970)England's 1970 side is often cited as one of the Best Teams Never To Win The World Cup, but they were beaten twice in their four games; their two wins were unimpressive 1-0 victories over workmanlike opposition; their strikers (oh Jeff!) were all over the shop; their manager couldn't get a grip on the concept of substitutions; and they couldn't hold on to a two-goal lead in the heat of battle. It's an insult to the 1966 side that they're often described in the same breath, the height of rudeness that they're occasionally – outrageously – claimed as their betters. (If you really want to add an England team to this list, try the 1990 side, who may not have been vintage but at least sealed the deal more often than not.)
The nemesis of England's 1970 team were West Germany. In the group stage, while England's strikers toiled, Gerd Müller ran riot, scoring six goals; even Uwe Seeler, in his fourth World Cup and withdrawn into midfield, managed two in the first three matches. West Germany did ride their luck in the quarter-final against England, for whom everything famously went wrong, but it's instructive that their goalscorers were Franz Beckenbauer, Seeler, and Müller, legends all. Müller would cause further havoc in the semi-final, scoring twice, but it simply wasn't to be: the scintillating Germans scored three times against Italy, yet somehow conceded four against a team unrecognisable from the one whose goal columns after three group matches read F1, A0.
West Germany didn't have to wait long to pick up a prize, winning the 1972 European Championship with a flourish, then bossing Holland at the 1974 World Cup. Although they're still waiting for their rightful credit for that.
4) Italy (group semi-finalists, 1978)Italy's record in the World Cup since the war hadn't been great. The 1950s had been understandably barren in the wake of the Torino air disaster, but the 1960s were embarrassing: 1962's Battle of Santiago was a positive dignityfest compared to the response to their North Korean humiliation four years later, pelted with rotten tomatoes then making a scapegoat of Gigi Meroni simply because he had long hair. Their 1970 campaign was up and down – one goal in three group games, four apiece in the quarters and semis, then a royal shellacking in the final – but what else were they expecting from their ludicrous policy of rotating Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera, a half at a time? And the least said about 1974 the better, a first-round exit memorable only for Haiti putting an end to Dino Zoff's 1,143-minute world-record run of not conceding a goal.
But 1978 would be different. Their new coach, Enzo Bearzot, had built a new attack-minded side around playmaker Giancarlo Antognoni, who didn't so much run as swan about, and in an imperious languid manner to boot. He was kept company by the emerging, tough-tackling Marco Tardelli, but any doubts that Italy may revert to type and sit back were banished within 37 seconds of the campaign, when France went 1-0 up. A determined Italy piled forward, first securing a 2-1 win over Michel Platini and his team-mates, then swatting aside Hungary 3-1 before beating hosts Argentina in El Monumental.
Paolo Rossi and Roberto Bettega had filled their shooting boots, though the wheels would come off the attack in the second semi-final group stage. Antognoni picked up an injury while running the show against the reigning champions, West Germany and didn't feature in the tournament again. After that goalless draw, Austria were beaten, though only by a single Rossi goal in a profligate performance. And then the killer blow: with Italy a goal up against Holland and poised for the final, having battered their opponents in the first half, two out-of-the-blue long-range strikes by Ernie Brandts and Arie Haan sent the Dutch through instead. Italy would have faced a side they had already dealt with comfortably; as it was, they'd have to wait another four years for glory.
5) Romania (quarter-finalists, 1994)There's no point picking on Pele with the benefit of hindsight, because at the time everyone was at it: just before USA 94, Colombia were the tip on everyone's lips, having won 5-0 in Argentina during qualification. Romania, meanwhile, needed Wales's Paul Bodin to hoick a penalty on to the crossbar in order to make the finals. With the two meeting in their first group game, it was only ever going to go one way.
Within 34 minutes, Romania had served notice of their excellence in the most spectacular way possible. First, Florin Raducioiu swerved in from the left, dropped a shoulder to evade two defenders, and sent an unstoppable lash into the billowing net. Then Gheorghe Hagi took centre stage. Everyone remembers that ludicrous goal from distance out on the left wing into the top right – Did he mean it? Who cares? – but just before that he'd attempted a ludicrous toe-poked dink over Oscar Cordoba from 40 yards, the keeper's fingertips stopping the ball nestling in the top-left corner at the last. Audacious skills. Romania guided in easily, 3-1 winners. Colombia who? Pele what?
