There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
Credited for inventing and teaching the sport around the globe, England is a huge reason why soccer is the world’s most popular sport. On top of that, the English Premier League is the most popular and most watched sports league in the world.
Yet, when it comes to international success, the Three Lions have had a difficult in achieving global glory that their passionate fans crave. With the exception of the 1966 World Cup, there has been nothing but despair and grief for the Old Country. Here are 5 of the most heartbreaking defeats England has suffered.
June 22, 1986. Argentina 2, England 1.
Of course this game would be featured. It’s one of the most infamous, notorious and greatest soccer games ever played depending on your point of view. It also intensified one of the fiercest rivalries in international soccer. But the rivalry isn’t just about soccer.
A testy affair in the 1966 World Cup that England won 1-0 in controversial fashion kickstarted the bad blood but it reached new levels of animosity in 1982.
England and Argentina waged a bloody war in the Falkland Islands. 649 Argentine troops and 255 British soldiers lost their lives in the conflict that saw Great Britain take control of the Falklands after Argentina surrendered. Diplomatic relations were severed between the two nations for seven years following the war.
While diplomacy was out of the question, football remained the only vehicle for England and Argentina to air out their differences. But it almost didn’t happen.
England’s start to Mexico 86 was rather inauspicious. A 1-0 loss to Portugal was followed by a dreary 0-0 draw with lowly Morocco. England needed to win handsomely against Poland in order to advance. Everton forward Gary Linekar provided the jumpstart England needed as his hat-trick gave England a 3-0 victory and a berth in the knockout stage.
England’s momentum carried over into the Round of 16 where they dispatched Paraguay 3-0 thanks to a Linekar brace and a lone marker from Peter Beardsley.
Argentina were trying to forget a disappointing 1982 World Cup in which they may have been distracted due to upheaval in their home country during the Falklands war.
Placed in a group with defending champion Italy, La Albiceleste were not expected to do much in Mexico. They started brightly with a 3-1 result over South Korea, then were held to a 1-1 draw with Italy. However, Diego Maradona made his presence felt in that fixture, scoring a beautiful goal that had people taking notice. A solid 2-0 result over Bulgaria gave Argentina first place in Group A.
A tense 1-0 triumph over Uruguay in the Round of 16 gave Argentina exactly what they wanted. A showdown with England in the quarterfinal.
Over 114,000 spectators filled the legendary Estadio Azteca while roughly 1 billion people worldwide watched the game on television.
Argentina had the bulk of possession in the first half but sturdy defending from England’s back four plus timely goalkeeping from Peter Shilton kept the game goalless at halftime.
England had held Maradona in check until the 51st minute. The brilliant Argentine number 10 made a darting run before slipping a pass to Jorge Valdano. The Argentine midfielder misplayed the ball onto Steve Hodge’s boot who attempted to play it back to Shilton. Instead, Maradona beat the English keeper to the ball by using his hand to punch the ball into the net. When asked by the media how the ball went in, Maradona famously replied “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
English players were furious and voiced their protests to Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nassar but the goal stood. While England continued to howl in protest, they lost their focus which opened the door for Maradona to strike with venom.
Taking the ball inside his own half, Maradona slalomed through the English team with an amazing 60 yard dash, leaving 5 English players in his wake, before calmly sliding the ball past Chilton. It has been dubbed the “Goal Of The Century” and is arguably the greatest goal in World Cup history.
England were shell-shocked and devastated. But they weren’t dead yet. Linekar did pull England to within one at the 81st minute with his sixth of the tournament. But it wasn’t enough as Argentina were victorious while England were inconsolable.
The English press were outraged over the decision to allow Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. The Daily Mail led with the headline Beaten By the Magic Man while many pundits on British television skewered Maradona for cheating and Nassar the referee for not making the call.
The loss was particularly devastating for Linekar who won the Golden Boot with 6 goals (one more than Maradona) and was playing the best football in his career. But very few remember that.
June 26, 1996. Germany 1 (6), England 1 (5)
Truth be told, the England/Germany rivalry is taken more seriously in Shakespeare’s land than in Nietzsche’s home country. The Germans consider Holland and Italy as their natural rivals. But with Euro 96 in Her Majesty’s backyard, England were out to prove a point to all the European nations, especially Germany.
This rivalry is more than soccer in England. Britain and Germany were the main combatants in two World Wars that saw millions lose their lives on both sides. Even though it had been 50 years since the two nations engaged in combat, there were still ill feelings by the English towards Germany.
On the pitch, those ill feelings were caused by jealousy. Germany had World Cup titles in 1954, 1974 and 1990 plus Euro championships in 1972 and 1980. England did have the 1966 World Cup which included a controversial victory over Die Mannschaft in the Final.
Germany gained revenge in 1970 with a thrilling victory in the 1970 quarterfinal and in 1972 completed a home and away victory in which the Observer stated that Germany had outclassed England.
The rivalry took another turn in 1990 as both nations collided in the semifinal in Italia 90. A taut, tense affair went to penalties with Germany holding their nerve, while England left empty-handed.
Euro 96 saw England host the competition and with that came high expectations. Perhaps the pressure got to England in their opening fixture as they only managed a 1-1 draw with Switzerland.
England needed a wakeup call and Paul Gascoigne gave them one, with a brilliant volley in the Three Lions 2-0 win over Scotland.
England finished the Group Stage strongly with a 4-1 trouncing of Holland thanks to braces from Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.
The quarterfinal fixture versus Spain was a tense and nervy affair and when it went into penalties, nerves were skyrocketing inside Wembley Stadium. England are notoriously poor in penalty shootouts but in this one instant, they shone. David Seaman was resolute between the sticks while Shearer, Gascoigne, Stuart Pearce and David Platt converted their spot kicks to see England through.
Germany were their usual efficient self. Wins over the Czech Republic and Russia saw Die Mannschaft advance while a 0-0 draw with Italy eliminated the Azure.
Germany did show some cracks in the quarterfinal but still emerged with a 2-1 result over Croatia.
The hype leading up to the semifinal was insane to say the least. The Daily Mirror ran a front page headline screaming Achtung! Surrender! For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 championship is over. Daily Mirror editor and known tosser Piers Morgan was roundly criticized for publishing that cover. Morgan apologized but the damage was about to be done.
The Germans were greeted by a hostile crowd at Wembley which was more apt for battle than a football match. When Shearer scored after just three minutes, Wembley erupted into a cauldron that shook the foundations of the cathedral of football.
But Germany are a team that won’t die easy. Just 13 minutes later, Stefan Kuntz found an equalizer and Wembley became extremely nervous.
England did enjoy the majority of the possession and had the better scoring chances. The two best chances came in extra time as Darren Anderton hit the post while Gascoigne just missed a sitter as Shearer’s cross was just a touch too far.
Penalties were needed to decide this encounter. The first five players from each side all converted from the spot forcing it to sudden death. Gareth Southgate was the first English shooter but he was denied by German keeper Andreas Kloepke. When Andreas Moller lashed home his spot kick, Wembley went numb.
It was worse outside as riots began around Trafalgar Square as English Hooligans stained an otherwise friendly tournament. Losing to Germany will never sit well in Britannia.
June 30, 1998. Argentina 2 (4), England 2 (3)
England had to wait 12 years to get their revenge on Argentina for what happened in 1986. They would have to wait a little longer.
The Three Lions came into France 98 as a confident squad with high hopes. After a stirring run at Euro 96 and with the English Premier League becoming more influential, England were riding a crest of goodwill into France.
Their tournament started on a high note with a 2-0 result over Tunisia. But the band played a different tune in their next fixture.
A disappointing 2-1 defeat to Romania forced England into a must win situation versus Colombia. The press were waiting to pounce while the traveling supporters entered the city of Lens with frayed nerves.
Darren Anderton calmed everyone down with a 20th minute tally then England’s bright light struck.
