The World Cup is the ultimate crowning achievement for any national team or player. Many believe, for instance, Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi can never truly be considered the greatest footballer of all time until he has won the game’s grandest prize.
However, as is often the case with tournament football, the best team doesn’t always win. Looking back through the annals of World Cup history, there are several era-defining sides who fell just short.
Here, we’ve picked out the six best sides never to win the World Cup.
No nation is more synonymous with World Cup glory than Brazil, with the Seleção winning the game’s most prestigious accolade a record five times and producing some of the greatest individuals to grace the tournament.
Brazil’s 1982 side is perhaps the most stylish the South American country has produced, packed full of world-class stars at the peak of their powers – Zico, Falcão, Socrates – and are considered by many to be the greatest team to miss out on World Cup glory.
Telê Santana’s men waltzed through the first group phase of the tournament in Spain, topping their table with maximum points and ten goals scored. However, after thumping rivals Argentina 3-1 in their opening fixture of the second group stage, Brazil were eliminated by eventual winners Italy, going down 3-2 in one of the World Cup’s greatest ever games.
Having revolutionised European club football with Ajax, laying the foundations for the club’s three successive European Cup wins, Rinus Michels took his Total Football blueprint to the international stage with Holland at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
Led by the one and only Johan Cruyff, the men in orange wowed the world football audience with their cohesive, all-encompassing philosophy, pressing in unison, interchanging positions fluidly and sweeping all before them en route to the final, where they faced the host nation.
Cruyff won a penalty early on, converted by Johan Neeskens, but goals from Paul Breitner and Gerd Müller meant this great Dutch side would forever be remembered as World Cup nearly men.
However, after Cruyff drew gasps the world over with his mesmerising turn against Sweden that would later be named in his honour, and Holland presented a new, beguiling aesthetic, despite losing out in the final, Michels’ men left an indellible mark.
Having thumped England 6-3 at Wembley less than a year earlier, Hungary were widely recognsised as the world’s best side and tournament favourites heading into the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.
Led by star men Ferenc Puskás, Nándor Hidegkuti and Sándor Koscis, Gusztáv Sebes’ ‘Magical Magyars’ appeared unstoppable. With their free-flowing attacking movement and devastating efficiency in front of goal – which saw 17 goals plundered in two group games, including an 8-3 win over their eventual final opponents – a first World Cup for Hungary seemed a certainty.
Once again, however, West Germany played the role of spoilers, overturning a two-goal deficit with six minutes to play to triumph 3-2.
Heading into the 1966 World Cup in England, Portugal were one of the favourites to get their hands on the Jules Rimet trophy. The men in red were largely comprised of players from Benfica, who were among Europe’s best side at the time having won the European Cup in 1961 and ’62 under legendary Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann.
The star of the show was unquestionably Eusébio, the world’s finest striker and ultimately the ’66 tournament’s top scorer with nine goals.
Portugal won all three of their group games, beating holders Brazil along the was before overcoming a scare against North Korea to set up a meeting with England to contest a place in the final.
The host nation won 2-1 and Portugal had to content themselves with victory over the Soviet Union in the third-place playoff.
Italy were most people’s pick to secure World Cup glory on home soil in 1990, in a tournament still remembered fondly by those old enough to have witnessed it.
With Serie A the dominant force in European football, the Azzurri were packed with talent, with the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio among their stars, and Juventus striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci emerging as one of the competition’s unlikely icons thanks to a Golden Boot-claiming haul of six goals.
The Italians made it all the way to the semi-finals before being knocked out by an uber-negative Argentina side who would ultimately lose to West Germany in the final.
Still regarded as perhaps the biggest upset in World Cup history, nobody expected anyone other than hosts Brazil to win the 1950 World Cup.
Forwards Ademir and Zizinho were the stars of Brazil’s attack, with the South Americans still resplendent in all white, not switching their colours to yellow and blue until 1953.
Everything was going to plan going into the final game of the competition. Although it wasn’t a final as such, with the tournament comprising of two group phases rather than a knockout stage latterly, Brazil needed only a draw against Uruguay to claim their first World Cup.
Friaca put Brazil ahead, but Juan Schiaffino equalised before Alcides Ghiggia prodded home to give Uruguay an unlikely victory.