Finals Before the Final
A selection of eight games that really shouldn't have been wasted on the earlier rounds
Italy 1-0 Hungary
World Cup semi-final San Siro, Milan, 3 June 1934
Pre-match niceties never change: a handshake between the two captains, a coin toss and an insincere wish from both sides that the best team wins. Only, it's remarkable how often that isn't the case. Football isn't fair. The best team doesn't always win. Sometimes they don't even finish second. In knock-out tournaments, the potential is always there for an unfancied side either to reach the final or win the whole thing, especially when there's a fully random draw which might pit two of the favourites against each other in the earlier rounds.
Think of Barcelona against Chelsea in the Champions League in 2005, or Manchester United's FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal in 1999. Neither Barcelona nor Chelsea ended up as champions in 2005, but as both won their respective domestic leagues that year, both were better than the two sides that did reach the final, AC Milan and Liverpool. As for Arsenal and United, it was clear that whoever won that game would easily beat Newcastle in the final.
The same could be said of the semi-final between Austria and Italy in 1934, a game that Brian Glanville called "the natural final" in The Story of the World Cup. Held in Mussolini's fascist Italy, this World Cup has been the subject of major criticism. The Belgian referee, Jean Langenus, noted that it was labelled a "sporting fiasco" in many countries, with allegations surfacing that Mussolini's influence ensured victory for the Italians. Not that Italy necessarily needed any outside help. Coached by the disciplinarian Vittorio Pozzo and with a squad containing the likes of Giuseppe Meazza, they were a great side and would go on to retain the title they won in 1934 four years later as well as taking gold at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
To reach the final in Rome, however, they would have to beat Hugo Meisl's gifted 'Wunderteam'. With an ethos inspired by the Scottish style of swift, passing football introduced by the English coach Jimmy Hogan, they were formidable opponents. Between April 1931 and December 1932, the Austrians went unbeaten for 14 games and won the 1932 Central European International Cup (the predecessor to the European Championship), beating Italy 4-2 in the final. Their star player, Matthias Sindelar — known as 'the Paper Man' for his slight build — was a deep-lying centre-forward, a schemer years ahead of his time. Quite rightly they were the favourites, not least because Italy had just two days to rest between their quarter-final win over Spain and their meeting with the Wunderteam.
Meisl, however, was not confident, claiming rather strangely that Italy had better reserves than his side and would be both better supported and more prepared. His fears proved to have substance. Without the creative Johann Horvath due to injury and on a rain-soaked pitch not conducive to passing football, his side got stuck in the mud. Sindelar was marked out of the game by Luis Monti and the only goal came after 18 minutes when the Argentina-born right-winger Enrique Guaita forced the ball in after an almighty scramble.
The goal was controversial, with Austria insisting that Meazza had pushed over their goalkeeper, Peter Plazer. The Swedish referee Ivan Eklind, who also took charge of the final, allowed the goal to stand, which did little to assuage rumours that he had been bribed by Mussolini. Although Austria came back strongly, Karl Zischeck nearly grabbing a last-minute equaliser, the obdurate hosts held on and then beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 after extra time in the final. The Wunderteam's journey was over. In 1937, Meisl died and, after the Anschluss, Austria competed at the 1938 World Cup as part of Germany. A year later Sindelar was found dead in his Vienna apartment in mysterious circumstances, an unfitting end for Austria's greatest player and their greatest team. Austria 0-1 Italy
Uruguay 2-4 Hungary
World Cup semi-final, La Pontaise, Lausanne, 30 June 1954
Austria had the Wunderteam; Hungary had the Magic Magyars. Twenty years on from the 1934 World Cup, Hungary were expected to succeed where Austria had failed. Just like Austria, they had their own conjuror, Ferenc Puskás, who was ably assisted by Nándor Hidegkuti, Joszef Bozsik and Sándor Kocsis. And just like Austria, they won nothing.
Although maybe they didn't have to. History doesn't always remember the winners. Second can be somewhere — just look at the Holland team in 1974, who defined an era without winning a thing. Like Holland, Hungary were ultimately beaten by a relatively dowdy West Germany, but even now they retain the power to win admirers with their sublime football.
