Everyone remembers the winners. Most know that Brazil have won a record five World Cups, that Real Madrid have won the European Cup/Champions League a record nine times, and that Manchester United have captured a record 19 English First Division/Premier League titles.
But how many people can name every runner-up in those competitions directly from memory? Not many.
This is not to say that losers are completely forgotten. In fact, there are quite a few losers who are as memorable as some winners, due to the catastrophic manner in which they fell. Football has certainly seen its share over the years, and someone, somewhere will add themselves to that long list of legendary capitulations this year. It’s almost a guarantee.
Given how long the list is, it’s a difficult task to narrow it down to ten, but here goes, and apologies in advance to those who are having to relive some painful memories.
1. Brazil – 1950 World Cup ‘Final’ v. Uruguay
In the annals of football and sport history, few results could compare to this one.
For the better part of the tournament, it looked every bit like Brazil would claim glory on home soil. They scored eight goals en route to topping their group in the first round, which booked them a place in the four-team final group stage. Then, in their first two matches in the final group stage, they trounced Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1. All they had to do secure their first World Cup title was draw against Uruguay in their final match. Meanwhile, Uruguay, who had drawn against Spain and defeated Sweden, needed an unlikely victory to win a second World Cup title.
Brazil had led 3-0 at halftime in their wins against Sweden and Spain, but Uruguay held firm in the first 45 minutes. However, their resistance was broken almost right out of the gate in the second half, as Friaca netted in the 47th minute to put Brazil ahead.
Game over, right? It turns out that Uruguay had other ideas, and in the 66th minute, they equalized through Juan Alberto Schiaffino. Still, it was Brazil’s title to lose…and lose they did, as Alcides Ghiggia gave Uruguay a shock lead in the 79th minute, and Uruguay held on to win the match and the World Cup, stunning the masses at the Maracana who expected to be celebrating a Brazil win.
Since then, Brazil have lifted the trophy five times, but that stunning defeat will always represent a dark, dark day in their storied football history.
2. AC Milan – 2005 UEFA Champions League Final v. Liverpool
It was less than seven years ago, but all that happened on that night in Istanbul will always live on, especially with Liverpool fans.
Favorites AC Milan were looking for a second title in three years, and they had a dream start, scoring inside the first minute through a rare Paolo Maldini goal. Late in the first half, they struck twice more, and with a 3-0 lead, Milan had one hand firmly on the trophy.
But all it takes sometimes is one well-timed goal to kickstart a comeback, and Liverpool did indeed pull one back inside the first 10 minutes of the second half, via Steven Gerrard, the talisman of talismans. In a flash, it was 3-2, with the mighty Vladimir Smicer pulling back a second, and on the hour mark, Liverpool were level, with Xabi Alonso slotting home the rebound after Dida had saved his penalty.
The match would go into extra time, and then it would go into penalties. Two years prior, Milan had defeated rivals Juventus 3-2 on penalties to lift the trophy at Old Trafford, with Andriy Shevchenko netting the decisive kick. Milan were fighting an uphill battle from the start of the shootout, as they missed their first two penalties.
They would make their next two, but Liverpool held a 3-2 lead with Shevchenko stepping up to try to keep the Rossoneri in it. But as he had beaten Gianluigi Buffon two years prior, he was unable to beat Jerzy Dudek this time, and somehow, someway, Milan had thrown it all away.
3. England penalty takers – since the dawn of time
The Netherlands are infamous for their penalty failures as well, and so are Italy, but the last couple of decades have seen England make their name as the shakiest from the spot. There are many reasons why England haven’t won a major tournament since their one and only triumph at the World Cup they hosted in ‘66, but among the top reasons is a lack of success in shootouts.
- In the 1990 World Cup semifinals, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed England’s last two kicks in a 4-3 shootout defeat to West Germany.
- At Euro 1996, which they hosted, England advanced to the semis with a shootout win over Spain, but it was semifinal heartbreak at that stage against Germany yet again. Gareth Southgate was the only man to miss for England in the shootout, but his miss was the one that mattered in a 6-5 Germany win.
- Two years later at the World Cup, Paul Ince and David Batty missed in a 4-3 defeat to Argentina in the round of 16, but fortunately for them, it was David Beckham that would be considered the biggest goat on the night.
