The Best of the Worst: 20 Chronic Underachievers in Team Sports

Stephen NelsonContributor IIIJuly 5, 2011

The Best of the Worst: 20 Chronic Underachievers in Team Sports

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    Losing is part and parcel of involvement in sports. Losing when your opponents are clearly superior is something most people can accept with gentlemanly grace, though. What no one likes is a team which constantly loses to teams that it should beat, which is where this list comes in.

    All of the following teams can definitely be described as under-performers.  Each selected team had to meet at least one of three criteria:

    A) Teams that always choke when it matters

    B) Have bigger than average resources than their competitors and fail to use this to their advantage


    C) Teams with good players who appear to be well constructed on paper, but somehow never work well as a unit

20. Soccer: Portugese National Team

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    In the past 15 years or so, Portuguese players have been a constant feature in everyone's "World IX". Yet despite assembling sides that include the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Nani, they still are yet to win a major international tournament.

    For Portuguese fans. it must be tough. Undeniably once Europe's superpowers, Portugal and football are like wine and cheese. 

    The same country which gave the world Eusebio and the legendary Benfica sides of the 60s never seem to go down quietly when they lose.

    Remember that handball against France in extra-time in the semifinals of Euro 2000?  Then there was the 2002 World Cup (in the build-up to which they were considered one of the four favourites) and failing to make it of a group that included the USA and South Korea.

    Portugal saved its finest disaster for their fans at home in Euro 2004. Even though Luis Figo was in hot form throughout the tournament, and Ronaldo had begun his emergence to stardom, it wasn't enough to prevent them losing 1-0 to Greece in the final in Lisbon.

    The only trophy which Portugal has won to date is the SkyDome Cup. I live in Toronto, the city where the SkyDome stadium is (which lent its name to the trophy), and even I had never heard of that tournament until compiling this list. 

19. Basketball: New York Knicks

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    The first big-money losers on the list.

    If ever there was a basketball team that did not deserve its level of wealth and fame, I think this would be the one. Along with the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls, the Knicks are the among highest profile teams in the NBA, and the richest by far. Unlike the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls, however, New York never wins anything. It's been 12 years since they won a title of any kind, and 38 years since winning an NBA Championship.

    Although this list isn't about the most hate-able teams, I have to say the Knicks have always annoyed me. But that might have more to do with Spike Lee.

18. Motorsport: Arrows F1

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    How do you get a reigning Formula One Driver's Champion to go from a 97 point season to a seven point season?

    Sign him up with Arrows—possibly the worst Formula One team ever.

    Frank Williams upset a lot of people when he fired Damon Hill in the same season that Hill secured a constructor's title for Wiliams and won the drivers title. The fact that Hill's ride for the next season was going to be Arrows made this turn of events even more unbelievable. Arrows were so ambitious and resolute to bag the champion driver that Hill turned down both McClaren and Ferrari offers due to the high wages Arrows were willing to pay. This would turn out to be the worst decision of his career.

    The Arrows car Damon Hill was driving would let him down throughout the season, either being one of the slowest cars on the grid or not even finishing the race. But he should have known better, because Hill's disastrous season was reflective of the entire history of the team. In 24 years of Formula One racing, Arrows did not win a single race, never posted a fastest lap and achieved a pathetic nine podiums.

    Mercifully, Arrows are no longer with us today.

17. Hockey: New York Islanders

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     When I was a kid, 90 percent of conversation on the playground centred around hockey. And as we argued the merits and demerits of different teams and players in the NHL, the New York Islanders would inevitably come up every now and then. Without exception, when this happened, there would be a unanimous shaking of heads in disbelief as we all wondered "what happened?"

    Although I'm not old enough to have seen the Mike Bossy era, the facts speak for themselves. Four Stanley Cups in a row. FOUR! The New York Islanders had built one of the greatest hockey dynasties in history.  As a kid, I knew they must have been one of the best teams ever just by the hushed tones grown ups used when they talked about Bossy and New York.

