As Diego Simeone's men join their rivals in seeming strangely hesitant to seize their big shot at glory, we have had confirmed what we really always knew: Atletico Madrid's buttocks must be tightening to a circulation-threatening degree. As Spain sought to reinvent itself into a sort of glittery SPL by working out how Real Madrid and Barcelona could have the most preposterous advantage possible (although still competitive by the standards of Germany and now Scotland's one-team leagues), Atleti were never supposed to be here. They're in the Champions League final against their bitterest rivals and into a last-day maelstrom against Barcelona that could see... their bitterest rivals' bitterest rivals take the La Liga title away.
Their achievement thus far is so ridiculous that it's probable they might never get a better chance again. The likes of Koke and Diego Costa are being looked at by the beady eyes of Europe's true elite, and this team is not going to hang around forever. It will have to be significantly changed in the summer, and Simeone will probably land a top job sooner rather than later, too. And their record against Real Madrid is, well... awful. Any way they can find to lose, they've done it several times. Being several goals and a man down inside the opening quarter of an hour? Been there. Throwing away a seemingly unassailable lead? Done that. Choked on the biggest occasion? Reluctantly, tearfully, bought the t-shirt. Although if there is hope, it is that their determination to aid their rivals by any means necessary has resulted in them having a rather excellent record against Barcelona.
So, what other historical precedents are there to look to, given that confusion? There are several. Here, we present four teams who had one shot, just one shot, at eternal glory. Some succeeded against all odds. Some failed comically, and some tragically. All of them had to go into and out of the occasion knowing that the chance would never, ever come again. And so, without further ado...
There's a bizarre derision towards the Scottish league that occasionally comes from south of the border, instantly belittling any achievement of individual or club for seemingly no reason. Such is the case with Rangers' nine-in-a-row efforts, but it is an odd triumph to diminish. In England, and in most of the world, there has never been anything else like this.
With arch-rivals Celtic having claimed nine straight between 1966 and 1974, the onus was on Rangers to equal that run. Any long sequence of titles meant nothing without matching the Bhoys.
The difficulty is obvious. Yes, Rangers took advantage of a weak Celtic side (throughout the nine titles, Celtic were only actually runners-up twice, and three times they didn't even finish in the top three), but from the 80s until the early 90s, Scotland was a far more dangerous and unpredictable place than it is now, with a wealthy Hearts, a Dundee United who were capable of beating Barcelona home and away, and the residues of Ferg in Aberdeen all still around. Scotland wasn't a two-team league then, and even then — so what if it was? The vast majority of title races in any league are two-horse affairs.
That same man who ensured Aberdeen would be a threat would later claim at United that winning more than three league titles in a row was almost impossible due to the life cycles of the average team. And yet, to Manchester United, throughout the same period the English league was barely any more competitive to them. This was, by any measure, a colossal task that would require genius, talent, and untold reserves of will.
There had been precedents before for Rangers. Motherwell's sole Scottish title interrupted what would have been a run of nine several decades before Celtic, but the recent past had not been rosy. This is a story without a middle, just a beginning and an end. When Rangers embarked upon this quest, they had won just one title in ten years
Pressure. The word comes up again when the old heads of this side recall that final season. "We were under tremendous pressure." "The pressure really was unbelievable."
It is not simply the fact that the failure to win that ninth title would have been a missed opportunity for a decade — it would have rendered the other titles almost null and void. In one sweep of a boot, the most magnificent, successful era the club had undergone domestically could all be undone. A trophy is supposed to be final in football — once you've won it, nobody can take it away from you. You've written your name in history as a success. This was like nothing else — failure for the ninth would take those other trophies away, render all the success and glory forever soaked in the stench of ultimate failure.
An era that was started off by high spending and bringing Graeme Souness as a returning hero to Scotland was carried on under the stern leadership of Walter Smith and his lieutenant Archie Knox, a rare example of a bad-cop-bad-cop managerial duo. By 1996, only one more league title stood between them and completing the feat — a season where failure would have had unimaginable consequences and marred all the previous glory.