Hungary were hot favourites to win the World Cup in Switzerland. A year before they had become the first team to triumph in England, famously winning 6-3 in front of an awestruck Wembley. When the teams met again in Hungary a year later, the score was even more emphatic: 7-1. This was no aberration. In their opening games in the World Cup, Hungary thrashed South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3, although in the latter match Puskás picked up an injury that would keep him out until the final, in which he was blatantly and crucially unfit.
They reached the last four, where they met the champions Uruguay, who had never lost in the World Cup. The Celeste had got there by beating England and were a brilliant side. Hungary were a little bit more brilliant, though, and Uruguay were missing their centre-half Obdulio Varela. After 13 minutes, a volley from Zoltan Czibor put Hungary ahead and, just after half- time, Hidegkuti headed in a second.
Uruguay's record was on the brink but they weren't about to let go of it that easily. Gradually they came back into the game, prompted by the marvellous Juan Alberto Schiaffino, and their pressure told when Juan Hohberg scored twice in the last 15 minutes to take the game into extra time. After his second, Hohberg's teammates celebrated so vigorously that they knocked him out. Talk about killing with kindness.
The momentum seemed to be with Uruguay and the comeback was nearly complete when Hohberg hit the post at the start of extra time. Uruguay would not get a better chance, and the game swung back in Hungary's favour. Uruguay were dealt a blow when their defender, Victor Rodriguez Andrade, was hurt in a challenge and he was off the pitch when László Budai crossed for Kocsis to restore Hungary's lead after 109 minutes. Then with four minutes left, Kocsis did it again.
"We beat the best team we have ever met," said the Hungary manager, Gyula Mándi. And then they lost to West Germany.
Ajax 4-0 Bayern Munich
European Cup first leg quarter-final, Olympic Stadium, Amsterdam, 7 March 1973 (5-2 on aggregate)
Sixteen years ago Ajax won the Champions League; a late goal from a young Patrick Kluivert giving them a 1-0 victory over Milan. They reached the final again the next season, but signs of their decline were already in evidence as they lost to Juventus on penalties. Gradually a superb team was dismantled, star players heading overseas to bigger clubs and richer leagues. Ajax cannot even dream of troubling the latter stages of the Champions League these days. It's a terribly depressing thought, a club that has won more European Cups than Arsenal and Chelsea put together rendered as irrelevant as the maximum wage, terracing and 4-2-4.
In the early 70s Ajax won three European Cups in a row, a record that puts them in with a shout of being regarded as the best side in history. Their first came in 1971, their second in 1972. In 1973, they seemed certain to do so again, as they made their way serenely into the quarter-finals, where they were up against Bayern Munich. The Dutch and the Germans have never exactly got on, and this was practically a meeting between nations. Ajax had Johan Cruyff, Aarie Haan, Johan Neeskens and Gerrie Mühren; Bayern had Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner, Uli Hoeness and Gerd Müller. This was a sneak preview of the 1974 World Cup final, only with a spectacularly different outcome.
Ajax had the better of the first half of the first leg, but were unable to penetrate Bayern. Eight minutes into the second half, however, they got their breakthrough, as Sepp Maier spilled a shot from Heinz Schiller and Haan slotted in the rebound. Relaxed by the opener, Ajax went for the kill. Although Bayern had a couple of half-chances, they were largely second best and on 68 minutes Mühren volleyed in a second from 15 yards. Ajax's lead was hardly a surprise, although there was one man in the stadium who was caught out — the cameraman managed to miss the ball flying into the top corner.
A second from Haan made the result a formality, before a storming header from Cruyff in the 89th minute made it 4-0. Ajax went on to beat Juventus 1-0 in a forgettable final after humiliating Bayern, who did at least salvage some pride in the second leg, a double from Müller earning them a 2-1 win that did little to ease the humiliation of a 5-2 aggregate defeat. It should have served as a warning for the Dutch. A year later, he would score the goal that beat Holland and won West Germany the World Cup. In 1976 Bayern emulated Ajax by winning their third European Cup in a row.
Italy 3-2 Brazil
World Cup second group phase, Estadi de Sarrià, Barcelona, 5 July 1982
It takes a year and 38 games to win a league title. You only need a month and seven games to win a World Cup. Obviously it's not really so simple, but international tournaments essentially boil down to that. They are not always about being the best; they are about clicking at the right moment. Perhaps no side has demonstrated that more pertinently than Italy in 1982.
