Heartbreak and romance.
These are the places on the emotional plane where some of the most formative experiences in life are stored.
This is just as true in sport.
While winning involves passion and euphoria, it’s the sting of defeat that tends to leave a mark. Especially when the defeat is unexpected. When it creeps up and surprises, when it annihilates those positive emotions that were previously invested.
Following are five football teams that experienced their shortage of pain. But what makes them remarkable is that they’re remembered for it—whether for the sentiment or the beauty or the story they wrote along the way.
They are football’s tragedies: great sides that failed to claim the silverware they came so close to winning.
Hungary: 1954 World Cup
The 1954 World Cup was the first to be broadcast on television. For much of the three weeks in June and July the world was treated to compelling football played in a gorgeous Swiss spring, but on July 4 it began to rain.
Sepp Herberger must have smiled to himself as the gales beat down on Bern.
Only 14 days prior, Herberger’s West Germany side had been demolished 8-3 by Hungary in Basel. The irrepressible Sandor Kocsis had scored four goals, and the re-match—expected to be another one-sided Hungarian victory—would determine the winner of the World Cup.
A waterlogged pitch was always going to help level the playing field, but even then the Germans would need no shortage of luck to end the spell of the Magical Magyars.
A furious start to the encounter saw four goals scored in just 18 minutes—two for each side.
After Ferenc Puskas and Zoltan Czibor had given Hungary a 2-0 lead inside eight minutes, Max Morlock pulled one back for West Germany before Helmut Rahn restored level terms, turning Fritz Walter’s corner past goalkeeper Gyula Grosics.
It was the final goal until the 84th minute when Rahn, playing the game of his life, collected the ball outside Hungary’s 18-yard box following a botched clearance, dummied the on-rushing defender and hit an unstoppable, 16-yard drive that inspired one of the great play-by-play calls in football history.
Herbert Zimmerman: “The ball comes back to Rahn. Rahm must shoot! Rahn shoots! They think it’s all over...It is now! Goal! Goal! Goal! Germany leads Hungary 3-2 with five minutes to go! You must think I’m crazy!”
Puskas would still put the ball in the back of the net but would have his effort disallowed for offside—a linesman’s decision that would end a four-year unbeaten run that included a Gold Medal in the 1952 Olympic Games for Hungary.
Netherlands: 1974, 1978
From 1971 thru 1973, Amsterdam giants Ajax were the undisputed kings of Europe. A trio of European Cup Final victories—over Panathinaikos, Inter Milan and Juventus by a combined scoreline of 5-0—had turned the club into a continental heavyweight, and under Rinus Michels they popularized Total Football that would define a generation of the Dutch game.
At the 1974 World Cup, with Michels now running the national side, The Netherlands opened up their campaign with a 2-0 win over Uruguay. In the second round they defeated Argentina, Brazil and East Germany (and didn’t give up a goal), and in the final they led after just two minutes through Johan Neeskens.
But Paul Breitner equalized from the spot in the 25th minute, and shortly before the interval Gerd Muller scored what proved to be the winner at the Olympiastadion.
Four years later, The Netherlands were in the World Cup final once again—and again they came up against the hosts and a highly partisan crowd. Not to mention an Argentine military dictatorship that, according to the beliefs of some, had orchestrated their country`s 6-0 win over Peru in the final match of the second round.
The two sides went into extra time level at a goal apiece, but goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni would ensure Argentina won its first World Cup and The Netherlands—runners-up in the previous tournament—were bridesmaids once again.
Bayern Munich: 2011-2012 Season
For a time in early 2012 it looked as though Bayern Munich were destined to win everything there was for them to win.
Neck and neck with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, they had also progressed into the final stages of the DfB Pokal and, following a penalty shootout win against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, had booked a place in the Champions League final for a second time in three seasons.
Then it all fell apart.
The Bundesliga was the first to get away from them. A spring slip-up saw Dortmund beat them to the title by eight points, and were also pipped to the Pokal by their national rivals—Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski netting a hat-trick in the Berlin final.
But it was their failure in the Champions League that really stung.
Playing host to the match against Chelsea, they seemed to have won it when Thomas Muller scored the game`s first goal with just seven minutes remaining—only for Didier Drogba to pop up and equalize in the 88th minute.
Following two cagey periods of extra time they were defeated by the London side on penalties—Ivica Olic and Bastien Schweinsteiger failing to convert their last two spot-kicks.
Valencia: 2000 and 2001 Champions League finals
A bit of trivia: which is the only team to have lost back-to-back European Cup finals?
In the spring of 1999 Valencia snuck into the qualifying rounds of the Champions League after finishing fourth in La Liga—just a point above Celta Vigo and two above Deportivo La Coruna.
But after progressing to the Group Stage they wound up atop a bracket that also included Bayern Munich and proceeded to beat Lazio and Barcelona in the knockout rounds before facing Real Madrid in the Paris final.
Comprehensively outplayed in the French capital, they lost 3-0 to goals from Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman and Raul, but despite the heartbreak they managed to get right back to Europe’s most prestigious match the following May.
This time they faced Bayern Munich, and their defeat was even more heartbreaking.
Having taken the lead thanks to Gaizka Mendieta’s early penalty, they conceded the equalizer five minutes after the restart. In a contest that didn’t showcase a single goal from open play, they would go on to lose in the seventh round of a penalty shootout—Zlatko Zahovic, Amedeo Carboni and Mauricio Pellegrino all missing from the spot.
Brazil: 1982 World Cup
Despite winning a record five World Cups, three of which included Pele in some capacity (he was injured for much of the 1962 competition, where the talismantic mantle fell to Garrincha), Brazil’s most-loved, most romanticized side won precisely nothing.
Not a World Cup; not a Copa America. Nothing. Nada.
But could they ever play.
At the 1982 finals in Spain, Tele Santana’s Selecao thrilled football fans the world over with its uncontainable, exuberant brand of football. Zico, Falcao and Socrates were the biggest stars in the team, although the likes of Eder and Junior put in memorable performances as well.
But after breezing through a group that included the Soviet Union, Scotland and New Zealand and defeating Argentina in their first match of the second stage of the tournament, Brazil were stunned by Italy—losing 3-2 to a Paolo Rossi hat-trick in Barcelona.
Italy went on to lift the trophy, but it was Brazil that people remembered, and continue to remember.