The problem was, winning eight titles in a row takes it out of you somewhat. The team was old and running out of steam. The Scottish spine of the team were particularly decrepit: Ally McCoist was 34. Richard Gough, the captain, was 35. Stuart McCall, Ian Durrant, Gordon Durie and Andy Goram were all in their thirties too, as was Trevor Steven and with Paul Gascoigne getting on in Paul Gascoigne years. Celtic, meanwhile, were resurgent from their previous uselessness. It was going to be the hardest season of them all.
Rangers started strongly and won the first Old Firm game of the season with a 2-0 victory to gain an early advantage. There would be few distractions, either — woeful form in Europe once again saw the club underperform on the continental stage, destabilising Walter Smith's future (making it all the more remarkable that he would eventually lead a vastly inferior Rangers side to the UEFA Cup final eleven years later). Not that it mattered to the players — even the foreign imports were single-minded on the task at hand, as Jorg Albertz later claimed that he felt he would rather have won the ninth title than the Champions League.
The second old firm clash saw Smith revert to his twin core principles of experience and discipline. "The amount of times we come away from Parkhead winning 1-0 after getting a doing was ridiculous", Goram told the BBC's This Was The Team That Was. Rangers did exactly that — Brian Laudrup took advantage of a defensive error to score a cracker in the eighth minute and Smith promptly barricaded the doors. The best chance Celtic had to take the lead was gone, and Rangers capitalised. A 3-1 victory in the next derby saw them take a fourteen-point lead. The title seemed won.
But the club were badly running out of steam. Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Hearts and Dundee United all took points off them to cut the lead to just five by the time of the final derby, at Parkhead. Goram, Scotland's scariest man, summed up the atmosphere. "We had fights in training. I'd belted people at half-time. That's because we care." This was, after all, a team of psychopaths. Smith and Knox ruled with an iron fist, Gascoigne and McCoist provided comic relief through cruel practical jokes, stern Presbyterian enforcers comprised the rest of the dressing room, and then of course there's the company that Goram kept.
So who better to bring in to help an ageing, overmotivated, psychopathic squad than an ageing, overmotivated, psychopathic legend? Mark Hateley was the first name in through the door. Then a backup goalkeeper was required. Knox suggested Andy Dibble, on the basis of a thorough scouting method and rigorous research which Rangers uphold to this day. "I don't think he's even getting a game for Manchester City reserves. I mean, I've not seen him for ages, for years. It would be a shot in the dark."
Rangers went to Parkhead knowing that it had all probably come down to this, with a horrifically depleted side. The pressure was probably greater than any derby before or since, and it produced a game of exceptional brutality. Celtic won a free-kick after Ian Durrant maimed Paolo di Canio, but messed up the delivery and Laudrup was soon sprinting through the centre of a floundering home defence. Durrant was teed up as a result, but dragged a woeful shot wide. Even for this side, nerves were still creeping in.
But Celtic were fragile too. One mistake let Durrant in to send in a hopeful lob towards goal, and with Malky Mackay attempting to clear off the line, Brian Laudrup did just enough to convert from point-blank range. Rangers had the lead, and only needed to hold out to almost secure victory.
What followed was a bloodbath, a game of anarchic, sadistic brilliance. Richard Gough took a thunderous effort in the chops to preserve the lead before later being forced off. Celtic smelt blood and surged forwards, and the visitors reacted with a display of primitive brutality to fight them back. Laudrup was a constant threat on the counter, but after being hauled down by McKay, the battle fever spilled over in a mass brawl, with Mark Hateley being sent off as a result. Celtic's advantage didn't last long — Laudrup got the better of Mackay for the 947th time shortly after and forced him into a second booking.
As time wore on, it became increasingly clear Rangers would hold out. Di Canio lost it badly, getting a sending off in the tunnel, and a further brawl ensued at full time. Rangers mocked Celtic's pre-match ritual by doing their own ‘huddle' at the final whistle. Five games later, Laudrup headed them to the title at Tannadice, joining Bobby Charlton and Trevor Brooking in the "funny thing is, he didn't score many with his head" pub bores hall of fame.