Enzo Bearzot's squad went into the tournament in disgrace, their key striker, Paolo Rossi, having been banned from football for two years following his part in the Totonero betting scandal which had engulfed Serie A. He had played just three games for his club, Juventus, and was lacking match practice. Italy were miserable in their first three matches, drawing against Poland, Peru and Cameroon but squeezed into the next round on goals scored.
But in the second-phase mini-group with Argentina, everything suddenly clicked. Unfounded allegations in the press that Rossi was having an affair with his teammate Antonio Cabrini and that players had been seen in bars and were taking drugs enraged the squad, helping a piqued Italy forge a self-righteous togetherness. And people say the press is disruptive.
Even after Italy had beaten Argentina 2-1, Brazil needed only a draw to reach the semi-final and were favourites by some distance. With Falcão, Socrates and Zico strutting their stuff, they are regarded by some as the most dazzling Brazil side of all. If only they could have defended. After only five minutes, Rossi headed Italy into the lead. The elegant, leggy Socrates equalised, beating Dino Zoff at his near post, but then a woeful back-pass from Cerezo gifted Rossi his second after 25 minutes.
Already this had turned into one of the most exciting matches ever, and the pendulum swung again when Falcão hauled Brazil level. And then again, when Rossi completed his hat-trick in the 75th minute, turning in Marco Tardelli's skewed shot from close range. This time, Brazil could not recover; another fantastic side with nothing to show for it. "Zico never won the World Cup?" the Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri said recently. "Well, that's the World Cup's bad luck." Beautifully put, but try telling that to Italy and Rossi.
AC Milan 2-0 Real Madrid
European Cup first leg second round, San Siro, Milan, 18 October 1989 (2-1 on aggregate)
Before every Champions League match, the official anthem, so pompous and overblown it could have been written by Frasier Crane, has to be blared out over the tannoy. It is a suitable introductory theme tune for a bloated tournament, one in which the same faces always dominate the latter rounds. The group stages are largely a travesty, shorn of drama and incident.
It wasn't always like this. In the European Cup era, the top sides could be drawn together at any stage, meaning they could be out of Europe by September. It happened in 1978 when Nottingham Forest and Liverpool met in the first round — Brian Clough's Forest won — and in 1989, when Arrigo Sacchi's Milan and Real Madrid were plucked out of the hat. For Madrid, it was a chance for revenge — in the previous season's semi-final, they had been walloped 5-0 by a Milan roused by the Gullit-Rijkaard-Van Basten triumvirate.
Seeking revenge is one thing, though; getting it is quite another. Milan were comfortably superior to everyone else at the time, and they only needed nine minutes to take the lead after Rijkaard headed in Van Basten's cross. Five minutes later, Van Basten won and scored a penalty after a horrendous mix-up in the Madrid defence, and at that point, the visitors must have feared the worst. Milan continued to create chances, but were unable completely to kill off Madrid. Back at the Bernabéu, Emilio Butragueño's scrambled goal right on half time briefly made life difficult for Milan, but a red card for Manuel Sanchis in the second half ensured the Italians went through, before going on to retain the European Cup. No team has managed it since.
Holland 2-1 Argentina
World Cup quarter-final, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille, 4 July 1998
Everyone wants to be remembered in history for something — until they're remembered for something they'd rather forget, anyway. Football is fond of its 'what if' moments, little quirks of fate that would have altered history irrevocably, such as Holland's Rob Rensenbrink hitting the post against Argentina in the last minute of the 1978 World Cup final with the score at 1-1. Argentina won 3-1 after extra time. Eight years later they won the trophy again. Holland never have. After 20 years of waiting, they finally got the chance for revenge in Marseille.
Under the beating afternoon sun in the south of France the action was not exactly end-to-end but remained unremittingly attacking, both sides enjoying long periods of concerted pressure and possession. Argentina began on top, but Holland struck first after 12 minutes from Ronald De Boer's pass, Dennis Bergkamp gorgeously cushioned a header through to Patrick Kluivert, who chipped past Carlos Roa from 15 yards. Argentina were level within five minutes however. Juan Sebastián Verón released Claudio López, and he produced a goal of magnificently casual disdain, sitting Edwin van der Sar down and then rolling the ball through his legs.
