There have been quite a few teams that have played beautiful football, over the last two decades. While some of them have achieved success, others have failed to deliver, despite their pretty-on-the-eye style.
The best Yugoslavian team that never was ?
To Start off the list, there is the memorable Yugoslavian team of the 1990 World Cup. With a spine made up of Red Star Belgrade’s European Cup winning squad, the team started off poorly with a loss to the eventual champions. But they came back strongly with a dazzling display of technically brilliant football. Their fast passing game took them the quarter-finals. They matched a highly negative Argentina side blow by blow, for 120 minutes, despite playing with 10 men for most of the game. Sergio Goycochea’s penalty shootout heroics ensured a heart-breaking exit.
This was the last tournament that unbroken Yugoslavia took part in. Two years, later they were banned from entering the Euro’92 and their replacement Denmark, went on to lift the Cup.
The most tragic effect of the political instability was on their Under-20 team. Often described as the greatest ever youth team, the golden generation swept all the teams on their way to win the youth World Cup in Chile in ’87. A chunk of players from that team Jarni, Prosinesci, Boban, Stimac and Suker would propel Croatia to a 3rd place finish in 1998 world cup. That team also had Predrag Mijatovic. Imagine a strike-force made up of Suker, Mijatovic and Pancev. A midfield of Boban, Prosinesci and Katanec. Sadly, football became the sacrificial lamb of politics. An unbroken Yugoslavia could have beaten anybody in the 90s. The class of 1990 still played some wonderful football.
“Maradona of the Carpathians” gives shape to Prince Carol’s dream:
Romanian royalty – Prince Carol – was an avid follower of football in the 30s. So much so that he sent a hand picked a team to Uruguay in the 1930 World Cup, when most European nations refused to travel. His dream was to see Romania as a strong footballing nation. His dream would become true, forty-one years after his death, in 1953.
In 1994, it was the turn of the Balkan nation to enthrall the spectators. Nicknamed “Maradona of the Carpathians” Georghe Hagi was arguably the best passer of the ball in 1990s.
A colourful player with fiery temper, Hagi led from the front. Like Yugoslavia of four years before, this team was made from players of a European Cup winning squad – Steaua Bucharesti. There were a few glimpses of their skills in 1990 World Cup itself. They qualified from a group of death, which contained Cameroon, Argentina and USSR.
Hagi inspires Romania against Argentina in USA ’94
By 1994, the squad had fully matured. Despite succumbing to a shock 4-1 defeat to the Swiss, they once again qualified from a group of death. They topped the group ahead of dark horses Colombia, hosts USA and Switzerland. In the 2nd round, Romania arguably played their best ever game. In a tremendous display of counter-attacking football, they dispatched Argentina 3-2 and Hagi took centre-stage. For Romania’s second goal, a defence splitting pass by him took out four Argentine defenders. His second involvement in the attack saw him befuddle three opponents, as Dumitrescu slotted home. Hagi would then go on to score one of the most outrageous goals in a world cup to knock Argentina out. Romania conceded a late goal to Sweden in extra time in the next round and was subsequently knocked out in penalties.
The golden generation of Romanian footballer – Hagi, Florin Răducioiu, Georghe Popescu, Dan Petrescu, Bogdan Stelea and Marius Lacatus – inspired the nation to great achievements in the 90s. They qualified for all the 3 world cups, crossing the group stages every time. Even in Euro 2000, they reached the second round from a group with Portugal, England and Germany in it. That was the swansong; Hagi got a red card in his last game in Euro’00, against Italy. It was a symbolic end to one of the brightest teams in Europe in last 20 years.
The strongest French dynasty since Napoleon:
By late 90s another dynasty was established. The golden generation of French stars looked to improve upon the achievements of Platini’s scintillating bunch of the ‘80s. They reached the semi-final of Euro’96, but there was more to come. Led by the unassuming Didier Deschamps; with Lizarazu, Thuram, Desailly and Blanc forming an impenetrable defence, Les Bleus would march onto their first world cup title in 1998. The midfield of Zidane, Petit with Deschamps was perfect – they had both flair and solidity. The Fact is, world cup was hardly their peak.
Zinedine Zidane, one of the all time greatest players
Euro 2000 was the peak of that French team. By that time, Henry and Trezeguet came in to fill the strikers’ void. Makelele and Vieira had developed into world class midfielders. Pires’ enterprising play perfectly covered for Petit. France defeated Portugal, Spain and Italy, on their way to the title. They became only the second team after West Germany to hold both World and European titles at the same time. A few stars of this team would go on to lead France to another final in the 2006 World Cup; that unarguably being Zidane’s best tournament for France. He inspired, but left his last ever international game in disgrace, as France fell to Italy.
Weak defence Czech mates a brilliant team:
Karel Bruckner’s Czech Republic became popular for their brilliant passing football. Bruckner was an admirer of the Danubian School and modeled his team in the same manner, after he took over the team in 2001. They missed out on 2002 World Cup, but by Euro 2004, Bruckner had completed his restructuring. Czechs quickly established themselves as the brightest team in Euro and despite being grouped with Germany and Holland, they were rarely troubled.