OK, so they were tonked 4-1 by the Swiss in the next game, before scraping past the hosts to escape the group, but forget those performances, because the one in the second round against Argentina wiped over the bad memories. If Ilie Dumitrescu's opening free-kick – Hagi'd into the top-right from left of the area – wasn't proof enough of Romania's greatness, the second goal closed the case. Working down the right wing, Hagi played one pass that took out four opponents, then upon taking an immediate return, rolled another past three defenders, setting Dumitrescu up to sidefoot disdainfully into the bottom-right corner with his left foot. The third goal wasn't too shabby either, on an afternoon Romania annihilated Argentina on the counter.
But Romania's inconsistency would cost them. After beating Argentina 3-2, they conceded a late extra-time equaliser to 10-man Sweden, their double European Cup-winning defender Miodrag Belodedici, of Red Star Belgrade and formerly Steaua Bucharest, missing the crucial kick. Can such an inconsistent side really be classed with the greats? When they had this much sass and swagger, they can't be grouped anywhere else. And you can be sure they'd have troubled Brazil in the semis, unlike the supine Swedes.
6) Argentina (finalists 1990)With one slot left, we could – and probably should – doff the cap to Cruyff's Holland or Tele Santana's Brazil. But you've had enough silky skills for one day. In any case, there's something to be said for resilience, too. And the Argentina side of Italia 90 were so resilient they were positively brazen.
Though they certainly weren't very popular. Captain Diego Maradona might have been a genius – in the four years before the tournament, he'd single-handedly dragged Argentina to a World Cup victory, and humble Napoli to their first two league titles – but nobody was better at dividing opinion. It meant – another single-handed achievement, this – his Argentina team were positively detested across vast swathes of the globe.
Their rap sheet is indeed long.
Any sympathy they might have garnered after being kicked around like old socks in their opening defeat against Cameroon, then losing their first-choice keeper Nery Pumpido at the start of their loser-goes-home clash with the USSR, was lost when Maradona saved an Oleg Kusnetsov header on the line – and got away with it. In the second round, Argentina were outplayed by Brazil, who hit the woodwork three times, yet scraped through. There were accusations that Argentina gave the Brazil defender Branco a water bottle filled with tranquilisers, a charge their manager, Carlos Bilardo, has never bothered to rebut.
In the quarter-final, they struggled against a Yugoslavia side down to 10 men for 89 minutes, before unjustly coming through on penalties. The script was vaguely similar for their semi-final victory over the hosts, Italy – only that match was preceded by Maradona's demand for the Naples crowd to support him rather than their own national side, and the mouthing of "sons of bitches" during the Italian national anthem. And the final against West Germany was a farce, Argentina self-combusting with rage, Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti seeing red, Maradona dissolving into heartbroken tears. That night, a happy planet was bouncing as fast as it was spinning.
Yet surely this staunch, belligerent effort should be applauded rather than cursed. Maradona's plea to Naples – "'The Neapolitans must remember one thing, Italy makes it feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364" – was a cunning act of political genius. His boisterous run and flicked pass to free Claudio Cannigia against Brazil was a reminder of his 1986 pomp – and unlike Brazil Argentina didn't waste their chance. His penalty against hot-favourites Italy – pointedly taken in exactly the same manner as the one he'd missed in the shootout against Yugoslavia – was designed to transmit a reminder that his balls were huge. And they reached the final, their only good player with a jiggered foot.
So Maradona & co, effectively, spent the entire month running round flicking the Vs to everyone. And nearly made it, too. A massive effort; not exactly in the Hungary 1954 mould, but it takes different strokes. But if you don't agree, try to think of it this way: in 20 years time, will anybody still be energised by other second-rate silver-medal chancers such as Germany in 2002 or France in 20606? Thought not. A great side, no question.
Many thanks to Cris Freddi, whose Complete Book of the World Cup is the ultimate tome about football's greatest championship.
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