From there, both sides had chances to win it. Roa saved brilliantly from a Kluivert header; for Argentina, Gabriel Batistuta spanked a shot against the post. Then it got ugly. After 79 minutes, Holland went down to 10 men when Arthur Numan was given a second yellow card for tripping Diego Simeone, who put in an extra roll just to make sure. The fun wasn't over, though. With two minutes left, Ariel Ortega dived over Jaap Stam's leg, trying to win a penalty. Instead he was booked for trying to con the referee. As he sat on the ground, Van der Sar ran over to remonstrate with him, and Ortega self-destructed, springing up and jutting his head into Van der Sar's jaw. If it wasn't the stupidest red card ever, it was certainly the most selfish.
Suddenly Holland had fresh hope, and they didn't need long to take advantage. In the final minute, Frank De Boer trundled up the left flank and then pinged a glorious, diagonal pass to Bergkamp on the right side of Argentina's area. He let it drop over his shoulder and plucked the ball out of the sky. His second touch was just as bewitching, sending Roberto Ayala skidding off into the distance, and with his third, he toe-poked the ball into the top-left corner from six yards out. All this in the last minute of a World Cup quarter-final. Against Argentina. At 1-1.
The Dutch were highly fancied for their semi-final against Brazil, but after a 1-1 draw, they lost on penalties, another missed opportunity. Had the eventual champions, France, been on that side of the draw, it is doubtful whether they would even have reached the final, where they scored three without reply against a defensively shoddy Brazil, whose preparations had been obliterated by the pre-match fit suffered by Ronaldo. What if?
Germany 0-2 Italy
World Cup semi-final, Westfalenstadion, Dortmund, 4 July 2006
This match never would have taken place had it not been for José Pekerman. With his Argentina side leading Germany 1-0 in their quarter-final, on 72 minutes he withdrew his playmaker, Juan Román Riquelme. Eight minutes later, Miroslav Klose equalised and Germany won on penalties. The neutrals' favourites were out and instead Germany were through to a semi-final against Italy. Stereotypes abound when it comes to international football; Germany tend to be seen as hard-nosed winners, Italy as negative and defensive, but in Dortmund, they ended up producing one of the all-time classics.
Just like in 1982, there had not been much goodwill extended towards Italy before the tournament following the match-fixing scandal that had rocked Serie A. But the furore seemed to galvanise the national side and Marcello Lippi's cool guidance united the squad. Defensively they were typically solid, conceding just two goals throughout the tournament, an own goal and a penalty. They did have Gianluigi Buffon in goal and player-of-the-tournament Fabio Cannavaro after all. More of a surprise was the way they attacked. Criticised so often for their caution, this time they did have that second glass of wine and the result was staggering.
Italy tore into Germany, who played their part — riding a wave of fevered home support, after 10 relatively disappointing years, they were back. Captained by Michael Ballack, they were a riotous laugh, attacking with abandon, the front pairing of Lukas Podolski and Klose clicking beautifully.
Italy edged a frenetic first half and should have taken the lead when Jens Lehmann denied Simone Perrotta, although Bernd Schneider also wasted a fine chance as he fired over. There was no let-up in the second half. Klose bundled his way through, but Buffon saved. Immediately Italy countered, but again Lehmann foiled them. As the game wore on, increasingly the Germans were pushed back, but the breakthrough simply would not come for Italy.
And so it went to extra-time, in which both sides continued to pound at the door. Podolski missed the most glaring chance, putting a free header wide, and then brought the best out of Buffon with a left-foot hammer. But Italy were the better side and, in the first period, Alberto Gilardino and Gianluca Zambrotta both hit the woodwork. As chances came and went, it began to feel like the Germans would take the game on penalties: their forte, Italy's Achilles heel.
Gradually, though, Italian pressure began to tell. With time running out, the imperious Andrea Pirlo had a long-range shot palmed wide by Lehmann. The corner was headed out to the edge of the area and collected by Pirlo, but instead of shooting again, he dribbled across the 18-yard line, seemingly going nowhere. We should have known better. Suddenly he slipped a wondrous pass through a gap to Grosso on the right side of the area, from where the left-back, who had been doing impressions of Roberto Carlos all night, shaped an unsaveable curler past Lehmann and into the bottom-left corner. Grosso reacted with a mad-eyed, crazy-armed tribute to Marco Tardelli's celebration after scoring against West Germany in the 1982 final. In the final against France, Grosso would score the winning penalty in the shoot-out. An unknown with Palermo at the time, in many ways this was his tournament.