Holland vs Czech Republic Euro’04. Bruckner switched to a 3 man defence despite going down 2-0
Bruckner showed his great tactical acumen in the memorable game against Holland. With Robben running rings around Grygera on the right wing, Holland raced to a 2-0 lead. Instead of getting defensive Bruckner brought on Smicer and switched to a three man defence. What transpired was a breathtaking display of attacking football, as Czechs tore Holland apart to win the game 3-2, with Smicer scoring the winner. In the game against Germany, an under strength Czech Republic faced the three-times champions. Despite having already qualified, they didn’t slow down and they demolished the Germans. Nedved, Galasek, Poborsky and Roskicy formed one of the best midfields of 2000s. Each player was supremely gifted technically and together they were remarkable. Czechs blanked Denmark 3-0 in the quarter-final.
They came up against the tournament’s surprise package Greece in semi-final. Sadly, the team was hit by Nedved’s injury in 48th minute. The talismanic captain got injured after trying a long ranger. Without Nedved’s presence on the field, the Czechs looked like a dejected lot. Greece sat back and defended, while the Czechs launched one attack after another. In that situation, Nedved’s trademark long ranger would have come handy to break the deadlock. Dellas rose up to head the only goal deep into extra-time. Greece went on to win the title, but they knocked out the most exciting team in the semi-finals.
Nedved’s injury in that game was a turning point in his career, as he never regained his old form and became injury prone. An ageing Poborsky lost his first-team slot. Rosicky, after a bright start in his career, suffered a series of injuries. The midfield of Euro 2004 was a shadow of their selves in 2006, though they did pull off one last coup by defeating USA 3-0. However, losses to Ghana and Italy eliminated the Czechs.
Bruckner’s reluctance to shore up his defence caused the downfall of his team. Lack of defensive organization led the Czechs to a first round exits in Euro 2008 as well. A little bit of pragmatism might have helped them more.
Argentina, wasted potential:
Argentina, Brazil’s poorer cousin from South America, has never stopped producing quality players. Argentine kids start out early and are blessed with incredible amount of skill. Sadly, they rarely manage to fulfil their potential. Examples like Aerial Ortega, Pablo Aimar or Javier Saviola are all too common. Argentina has a record six youth world cup titles, but only two world cup titles. They have been analogous to Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On their good day, they can demolish any defence in the world, but they struggle for consistency. The Argentine team in 1990 World Cup was very negative and won games in ugliest manner possible. There on, the teams have mostly been entertaining. Romania and Holland, playing some of their best football, knocked them out in ’94 and ’98 World Cups.
An eccentric Marcelo Bielsa dumped all defensive strategy and went for an all out 3-3-1-3 in the 2002 World Cup. An injury to Ayala in the build-up meant that Argentina were weak at the back. This ultimately resulted in their first round exit. Another quarter-final defeat happened in the next World Cup. A sublime Argentina scored 6 goals past Serbia and Montenegro in group phase; one of the goals would easily get into any all-time list – the infamous 24-pass goal.
Argentina has underachieved in recent times; can their greatest footballing hero rescue them in South Africa’10?
La Furia Roja finally comes good:
Spain, underachievers for a long time, finally built a great side. The Spanish side which won the Euro’08 was arguably the most complete team in recent times. They had good centre-backs in Puyol and Pique, while Ramos and Capdevilla were full-backs, who frequently overlapped. In Marcos Senna and Xabi Alonso, they had physical players in the midfield, who could hold up the ball, while Xavi functioned as a play-maker of supreme passing ability. Further up the field, they had two extremely mobile attacking midfielders David Silva and Iniesta; while Villa and Torres formed a lethal striking partnership.
Spain was almost the perfect side and they swept aside teams like Italy and Germany on the way to their second European title. In the ensuing years, the national team has only become stronger, as the youth academies in Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to churn out talented youngsters. The Spanish team has been built around the spine of treble-winning Barcelona squad and they usually try to emulate the same playing style. A flawless qualifying campaign saw them enter the World Cup’10 as firm favourites.
Spain celebrate a well deserved European Title
The Portuguese “Golden Generation” won two back-to-back youth World Cups in ’89 & ’91. Led by the splendid Luis Figo, they were one of the most enthralling teams in Euro 2000. However, with the arrival of Scolari, they lost their flair and became a more physical side. On the other hand, they also were more successful, as they managed to reach the Euro 2004 final and World Cup 2006 semi-final.
Croatia, ever since their independence, have successfully taken over the mantle from Yugoslavia. A team comprising of members of the erstwhile Yugoslav golden generation of ’87 finished third in France ’98. They have also taken over from Romania as the attractive Eastern European team, in 2000s.
Germany is no longer the drab and efficient team that they were ten years ago, as Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Lowe have perfected an exciting and fast paced game in last four years. They have benefited from the blending of players of German and non-German decent. The non-German players have added an extra gloss of skill to the ruthless German efficiency.
Russia played some brilliant football under Guus Hiddink in Euro’08, but couldn’t match their level of play in the World Cup qualifiers.
Despite their occasional bursts of brilliance, none of these nations have managed to consistently play beautiful football. The credit for that goes to a team that has found no mention in this article. They are the real practitioners of “Joga Bonito” in last 20 years; they are the Oranje.
In the last and final part of this series, we will focus on the team that has knocked the fore-fathers of “Joga Bonito” – Brazil – out of South Africa’10.