The celebrations in the dressing room were bizarre. Rangers barely looked like they were celebrating, screaming loud cries of relief only. "Happiness didn't come into it", muttered McCoist. Some teams had one chance to win it all, and Rangers did exactly that. But more than anything, they had one chance to throw it away, and avoided doing so.
The next step was obvious, but having equalled Celtic, the pressure to get ten in a row was significantly less. Not that it helped — an even more bonkers season followed, Rangers' season defined by one of the most enigmatic talents ever seen in Britain. Marco Negri began his career in Scotland with twenty-three goals in his first ten games then succumbed to a squash injury and only played sporadically for the rest of his career from then on. Rangers finally ran out of puff, and without his goals fell at the final hurdle. The cherry had avoided them — but the cake was still very much theirs.
Here is a list of the teams so far to have played in exactly one World Cup finals tournament: Angola, Bosnia & Herzegovina (as of 2014), Canada, China, Zaire, Cuba, East Germany, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Jamaica, Kuwait, Senegal, Slovakia, Togo, Trinidad & Tobago, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Wales.
None have made it further than the quarter-finals. Of those that have, for all bar one it's tough to muster an argument that they should or could have got any further: Senegal were great fun in 2002's group stage but ran out of steam against Turkey; Ukraine in 2006 were astoundingly dull. Cuba in 1938 progressed through the first knock-out round after a replay against Romania, but were then dissected 8-0 by Sweden. East Germany, for their part, progressed as the winners of the first group stage in 1974, but only picked up one point in the second group stage.
And then there's Wales. Sweden 1958 is the only tournament in which all four of the Home Nations competed, but while England, Scotland and Northern Ireland progressed through their qualifying groups in the traditional manner, Wales finished second behind Czechoslovakia and were set to miss out until, as so often happens, global politics messed everything up. Israel were at this time part of the Africa/Asia qualifying section, and had topped their group by default after their opponents — Turkey, Indonesia and Sudan — all withdrew from their fixtures against the background of an uneasy ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. FIFA, surprisingly taking the sensible view that it would look ridiculous to wave through a team without them having played a single competitive game, threw all the European runners-up into a hat, then pulled out the Belgians. They refused. Next out were the Welsh. Two legs, home and away, winner goes to Sweden.
(That stroke of serendipity arguably saved the life of the Welsh manager, Jimmy Murphy, who combined his national role with his day job as assistant manager of Matt Busby's Manchester United. The second leg fell on 5 February 1958, meaning he would have to miss United's European Cup fixture away at Red Star Belgrade. His place was taken by coach Bert Whalley, who sat alongside Busby not only on the bench but on the plane as the Babes travelled home, and who is numbered among the 23 Munich dead.)
Israel didn't present much in the way of opposition, surprisingly. "They had some skilful players," recalled defender Stuart Williams, "but as an attacking force they were practically nil", and Wales won both legs 2-0. But nobody gave Wales much of a chance in the tournament itself, not even their own administrators. Though they won the pre-tournament friendlies against Swedish amateurs by an aggregate of 34 goals to nil, their journeys home were booked for the end of the group stage.
They missed those flights. Three draws — 1-1 against Hungary, the same score against Mexico, then 0-0 against hosts Sweden — left the Welsh and the Hungarians tied on three points. A playoff was arranged, which would expose one of the bitterest ways the universe can take against the small team pursuing their one shot. All it takes is the wrong injury to the wrong player, and suddenly everything's buggered. Four years earlier, Hungary had lost in the World Cup final to West Germany as Ferenc Puskas hobbled around on one leg; here the Hungarians turned heel, and kicked Welsh centre-forward John Charles to pieces. Though Wales had other talented players — Ivor Allchurch at inside-right, Cliff Jones on the left-wing, Mel Charles in defence, Jack Kelsey in goal — it was the Gentle Giant, newly signed for Juventus and the most expensive footballer in the world, who was the key to the side. There was not a more terrifying forward in the world game. And though Wales won the playoff 2-1, the equaliser a glorious goal from Ivor Allchurch (below), Charles would have to miss the quarter-final. Against Brazil.
