The bride isn’t always the prettiest girl – How the World Cup taught us to adore those lovely losers.

At the World Cup, the teams that lift the biggest award the sport has to offer can go on to become the style setters for a generation. It happened after 1966 with England dispensing with genuine wingers. The Brazilians did it on a number of occasions, but especially perhaps in 1970, when they reinfused the game with an injection of Joga Bonito that made everyone want to play with such unfettered joy and in 2010, Spain raised the Roja banner for tiki-taka. For all the glory and acclaim that winners receive, and the flattering sincerity of imitation that so often follows however, love and affection doesn’t always go to the winners. In football’s four-yearly jamboree, whilst the bride is the star of the show, it’s often the bridesmaid that everyone falls for. It’s a World Cup legacy that taught us to cherish those who never make it to the alter.

Ahead of the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, the cherry-red shirts of Hungary were the symbols of the planet’s most accomplished football team. Under innovative coach, Gusztáv Sebes, the Aranycsapat had won the Olympic title in 1952, scoring no less than 20 goals across the five games of the tournament, whilst conceding a mere two. In the following year, they dispelled any doubts about their majesty by handing out the most comprehensive shellacking of all time to England. In the years between 14 May 1950 until they lost 3–1 to Turkey on 19 February 1956, Hungary would play a half-century of games, winning no less that 46 of those encounters, drawing three. The only blot on their record, the sole defeat in 50 games across nearly six years, was the 1954 World Cup Final.

Hungary were strong favourites to take the trophy in 1954, and their passage through the group stage suggested it would be a triumphal march towards a coronation. In the quarter-finals, they eliminated Brazil, scoring four goals and then faced Uruguay in the semi-finals. A further four-goal haul did for the South Americans, and Hungary arrived in the final, where they would face a German team they had efficiently dispatched earlier, with eight goals, during the group stage.

Two goals inside the initial eight minutes, first by Ferenc Puskás and Zoltán Czibor did little to dispel popular assumptions, but Hungary were destined not to reach the alter. In the semi-final, Puskás had sustained an injury to his ankle and the cloying surface of the rain-sodden pitch, plus the effects of further challenges, gradually slowed the ‘Galloping Major’ to more of a trot, and his influence in the game would wane as time went on.

The Germans played themselves back into the contest and by midway through the first period, had drawn level. From that point on, with a mixture of good form and good fortune, goalkeeper Toni Turek and the frame of his goal, somehow kept the increasingly frustrated Hungarians at bay until with just five minutes remaining, Helmut Rahn scored the winning goal and despite dominating the 1954 World Cup, Hungary end up with losers’ medals. The team that dominated world football for more than half a decade, adored for their play, failed to win the biggest prize in world football and when the Russian invasion of their country scattered their legendary team across the continent. The Magnificent Magyars were lost, except to those who kept a place for them in their hearts.

Twenty years after the Hungarians had failed to turn dominance into World Cup victory, a similar fate would befall the Dutch. Whilst their international team had little tradition of success in the World Cup – the 1974 tournament would be the first time they had contested a Finals since 1938 – their clubs were the templates for success throughout Europe. Across the previous six years, Dutch clubs had contested each of the European Cup Finals, with the last four being won by teams from the Low Countries. It was the era of Totaal Voetbal, and the bright orange flame of Dutch football would go on to scorch the pitches of Germany in 1974 on their way to a widely assumed coronation as the best footballing nation on the planet.  

Heading the Dutch was Rinus Michels, High Priest of the doctrine of Totaal Voetbal, who developed the pattern at Ajax before decamping to Barcelona. Now he would lead the Oranje in a World Cup and take them on a journey where their innovative play, full of dynamic angles and intricate threads that, when woven together, created the fabric of a team that became the epitome of people’s champions.