David Beckham was a tabloid darling in the United Kingdom. His dashing good looks and his ability to bend the ball on set pieces made English hearts aflutter. On top of all that, his engagement to Victoria Adams aka Posh Spice of the Spice Girls had UK print machines run wild. Beckham was the focal point of the 98 England side and English pride depended on him.
Beckham delivered a sublime free kick from 25 yards that swerved ever so precisely and majestically into the net. The Manchester United midfielder had become a hero for England.
Argentina headed into France 98 with a point to prove. This would be La Albiceleste’s first World Cup without the legendary Diego Maradona who shattered English hopes 12 years prior. It would be up to the likes of Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta to shoulder the load.
Argentina were perfect in the Group Stage, scoring victories over Japan, Jamaica and Croatia to set up a highly anticipated showdown with England.
Memories of 1986 still lingered for England while Argentina were still seething over the Falklands war of 1982. The game became a classic.
Within the first nine minutes, each team was awarded a penalty and both teams converted. Batistuta for Argentina and Shearer for England. The game went to new heights in the 16th minute as 18-year-old Michael Owen scored a wonder goal for the ages! Similar to Maradona’s brilliant effort in Mexico, Owen sliced through the Argentine team before finishing rapturously in the top corner.
Argentina responded at the stroke of halftime on a clever set piece. Juan Sebastian Veron’s sly delivery to Javier Zanetti completely baffled England as Zanetti finished with aplomb. England were expecting a Veron blast but instead were fooled by the delicate touch.
Two minutes into the second half, the game took another wild turn. Beckham, the golden child of England, was roughly challenged by Diego Simeone at midfield. While Beckham was on the ground, he lifted his boots studs up and clipped Simeone on the back of the leg. Simeone was shown a yellow card for his harsh challenge but Beckham was sent off with a red card and automatic ejection. England, who were playing attacking and positive football were now a man down and forced to lay back.
The Three Lions held firm for the remainder of the match plus extra time meaning penalties were needed. Without Beckham, England had to rely on players not used to taking penalties. Two of them, Paul Ince and David Batty missed while Argentina converted three out of four and won a quarterfinal berth.
In a post match interview on the pitch England manager Glenn Hoddle tried to put on a brave face but when the BBC interviewer mentioned that Beckham had a mad moment, Hoddle admitted that Beckham’s foul probably cost England the match.
The English press were not taking any prisoners. The Daily Mirror’s front page screamed 10 Heroic Lions One Stupid Boy. Meanwhile, The Daily Mail’s headline said Moment Of Lunacy That Cost Cup Hopes. Beckham became a villain around England and when the EPL season kicked off that fall, Beckham was roundly jeered at visiting grounds across the country. Only Old Trafford welcomed back Beckham with open arms. Everywhere else waited with closed fists. In time, the country forgave Beckham but the loss to a bitter rival still hurt.
July 1, 2006. Portugal 0 (3), England 0 (1)
Both Portugal and England had something to prove heading into the 2006 World Cup. England had a strong team in 2002 but ran into a brilliant Brazil team that was simply unbeatable. Portugal had a disastrous 2002 tournament, failing to get out of the Group Stage despite being a pre-tournament contender.
The two nations met in Euro 2004 in the quarterfinal where Portugal won an enthralling affair on penalties before a raucous crowd in Lisbon.
England were under their usual scrutiny by the obscene English press and at times it showed. They overcame nerves in victories over Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago but weren’t winning admirers with their form. An exciting 2-2 draw with Sweden gave England first place in Group B but skeptics remained. A narrow 1-0 victory over Ecuador in the Round of 16 didn’t silence the doubters, but the team remained confident.
Portugal achieved a flawless record in Group D, a complete reversal from four years prior. Victories over Angola, Iran and Mexico solidified Portugal’s upswing.
A 1-0 victory over Holland in the Round of 16 was so ill-tempered and caustic, it was dubbed “The Battle of Nuremberg. 4 red cards and 16 yellow cards were given out in this nasty affair. Two of Portugal’s top players, Deco and Costinha were suspended for the quarterfinal. England went into the match as favourites.
