What makes the World Cup the greatest sporting event in the world is the drama behind it. The whole world is watching it, players are playing for their countries so the stage is magnified and the gap between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is the widest of any sport. Since the event occurs every four years, the odds are a certain group will only get one great chance to win, and when that chance slips away, it can be gone forever.
The history of the event is full of dramatic victories. This year’s World Cup will be the 20th in its history. Only eight countries have won the World Cup; Brazil five times, Italy four times, Germany three, Uruguay two, Argentina two and England, Spain and France have one each. That leaves many other countries without any World Cups and with lots of heartbreak.
Many countries don’t even qualify for the World Cup for a long time after a crushing defeat in one. Here are the most heartbreaking losses in the history of the FIFA World Cup.
8. Hungary vs. West Germany, 1954
It’s been an eternity since Hungary was one of soccer’s powerhouses, but that was the case in the early World Cup tournaments. The country hasn’t qualified since 1986, but they have made it to the World Cup final twice, in 1938 and 1954.
While their loss to Italy in 1938 was crushing, their loss to West Germany in the 1954 final seems to still be stinging them.
The 1950s was Hungary’s Golden Era. The team had a remarkable run of 46 victories, six draws and one defeat from 1950 to 1956. Their only loss was in the 1954 final.
Hungary seemed destined to win the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. They won their group in perhaps the most dominant fashion in World Cup history, blowing away South Korea 9-0 and then West Germany with a tally of 8-3.
In the quarters, their games provided more drama, defeating Brazil 4-2 and Uruguay 4-2 in extra time with two goals by Sándor Kocsis in the extra 30 minutes. Kocsis looked unstoppable with 11 goals in the tournament.
The final saw a rematch of Hungary’s group stage with West Germany. Hungary was the clear cut favourite to win their first World Cup. However there was an unknown, as West Germany had fielded a reserve team in the group stage and not their 11 best players.
It appeared that it wouldn’t matter. Hungary jumped out to an early 2-0 lead with goals from captain Ferenc Puskás and Zoltán Czibor. What came known as the ‘Miracle of Bern’ happened next. West Germany got goals from Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn to tie the game before the end of the first half.
Rahn then scored late, in the 84th minute and West Germany pulled off the upset. Germany had their first World Cup and Hungary’s best era of soccer went by without a World Cup to show for it.
7. West Germany vs. England, 1966
The days before instant replay left controversy and doubt in this one.
England won their first and only World Cup and it came on their home soil, with a dramatic 4-2 win in extra time over West Germany.
Trailing 2-1 in the dying minutes, West Germany equalized with an 89th minute strike by Wolfgang Weber.
England was the stronger side when extra time came around and in the 101st minute, Geoff Hurst struck a shot that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced around the line. The referee was unsure if the ball had crossed the line. The linesman ruled yes, and England had a 3-2 lead.
It’s been argued for nearly 50 years now whether that ball crossed the line. Modern studies using film analysis have ruled that the ball couldn’t have crossed the line. West Germans alleged the Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov was biased since West Germany had beaten USSR in the semifinals.
England would add another score late, and this goal forever remains one of the World Cup’s most controversial moments.
6. Netherlands vs. Argentina, 1978
Both teams were competing for their first World Cup win. Both had competed in a final before; Argentina in the inaugural 1930 World Cup and the Netherlands in the previous final, in 1974.
The Netherlands were looking for redemption after their 2-1 defeat to West Germany in 1974. They had coined the style of “Total Football” in the 1970s, playing a different style than had ever been seen before.
They initially weren’t that impressive in the 1978 tournament, finishing second in their group behind Peru. However, they outlasted Italy, West Germany and Austria in the second group stage to reach the final.
Mario Kempes gave host Argentina the opening goal in the 38th minute. Dutch substitute Dick Nanninga would equalize for Oranje in the 82nd minute, sending the final to extra time. Again, the Dutch would be heartbroken.
Kempes was the hero, putting Argentina ahead in the 104th minute with a bouncing ball. Daniel Bertoni’s goal would put Holland away later on. It was the second of the Netherlands’ three losses in a World Cup final. It would take a while for the national team to recover from this heartbreak.
5. Algeria wins twice but doesn’t advance, 1982
This one’s a little different, as this heartbreaker has to do with circumstances Algeria couldn’t control.
Algeria was a great early surprise in the 1982 FIFA World Cup. They defeated reigning European champions West Germany in their opening game, a stunning 2-1 victory, with a winning goal by Lakhdar Belloumi.
They would lose to Austria in their second game, but jumped out to a 3-0 lead over Chile in their third game, hanging on for a 3-2 win.
The final group game was West Germany vs. Austria, with a German win by two goals or less ensuring both teams advancing past the group stage. In German, this game is known as the Non-aggression pact of Gijón.
West Germany took an early lead in the game, and both teams seemed content with the result, with no effort being made to attack. Commentators were not afraid to show their disgust, with German commentator Eberhard Stanjek refusing to comment on the game and Austrian announcer Robert Seeger urging viewers to turn the game off on their TVs.
The Spanish crowd let their voices be heard, while Algerian fans waived banknotes at the players. All soccer fans were disgusted and FIFA revised the rules of group play, ensuring the final two games in a group stage would be played simultaneously to avoid such results. This result was a heartbroken Algerian team and appalled German and Austrian fans.
4. Cameroon vs. England, 1990
Cameroon was the feel-good story of the 1990 World Cup. They shocked the world with an opening 1-0 victory over Argentina thanks to a goal by François Omam-Biyik. They wound up winning their group with two victories and advanced to the round of 16.
They won a thriller, 2-1 in extra time over Colombia, with a 38-year-old Roger Milla scoring a pair of goals in extra time, giving Cameroon the win. They became the first African team to reach the quarterfinals.
