Top Tenner: World Cup Semifinals
With the World Cup in Brazil now at the semifinal stage, we look at 10 of the greatest semifinals from down the years.
10. Argentina 2-0 Belgium, 1986
It's a nice story to say that Diego Maradona won the World Cup on his own in 1986, but he of course had plenty of help -- their defence was strong, conceding only three goals before the final, while Jorge Valdano scored four goals and there were plenty of other top-drawer players in that team.
That said, Maradona's performance that year was utterly extraordinary and is defined by two absurdly brilliant goals, the first the slaloming effort in the quarterfinal against England, the second another solo strike against Belgium in the semifinal, in which he picked up the ball 35 yards out and burst through a space that looked impossible to negotiate and smashed the ball home.
In truth, this was a relatively routine victory for Argentina (as routine as a World Cup semifinal can be), but it displayed one of the greatest players the world has ever seen at the very peak of his powers, so for that reason alone deserves a place on this list.
9. England 2-1 Portugal, 1966
The finest moment in English football history very nearly didn't happen -- or at least wouldn't have done if Eusebio had managed to complete an unlikely comeback in the semifinal.
Bobby Charlton gave England the lead after half an hour, then doubled it with 10 minutes remaining, and Alf Ramsey's men began half-celebrating a place in the final.
However, Eusebio scored a penalty a couple of minutes later, and a late onslaught very nearly took the game away from the English, but they managed to hold on thanks to some fine saves by Gordon Banks.
Unlike England's bad-tempered win over Argentina in the quarterfinal, this was a game conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, so much so that Portuguese coach Otto Gloria congratulated the English after the game and correctly predicted they would win the final. "England plays football as it should be played. Germany relies on force," he said.
8. England 1-1 West Germany (West Germany won 4-3 on penalties), 1990
"It's the one thing, looking back, that I've got a tinge of disappointment about," Gary Lineker said a few years ago about the 1990 semifinal.
"We were on the brink of getting to the final, and I think if we had got there, we would have been strong favourites. I had this conversation with him [Bobby Robson] once or twice. I remember the frustration, getting that close."
This was of course more than just a single game in the story of English football, but a turning point in the rehabilitation of the sport after the stigmatised 1980s, and it perhaps says something about the English psyche that it took glorious failure to connect with the public at large.
There were more than enough moments that those estranged from the game could identify with, from Lineker telling Robson to keep tabs on Paul Gascoigne after the yellow card that would put him out of the final, to the tears of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle.
It was, of course, also a very exciting game, with Waddle inches away from putting England through without penalties, his extra-time shot crashing against the post. But for Lineker, Waddle, Pearce, Gascoigne and Robson, it will always be the great 'what if.'
7. Uruguay 6-1 Yugoslavia, 1930
Before the World Cup, the only real international football tournament was the Olympics, and in the years prior to 1930, Uruguay were the dominant force.
They won the gold medal in 1924 and 1928, taking Yugoslavia apart on their way to the former, thrashing them 7-0, and they almost repeated the feat on a bigger stage in 1930.
Yugoslavia actually took a surprise lead through Dorde Vujadinovic, but Uruguay quickly struck back through Pedro Cea then Peregrimo Anselmo, to go 2-1 up. However, the Yugoslavs were then the victim of some 'questionable' refereeing, as Brazilian official Gilberto de Almeida Rego firstly denied them a goal by an offside flag that we shall simply say 'could have gone either way,' then Uruguay scored a goal after the ball went out of play only to be put straight back in by a watching policeman.
Uruguay went on to run away with the match, Cea scoring another couple to complete his hat trick, and, of course, went on to lift the first World Cup with a victory over Argentina in the final.
6. Germany 0-2 Italy, 2006
Winning the 2006 World Cup was a matter of hope rather than expectation for Germany. Sure, they had made the final in 2002, but they had limped out of the 2004 European Championships at the first-round stage without winning a game, and the brilliant generation of players who currently populate the side had yet to come through.
Still, they made it to the semifinal, where they played Italy in a throbbing Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, and 118 minutes of goalless tension meant that penalties seemed inevitable.
Then, Fabio Grosso, of all people, swept in a remarkable deadlock-breaker, before Alessandro del Piero, appearing as if from nowhere on a counter-attack as Germany desperately looked for an equaliser, finished it off.
"I am drunk with joy," said Grosso after the game. "I haven't got much to say only that it is a victory for a strong group of people."
