Some of the best football teams in history have fallen just short of World Cup glory. The Mighty Magyars of Hungary were widely considered the best team of the era when they lost to West Germany in the 1954 final. Holland’s Total Football exponents were thought to be the true champions in 1974, despite also losing the final to the Germans. In 1982, Brazil did not even have to make the semi-finals to be hailed the people’s champions for their flamboyant attacking football.
Even when they have not been the best team, most World Cup finalists have had some qualities that distinguish them from the best of the rest. West Germany lost two finals in the 1980s but are remembered for the silk and steel in these sides. They had the quality of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Lothar Matthäus combined with the more prosaic – but equally effective – talents of the likes of Hans-Peter Briegel and Karlheinz Förster.
Argentina’s 1990 runners-up are not fondly remembered but there was a certain romance in the way that the great Diego Maradona almost single-handedly dragged them that far. Roberto Baggio had an even greater influence on Italy’s run to second place in 1994 and 1998’s Brazilians had the brilliance of Rivaldo and Ronaldo in their side before their meltdown in the final.
France’s surprise run to the final in 2006 was the last hurrah of the golden generation of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry et al and, despite their brutal approach in the final, the flair of Holland’s Wesley Sneijder had lit up the 2010 tournament beforehand.
Argentina’s journey to the 2014 final was far from glorious but the talents of Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María always made them worth watching.
And now to 2002. The 2002 World Cup is perhaps best remembered for three things: the passion of the South Korean fans, the warm hospitality of the Japanese people, and the brilliance of Brazil’s three Rs, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.
It is fair to say that it is not remembered for the classic matches – because there weren’t any – nor the quality of football. And perhaps this World Cup got the runners-up it deserved.
The never-say-die spirit of German football is written into their World Cup history both in the successes and near misses. But the near-miss of the 2002 vintage was an anomalous episode in a sub-standard World Cup. Far from being the second best team in the world, this was possibly one of the worst German teams in history and almost certainly the worst second-placed team the World Cup has ever seen.
This was the Germany of Carsten Jancker, Jens Jeremies and Oliver Neuville – solid professionals but certainly not world-class. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and midfielder Michael Ballack were the only squad members that could have walked into Europe’s top teams at the time. Miroslav Klose would make his name at the tournament but he was not a name to be feared when the tournament got underway.
To put the 2002 performance into perspective, the context of German football history is important.
The Miracle of Bern in the 1954 final against Hungary helped West Germany develop a reputation for unlikely comebacks. The 1966 final was prolonged only by a last-minute equaliser for the Germans, before England eventually prevailed.
Four years later West Germany had its revenge as they overturned a 2-0 deficit against the English in a World Cup quarter-final in Mexico. When they were 3-1 down in extra-time against France in the 1982 semi-final, Rummenigge and Klaus Fischer struck to force a penalty shoot-out, which the Germans inevitably won. Fatigue (and less rest time) from such a testing semi-final was cited as key to Italy’s victory over their rivals in the final.
In Mexico 1986 Maradona’s Argentina led 2-0 in the final before Rummenigge and Rudi Völler levelled matters, though the Argentines would have the final say with Jorge Burruchaga’s late winner.
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Michael Ballack was Germany’s only world-class outfield player
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No such comebacks were required in 1990 as the final competition featuring West Germany ended in a World Cup victory after a 1-0 win over Argentina in the final.
To this day, people remember the tough, resilient German sides from the 1950s to 1990 – a four-decade era of sustained excellence. They were always expected to be there or thereabouts at the business end of tournaments. But that aura began to fade at the beginning of the 1990s with the shock defeat to Denmark in the 1992 European Championship final.
There were then quarter-final exits at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups at the hands of Bulgaria and Croatia respectively. The resounding 3-0 defeat to the Croats was particularly humbling to a nation that prides itself on its competitive nature. The fortuitous 1996 European Championship victory was looking increasingly like an anomaly in a period of underachievement.
As defending European champions, the Germans couldn’t even make it out of the group stage in 2000, losing 1-0 to England and 3-0 to Portugal in the process. A single point, claimed in a draw against Romania, was all they had to show for their efforts at one of the most entertaining tournaments of all time.
Then came the 5-1 home defeat to England in a World Cup qualifier in September 2001, and it seemed that Germany had reached its nadir. World Cup qualification was still possible but Rudi Völler’s side still managed to squander the opportunity for automatic progress by failing to beat Finland at home, while David Beckham came to England’s rescue after a wretched performance against Greece, earning them the point they needed to edge Germany.
The English squeaked through and the Germans had to overcome Ukraine in the playoffs, which they did 5-2 on aggregate.
A fortunate draw gave Germany Cameroon, Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Ireland in their Japan-based World Cup group so progress to the second round was the least that could be expected.
Klose came to the world’s attention with a hat-trick as the Germans opened their campaign by beating the hapless Saudis 8-0. Regardless of the opponents, such a resounding scoreline could only generate optimism for a squad that needed confidence.
But the positivity was short-lived as Ireland fought back to earn a 1-1 draw in the second game. Despite the goals scored against Saudi Arabia, Germany’s progression to the second round was not assured when they came up against Cameroon in the final group match. An Ireland win against the Saudis, combined with victory for the Africans, would put Völler’s men out.
Germany’s fragility was there for all to see in the first half against Winfried Schäfer’s side as the Indomitable Lions missed several chances to take the lead before Cartsen Ramelow saw red for his second booking in the 40th minute.