Here things get speculative. Brazil, as you know, went on to win the tournament and so we're not ruining any tension here by telling you that they won the quarter-final. But only 1-0. In the 73rd minute a 17-year-old Pelé scored his first goal for his country, a goal he has since described as his most important and his luckiest . As described in Mario Risoli's definitive and brilliant account of the tournament, When Pelé Broke Our Hearts: "It was a feeble strike but the ball scraped the underside of Williams' boot and rolled past the horrified Kelsey who was rooted to the ground." Up until that point, Wales had both frustrated and worried Brazil. At the back, Mel Charles was dominating Altafini, who never played for Brazil again, while Cliff Jones and Terry Medwin were not only finding space down the wings, they were creating chances.
Those chances, however, were falling to back-up centre-forward Colin Webster. No footballer in history has ever been anything like John Charles, but Webster was less so than most. "I would love to have had those chances again," he recalled. "If I was a bit taller I would probably have scored ... I was only five foot seven." However, he doesn't necessarily believe that his illustrious, injured teammate would have done any better. "At least I got into the position. John Charles may not have done." Charles, perhaps understandably, disagreed: "When I saw Colin miss those chances, I couldn't help thinking to myself that I would have put them away. I turned to Jimmy and said 'I would have scored that'."
There is, of course, no guarantee that Brazil wouldn't have outscored Wales even if Charles had played; this was a team that featured not just Pele but Garrincha, Didi, Vava and other names that still echo down the ages. Nor is there any guarantee that had Wales beaten Brazil, they wouldn't have foundered in the semi-final or the final, though it's tempting to conclude that since Brazil scored five in each, Wales would at least have been in with a decent shout.
It wasn't to be. Wales returned to general national indifference — "Been off on your holidays again?" asked a train conductor as Mel Charles returned home — and have never qualified for another international tournament (though they've come within the width of a crossbar). If they did, they'd travel as overwhelming underdogs, even more so than in 1958. But if the trophy cabinet remains dusty, if the one shot slipped away, then at least they live in on the annals of useless footballing trivia. Wales were the the first team representing Asia and/or Africa to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup, beating the North Korean side of 1966 by a full two tournaments. Coming soon to a pub quiz near you.
The World Cup, at least since the format has settled down and the qualification has broadened out, doesn't really do surprise winners. So if it's international surprises you want, you need to look at the federations, and in Europe there are plenty to choose from. Greece 2004 is the most recent (and could well have been included here) and also worthy of note is Czechoslovakia 1976. But perhaps the daddy of them all is Denmark 1992.
Like Wales, above, they hadn't even qualified; like Wales, it took political upheaval to get them off the beaches and on to the plane to Sweden. As Yugoslavia descended into civil war, their football side — that wonderful lost team of Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic and too many others to list — were summarily exiled from international competition, and the Danes, runners-up in qualifying, were invited to take their place.
What's perhaps most interesting about Denmark is that they were, at this point, a poor imitation of the greats that had gone before. In a sense, Denmark had already had their one chance at glory, with the infectious, gorgeous Danish Dynamite side of Morten Olsen, Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær that inexplicably failed to win everything in the 1980s. (Rob Smyth has written about this side at length in this feature and at greater length in this book, both of which are highly recommended.) So while this wasn't a bad Denmark side — they'd beaten Yugoslavia in qualification, and Brian Laudrup had replaced his brother while Peter Schmeichel was in goal — they weren't expected to do anything. When their coach Richard Møller Nielsen told them on the first day of training that they were going to Sweden to win the competition, his hastily-assembled squad laughed at him.
