Sometimes, the best don’t win. The Hungarian team of 1954 still holds the record for most goals scored in a World Cup tournament, but lost in the Miracle of Bern. Greg Norman finished in the top three at the Masters six times, but never wore the green jacket. The New England Patriots finished the 2007 season with 18 consecutive wins and one final, last-second loss. A few of our writers give their choices for the best team or athlete who didn’t win it all.
I’ve always thought that American distance runner Steve Prefontaine was the greatest athlete to never win Olympic gold. It was not just his ability, but also the way he approached racing that set him apart. He refused to sit back and then pass an opponent in the final lap. He wanted to win a race from the front, from the start. This approach is more demanding, both mentally and physically. However, Pre didn’t just want to win. He wanted to win in a particular way. To him, a race wasn’t merely a contest, it was like a work of art: “Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s a style. It’s doing something better than anyone else. It’s being creative.” Pre’s death in a car accident in 1975 will always leave us wondering what might have been at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
–Mike Austin is editor of the book The Olympics and Philosophy. He teaches philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.
The 2001 Parramatta Eels team in Australia’s National Rugby League. They lost only four games all season (out of 26) and broke the all-time record for most points scored by a club in a season (943). When they reached the grand final, they played in front of the third largest crowd ever for a rugby league match in Australia – 90,414. The Eels then choked in an almost unrivalled fashion against the Newcastle Knights, conceding 24 points to zero in the first half. They ultimately lost the game 30-24, failing to break a premiership drought dating back to 1986, and which continues to this day. This performance became synonymous with the overall record of their coach for the 2001 season, Brian Smith, who is widely regarded as the best rugby league coach never to win a grand final. Smith coached teams that consistently made it to the finals in a career that spanned over 500 games and almost thirty years, but was never able to guide a team to victory in the grand final.
–Brett Hutchins is co-author of Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport. He teaches media studies at Monash University.
I’m tempted to go with the Brazilian soccer team of 1982, but I’ll shift sports and go with the Utah Jazz in the second half of the ‘90s. They had pretty much everything to win multiple championships – two great players in John Stockton and Karl Malone, a fantastic coach in Jerry Sloan, and a terrific support cast in Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell, and Antoine Carr. They had everything they needed to win – except for the fact that they were up against the Chicago Bulls (who beat them in two NBA finals, both over six games) and Michael Jordan (who was so good he could beat them even when he had the Flu.)
–Siddhartha Vaidyanathan writes for ESPNcricinfo
It has to be the Dutch soccer team that lost both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals. In the early 1970s their “total football” completely caught the spirit of the age. It abolished fixed roles and encouraged the players to roam as the spirit took them, filling in for each other as needed. Led by the iconic Johan Cruyff and the equally important Johan Neeskens (a midfield destroyer of creative genius), they swept all before them into the 1974 final in Munich. There they met an equally great West German side, orchestrated by Franz Beckenbauer and with Gerd Müller to put the ball in the net – as he did to win this final game. It would have been some consolation for pretty much the same team (but without Cruyff) to win four years later in Argentina, but again they fell at the final hurdle to the home team.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London
Barry Sanders of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. He won the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football and two MVP awards in the NFL. He led the NFL in running yards four times, once rushed for 100 yards in 14 consecutive games, and was only the third of seven running backs to ever gain 2000 yards in a season. After he retired, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But beyond the accomplishments, the enigma of Sanders was his early retirement after his tenth pro season. There had been no decline in his efficiency or power, he had four years left on his contract, and he had no significant injury history. He later confirmed that he tired of the losing culture of the Lions, the only team he ever played for in the NFL. He might be the only player in history to have stated on record that he would be willing to return money ($5.5 million of his last signing bonus), if his team would trade or release him. The whole ordeal was a reflective of the increasing dissatisfaction of players with the collective bargaining agreements they toil under, and a rare instance of a player simply leaving money on the table, along with the prospect of further individual success on the field. Nonetheless, Sanders was breathtaking, a rare mix of elusive and explosive abilities as a runner. At least once a game he left an opponent looking inept and a fan scratching their head in awe.
–Brett Bebber is author of Violence and Racism in Football: Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society. He teaches history at Old Dominion University
I think my answer would be either the West Indian cricket team of 1983, which failed to win the World Cup after two consecutive victories, or the Brazilian football team of 1982. The former was possibly the strongest cricket team of all time and they had it all: great batsmen, great fast bowlers, great fielders, all led by a cool, calm, captain in Clive Lloyd. But they collapsed and lost in a stunning upset to the Indian team (1-60 outsiders before the Cup began). The West Indies have never won the Cup since. As for the Brazilians, I’m only reiterating a claim made by many others; their knockout by Italy (2-3) was an upset, and the vagaries of the pool system sent them out. But they had it all: great midfielders and strikers; tough, creative full-backs; and lots and lots of style. They were the last Brazilian team to play true jogo bonito, and just for that, my sense of melancholy about their loss is extreme.
–Samir Chopra is author of Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College
It would not be unfair to suggest that the technical superiority of New Zealand’s All Blacks has often come with a slice of hubris. Between their win in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 to the most recent tournament in 2011, the All Blacks were the team that simply could not win on the biggest stage. Arriving at almost every World Cup as stand-out favorites, New Zealand had the unhappy ability to blitz their opponents in the group stages before falling to unfancied opposition in the knock-out stages. I say hubris because such defeats were nearly always characterized by a determination to continue with a dazzling style of rugby when the circumstances demanded something plainer, rougher, and more pragmatic. The two most egregious defeats came to French sides in 1999 and 2007, where the weaker team was simply invited back into the game after a period of total dominance. When the World Cup finally returned to New Zealand in 2011, the All Blacks were anything but convincing. The final was one of the strangest games of rugby I have ever watched. Once again, their opponents were France, who had stumbled their way through the tournament. But the French outplayed the All Blacks with a performance of stunning conviction – only to be denied by the most uneven refereeing performance I have ever witnessed. The All Blacks inched home by the narrowest margin (8-7). They are the reigning world champions, but the edgy – not to say fortuitous – nature of the result highlights their strange fragility under pressure.
–Dominic Erdozain teaches theology at Emory University and is a research fellow at King’s College London