The Germans were now flirting with disaster but their renowned resilience came to the fore as goals from Marco Bode and Klose earned them the win that saw them safely through. Nevertheless, they had made heavy weather of a group featuring the poor Saudis, the limited Irish and talented but temperamental Cameroon.
At this point, Germany did not have the air of potential winners, but the same could be said of several countries that have started tournaments slowly – Italy in 1982 being the most striking example. And events elsewhere were beginning to conspire in the Germans’ favour. Three of the pre-tournament favourites – Argentina, France and Portugal – had fallen at the first hurdle, opening up the draw.
Having won the group, Völler’s side would take on Paraguay rather than a dangerous Spain side that had won all three of its group games.
As the Germans moved across to South Korea from Japan, they took their uncertain form with them but Neuville’s 88th-minute winner gave them a 1-0 victory over a defensive Paraguay in Jeju. France had found Paraguay equally tough at the same stage four years earlier, relying on a goal in extra-time to see off the South Americans, so Germany could perhaps be encouraged by the comparison.
Unlike Germany, France then went on to face a giant of world football in Italy in the quarter-final. The Germans would play the United States of America for a place in the semi-final. The USA had been impressive in reaching the last eight, defeating Portugal in the group stage and easing past Mexico in the second round. Germany were strong favourites but the USA would not make for easy opponents.
As in the game against Cameroon, Germany were grateful to goalkeeper Kahn as he made several key saves to keep out the Americans in the first half. Ballack then put the Germans in front against the run of play to turn the game in their favour.
But the Americans kept coming in the second half and only a refereeing blunder failed to give them a chance to equalise from the penalty spot and, at the same time, reduce the Germans to ten men. Torsten Frings looked to have clearly handled the ball on the goal-line after Kahn saved from Gregg Berhalter but referee Hugh Dallas waved play on.
Things might have ended differently had the Americans converted a penalty and had most of the second half to aim for a winner against ten men. Instead, Germany defended for their lives to see the game out and earn a place in the semi-final.
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Read | The story of France’s failure at World Cup 2002
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While Völler’s side had been facing the unfancied Paraguayans and Americans, eventual champions Brazil had been beating Belgium and England to earn their place in the last four.
Germany would have expected to face Spain in the battle for a place in the final but, just as refereeing incompetence had favoured them against the USA, it had conspired against the Spanish in their quarter-final against the hosts South Korea.
The Spaniards had two perfectly legitimate goals disallowed and eventually lost in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw. Given the controversy surrounding the Koreans second round win over Italy, noises were growing about foul play from the men in the middle.
Germany must have wondered if they would be playing the referee as well as the fervent Korean crowd in Seoul. In a tight contest, there were chances at both ends and Kahn was again called upon to produce some excellent saves before Ballack struck the winner with 15 minutes remaining.
German joy was tempered by the fact that Ballack had been booked and would miss the final. Despite the trials and tribulations of the qualifying campaign, Die Mannschaft had reached their first World Cup final since 1990 in Italy.
After an uninspired group stage, Germany had laboured to three 1-0 victories over limited opponents in the knockout stages and goalkeeper Kahn had been their best player. But in competition football, it is often argued that it is all about getting the job done and Germany had done that.
One of the less celebrated facts about the 2002 World Cup is that the winning team was quite clearly the best and possibly one of the most underrated. Fans that live in the past still bemoan the fact that it was not one of the ‘great’ Brazil sides, but we will probably never again see a Brazil quite like 1970 or 1982. Nevertheless, Brazil scored 11 goals in three group games in 2002 and came through tricky encounters with Belgium and England due to the individual brilliance of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. They then overcame Turkey’s outstanding team in the semi-final but the 1-0 scoreline didn’t really reflect their superiority.
As such, Brazil went into the final as hot favourites and, despite a decent first half from Germany, the Seleção’s eventual victory was no surprise. The only shock was that an error from the excellent Kahn gifted the Brazilians their first goal in a 2-0 win.
The Germans had made the best of their limited resources and had made the most of a very favourable draw. But, coming up against the best team in the competition, Völler’s side had no answers.
Looking back, it is a little cringeworthy to see the Germans return home to a hero’s welcome. Expectations had sunk to such a low ebb that Die Mannschaft were being hailed for scraping wins against Paraguay, the USA and South Korea.
Two years later, at the European Championships, the Germans’ performance was more in line with their ability and they failed to emerge from their group. The 0-0 draw with Latvia arguably came close to matching the 5-1 defeat to England as the nadir for German football. It also reaffirmed that the run to the final in 2002 was more of a fluke than a fairytale.
But the country would soon emerge from a decade of mediocrity with thrilling runs to the 2006 and 2010 World Cup semi-finals, as well as a runner-up performance at Euro 2008. The exciting young German team that smashed four past Australia, England and Argentina, before hitting a tiki-taka wall in the 2010 semi-final, certainly deserves more credit than the uninspiring 2002 side.
In 2014 Germany once again reached the summit of football with a 1-0 triumph over Argentina in the World Cup final. The sensational 7-1 victory over Brazil in the semi-final was confirmation that this side was the world’s best and deserving of a hero’s welcome back home.
Twelve years previously, Germany may have been the second best team in the world on paper. In reality, however, the form they showed in 2002 was another reflection on how far German football had fallen in its worst-ever decade between 1996 and 2006.
Worst World Cup runner-up ever? You will struggle to find an alternative.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK