As the FIFA World Cup enters its last week and the line up for semifinals has crystallised, the only things one can be certain about is who would not be holding aloft the Cup on July 15. Given the fact that this edition of the championship has witnessed the maximum number of upsets, with shock defeats commencing right from the first round, it would be too hazardous to wager a guess as to who would be the champion side.
The surprising factor that is evident from the semifinal line up is that none of the most popular players in the world today would be part of the cup-winning side. While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo found their teams ejected out of the championship at the pre-quarterfinal stage, Neymar could not take his Brazil side beyond the last-eight phase. As Messi and Ronaldo are already into their 30s, it is unlikely that they would play in the next championship, while Neymar, aged only 26, might get further opportunities to fulfil this dream.
This development brought to one’s mind instances during the past when the best of the contemporary players did not have the good fortune of being able to hold aloft the World Cup. The names that spring to memory readily are those of Ferenc Puskas, Eusebio and Johan Cruyff, three legends who, despite performing impressively in the championship, nevertheless, proved to be unfortunate when it came to be part of the winning side.
When one considers the history of football from the period after World War II, the name of the first great player that comes to one’s mind would be that of Ferenc Puskas. It might surprise lovers of the game of the present generation that Hungary was a super power in the game during the early 1950s. Leading this side, popularly known as “Magical Magyars” was a short stocky player who had an amazing ability to score goals. Puskas made his international debut in 1945 and soon formed a great combination with Zoltan Czibor, Jozsef Bozsik and Nandor Hidegkuti. During their prime Hungary won 32 international matches on the trot, including the Olympic gold medal at Helsinki in 1952. More than the number of matches won, it was the total supremacy that “Magyars” could establish over their opponents that marked them out as a special side.
Hungary was the favourite to win the 1954 World Cup that was held in Switzerland. They started the tournament in style, thrashing South Korea by a margin of 9-0, followed by a thumping win over West Germany (8-3). However, in the match against the Germans, Puskas was subjected to some hard tackling, which resulted in a hairline fracture of his ankle. This resulted in Hungary taking the field without him during the quarter-final against Brazil, which they won 4-2 and in the semifinals where they defeated Uruguay by an identical margin.
It would be an understatement to say that Hungary was expected to win the finals against West Germany easily. They had defeated Germans in an earlier match comfortably and Puskas was back in the side. When Hungary scored twice in the first 10 minutes, with Puskas netting the first one, it appeared that their opponents were facing a rout. But Germans gradually recouped and struck back twice to equalise before half-time. When six minutes of playing time remained, Germany scored again to secure the lead. When couple of minutes remained, Puskas netted again but referee ruled an offside and disallowed a goal. Germany clung on to their lead repulsing waves of attack at their goal mouth by the Magyars and emerged as champions.
The uprising in Hungary in 1956 spelt the doom for their football side. Puskas moved to Spain following this where he was offered a contract by Real Madrid club. He played for Real Madrid till he was past 38, thus becoming not only the oldest footballer to play, but also to score a goal for the side.
Puskas was diagnosed with having Alzheimer’s Disease in 2000 and passed away in 2006. FIFA has instituted an award in memory, for the best goal scored during an year. This is, indeed, fitting tribute for a person who possessed extraordinary skill and proficiency in this area, which he demonstrated by scoring 84 times in 85 international matches.
Born in near penury in Portuguese Mozambique, Eusebio took Portugal to its best-ever performance in World Cup till date in 1966, when they reached the semifinals, before losing to England, the ultimate champions. He started playing football with his friends in the streets using balls made out of worn-out socks filled with waste paper as they couldn't buy a proper one! He was spotted by a talent scout from Juventus club and inducted into their youth side, where he played a couple of seasons before moving to Lisbon in 1961.
Eusebio joined the club Benfica and took the side to European Cup title in 1962. He made his international debut for Portugal in 1961 and soon became a key member of the squad. With Eusebio in the squad, the national side began winning matches on a more regular basis and got counted as one of the teams to watch out for during the 1966 World Cup.
Portugal was drawn in the same group as Brazil, the reigning champions, during the World Cup and started out in style winning all their pool matches. In the match against Brazil, Eusebio scored twice, including a goal from near zero angle, to seal a memorable win. Portugal faced North Korea in the quarterfinal and found themselves down 0-3 within 25 minutes after starting the game. However, Eusebio led a fightback, scoring two goals in reply before half-time. He followed this by netting couple of goals more to take his individual tally to four, while his side won the match 5-3.
In the semifinals against England, Eusebio scored the only goal, even as his side lost 1-2. The loss so disappointed Eusebio that he walked off the field in tears after the final whistle was blown. In the tie for the third place against USSR, Eusebio scored again, this time through a penalty, despite the opponent’s goal being manned by Lev Yashin, one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. He was awarded the “Golden Boot” for scoring the maximum number of goals in the championship and his performance won such acclaim and appreciation that he was inducted straightaway into the “Hall of Fame” at Madame Tussauds, the famed wax museum.
Eusebio passed away in 2014 after a brief illness. His mortal remains were interred in the “Pantheon” in Lisbon, where many prominent national leaders are buried. He is the only sports personality to be bestowed this honour in Portugal till date.
Holland figured in the finals of World Cup championship on two occasions - in 1974 and 1978 - but were not destined to win the Cup. Their performance in these two editions of the championship stand out, in stark contrast, with their show on other occasions, which has been, by and large, lacklustre. Johan Cruyff stands as the reason behind the success enjoyed by this country during the 1970s as he, along with his mates, demonstrated a new concept titled “total football” successfully in front of the entire world.
Cryuff was born in Amsterdam, a few blocks away from the home of “Ajax”, the football club that he joined the age of 10. He gradually moved though the ranks to their senior side and was instrumental in this club winning the European Cup in 1971 and 1972. He was hired by Barcelona the following year for a record signing fee of USD 2 million, following which he shifted to Spain. He was awarded the title of European Footballer of the year in 1973.
Holland started the 1974 World Cup as one of the more fancied sides, mainly due to the presence of Cruyff in their ranks. The side sailed into the finals beating such top sides as Argentina (4-0), East Germany (2-0) and Brazil (2-0). In the finals, Holland scored in the very first minute through a penalty kick after Cruyff was brought down inside the box. When John Neeskens placed the penalty kick into the goal, none of the German players had even touched the ball. However, Germany recovered and managed to score through Paul Breitner and Gerd Mueller, to win the coveted trophy.
Though Holland lost the finals, their style of play, which was christened as “total football” won admirers across the globe. In this concept, any outfield player can take over the function of any other player equally effectively. Thus, even though Cruyff was designated as the centre-forward, he would occasionally drop deep or move over to the wings. Similarly wing-backs would move up the field while midfielders would drop back. Cruyff believed that it was essential for players to interchange positions so that sufficient space can be created for launching of attacks on the rival’s defences. Cruyff was blessed with superb ball sense, could dribble the ball beautifully, and also execute perfect passes. It was Cruyff’s brilliance that formed the backbone behind the success of total football played by Holland.
Cruyff retired from the international arena in 1977 after ensuring that Holland qualified for playing in the next World Cup held in Argentina. He continued playing professional football for clubs before moving over as coach and manager. He breathed his last in 2016, losing a battle with cancer.
Thus, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar could take heart from the fact that there were many other legends before them who were not lucky enough to be part of the World Cup winning squad. Here is raising a toast to these brilliant geniuses who brought so much cheer and joy to football fans world over, despite not winning the championship.