They would face England in the quarters and had a 2-1 lead with goals from Emmanuel Kundé on a penalty and a goal by Eugène Ekéké in the 65th minute.
England would then tie the game with a Gary Lineker penalty kick in the 83rd minute. In extra time, they were awarded another penalty and Lineker gave England the winning goal in the 105th minute.
Cameroon has not been past the group stage since.
3. Italy vs. Brazil, 1994
After losing as the hosts and favourites of the 1990 World Cup, Italy was out for redemption in the 1994 USA World Cup. This time Brazil entered the World Cup as one of the favourites and Italy’s window appeared to have closed after 1990.
Brazil impressed in the group stage, while Italy left Azzurri supporters extremely underwhelmed. They lost their opener 1-0 against Ireland, then salvaged a 1-0 win over Norway with a goal by Dino Baggio. A 1-1 draw with Mexico was enough to put them through as they won the tiebreaker with Norway on goals scored.
Brazil knocked off hosts United States, Holland and Sweden to reach the final.
Italy hadn’t stirred much hope entering the knockout stage, but were carried by Roberto Baggio, still recovering from an injury to his Achilles tendon.
He saved the day in the round of 16. With Italy just moments away from defeat to Nigeria, Baggio tied the game in the 88th minute, sending the contest to extra time. Baggio then converted on a penalty in the 102nd minute to move Italy into the quarterfinals.
Baggio scored another late winner, as Italy beat Spain 2-1. The Azzurri then faced an upstart Bulgarian side in the semifinals. Baggio got his heroics in early this time, as he scored a pair of goals in the 21st and 25th minute. Italy hung on for a 2-1 win to send them into the final against Brazil.
Italy and Brazil played 120 scoreless minutes to set up a penalty shootout to decide the World Cup. Italy had been eliminated in 1990 on penalties and they couldn’t escape their demons in 1994.
With Brazil up 3-2 in the shootout, Baggio was their last hope as the fifth kicker. Brazil still had a fifth kick after, but surely Italy’s tournament saviour would convert his, right?
However Baggio, still battling injuries, playing with a pain-killing injection and a bandaged hamstring, struck the ball way too hard, sending the ball and Italy’s World Cup hopes sailing over the bar.
That miss is the lasting image of the 1994 tournament, despite the brilliant tournament Baggio had prior to that point. With the miss, it was Brazil and not Italy, taking home their fourth World Cup championship.
2. Germany vs. Italy, 2006
Germany looked like they were on a mission in 2006. They were the hosts and were the most impressive team of the tournament, dazzling soccer fans with their attack and thrilling run to the final four.
Italy was coming off a domestic scandal in Serie A and many felt the distraction would do them in.
Germany made it look easy in their run to the semifinals, winning all of their group matches, over Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador.
A pair of early goals by Lukas Podolski gave them a 2-0 win over Sweden in the round of 16. In their quarterfinal win over Argentina, they got a late equalizer by Miroslav Klose, who with his fifth goal, went on to receive the tournament’s golden shoe as the leading scorer. Germany won on penalties, setting up a showdown with Italy, a team Germany had never beaten in a competitive game, all their victories coming in friendlies. For Germany to reach the final as the host.
It was a great clash of styles, Germany as perhaps the best attacking team of the tournament and Italy playing with impenetrable defending, having only conceded one goal the entire tournament up to that point, an own goal.
In what was the match of the tournament and one of the best in World Cup history, both teams had great chances but as extra time reached its last moments, this contest seemed destined for penalties. While penalties are nerve-racking for any side, Germans had to feel pretty good about their chances had the game reached that point. The Germans have never lost a penalty shootout with a record of 4-0. The Italians were 0-3 in shootouts at that time.
In the 118th minute, it all unravelled for Germany. A corner kick was directed to Andrea Pirlo, who set up Palermo defender Fabio Grosso for a shot which was sent bending into the far corner past goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. The fans in Dortmund were crushed, their World Cup dream gone, again at the hands of Italy. Alessandro Del Piero added one for good measure to put it away moments later. It’s always a heartbreaker when a host loses, and the Germans seemed an irresistible force. How quickly things can change.
1. Ghana vs. Uruguay, 2010
It was the first World Cup hosted by Africa, just four years ago in South Africa. Fans were hoping one of the continent’s teams could surprise the world. However one by one, the African teams disappointed. Host South Africa was out, despite a great effort at the group stage. Nigeria couldn’t win a game, Algeria didn’t score a goal, Cameroon lost all three of their games, Ivory Coast took too long to find their form, leaving Ghana as the only African team to reach the knockout stage.
They beat Serbia with a penalty kick by Asamoah Gyan and a draw against Australia was enough for them to advance.
They beat the United States in the round of 16, with Gyan again being the hero, scoring the winner in extra time for a 2-1 Ghana win.
With a win over Uruguay in the quarterfinals, Ghana would become the first African team to advance to the semifinals, in Africa’s first World Cup as the host continent.
With the score tied 1-1 in extra time, Ghana pressed in the dying moments, and the infamous Luis Suarez kept the ball out of the Uruguay goal with his hands, awarding Ghana a penalty kick with the last kick of the game.
Gyan again had a chance to be the hero, the weight of the whole continent on his shoulders. The weight pushed his kick a little too high, striking the crossbar, Ghana’s golden opportunity vanishing in an instant. Their fate was then thrown into a crapshoot of a penalty shootout.
Gyan would score the opening goal of the shootout, showing resiliency, but his teammates couldn’t follow suit. Uruguay broke hearts with a 4-2 shootout win and the young Ghanaian squad was out. It was in the most recent World Cup and you could argue this was the biggest heartbreaker in all of World Cup history, due to the nature of the game’s final moments.