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Match 63
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France 1994, Spain 1958 among best teams to miss a World Cup

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With Argentina and Lionel Messi in danger of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we have a look at five more great sides that missed out on the tournament ...

Spain, 1958

The 1958 World Cup was the only tournament for which Italy have ever failed to qualify. They didn't enter in 1930, and the 1950s proved to be a tumultuous decade in Italian football, not least because of the Superga air crash that wiped out "Il Grande Torino" and thus much of the Italian side. But perhaps even more of a surprise absentee in 1958 was Spain's failure given the players in their team. Their squad not only featured the core of the Real Madrid team that was in the process of winning the first five European Cups -- Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento, Jose Maria Zarraga, Enrique Mateos -- but also Barcelona greats Luis Suarez and Ladislao Kubala.

On paper it looks like one of the most absurd collections of attacking talent ever assembled, but qualification in those days was a slightly more random affair: only three teams to a group, meaning only four games played and therefore very little room for recovery from a bad start. And boy, was their start bad: a 2-2 draw at home to Switzerland was followed by a 4-2 defeat in Scotland, meaning a pair of 4-1 wins in the return games were ultimately futile.

Two years later, they reached the quarterfinals of the inaugural European Championships but had to forfeit the tie against the USSR after General Francisco Franco stopped the team from travelling to Soviet Russia.

Argentina, 1970

Argentina have failed to qualify only once before: for various reasons they didn't enter the 1938, 1950 and 1954 tournaments, but they missed Mexico 1970 for reasons of calamity on the pitch rather than off it. The few years leading up to qualifying were tumultuous: they had four different coaches between 1967 and 1969, and the leadership of the national association was forced to resign two weeks before qualifying started. Still, after finishing second in the 1967 Copa America, and with players like Rafael Albrecht, Antonio Rattin and Miguel Angel Brindisi in their ranks, they were expected to at least qualify.

Preparations for the opening game against Bolivia, at altitude in La Paz, were poor: they lost 3-1 and things didn't improve enormously from there. A 1-0 defeat to Peru a week later meant victories in the return games were crucial, but they only managed a 1-0 win over Bolivia, and a 2-2 draw in the final game at home to Peru meant they were denied a place in Mexico.

Czechoslovakia, 1978

There have been three occasions when the reigning European champions have failed to qualify for the World Cup: two were shock Euro winners, as Denmark failed in 1994 and Greece didn't reach the 2006 tournament, so it's perhaps not as great a surprise. The Czechoslovakia team in 1976 was slightly different; while their previous World Cup record had not been anything to shout too loudly about, they had won Euro 1976 in some style, sweeping past England in qualifying, then beating a Dutch side that featured Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink, Ruud Krol and Johan Cruyff in the semifinals. The final, when Antonin Panenka chipped his famous penalty past Sepp Maier, remains the last time Germany (or West Germany, as they were known then) lost a competitive penalty shootout.

Qualifying for the World Cup was a different business. Given a tricky three-team group with Wales and Scotland, the Czechs started well with a 2-0 win over the Scots, but two trips to Britain eventually cost them. A 3-0 loss against Wales, then a 3-1 defeat in Glasgow, sent them out, and they would only qualify for three more major tournaments before the breakup of the country in 1993.

Netherlands, 1986

Dutch football went through a period of transition and flux after the 1978 World Cup, having not qualified in 1982 or for Euro '84 (the latter thanks to an implausible 12-1 victory for Spain over Malta in the last group game) but by the time the qualifiers for 1986 came around, their next brilliant generation emerged.

Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Wim Kieft had all established themselves in the national team, part of the young group brought through by Johan Cruyff at Ajax. But this talent couldn't be translated into success for the national team, probably not helped by the fact they had three different coaches during the six-game qualifying group.

Kees Rijvers calamitously lost the first game against Hungary, and Rinus Michels was brought back as a firefighter but still couldn't prevent a 1-0 defeat in Austria. By the time Leo Beenhakker arrived, all they could aim for was a playoff place, which in they end they only managed on goal difference. They faced Belgium in the playoff, and the Dutch were in trouble from the third minute of the first leg, when a theatrical fall from Franky Vercauteren got Kieft sent off. Vercauteren himself scored the only goal of the game, and Van Basten got his second booking of the qualifiers, meaning both he and Kieft were suspended from the return leg.

Despite this, the Dutch thought qualification was in the bag after going 2-0 up in the return leg, but with five minutes remaining Georges Grun rose to score a header, sending Belgium through on away goals.

Though France would win in 1998 on home soil, Eric Cantona & Co. wasted their chance in 1994.

France, 1994

France did not qualify for the 1990 World Cup and went out at the group stage of Euro '92: thus their failure to reach USA '94 might not be the greatest shock. But a look at their collection of players tells you that this was a colossal gut-punch for a side that could (and perhaps should) have done great things in America. Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc, Franck Sauzee, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona were all in the starting lineup for the side that faced Bulgaria in the final game of their qualification group.

You could argue that the damage had already been done, with a home defeat to Israel a month earlier having held up France's qualification, but they came into this game knowing a draw would be enough for them to finish above the Bulgarians. Cantona gave them the lead, but Emil Kostadinov levelled soon after, and as the clock ticked down, tension grew.

With a minute to go, substitute David Ginola had the ball in the corner, but rather than wasting time, he hit a cross to the back post. It was too strong, Bulgaria broke and a passive French defence allowed them to play in Kostadinov, who lashed a shot in off the bar. France were out, and the recriminations were long: Gerard Houllier described Ginola as the "murderer" of French hopes, and years later, the winger sued the manager for comments made in a book. The feud continues even to this day.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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