Whilst the Dutch attacking play was rightly lauded and adored, its success would camouflage a fatal weakness at the back. The squad assembled was shorn of the titanic presence of Barry Hulshoff. The Ajax libero was the personification of Totaal Voetbal, possessing abundant skill and a physique that allowed him to stride around the field like some vengeful giant, out to right the wrongs of the world. A catastrophic knee injury would deny Michels the services of Hulshoff though. True to his principles, the coach would apply a typical Totaal Voetbal solution to the dilemma. He chose to deploy midfielder Arie Haan in the libero role alongside the young Wim Rijsbergen at the centre of the Dutch defence. The preferred goalkeeper was Jan Jongbloed, by common consent less the best goalkeeper, but promoted allegedly by Cruyff as the best ‘footballing’ option between the sticks. The Dutch would need to dominate teams to protect their rejigged defence by keeping the ball largely at the other end of the field. It was a ploy that won them so many admirers for their cavalier solution. It was also a frailty that enhanced their appeal, but ultimately cost them the World Cup

Victories over Uruguay and Bulgaria – the latter being the only game, right up to the final when the Dutch hegemony on the field failed to keep a clean sheet – sandwiched the sole game in which the they failed to score in a goalless draw against Sweden. It was in this game however that the team’s talismanic captain Johann Cruyff unveiled the move that would, for ever after, bear his name, when he flicked the ball between his own legs and left his marker looking everywhere for the ball – everywhere that is except in the direction that it went.

In the second group stage, an iconic 4-0 victory over Argentina lit up the leaden German skies, as Cruyff danced through La Albiceleste’s back line as if some Will-o’-the-wisp creature whose feet only caressed the ground rather than touched it, scoring twice with Krol and the burgeoning talents of Johnny Rep adding the other goals. A comfortable victory over East Germany followed before what to many was the defining match of the tournament, and the one that sealed the Dutch reputation as the New Romantics of football.

In 1970, Brazil had entranced the world with their attacking football, four years later though, it was a mean and angry streetfighter of a team who came to defend the trophy that Pele, Gerson, et al had won in Mexico. As the stewardship of Joga Bonito was cast into the gutter by this most un-Brazilian of Brazil teams, it was rescued by the Dutch who picked it up and cherished it as their own, symbolically winning the game 2-0. Cruyff and Johann Neeskens scored the goals in a game that ensured this Dutch team a place in the heart of all fans who treasured the ideal of ‘the beautiful game.’

Alas, it would be another World Cup Final wherein beauty and adventure weres overcome by pragmatism, as their frailty was ruthlessly exposed by Teutonic efficiency. As with the Hungarians, the Dutch took the lead in their final match up with West Germany, when a slaloming run by Cruyff was brought to a thudding end and the penalty was converted by Neeskens. Lost in their own confidence and desire to make beautiful music and weave intricate patterns though, the Dutch postured and posed as the Germans got back into the game. Breitner equalised from the spot and when Gerd Müller exposed the Jongbloed’s inadequacies with a second strike just before the end of the first half, it was the death knell for the vivid orange dream. In the second half, the Dutch poured forward in waves that broke down on the stern barrier of the robust Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck and the elegant Franz Beckenbauer. At times Michels left tousle-haired Wim Jansen as the lone sentinel guarding the Dutch half of the pitch, while his team-mates toiled forlornly in search of the equaliser. At the final whistle, another team that had looked oh-so-special, had entertained and entranced in equal measure, had lost out. What had taken the Dutch so far had also doomed them to their fate. They had been magnificent, and brilliance of their football had endeared them to so many fans, but their rewards were losers’ medals.

Four years later, shorn of the majesty of the Mercurial Cruyff, but perhaps a closer-knit unit – or as closely knit as any collection of Netherlands footballers can ever be – the Dutch again succumbed to the hosts in a World Cup Final. Their play in the 1978 tournament was certainly not as dynamic as it had been four years earlier, but nonetheless they had won their way through to the final and despite some apparent shenanigans from the hosts, came within a couple of inches of surpassing the efforts of 1974.

