Nooooo! After World Cup heartbreak, a look at near misses from around the world
This India team is among the greatest in history to not have lifted a coveted trophy. Rudraneil Sengupta takes a tour of other greats that faced heartbreak too.
Forty days of breath-taking, all-conquering cricket. One day to lose it all.
Australia are the deserving champions of the 2023 World Cup, but to anyone who followed the tournament, there can be no doubt that this India team is the greatest in recent history not to lift the coveted trophy.
Rohit Sharma dazzled as a maverick opener. Virat Kohli proved yet again that he is one of the all-time greats, with a batting average that hovered near 100 and that final tally of 765, the highest in the tournament.
Mohammed Shami was unplayable, picking up three five-wicket hauls and ending as the tournament’s highest wicket-taker, with 24 scalps.
Jasprit Bumrah was lethal. Shreyas Iyer stood up to be counted, with some big scores. KL Rahul was excellent behind the stumps and in front of them… the list goes on.
And yet here we are. The great team that fails to win the big prize is a poignant if heart-breaking aspect of sport.
I’ve been assuaging the pain by revisiting other great teams that did not lift the prestige trophy in a year when they seemed destined to. India are in good company (and, of course, there is next time).
South Africa and the World Cup (1992, 1996, 1999)
In the 1990s, South Africa produced some of the greatest players the game has ever seen: Allan Donald, Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Jonty Rhodes, Lance Klusener, Hansie Cronje. Yet the World Cup eluded them, over and over.
In 1992, with an easy 22 runs needed off 13 balls to beat England in the semis, rain interrupted the game. The organisers used a convoluted and untested method to recalculate the target when play resumed, leaving South Africa with the impossible task of scoring 22 runs off one ball. Even the English players were embarrassed by how they won.
South Africa came into the 1996 quarterfinal against West Indies having won all 10 of their group matches, and were coasting in the quarters at 186 for 3, chasing just 264. They lost the next seven wickets for 59 runs, ending 19 runs short of the target.
In the 1999 semi-final against Australia, South Africa needed 9 off the final over to win. No problem, because Klusener, then the best finisher in the game, was at the crease. He hit two fours in the first two balls. Just a run needed off four balls. Then, the most tragicomic mix-up (why did Donald stay frozen in place; why was he looking in the other direction!) resulted in a run out. The match was drawn, but Australia progressed because they had finished higher than the Proteas in the group stage.
The Dutch and football (1974 to 1978)
This is when Johan Cruyff was leading that true tactical revolution — Total Football — a change in the fundamentals that would shape the game as we know it. In the 1974 World Cup, they thrashed Argentina 4-0, got the better of Brazil 2-0, and were the dominant, unbeaten force of the tournament. Until they met West Germany in the final. The Netherlands lost 2-1. In 1978, a Cruyff-less Netherlands were not the force they were in 1974, but they were good enough to make the final of the World Cup again. Again, they lost. This time to Argentina.
Brazil and the 1982 football World Cup
If the Dutch were the custodians of the “beautiful game” with their Total Football in the 1970s, that mantle passed back to the original purveyors of beauty in football, the Brazilians, in the early 1980s. Arguably, no team in football history quite matched the artistry of Brazil at the 1982 World Cup. Led by Socrates, Falcao, Zico and Toninho Cerezo, they dazzled. They scored 15 goals in their first five games. Then came one of the most thrilling World Cup face-offs, a rollercoaster encounter with Italy in the second group stage. Brazil lost 3-2 and exited the Cup.
US men’s basketball and the 2004 Olympics
Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson — an all-star team to dazzle all teams — travelled to Athens to defend US’s Olympic gold, a medal they had not lost since they introduced NBA stars into their Olympic team in 1992. But individual stars don’t make a team, and a rift between players and the coach always spells disaster. The US had a disastrous campaign, losing to the semi-pros of Puerto Rico, Lithuania and, eventually, Argentina. The team came away with bronze.