The Great Uncrowned: There’s no disgrace in almost winning

IN 1974, I predicted the Netherlands would win the World Cup in Germany. It wasn’t a brave forecast, I had watched Ajax Amsterdam win three consecutive European Cups, delighted in the way they played and even persuaded my mother to doctor a white football shirt with a red band to create an improvised Ajax shirt. I wanted the Dutch to win the competition because I felt they represented the future of football. When Johan Cruyff and his pals were beaten 2-1 in Munich, I was devastated and felt the football-watching public had been deprived.

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The Dutch were unlucky to come up against the host nation, unlucky to have run out of steam after charming the world in the World Cup, unlucky to have scored early, unlucky to have had the burden of history on their orange-clad shoulders. In any other World Cup, with the possible exception of 1970 in Mexico City, they would surely have been worthy winners. This was an exceptional team, a golden generation of players marshalled by one of the most influential figures in 20th century football, but ultimately, a side that failed when it truly mattered. Four years on, the Dutch still had the makings of a great team, but once more they were beaten by the host nation. Although their margin of defeat in the final was two goals in Buenos Aires, they were actually closer to victory than many might recall. If Robbie Rensenbrink’s tame prod in the dying seconds of normal time had been an inch or two to the right, Argentina would have been beaten and the Dutch would not have been worthy contenders to be called one of The Great Uncrowned.

More recently, when Liverpool went through the 2018-19 season losing just one game and finishing one point behind Manchester City, you could sympathise with Jürgen Klopp and his team for producing a spectacular campaign but still being denied the title by an even more proficient side.

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The battle for top spot had produced two teams at the height of their game, City won 32 of their 38 games, Liverpool 30. The Reds were 25 points clear of third-placed Chelsea and their only defeat was on New Years’ Day at City’s Etihad stadium. Furthermore, both teams scored goals proficiently and swept-up the major trophies. City won all three domestic prizes in England, Liverpool were European champions for the sixth time. It is difficult to call Liverpool unlucky, but it was their misfortune they came up against an all-conquering Manchester City team.

However, it has to be remembered that Liverpool, themselves, were in that exact position in the late 1970s and 1980s and their machine-like run of success denied some very good teams their moment of triumph, such as Queens Park Rangers in 1976, arguably the most ‘continental’ of English sides in the 1970s. Although Rangers entertained with their flowing, thoughtful style, there was a sense of the inevitable about Liverpool’s eventual victory in 1975-76. They had, after all, been there before, while QPR had a ‘team for the moment’ that had a limited life span. Three years later, Rangers were relegated to the old second division.

Similarly, Ipswich Town under Bobby Robson were frequently in the mix when it came to major silverware, but found their small club status prevented a level of sustainability that would guarantee success. Quite simply, a lack of resources, be it squad size or financial clout has prevented some very good line-ups from become winners rather than unfortunate losers.

Not that this has always consigned smaller clubs to a life in the shadows; Ipswich Town won the league in 1962, but this was largely attributable to the methods of Alf Ramsey (later Sir Alf), who took a journeyman team to unprecedented success, overcoming the challenge of the great Tottenham double-winners of 1960-61. The only comparable situation could well be Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, although Forest did sustain their golden period for a few seasons, while Ipswich were soon back in the second tier of the English game. In both cases, the genius of their respective managers was the catalyst for a period of high achievement. In Ipswich’s case in 1962, they benefitted from being an unknown quantity, while Forest’s title, while well deserved, also took advantage of changes at Liverpool, notably the transition from Kevin Keegan to Kenny Dalglish. They were soon back in the saddle and more rampant than ever, although for a few years, Forest chased them hard.

In some ways, the tale of Leeds United also owes itself to a lack of strength-in-depth. Anyone who witnessed the period between 1969 and 1973 will be only too aware of how the Yorkshire club failed at the final hurdle all too frequently. Between 1967-68 and 1973-74, Leeds won six major prizes, but in the period from 1964-65 to 1974-75, they were runners-up or finalists eight times. On three occasions, they finished second in the Football League by the narrowest of margins. There was little doubt that Leeds were the best team unit around at that time, but their trophy haul doesn’t necessarily bear that out. Why did they lose out so often under Don Revie?

A psychologist would make a good living out of analysing Leeds, but their high level of intensity and rather insular [us against the world] outlook, made for a lot of drama. They were a wonderful team, but beyond the first choice 11 or 12, their resources were certainly stretched. It was no coincidence that when they were champions, in 1969 and 1974, their focus was purely on finishing top rather than winning everything in sight.