    And then around the time I was born, the Edmonton Oilers took over. Since that time, the Islanders have sucked consistently. And while the Oilers have also endured a painful fall from grace, they've at least had some genuinely enjoyable patches with players such as Curtis Joseph. The Islanders, on the other hand, have always been a team I find painful to even just think about. I have to name and shame the Islanders for failing so spectacularly to live up to their own standards.

    I still don't know how it all went wrong.

16. Rugby: French National Team

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    France is consistently the best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere.

    And although the French national rugby side is the most successful team in Six Nations rugby, their closest rivals, England, have one thing France doesn't:  a World Cup. On the way to their World Cup victory, England did something the French seem incapable of: beating Southern Hemisphere opposition.

    The failure of the French is perhaps the best illustration of the huge gulf that always seems to exist between the Northern and Soutthern Hemisphere teams.

    France never fields sides that are short on talent, but they will go out of this year's Rugby World Cup against either South Africa, Argentina, Australia or New Zealand. Just like they did in the last one...and the one before that...and the one before that...and th....

15. Football: Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns are a franchise that should really be a powerhouse in the NFL. The Browns are a marketing man's dream: They have a rich history and the greatest NFL player of all-time is synonymous with the team. They also have cool old-school uniforms and a blue collar image. Historically, the Browns are one of the most successful teams in pro football;  they dominated in the 40's, 50's, and 60's and were the first professional football team to have a perfect season (15-0 in 1948). They also have the sixth highest winning percentage of all-time.

    And yet since 1990, they have only made the playoffs twice. Some of their recent failings can be blamed on the ownership/relocation controversy in the mid 90's, which saw them "deactivated" for three seasons. But they were struggling before that was an issue. Since the team was re-integrated to the NFL, other teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, who also had to contend with the issues of building (or re-building) a pro team, have had notable success.  

    And it's not like the Browns don't have the resources to put together a winning team; Forbes gave the franchise a valuation of over one billion dollars.

    The Browns might be described as a sleeping giant, waiting for the right people to restore them to their former glory.

14. Soccer: Newcastle United

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    It's rather fitting that the only major trophy Newcastle have won in the past 40 years (the old 2nd Division title) is actually a mark of failure.  Newcastle may arguably be one of the biggest clubs in England, but they are undoubtedly the worst run.

    Throughout the Premier League era, Newcastle has put together some of the most entertaining teams  in England and have had some of the games biggest stars wearing the black and white.  But what has all the big spending on big names ultimately brought to the club? Relegation from the top flight and a transformation into becoming the biggest laughing stock in Britain.

    Newcastle United check every box on the list of  "How Not To Run a Football Club."  There has been managerial instability (changing managers 15 times in the past 10 years).  The club's transfer policy can best described as throwing money into a bottomless pit—i.e. Michael Owen, on whom the club spent something in the region of 40 million pounds, in exchange for 26 league goals. The team spirit is so bad these days that last season's club captain, Kevin Nolan, decided to jump ship to a 2nd Division club— West Ham—despite having two seasons remaining on his contract.


13. Rugby: Cape Town's Stormers

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    The Stormers inclusion might be a surprise to some, but they are one of the most, if not the most, underachieving teams in club rugby.

    As the team that represents the premier rugby city in a country which is a rugby superpower, it is surprising that the Stormers have never won a Super Rugby title. Finishing as runners-up three times, they seem unable to shake their status as "nearly-men."

    Consider this rather depressing factoid. In 1999, when South Africa had one of the strongest Springbok sides in the modern era, 11 of the those players were Stormers. That's the most Springboks picked from a single team since the 1920's.  Still, they were unable to win the title.

    To put that into perspective for non-rugby fans, imagine a team competing for the UEFA Champions League made up of nearly the entire Spanish national team and still being unable to win the trophy.  Or entering the 1992 men's Olympic USA basketball team into the NBA playoffs and finishing as runners up.

12. Soccer: Argentine National Team

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    In terms of producing talent, there is no better football nation than Argentina. Ask anyone who knows even just a little about football to name great Argentine footballers, and they will be able to go on naming players for hours probably. Even just in recent years, Argentina has given the world Leo Messi, Hernan Crespo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez, Gabriel Heinze, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Saviola, Kun on and so on.

