Worst seasons of the century

Cris Freddi takes us through the seasons he'd rather forget

We’re talking mainly postwar here, if only because there were fewer competitions before it. England had a bad season in 1928-29, beaten by a last-minute goal direct from a corner at Hampden and 4-3 in Mad­rid, their first de­feat by a foreign coun­t­ry – and 1901-02 was a bad one for everybody, especially the 25 who died in the first Ib­rox disaster. But ex­amples came thick­er and faster after 1945.

Immediately after, in fact, the collapse of crush bar­riers at Burnden Park in March 1946 resulting in 33 fatalities, a figure eclipsed by the 66 who suffocated to death at Ibrox in January 1971, after which events on the pitch did nothing to take the taste away: a con­troversial own goal sent my home club Reading down to the Fourth Division on goal average, and Tottenham’s defeat at White Hart Lane handed Arsenal the first half of the Double.

In purely playing terms, the first really bad postwar season was probably 1953-54, which began with Hun­gary’s landmark win at Wembley and didn’t recover. England suffered the heaviest defeat in their history, 7-1 in Budapest, then went out of the World Cup to a Uruguayan team with only eight fit men. In the same tournament, Scotland also fell to their worst ever de­f­eat, 7-0 against 11 fit Urug­uayans; Hungary lost the final because the Ger­mans had crippled Puskás; and Italy went down twice to the very ordinary Swiss, including 4-1 in a play-off. The “Fin­ney Cup Final” ended in a 3-2 defeat for Preston against West Brom and he never won a medal.

Similar stories four years later, overshadowed of course by the Munich air disaster. Its repercussions were felt not only by Man Utd (defeat in the FA Cup final thanks to Nat Lofthouse charging goalkeeper Harry Gregg over the line) but also in the World Cup finals by Scotland (Matt Busby was their part-time manager) and Eng­land, who didn’t win a match be­tween them. Mean­while Italy, for the only time in their history, didn’t qualify.

The whole of Italian football was still suffering the effects of an even worse season, although I admit I’m mak­­ing a crass comparison here, classifying fatal dis­as­ters according to the number of deaths.When a plane crashed into the Superga basilica above Turin in 1949, wiping out the entire squad of Il Grande Torino, league champions for the previous three years, people in Italy might have been forgiven for believing it was God calling his chosen ones home, after they had com­pleted their task of giving hope to a country bombed to hell by friend and foe alike.

Torino supplied anything up to ten members of the national team, which didn’t fully recover for almost 20 years. Later in that 1949-50 season they lost to Sweden in São Paulo, handing back the World Cup for the first time in 15 years. In the same competition, England, who had already suffered their first home defeat by a country from outside the Home Championship (the Republic of Ireland at Goodison), trumped that with their famous defeat by the US.

For me, apart from 1966 and 1982, every World Cup year has ended in tears. In 1986 the Hand of God, Italy giving up the title without much of a fight and the scandal of FIFA allowing Mexico to host it at all. In 1990 England and Italy eliminated on penalties, 1998 ditto. In 1993-94 the title of not only Best Team In The World but also Most Successful Of All Time decided by a penalty shoot-out, in which our gallant Italian lads (well, mine at least) came second – this after England had failed to qualify thanks to that blond man still being on the pitch, followed by the ignominy of a San Marino goal in 8.76 seconds. Oh well, it brought in Venables in place of Taylor, so we can talk about silver linings.

The situation in 1977-78 was similar and almost as galling. Italy this time qualified at the expense of Re­vie’s dreadful England and were kept out of the final only by two pre­posterous long-range shots (did I not like orange). This left Argentina, well beaten by Italy in a group match, to win a tournament that FIFA should have taken away from them immediately after the mil­itary coup. Instead we were treated to the worst scene in any World Cup, Passarella (“the dirtiest great player in the world”) receiving the trophy from General Jorge Rafael Videla, whose junta had “disappeared” thous­ands of its own people. An obscene price to pay for our first views of Ossie Ardiles.

In 1963-64 General Franco, having pulled Spain out of a European Nations Cup tie against the USSR in 1960, was happy enough to present the trophy in person after the final four years later, when Spain beat the same opposition in the Bern­abéu. Earlier in the competition, the Soviets had eliminated Italy. For some reason, the second leg was shown on English TV, which made me experience the first sporting trauma of my arm­chair viewing life, Lev Yashin saving a penalty from Sandro Mazzola, my all-time fav­ourite play­er, while my mum’s dulcet tones were exhorting Rivera and Co to keep the ball on the bloody deck. When they eventually did, they scored a last-minute equal­iser, much too little too late.

Later in the same sea­son, England lost by more than three goals for the last time to date, 5-1 in the Maracanã. Six days earlier, during the Peru v Argentina match in Lima, 301 people died and another 500 were in­jured trying to escape police tear gas.

Enough, all in all, to make this a leading candidate for the worst sea­son ever – but over here we are more affected by 1988-89, when 96 people died at Hillsborough through no fault of their own. The only thing that could add to the horror would be see­ing sales of the Sun recover on Merseyside.

But even that probably takes second place to 1984-85, again on a crude numerical basis: three disasters instead of one, each the result of years of com­placency as much as anything. At Valley Parade, 56 people were burnt to death or asphyxiated in an outdated stadium. At St Andrews, a young boy was crushed to death in an outdated stadium by English thugs, as were 39 fans in the Heysel. The worst three weeks in English football history.

Even so, I’m going to go for 1973-74, for purely per­sonal reasons, including just a single death. Cruyff’s Holland lost the World Cup final. Italy, more app­allingly old-fas­hioned and defensive than ever, were embarrassed by Haiti and well beaten by Poland (Ma­z­zola, bril­liant to the last, wasn’t picked again). The Poles therefore com­plet­ed a dou­ble whammy, having qualified via that trau­matic draw at Wem­bley which cost Sir Alf his job. Tott­enham lost the UEFA Cup final against Feyenoord, the first major cup final defeat in their history, after which their fans staged the cus­tomary riot in Rot­terdam. Milan, as defensive as the mother country, lost the Cup-Winners final. João Havel­ange took over as FIFA president, apparently with $18.5 million worth of help from Pelé.

Closer to home, my ad­olescent heart re­ceived its first cut (it really is the deepest) and my mum died at 40. The rest, after all, was only the worst in foot­ball.

From WSC 155 January 2000. What was happening this month