Intensity and focus has its place and can certainly be exercised over the course of a World Cup or European Championship campaign, which usually comprises half a dozen or so matches. Even the most limited teams can conjure up the concentration and purpose required to be successful. Likewise, a team can lose its momentum just as easily and become under-achievers. In some ways, the Netherlands 1974 team did just that, allowing themselves to forget that possession has to be coupled with goalscoring in a World Cup Final.

The case of the Dutch, along with the Hungarians of 1954 and Brazil in 1982 confirms that losers are not always forgotten. Indeed, there has been a certain amount of romanticisation about teams that have played wonderful football but end up tragic losers. We have learnt that while the best teams will invariably win long-haul league competitions, they do not always emerge on top in knockout competitions or high-pressured tournaments. Hence, the Netherlands, Hungary and Brazil have exited World Cups with little reward other than the glowing praise of the public. In each example, these teams all fell short of expectations because of capitulation in a vital game: the Dutch, as mentioned, took the lead against the West Germans but lost in the 1974 final; Hungary were beaten 3-2 by the Germans after leading 2-0 in Berne; and Brazil’s instinct to attack after equalising against Italy saw them surprisingly lose 3-2 in 1982 when the world expected them to go on to win the World Cup.

We should not be too surprised this can happen in football given the margins between success and failure are miniscule. One goal changes the entire outcome of a game, indeed it can alter the end result of an entire season. And then there’s luck, an element that many coaches have tried to drive out of professional football. ‘You make your own luck … the harder I work, the luckier I become … there’s no such thing as luck,’ are just some of the ways good old fashioned ‘Lady Luck’ has been described. Bad luck in football often manifests itself in the form of an incident that can change a match. Steven Gerrard’s notorious fall that let in Demba Ba is still being sung about today, but it was a defining moment in the 2014 season in England and almost certainly deprived Liverpool of the Premier League title. That was certainly bad luck. John Terry’s penalty in Moscow, the result of an ill-timed slip, unluckily deprived Chelsea of the Champions League in 2008.

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Go back further, and the notorious offside decision that never was in 1971 arguably cost Leeds United the championship in a game against West Bromwich Albion, while countless injuries in major games have altered the course of football history. Luck may play a part, but so does cheating and gamesmanship. How else can you describe the famous ‘hand of God’ incident in Mexico City in 1986. It was England’s misfortune that Diego Maradona got away with blatantly scoring with his hand. That was bad luck for England, but it owed its origins to what many today would call ‘shithousery’.

Some believe football has become a game of ‘winner takes all’ and that there are too few moments where clubs can celebrate. Therefore, they argue, we need a system that creates more winners than we currently have. The victors and their spoils are well televised, garlanded with golden ticker-tape and jets of flame unnecessarily heating the stadium. The scenes are very much a cliché and a statement about the way we see success in the modern age of celebrity. George Best, considered one of the all-time greats, won very few honours in his career and played for Northern Ireland on the international stage. He never appeared in the World Cup, like the great Alfredo Di Stefano, but their place in football’s pantheon is secure. You do not have to be a world champion to be remembered.

Thankfully, the game has always acknowledged that it takes two to tango, that we cannot all be winners and there are losers. Glorious losers, unlucky losers, outfought losers and quite simply, second-best losers – football has them all. There are a host of factors why there are achievers and why there are teams that couldn’t quite get there. But being number two should not be considered failure, far from it. Why else would we hold teams like Hungary 1954, QPR 1976, Brazil 1982 and Newcastle United 1996 in such high esteem? We remember them because they gave us moments to savour and that makes them winners by so many different criteria. If we celebrate those that contributed to making the football season so interesting and competitive, we can remove some of the ‘win or bust’ aspect to football, and that might just make people feel better about not being champions, but being very good nearly men.

Adapted from The Great Uncrowned by Neil Jensen, published by Pitch Publishing.

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Brazil set to dominate Copa again

THE DRAW for the group stage of the Copa Libertadores was made recently and of the 32 remaining teams, 12 are from Argentina and Brazil. In all probability, the winners of the 2023 competition will come from these dozen clubs, but it is hard to see a potential winner from outside an even smaller group of clubs that includes Brazil’s Palmeiras, Flamengo and Corinthians and Argentina’s River Plate and Boca Juniors.