    Yet with this astonishing abundance of talent, the national team always disappoints in major tournaments (with the exception of the Olympics, but who cares about that? Countries like Argentina measure success in terms of World Cups). In the last three World Cups, Argentina's record is: a failure to make it out of the group stage, a quarterfinal loss to Germany and another quarterfinal loss to the Germans but on more humiliating terms (losing 4-0). The country has also failed to win the Copa America since 1993, being edged out by Brazil in the past two competitions.

    That this nation which has produced many of the greatest players of all-time should have as many World Cups to their credit as Uruguay is baffling. Hopefully this summer, they will put an end to their slump and win the Copa America, which they are hosting.

11. Football: Washington Redskins

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    According to Forbes, the Washington Redskins are the fourth most valuable sports team in the world, just behind of the New York Yankees and ahead of the New England Patriots, and Real Madrid—in that order.

    Proof that money is no substitute for intelligence.

    Compared to the other illustrious names on the rich list (Manchester United and the Dallas Cowboys were No.1 and 2), the achievements of the Redskins are really quite pathetic. All that money, and they can only muster two playoff appearances in the last 10 years?

    But what can you expect from a team that last year gave Donovan McNabb a $75 million contract?

10. Baseball: New York Mets

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    A massive payroll, access to the biggest sports market in North America and yet at the time of writing, they are the second worst team in the NL East? Of course the New York Mets make the list!

    Even though the Mets are the third team from New York on the list, I don't want people to think I have an anti-New York agenda. In fact, it is one of my favourite American cities. It's just that for some reason or other, New York teams usually don't do as well as they should.

    It doesn't help the Mets that their cross-town rivals, the Yanks, are baseball's most successful team ever. Any comparison between the two ball-clubs is not flattering for the Mets. Two World Series vs the Yankees 27... the psychological inferiority complex this must create is probably another reason for the Mets' lack of success.

    By the way, I was also going to include the New York Rangers, but I thought I should lay off from rubbing New Yorkers' noses in it.

9. Soccer: Olympique Lyonnais

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    Never in the annals of history has a team so gloriously given up the chance to become immortal sporting legends as Olympique Lyonnais has over the past 10 years.

    Between the 2001/02 and 2007/08 seasons, Lyon won an amazing seven domestic league titles in a row. Rarely has a club side achieved such hegemony in one of Europe's top leagues. This truly was one of the most impressive modern dynasties, but sadly, they will never be remembered outside of France.

    At the start of each UEFA Champions League tournament, Lyon would be a team on the lips of every pundit during this era. And every year, Lyon would fail to prove that France could produce truly great club sides. Their best showing in the Champions League ended in the quarterfinals against an average PSV Eindhoven side.

    Due to Lyon's failings in the most important club competition, the Lyon sides of this era will be remembered as one of the great French teams, and not as one the great teams.

8. Soccer: Netherlands National Team

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    One of the ironies of Spain's World Cup victory in South Africa was that it occurred against the nation which invented the style of play employed by Spain.  Both the national team and Barcelona must give credit to Johann Cruyff and Rinus Michels as the men who introduced Total Football to the world in general and particularly to Barcelona.

    Fluid passing, overlapping player movement, close ball control and lots of possession—the hallmarks of the Dutch sides of the 70s—have now become the standard features of all top tier teams today. Basically, the Dutch invented modern football.

    So why is it that the country which, with the exceptions of Brazil and England, has contributed more to the development of the game than anyone else, still doesn't have a World Cup to it's name?

7. Cricket: South African National Team

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    Some teams have a certain panache for choking, and the Proteas are one of those teams.

    This year's Cricket World Cup summed up South Africa's baffling international record when they finished  at the top of a tough group, beating the West Indies and eventual champions India along the way. After spending years living in the shadows of the waning Australian team, it looked like South Africa would finally assert their position at the top of the cricket food chain.

    And then South Africa went out at the first hurdle against lowly New Zealand.

6. Football: Buffalo Bills

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    The name "Buffalo Bill" has become a synonym for "choke," and rightly so. It's one thing to build a great team that almost wins it all but falls just before crossing the finish line. It's another thing to get within 60 minutes of becoming a World Champion and fail four years in a row.