- In the Euro 2004 quarterfinals, there were bookend misses by Beckham and Darius Vassell in a 6-5 defeat to hosts Portugal.
- They again faced Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarters, and the results were even worse, as Owen Hargreaves was the only man to convert in England’s four attempts in a 3-1 shootout defeat.
4. Hungary – 1954 World Cup Final v. West Germany
When you think of the greatest sides to not win the World Cup, Hungary’s 1954 team might hold the mantle for the nearly men.
Entering the final against West Germany, the prolific Hungarians, led by Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis, were heavily favored, and for good reason. Not only were they unbeaten for more than 30 games, they had crushed West Germany 8-3 in the group stage and had scored an astounding 25 goals in their four matches in the tournament.
And early on in the final in Bern, it looked like it’d be another beating, as goals from Puskas and Zoltan Czibor gave Hungary a 2-0 lead inside eight minutes. However, they wouldn’t score again for the last 80-plus minutes, and they wouldn‘t be able to hold their lead either. West Germany were level ten minutes later, and then, in the 84th minute, Helmut Rahn scored his second to give the underdogs a late 3-2 advantage.
There were multiple controversial calls that didn’t go Hungary’s way in the match, but in the end, a defeat is a defeat, and this remains one of football’s greatest upsets.
5. Real Madrid – 2003/04 La Liga season
Real Madrid were well on their way to capturing their 30th La Liga title before a stunning collapse in the final few months of the 2003/04 season.
Real, with their host of superstars, entered March eight points clear of Deportivo La Coruna with a dozen matches remaining. They opened the month with consecutive draws against Racing Santander and Real Zaragoza and a defeat at Athletic Bilbao, but they were still three points ahead of Valencia, who had moved into second.
The rot was seemingly stopped with consecutive wins to end March and open April, but then the wheels completely fell off. Real lost seven of their last eight matches, including four in a row at home and five in a row overall to end the season. Not only were they overtaken by Valencia, who won the title and finished seven points clear of Real, they were also passed by Barcelona and Deportivo, winding up an astonishing fourth after seemingly being in complete control.
And to make the league collapse sting even more, they were stunned in the Copa del Rey final by Real Zaragoza also capitulated in the Champions League quarterfinals against AS Monaco.
6. U.S. Women’s National Team – 2011 Women’s World Cup Final v. Japan
The U.S. women’s team entered the final of last summer’s tournament heavily favored to take home their third Women’s World Cup title, but they fell flat in Frankfurt. Going in, not only were the U.S. #1 in the rankings, but they had never lost to Japan in 25 previous meetings, winning 22 and drawing three times.
The U.S. dominated proceedings from early on, but they weren’t able to translate that domination into a lead until Alex Morgan’s goal in the 69th minute. But Japan didn’t buckle, and in the 81st minute, they drew level thanks in part to shambolic defending by the U.S. The match went into extra time, and again, the U.S. took the lead, with Abby Wambach scoring in the 104th minute.
It looked once again like the Americans were on the verge, but once again, Japan didn’t buckle, and they equalized in the 113th minute. The match went to penalties, and the shootout proved to be disastrous for the U.S., as they missed their first three penalties to fall behind 2-0 with two spot kicks remaining. Wambach converted to keep hope flickering, but Saki Kumagai snuffed it out, slotting home the winning penalty and leaving the U.S. to rue a litany of missed opportunities and an inability to twice hold a late lead.
7. John Terry, Chelsea – 2008 UEFA Champions League Final v. Manchester United
Roman Abramovich was moments away from having all of his hopes and dreams fulfilled. Then came the slip seen ‘round the world.
United had edged Chelsea out for the English Premier League title in the 2007/08 season, but Chelsea had an opportunity to get the last laugh and the biggest prize of them all in Moscow. Cristiano Ronaldo gave United the lead in the 26th minute, but Chelsea equalized shortly before halftime through Frank Lampard.
The match went into extra time, with both sides seeing great chances go begging. With time winding down in the second half of extra time, a skirmish broke out between the two sides, and Chelsea star Didier Drogba was sent for slapping United defender Nemanja Vidic.