The holders, Flamengo, with their band of 30-somethings, are well placed to retain their crown, and they have a reasonably comfortable group to begin their defence of the trophy. Before they embark on their group games, they have to face their old rivals Fluminense in a two-legged finale to the Campeonato Carioca, the state championship. They have added some new faces to their squad, including Gerson from Olympique Marseille (€ 15 million) and Ayrton Lucas (€ 7 million) from Spartak Moscow. These players are both 26 years old, but they still have David Luiz (36), Filipe Luís (38) and Arturo Vidal (€ 36) in their ranks. 

Flamengo’s biggest hurdle in their group will be Argentina’s Racing, who finished runners-up in their domestic league in 2022. They also face Ecudadorian champions Aucas, a club that used to belong to Royal Dutch Shell, and Chile’s Ñublense, who are known as the “clockwork sausage”.  Flamengo’s record in recent times is impressive, two wins and a runners-up spot in the past four years. They also won the Copa do Brasil in 2022, beating Corinthians. It will be a major shock if they fail to get through.

The most formidable challenge for Flamengo may come from Palmeiras as the competition progresses. Palmeiras have won the Copa Libertadores twice in the past three years and were Brazilian champions in 2022. They were surprisingly beaten in the semi-finals of the Libertadores last season by Athletico Paranaense, depriving the competition of a repeat of the 2021 final.

The rivalry between Flamengo and Palmeiras has created a new dynamic in Brazilian football and some are comparing it to La Liga’s clasico, Real Madrid versus Barcelona. But Brazil has a long way to go to create the sort of profile the Spanish derby enjoys, although they have ambitions that include greater levels of overseas investment. Palmeiras also have a reasonable group, including Ecuador’s Barcelona, Bolivar of Bolivia and Paraguayan club Cerro Porteño.

Flamengo’s traditional Rio de Janeiro rivals, Fluminense, have a tougher section to try and get out of, including 2018 winners, River Plate, The Strongest of Bolivia and Peru’s Sporting Cristal.  River are managed by former Uruguayan striker Enzo Francescoli and coached by Martin Demichelis. The club received a 25% sell-on fee on the sale of Enzo Fernandez from Benfica to Chelsea, so they may be flush with cash at present. They are currently top of the Argentine Primera Divisíon, two points ahead of San Lorenzo. 

Fluminense recently signed Marcelo, the veteran former Real Madrid defender, but the man grabbing the headlines at present is the club’s 35 year-old Argentinian striker Germán Cano, who netted 44 goals in 2022, winning the Bola de Prata, and has already scored 14 in 11 appearances this year.

River’s Buenos Aires enemies, Boca, who were champions in Argentina in 2022, should have a smooth passage through their group, although they have had a rocky start to the 2023 season. They are up against Chilean side Colo-Colo, Venezuela’s Monagas and Deportivo Pereira of Colombia. Boca are currently without a coach after sacking Hugo Ibarra, but the club have their eyes on Gerardo “Tata” Martino or Néstor Pékerman and are keen to install a new man before their Libertadores campaign gets underway.

Corinthians are much fancied by a lot of experts after their 2022 campaign that saw them reach the final of the Copa do Brasil, the quarter finals of the Libertadores and finish fourth in the league. In 2023, they were beaten in the quarter finals of the Campeonato Paulista on penalties by Série B side Itauno, which angered their fans. Football director Roberto de Andrade has since stepped down after fans protested against him and invaded the club’s training centre. It wasn’t the first time the  fans have expressed their dissatisfaction in this way. Corinthians face Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, Argentinos Juniors and Uruguay’s Liverpool in the group phase. They should have enough to get past this trio.

Internacional, the so-called “Clube do Povo”, club of the people, should also be too strong for Nacional of Uruguay, Venezualan side Metropolitano and Colombia’s Independiente Medellin, while both Atlético Mineiro and Athletico Paranaense could emerge from a group that also includes Libertad and Allianza Lima, champions of Paraguay and Peru respectively. The other group, arguably the most open, comprises Paraguay’s Olimpia, Atletico Nacional of Colombia, Melgar from Peru and Patronato of Argentina.

With Argentina winning the World Cup, the spotlight shone on South America once more, but football in the region’s countries has become something of a stepping stone for the most talented players. Of the 104 players representing the four CONMEBOL members in Qatar, only 11 played in their domestic football leagues, while 72 were employed in Europe and 14 played elsewhere in Latin America. Another seven were with US clubs.

The Copa Libertadores deserves greater exposure worldwide, especially the latter stages. There has certainly been more awareness in the past few years, but given its status (the second most important club competition in the world), there is still plenty of upside to be gained. Perhaps FIFA’s idea of a Club World Cup will increase the visibility of South America’s top teams.