One great advantage for outsiders in international tournaments — as opposed to outsiders in league competitions — is that the short format means there is less time for the bottle to go. Give Denmark a week to build up to their must-win last group game against Platini's France, another to the semi-final against the Holland of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten, and then another to the final against Stefen Effenberg and Jurgen Klinsmann's Germany, and it wouldn't be too surprising if at some point along the way, the thought that 'hang on, this might be on here' cause one or two heads to go. Instead, they were able to ride the momentum that the shorter form permits without distraction.
Speaking to the BBC in 2000, both Schmeichel and Laudrup recalled standing in the tunnel before the games above and being struck by two things. The first was the star quality of the opposition — and the names above indicate, incidentally, that while this was a shock win, it was no fluke — but the second was the arrogance. Schmeichel recalls that one French player even asked a Danish clubmate to take it relatively easy, since they needed to be fresh for the semi-finals. Laudrup, meanwhile, says Effenberg "called me before the final and said 'After the final whistle, we'll swap shirts.' And I said, 'No problem, we'll do that,' and I heard in his voice it was just a matter of two, three, four-nil for Germany.... After the final whistle I was looking, 'Stefen Effenberg, where is he? Is he ready to swap shirts?' He left the pitch. I never saw him."
Football, being a team game with rare goals, is much more susceptible to the upset than other sports of more regular reward, and so the margins become narrower. A hint of complacency here, a tiny lack of cohesion or organisation there, and suddenly the aristocrats are looking around in puzzlement while their opponents, in that strange state of being both more relaxed and yet more focused opponents have made off with the game. Every time, at least in Denmark's eyes, the opposition underestimated them; every time, they were wrong. 2-1 against France; 2-2 against Holland and through on penalties; 2-0 in the final. As midfielder Kim Vilfort recalled: "We had fantastic spirit.... When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn't have the best players, but we had the best team."
Hands up: who remembers the great late-noughties Egyptian side for football's hall of fame? Despite many of them still being at large, they're a curiously-forgotten side who completed a remarkable string of victories in the Africa Cup of Nations three times in a row in 2006, 2008, and 2010.
One of the most impressive things about that achievement is that it was done in the era that contained probably the strongest African sides of all time. There's been a slight drop in quality since, but a lot of their opponents then were the real deal — Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o were in their prime and the finest strikers in the world. Frederic Kanouté was still at large, and the likes of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari were still good. It was a mini-golden age for superstars playing for African national sides, and yet in the continental tournament, the whole thing was sewn up throughout the whole era by an unfancied side with no stars at all, and barely any even playing in Europe.
Egypt did have a couple of advantages, however. Firstly, a large proportion of their squad and starting eleven were dominated by three domestic teams in Al-Ahly, Zamalek and Ismaily. They'd played together for much of their careers and were attuned to one another's game.
Most strikingly, however, they had no squad imbalances that would trouble many of the other African sides and prevent a truly great team from emerging on the continent. Ghana had a ludicrous midfield but no strikers. Cameroon had a contender for the world's greatest player (and certainly the greatest striker) in Samuel Eto'o but a desperate lack of creativity with which to supply him. Nigeria were absurdly reliant on an ageing Kanu. The Ivory Coast were the closest, having one of the strongest spines on earth in the Toure-Toure-Drogba trio, with Didier Zokora and Kader Keita not too bad either. But they didn't have Egypt's cohesion, and creativity was still a problem.
The Ivory Coast were the favourites for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, after Egypt had won in 2006 on home soil. This was probably Egypt's peak, with many of their older players acquiring tremendous highs of technique and mentality before they had started to lose it physically, and the younger players well-established. When the two sides met in the semi-finals, Egypt hit their zenith and duly thrashed them 4-1. Only a superhuman display from Carlos Kameni prevented them from giving Cameroon an absolute shoeing in the final.
The only problem for Egypt was that their team was getting older, and they had not been able to experience a World Cup. They finished well off the pace in the run-up to Germany 2006, hamstrung by poor away performances and being placed in a veritable Group of Death with the Ivory Coast and Cameroon. 2010 would probably be the last chance for the team as it existed. The omens, however, were good. The World Cup would be on African soil for the first time, and the only serious threat to qualification were Algeria, who seemed an inferior side. Two games against them would decide it.