With the scores tied at 1-1 and the dying embers of normal time ebbing away, a through ball from skipper Ruud Krol saw Robbie Rensenbrink cutting g in from the left to collect then pass. Although his effort beat the Argentine goalkeeper, Ubaldo Fillol, it struck the post and bounced clear. The chance had gone and in extra-time, La Albiceleste avenged that 4-0 defeat of 1970 triumphing 3-1 and lifting the trophy. Succumbing to the hosts in the finals of successive tournaments was the most glorious of failures by surely the best team never to have won the World Cup. By the time they qualified again for a Finals tournament, a dozen years had passed, and so to had the generation of players whose play had entranced so many.

Brazil would redeem themselves in the 1982 tournament when a squad containing the elegant Socrates, the metronomic Júnior and the magical Zico in the number ten shirt – perhaps the true heir of Pelé – amongst a glittering array of other stars, took on the task of restoring former glories. It was a team worthy of being world champions, but for all the recapturing of the true Brazilian footballing heritage, they too would be loved for their artistry rather than their ultimate success. They swept effortlessly through the initial group stages, winning all of their games with relative ease. In the second stage, they defeated old rivals Argentina 3-1, but would fall to eventual champions Italy after a titanic and wildly entertaining 3-2 defeat, after twice battling from being a goal down.

In football, if you’re the bridesmaid rather than the bride, to be remembered as the best team you need to have that ‘Wow!’ factor. The Hungarians had it in 1954. The Dutch had it in 1974, and perhaps in 1978 too. Brazil reclaimed it in 1982. In 1986, Denmark exploded with it.

Under the German coach Sepp Piontek, the Danes had been transformed into the Danish Dynamite outfit that honoured the Dutch theme but added their own particular elan, neatly combining the inherited style with outrageous dribbling and jet-heeled play that both bewitched and blew away opposition teams – as would be appropriate for a team with such an epithet. Although comprising multi-skilled players throughout its set up, it was the front pair of the team that epitomised the glory of this Denmark squad.

Often described as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ pairing, Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær were a formidable pair. The former had extravagant skills, a dribble that saw him sway past opponents leaving them in his wake, a vision to bring others into the game with an ability to complete passes that very few others could even conceive, plus a natural goal-scorer’s predatory instincts. If Laudrup was a string quartet, his partner was a Rock and Roll band. Whilst possessing no little skill, Elkjær was power, pace and passion. With a first instinct upon receiving the ball to turn and face his opponent, the belligerence of Elkjær’s forward play was the yin to Laudrup’s yang. In combination, their philosophy was indeed explosive.

Thrown into one of those legendary ‘Group of Death’ scenarios, they faced Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay. A scrappy 1-0 victory over Scotland, thanks to a powerful strike by Elkjær was merely the forerunner as their campaign got underway. In the second game, they faced Uruguay and delivered the sort of artistic performance that should surely be destined for a run on a West End stage for its beauty. Six goals against a sullen South American was wonderful to watch. Elkjær notched a hat-trick, but the best goal was surely the graceful dart by Laudrup. It was a performance so enthralling that one Mexican commentator was compelled to comment that, “Senors, Senores, you have just witnessed a public fiesta of football.” The Danes would go on to defeat a powerful West German team 2-0 to reach the quarter-finals but fall foul of a misplaced back pass against Spain. They would lose 5-1.

So, did the World Cup teach us to love beauty above achievement; to praise magnificence over success, and to adore those lovely losers? Maybe it did. If the Hungarians had suggested that the best teams don’t always win, the Dutch underscored it in 1974. Maestros, if not perhaps Dutch Masters, they were widely acclaimed and adored by so many, despite being bridesmaids twice in successive tournaments. The Brazilian vintage of 1982, and the Danes in the following tournament would follow similar paths into the affections of fans across the world and the acclaim offered to Sir Bobby Robson’s Italia ’90 squad upon their return after semi-final elimination, even discounting home town bias, suggests of the affirmative to the question posed. If so, it’s a worthy legacy from football’s biggest party. After all, although it’s her party, who says that the bride is always the prettiest girl there?

(This All blue Daze article was originally produced for Issue 20 of The Football Pink magazine).

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