5. Brazil 4-2 Chile, 1962
The 1962 World Cup was one of remarkable violence, of course most famously in the game between Chile and Italy in the first round. However, it would permeate the whole tournament, and not least in the semifinal between the hosts and the defending champions, when Chile tried to kick Garrincha, Brazil's star in the absence of the injured Pele and their player of the tournament, out of the game.
That didn't work, but it did succeed in riling the bow-legged genius so much that after 83 minutes of fouls, he finally snapped and booted Chile midfielder Eladio Rojas in the stomach, for which he was, of course, sent off.
Brazil launched a rather optimistic appeal on the basis that Garrincha had been goaded by the crowd, and remarkably it worked, and he was allowed to play in the final.
Garrincha had given Brazil the lead with two first-half goals, Chile pulled one back through Jorge Toro, before a couple from Vava sealed the victory despite one more comeback attempt through a goal by Leonel Sanchez.
4. Hungary 4-2 Uruguay 1954
The progress of Hungary in the 1954 World Cup is often painted as a breeze all the way until the final, where they were defeated by West Germany in the 'miracle of Bern,' but that isn't quite the case.
For a start, they were without Ferenc Puskas for the quarter and semifinal, after he was hobbled by a rake to his Achilles in the group game against the Germans.
In the semifinal against defending champions Uruguay, Zoltan Czibor and Nandor Hidegkuti put them ahead, and it looked like they would cruise through to the final until Juan Hohberg scored in the 75th and 86th minutes to level things. So excited and exhausted was Hohberg that he fainted after the second strike and had to be revived by the attendant first-aiders.
The game went to extra-time, where Sandor Koscis bagged two quick goals, and this time the Magyars held on and made the final, where most expected them to lift the trophy, only for one of the most extraordinary upsets in World Cup history to deny them.
3. Brazil 5-2 France, 1958
Pele nearly didn't make it to the 1958 World Cup, a knee injury putting his selection in serious doubt until his teammates insisted on him travelling to Sweden. He didn't play in the first two games and appeared but didn't score in the third before netting the winner in Brazil's quarterfinal victory over Wales.
However, he truly announced his arrival in the semifinal against France, scoring a second-half hat trick to give Brazil an emphatic 5-2 victory and a place in the final, where Pele would cement his status as the newest superstar in world football.
It takes something for a player to eclipse another who scored 13 goals at a World Cup, but 1958 will always be known as Pele's tournament, not Just Fontaine's.
2. West Germany 3-3 France (West Germany win 5-4 on penalties), 1982
This game is, of course, best remembered for Harald Schumacher's assault on Patrick Battiston, and while football always likes a bogeyman to point at and scorn, it is rather a shame that the rest of the match isn't remembered quite so fondly, for it was a corker.
"That was my most beautiful game," said Michel Platini, which from a man who won five league titles, the European Cup and the European Championships, is quite a statement.
"What happened in those two hours encapsulated all the sentiments of life itself. No film or play could ever recapture so many contradictions and emotions. It was complete. So strong. It was fabulous."
Pierre Litbarski gave the Germans the lead after 18 minutes, but shortly after Platini equalised from the penalty spot, and that's how it stayed until full time. France then looked like they had the game in the bag after extra-time goals by Marius Tresor and Alain Giresse, only for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Karl Fischer with a bicycle kick to level things.
The teams missed one penalty apiece in the initial five in the shootout, before Schumacher, who of course should not have been on the pitch, saved from Didier Six, and the Germans were in the final.
1. West Germany 3-4 Italy, 1970
Many will argue that this is the greatest World Cup match full stop, never mind the best semifinal; indeed, so astonishing was it that to this day there remains a plaque commemorating the occasion outside the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
Roberto Boninsegna put the Italians ahead early on, and utilising their brilliant and sometimes brutal defence, led by Giacinto Facchetti, they tried to shut up shop, holding on until the final minute when Karl-Heinz Schnellinger equalised for the Germans.
Gerd Muller then scored four minutes into extra time, then Italy took the lead through Tarcisio Burgnich and Gigi Riva, before Muller scored again, only for Gianni Rivera to score the winner just a minute later.
Of course, Franz Beckenbauer dislocated his shoulder in the second half, but because the Germans had already made both permitted substitutions, he had to play on, arm strapped across his chest like a striding, 6-foot Napoleon. The Italians would go on to put up only half a fight in the final, losing 4-1 to Brazil, the stuffing, energy and spirit knocked out of them by this most bruising of encounters.