    The pity of the Bills being tagged as chokers is that people forget how great the Marv Levy team was from the early to mid nineties. If the title of that team was changed from "four time Super Bowl losers" to "four time AFC Champions," it would be easier to appreciate the fact that this was one of the great modern dynasties in the NFL.

    The somewhat unfair treatment of the Levy legacy is perhaps best illustrated by Bills receiver Andre Reed. Reed, rated as one of the best wide-receivers of all time when he retired, still hasn't been inducted into the Hall of Fame five years on from becoming eligible.

    In the meantime, Michael Irving, a receiver with fewer career touchdowns, fewer receptions and fewer yards, had to wait only two years before being inducted in 2007.  So why is Irving, an arguably inferior player to Reed, in Canton while Reed isn't? Irving played on a Super Bowl winning team and Reed didn't.

    By losing just four key games, the careers of truly great football players are now viewed without the appropriate reverence. But that's the NFL for you.

5. Motorsport: Toyota Formula One

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    The largest automotive company in the world. Consistently the largest budget in Formula One. Eight seasons. Nine drivers. Zero Wins.


4. Soccer: Real Madrid

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    I know, I know.

    How can the most successful European club of all time be an underachiever?

    Well, when I say Real Madrid are underachievers, I'm not talking about the teams in the 50s led by Puskas, or in the 90s when Redondo and Morientes trounced every big club in Europe. I'm referring to Real Madrid of recent times, which, thanks to Florentino Perez, has become more interested selling club jerzeys than winning trophies. 

    When the Galacticos policy was dreamt up, it achieved initial success. The signing of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane brought Madrid its ninth European Cup. But then, Madrid became obsessed with trying to sign every major star in the world, and common sense went out the window along with the team's balance and domination of the Champions League.

    Every summer when Madrid signed another superstar—Ronaldo, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Robinho, Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka—there seemed to be an expectation that the team would prove to invincible the coming year. People kept on expecting to see exciting, special, champagne football, and it never happened.

    Madrid has won a few trophies over this period ( a Copa del Ray and three La Liga titles).  But this amount of silverware is regarded as the bare minimum of what is acceptable at a giant club like Madrid. Compared to the rest of Madrid's history, four trophies in nine years is average.

    Ironically, Barcelona, using mostly academy players, has turned out to be the legendary team that people hoped Madrid would be. 

3. Hockey: Canadian Men's National Team

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    Although highly successful in recent years, I think Team Canada deserves a mention for its efforts in the Olympics and World Championship tournaments from the 1960s through to the 90s.

    Until senior professionals were allowed to participate in the winter Olympics, every four years, Canadians would cringe at the failings of the men's hockey team. Losing gold medal games became something of a habit for Canada, a problem which nagged the conscience of the whole country.

    As the inventor of the game, and the most hockey-obsessed country in the world, getting beaten by Europeans on a regular basis bred a national inferiority complex. Sort of like the English football team in the World Cup.

    But the difference is that Canada actually did produce most of the world's best players.

2. Hockey: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    There have proved to be very few constants in my life from which I can draw a sense of familiarity, of certainty. One thing that has never changed during my adult life is that I still get blown away every time I listen to the Beatle's album "Revolver." Since high school, I've been in love with it, and when I feel out of sorts and alienated with my surroundings, I just stick on my headphones and listen to "Taxman."

    The other thing which I can always rely on to get a sense of place and time is looking at the NHL standings and seeing that the Maple Leafs are nowhere near to challenging the top teams in the league.

    As regular as clockwork around late September and October, Torontonians start talking up the chances of the Leafs making the playoffs and even a possible run at the Cup. And then by March, every person in the city has an opinion about which coach and/or players should be fired from the organization, and who the clubhouse should sign over the summer to save the team.

    As the biggest, richest, most famous club in hockey (and if some valuations are to be believed, the most valuable sports franchise in the world) the drought that's been going since 1967 is both unbearable and unacceptable.

    I could go on, but it's too painful to think about for too long.

1. Baseball: Chicago Cubs

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    103 years.

    That's all I can say. 103 years.