Algeria, however, were equally desperate. They had never been to a World Cup before, and their best chance was in 1990, when they were stopped by none other than Egypt at the final hurdle in a game with questionable refereeing that preceded heavy rioting. The atmosphere was so tense that both teams decided to prepare for the game elsewhere, Algeria in France and Egypt in Oman. The Algerian coach, Sadaane, broke down in tears in the pre-match press conference as he pleaded with his own fans to show him and his family mercy if they suffered defeat. He didn't need it — Egypt failed to show up in the absurdly hostile environment and duly lost 3-1.
Aboutrika's late away goal might have given them hope, but unfortunately for Egypt, away goals didn't count here. Even if they did, the story still would've been ludicrous — Algeria arrived in Cairo to be greeted with a bombardment of their bus, injuring several players, and their complaints sparking assertions from the Egyptian media and the bus driver that they simply got too excited and smashed up their own bus as a result. The team doctor protested that the match should not have gone ahead since the players were so mentally shaken, but it did, and Egypt won 2-0.
Utter bedlam followed as reports of deaths spread among widespread rioting — in Cairo, in Algiers, and even in Marseille. It wasn't just the man on the street who took it badly, either — after an Egyptian telecom company's offices were looted in Algiers, the Algerian government then presented them with a nine-figure bill in back taxes. Egypt were forced to dispatch a plane to rescue their citizens from the country. It was refused permission to land.
With both teams level on all possible tiebreakers (except away goals — FIFA could have just decided to award it on the basis of that and Egypt would have gone through), a playoff needed to take place — the only logical choice after two games marred by heavy spectator violence, near-deaths and an atmosphere so hostile that the rioting could spread to a different continent. Both sides could nominate another country to play the game in. Algeria chose their neighbours Tunisia. Egypt also decided to pick a neighbour — Libya? One of the nearby Gulf States? Nope. Sudan. Unbearably hot, sometimes scorching, sometimes humid, war-torn Sudan. The draw was made, and Egypt got their wish.
The specific site was Omdurman, recognisable for being the site of a famous battle of the British Empire, although not being overly-focused on the past, it had actually been the side of an equally-vicious battle about a year ago too. Both sides were well into the realms of utter madness now — there were many points along the road where someone could've stepped in and done something sensible, but the point of no return had long been crossed. This was football's Rumble in the Jungle, and the two sides were now travelling into a war-ravaged land to play a game that would almost certainly cause deaths.
Algeria started out the better side, troubling Egypt, and finally took the lead on 40 minutes with a glorious volley from Yahia. The celebrations were surreal — absolute delirium in the stands, nothing but relief on the pitch. The Algerian players after the goal look about as ready to celebrate their lease of life as a man does who has just undergone a mock execution.
Egypt rallied, and had good chances with Ahmed Elmohamady and Mohamed Zidan, but couldn't find a way through. They lost. Algeria invaded the pitch in celebration. They also invaded the Champs d'Elysees and pretty much any public square where there were enough nearby Algerians. Egypt retired to lick their wounds, riot themselves, complain and start a diplomatic furore that was only eventually stopped by the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
There was an opportunity for redemption just months later in the Africa Cup of Nations again. Algeria beat the Ivory Coast in a bonkers 3-2 to set up another clash against Egypt in the semi-final, but this time Zidan had his correct boots on, giving a masterclass in attack as his opponents completely lost it and saw 3 men sent off in a 4-0 shellacking. Egypt would go on to lift that third trophy — out of two once-in-a-generation chances at glory, they still salvaged one of them. But the chance to see one of the most uniquely brilliant teams of their age on the biggest stage of all was gone. Maybe it was preferable to enduring the sort of forgettable adventure Algeria did, playing the worst game of all time against England and being fodder for that Landon Donovan moment, but this was still football's loss.
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