Grosso's goal knocked the stuffing out of Germany and as they poured forward, Italy broke and Gilardino played in Alessandro Del Piero, who calmly found the top corner with his right foot.
Internazionale 3 Barcelona 1
Champions League semi-final 1st leg, San Siro, Milan, 28 April 2010 (3-2 on aggregate)
Whether José Mourinho has been at Chelsea, Inter or Real Madrid, he has always clashed with Barcelona. They don't like him, he doesn't like them and no one's going to bother pretending otherwise. Those who side with Barcelona point to the way they have almost redefined the way football is played, before condemning the thoroughly negative style Mourinho propagates. Those who favour Mourinho lavish praise on the way he stifles Barcelona's kaleidoscopic passing, while simultaneously attacking the Catalans for so presumptuously assuming the moral high ground.
Everybody thought Barcelona would beat Inter. Not only were they the champions, they had the best player in the world, Messi, and had been comfortable against Inter in the group stages, drawing 0-0 in San Siro and winning 2-0 at Camp Nou. Inter were a different animal by the time the sides met again, though, their credentials established when they exposed Chelsea's overly direct approach in the round of 16. Nature was not on Barcelona's side either; with the first leg played at San Siro, they were forced to take a draining coach journey as the Icelandic volcano eruption restricted air travel.
The first leg was expected to be cagy, Barcelona's idealists probing against Mourinho's pragmaticos. It was anything but. Mourinho, it turns out, is not always defensive against Barcelona. With Wesley Sneijder pulling the strings and Diego Milito elusive, Inter were not after a 0-0. Still, when Pedro gave Barcelona the lead after 19 minutes, scoring from Maxwell's cutback, it felt decisive, even though Eto'o and Milito had already missed chances. But Inter were irrepressible. A minute after Milito had wasted another opening, the Argentinian striker's clever pass found Sneijder and he fired past Victor Valdés from 15 yards. Inter were relentless, and after 48 minutes, Messi lost the ball on the right flank, and Inter stormed forward. Milito, from the right, stabbed a pass to Maicon, who took a touch and rolled a shot past Valdés from close range. Then came the first of several contentious decisions during the tie. On 61 minutes, Eto'o crossed to the far post from the right, Sneijder headed back across goal and Milito, clearly offside, nodded in. The goal stood, 3-1 to Inter, and they enjoyed a further slice of luck when Sneijder's blatant foul on Dani Alves in the box went unpunished.
Inter had presented a serious challenge: Barcelona had to win 2-0 in the second leg to progress. Just before kick-off, Inter made a late switch to their line-up, the defender Christian Chivu replacing the forward Goran Pandev. This time Inter were intent on drawing 0-0. The thought of scoring barely crossed their mind; indeed they barely crossed the halfway line. That approach was confirmed after 26 minutes when Thiago Motta was sent off for wafting his hand in the general direction of Sergio Busquets, who went down clutching his face as if he'd been taken out by Richard Harrow. Inter were incensed, but did not lose their nerve. They already had little desire for the ball. Now they didn't want it all; now they just wanted to defend. At times it feels as if Barcelona attacked with 15 men, but on that night, despite having only 10, it was as if Inter were defending with 100.
Barcelona created little, although Messi did force Júlio César into one superlative save. Xavi's passing radar was off, Messi kept running into brick walls and, as so often on the big occasion, Zlatan Ibrahimović withered. With six minutes remaining, Xavi finally picked the lock and Gerard Pique's outlandish pirouette and finish meant Barcelona only needed one goal. They thought they had it in the 91st minute when Bojan cracked a shot into the top corner, but the whistle had controversially gone for handball against Yaya Touré. Three minutes later, the final whistle blew and Mourinho sprinted on to the pitch to celebrate wildly. Pathetically Barcelona turned the sprinklers on, but having soaked up all that pressure, nothing could dampen Inter's spirit. In the final, two Milito goals helped them win 2-0 against a spawny Bayern Munich, who really had no business being there. One thought persisted throughout a tedious game: Barcelona would be winning it 5-0.