As the excitement mounts ahead of the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the sides who had the world talking – but then it would all end prematurely before the semi-final stage, with the teams returning home with just the happy memories of their early good form to treasure…
For anyone who fell in love with football shortly after the 1970 World Cup, they would have to wait until 1982 to see a genuinely captivating Brazil team on the global stage. The names of Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and others are likely to have football fans of a certain age drooling at the memory. The goals flew in from all over the pitch as Brazil dominated their first round group and looked clear favourites to go all the way. But then they had the misfortune to be placed alongside Argentina and Italy in the second round group of three teams (probably the ultimate Group of Death at any World Cup, with only one side able to advance to the semi-finals).
Brazil beat their South American rivals, but then lost out in one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time against Italy. Italian forward Paolo Rossi suddenly rediscovered his goalscoring touch with a hat-trick to turn the competition on its head, as Italy won an epic encounter in which Brazil were exposed defensively. The Brazilians had scored 15 goals in just five matches, but they wouldn’t even be in the semi-finals – some would argue the magic of 1982 has never quite been matched by them since.
From nothing, Denmark emerged to be one of the most popular and stylish teams of the 1980s as they gained admirers well beyond Scandinavia. After reaching the semi-finals at Euro ’84 (qualifying at England’s expense), Denmark made their World Cup bow two years later. With players like Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer weaving their magic, the Danes emerged with a 100% record from the Group of Death (yes another one) including Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay (who they thrashed 6-1).
The Danes were now being talked about as potential winners and it came as little surprise when they led Spain 1-0 in the second round. Suddenly, a misplaced backpass from Jesper Olsen allowed Spain back into the game and a second half collapse ended with the Danes thrashed 5-1 and crashing out in the last 16. They had promised and deserved much more. They wouldn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups, but for a couple of weeks in 1986 they had looked as good as any side in the world.
It seems much of Argentina’s luck was used up in struggling through to the final in 1990, as they haven’t been beyond the last eight since then despite having several highly-rated sides. The tournament that stands out is 2006. During the first round Argentina produced one of the great World Cup performances in modern times to thrash Serbia and Montenegro 6-0, scoring a truly outstanding team goal as they took possession football to new heights. “I think we’ve just seen the World Cup winners,” was the sort of comment I saw widely being posted on messageboards afterwards, but the tournament can be a cruel mistress. A stunning extra-time winner from Maxi Rodriguez was needed to dispose of Mexico in the second round, but then came the toughest test yet as hosts Germany lay in wait in the quarter-finals. The Germans equalised late in normal time and triumphed in a penalty shoot-out, also knocking Argentina out in the last eight in 2010.
For many youngsters of the time like me watching the World Cup in 1990, Cameroon will always have a special place in our hearts. Widely dismissed as African outsiders before the start of the competition, their raw, cavalier approach won hearts as more established football nations struggled to deal with them. Their disciplinary record wasn’t the best and they had two men sent off in the tournament opener against holders Argentina, but they sensationally won 1-0. 38-year-old ‘supersub’ Roger Milla was the hero in wins against Romania and Colombia, leading to his corner flag ‘wiggle’ celebration being mimicked the world over.
In the quarter-finals they were paired with England (not ideal for those of us who loved both). It was a momentous night, the only game in the tournament in which both teams scored at least twice. The match was a see-saw contest which Cameroon probably should have won as they outplayed England for much of the second half to lead 2-1 late on. But their defensive weaknesses resurfaced and led to them conceding a late penalty for Lineker to equalise and save England, with history repeating itself in extra-time as he netted the winner from the spot and Bobby Robson’s side won 3-2. “We’ve all aged 10 years,” said presenter Bob Wilson as he signed off the BBC’s live coverage, correctly summing up the exhausting nature of the night. Four years later we watched the World Cup in USA hoping for more magic from Cameroon, but it never came and they have not gone beyond the group stages again – this year produced a particularly underwhelming effort that did them no credit at all.
North Korea 1966
It’s perhaps easy to forget North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966 lasted just four games, losing two and needing a late equaliser to avoid defeat in another. And yet the diminutive Asians wrote their name into World Cup folklore in the tournament. Their 1-0 group stage win over Italy is regarded as one of the greatest World Cup giantkillings and ensured Pak Doo-Ik’s name would forever be well-known. They were now just three matches away from being World Cup winners!
Interest now grew beyond Middlesbrough where they were based for the group stage and had been adopted as the team to cheer on. The North Koreans headed to face Portugal in the quarter-finals at Goodison Park (joined by about 3,000 newly-acquired fans travelling down from Middlesbrough, preferring to do that than watch England’s quarter-final at the same time). In a thrilling match, North Korea led 3-0 after 24 minutes, before falling victim to a one-man goalscoring exhibition. The brilliant Eusebio scored four times (including twice from the penalty spot as the North Koreans lost their defensive discipline) to turn the game around by the hour mark, with Portugal eventually running out 5-3 winners. The dream had died and North Korea would disappear back into communist secrecy until qualifying again in 2010 – but their exploits in 1966 will never be forgotten in England.
An excellent documentary about North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966.
When they clicked, they were brilliant. When they didn’t, they got punished. Romania, boasting such talents as Gheorghe Hagi and Ille Dumitrescu, were technically impressive and laid down a marker in their opening match against highly-fancied Colombia. Hagi scored a speculative goal from out wide in a 3-1 win. There was a reality check in the next match against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland, as Romania lost 4-1. But a win against hosts USA took Romania through as group winners to a last 16 tie with Argentina, who had been rocked by Diego Maradona’s positive drugs test a few days earlier. The sides served up a classic, Romania playing some excellent stuff and Hagi’s creativity helping them go 2-0 up early on through a Dumitrescu double. Hagi would find the net himself in the second half as Romania held out to win 3-2 and send the 1986 winners and 1990 runners-up home.
Romania were now fancied to beat Sweden in the quarter-finals but they would show some hint of inconsistency as went out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. To rub salt into the wounds, neighbours Bulgaria surprisingly went through to the semi-finals by beating Germany so Romania could not even lay claim to being the last Eastern European side left in. But it had been good while it lasted.
And as for England?
Considering England’s high amount of past quarter-final exits, it would seem amiss not to mention at least one of them here. While perhaps not having the world on the edge of their seats, the one that stands out most is 1970. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side boasted arguably a better team than the one that won on home soil four years earlier and have never been so well fancied on foreign soil, being considered as potentially the biggest threat to favourites Brazil. The sides played out an iconic group stage match in which England could lay claim to one of the best saves (Gordon Banks), best tackles (Bobby Moore) and worst misses (Jeff Astle) in World Cup history. England lost 1-0 but looked good enough to go all the way to the final for a re-match with Brazil. Certainly when they held a 2-0 lead in the quarter-final against West Germany that looked odds-on to get there. Inexplicably, England threw victory away to crash out of the tournament. It would be a long 12-year wait until they even qualified for another finals.