Chelsea went into the shootout without their star striker, but they converted each of their first four penalties, whereas Ronaldo missed United’s second. Up stepped captain John Terry with a chance to deliver European glory to Chelsea. Destiny was calling, but it was a rainy, rainy night in Moscow, and as Terry struck the ball, he lost his footing, and his attempt struck the outside of the post.
Each side converted its next penalty, and after Ryan Giggs made it 6-5 in favor of United, Nicolas Anelka needed to score to continue the shootout. His shot went to the left, and United keeper Edwin van der Sar dived to his right, emphatically batting the ball away to crush Chelsea hearts.
8. Newcastle United – 1995/96 English Premier League season
Parity hasn’t exactly been prevalent in the Premier League era, as, to date, Blackburn’s title triumph in the 1994-95 season is the only time that the title has gone to someone not named Manchester United, Arsenal, or Chelsea.
But the season after Blackburn’s win, Kevin Keegan and Newcastle had an excellent chance of their own to take the title. The Magpies hadn’t won a title in the top flight since 1926/27, but under Keegan, they had gone from Second Division strugglers (now the Championship) to serious title contenders in a few short seasons.
Despite a 2-0 defeat at United in late December, Newcastle topped the table going into 1996, and they would increase that lead to as much as a dozen points in January. United began to pick up the pace, but Newcastle still led by eight points with a game in hand in February.
However, while United stayed hot, Newcastle went ice cold. A 1-0 defeat at home to United on 4 March allowed United to pull within a point, and United would wind up three points clear at the end of the month. Newcastle had two matches in hand and a realistic chance to turn momentum back in their favor, and they did indeed have a three-match win streak in April that sent them into May still in it, three points with two matches left to United‘s one.
However, they drew their last two matches at home against Aston Villa and Tottenham, and United wrapped up the title on the last day of the season, finishing four points clear by virtue of their 3-0 win at Middlesbrough. Newcastle would finish second to United again the following season, but the opportunity missed then was not nearly as momentous as the previous one.
9. Burnley – 1961/62 English First Division season
At present, Burnley are one of many Championship sides fighting for a chance at Premier League promotion, but half a century ago, they were one of England’s best teams. In the 1959/60 season, they edged Wolves and Tottenham out for the First Division title, and after finishing fourth the next season, they were back in the thick of the title hunt in the 1961/62 season.
In early March, Burnley had a four-point lead and a game in hand on Ipswich Town, who were First Division first timers but contending for the title under manager Alf Ramsey, who‘d lead England to World Cup success in 1966. But the Clarets won only two of their final 13 matches, which allowed Ipswich to claim the title by three points.
10. Arsenal – v. Newcastle, 2010-11 English Premier League season
Newcastle conceded inside the first minute, and inside three minutes, they were down 2-0 to the title-chasing Gunners. Less than 10 minutes in, it was 3-0, and before the clock had hit the half-hour mark, it was 4-0 to the visitors. It looked like game, set, match Arsenal at that point, but improbably and inexplicably, Arsenal gave Newcastle an opening, and the comeback of comebacks happened.
It all started in the 50th minute, when Abou Diaby was sent off for pushing Joey Barton and then Kevin Nolan after a crunching challenge from Barton. At that point, Newcastle still had a mountain to climb, but the climb was made even easier when Arsenal conceded a penalty midway through the second half, which was duly dispatched by Barton. On 75 minutes, Leon Best made it 4-2, and all of a sudden, hope had returned. Minutes later, it was truly alive and well, as Barton slotted home a second penalty. Time was still short for Newcastle, but all the momentum was on their side, and in the 87th minute, a cleared free kick went in the direction of Cheik Tiote, who let rip a volley that found its target and sent St. James’ Park into raptures.
In the end, Newcastle actually narrowly missed a chance to win it, but to have plucked a point from the unlikeliest of situations was amazing in itself. As for Arsenal, it proved to be a tremendous missed opportunity, as Manchester United went down at Wolves in the day’s evening kickoff, which meant that instead of being a mere two points back, Arsenal were four back. And just like they couldn’t keep it together at Newcastle, they couldn’t keep it together down the stretch and finished fourth, a dozen points behind United.
But really, who needs words when you have Jeff Stelling and Phil Thompson?