The match was a tight, tense affair as both defences built impenetrable walls that neither could infiltrate. With the game goalless in the 62nd minute, an unraveling occurred.
In a battle for the ball near midfield England forward Wayne Rooney was involved in a tussle with Portuguese defender Ricardo Carvalho. As both men went to the ground, Rooney got up and stomped Carvalho right in the “family jewels.” Portuguese forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, a teammate of Rooney’s with Manchester United went to the referee and begged him to send Rooney off. The referee obliged and Rooney was shown a red card and expulsion. While Rooney was leaving the pitch, Ronaldo coyly winked at Rooney suggesting that he one-upped him. England were furious and wanted blood.
The game went into penalties where England’s hopes were dashed yet again. Misses by Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher proved to be fatal. The decisive kick was ironically booted by Ronaldo who sealed England’s fate.
While the press was took it easy on Rooney, they weren’t so kind to Ronaldo. Alan Shearer who was working as a pundit on UK television in 2006, suggested that Rooney will stick one on Ronaldo when they returned to Manchester United. It was another bitter pill for England on the biggest stage.
June 27, 2016. Iceland 2, England 1.
When UEFA decided to expand the Euro tournament to 24 teams for 2016, many thought this would dilute the tournament’s quality and expected big teams to crush smaller countries. What they got was one of the biggest upsets in the history of Euro.
England were expected to win Group B heading into France but they saw their path covered with some potholes. A 1-1 draw with Russia to open the tournament gave supporters a reason to be concerned.
Those concerns were temporarily lifted after an enthralling 2-1 win over Wales, thanks to a Daniel Sturridge winner in stoppage time.
But England have a history of not making things easy for themselves. A dour 0-0 draw with Slovakia was enough to see England through to the Round of 16, but the Three Lions finished second, one point adrift of Wales.
England fans became less concerned when they found out Iceland were to be their opponent in the knockout stage.
Iceland were the upstarts of the competition as this was their first ever appearance in any major international tournament. Nothing was expected from Strakanir Okkar except for them to play 3 matches, gain some experience, make friends, have a good time at the parties, then go home. Iceland had other ideas.
Two surprise draws against Portugal and Hungary was followed by a shocking 2-1 victory over Austria that propelled Iceland into a spot in the knockout stage and a date with venerable England.
Most English pundits and supporters were quite confident that England would advance. That confidence grew when England were awarded a penalty in the fourth minute. Wayne Rooney converted from 12 yards out to give England an early lead. By all accounts, England with their depth and talent should have overwhelmed Iceland who should have been left shaken and reeling because they conceded so early. Instead, Iceland became the more assertive side.
Just two minutes after Rooney’s goal, an Iceland throw in was headed to an oncoming Ragnar Sigurosson who sprinted forward from his centre back position. The English defence were caught napping as Sigurosson smartly finished to draw Iceland level.
Just 12 minutes later, Iceland striker Kolbeinn Sigbporsson found himself just inside the 18-yard box and delivered a shot that Joe Hart should have handled. Instead, the English keeper only got his fingertips on the ball as it rolled meekly into the back of the net.
Iceland now had the lead which meant England needed to press forward. But Iceland did a marvellous job containing England to the outside while controlling the centre of the pitch.
As the minutes ticked away, England became more desperate but Iceland remained firm in its denial. The Scandinavians even had opportunities to extend their lead on counter-attacks as England’s defenders were sneaking forward.
When the full time whistle blew, English players collapsed in despair. English supporters could only watch with tears in their eyes their Iceland counterparts celebrate with the Viking Clap that became one of the great images of Euro 2016.
The English media were livid. Former Liverpool and Aston Villa forward Stan Collymore ripped Hart and Rooney for their poor showings while former England striker Alan Shearer went on BBC and proclaimed it the worst performance he had ever seen from an England team. England manager Roy Hodgson resigned following the game. This was one of the lowest moments in the history of English sport.
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