The appalling attack on Nice during the Bastille Day celebrations instantly puts into context any feelings of sadness or loss in France at the national team’s failure to win Euro 2016. While there was understandable disappointment that, for the first time since the 1938 World Cup, a French football team could not triumph in an international tournament it was hosting. That is as nothing compared to the shock and horror the country is now experiencing after another terrorist atrocity. The latest attack has claimed the lives of so many innocent people, including, it appears, many children.
Of course, the fact that almost all the French players involved in the defeat to Portugal had also been at the Stade de France last November when it was attacked by a suicide bomber. They were already fully aware of the difference between a so-called “sporting tragedy”, such as the loss of a major international final, and genuine tragedy.
One French player who was probably more keenly aware of that than many others is Antoine Griezmann. His sister Maud was in the Bataclan nightclub when it was stormed by gunmen. She only survived by lying on the floor and pretending to be dead. As she told The New York Times recently, “If you moved, you were shot.”
Griezmann Another Top Scorer who Failed to Win the Main Prize
As a result, Antoine is unlikely to be overly disappointed by his failure to score in the final against Portugal. He was unable to add to the six goals that had already made him the top scorer at Euro 2016. Nevertheless, there is a certain piquancy in his becoming the latest international striker to top-score in a tournament without getting the goal that really mattered – the winner (or indeed any goal) in the final.
The most famous example of that is a fellow Frenchman, Just Fontaine. He was the leading scorer for France at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with an astonishing 13 goals in just six games (an average of more than two goals a game). This is a record that still stands and in truth is unlikely ever to be beaten. France reached the semifinal and Fontaine scored against the eventual winners Brazil. It was not enough as Brazil won 5-2. Teenager Pele scored the hat-trick that launched him on the world stage and consigned Fontaine to comparative obscurity, at least outside France.
There have been many other such “nearly men”: the top scorers in a major international tournament who, for all their goals, could not quite lead their team to victory. Their “Golden Boot” (the traditional trophy given to a competition’s top scorer) became the hollowest of consolation prizes.
The Nearly Men of the World Cup
In World Cups, it has often been the case that the top scorer has not gone on to lift the trophy. At the 2014 World Cup, James Rodríguez of Colombia scored six goals, but Colombia were defeated in the quarterfinal by Brazil. In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there were four joint top scorers on five goals apiece; Diego Forlán of Uruguay, Thomas Müller of Germany, Wesley Sneijder of Holland and David Villa of Spain. Villa was the only one who went on to win the tournament.
Other World Cup leading scorers who failed to win the trophy include Oleg Salenko of Russia, who was joint top scorer on six goals at the USA World Cup in 1994. However, as if to prove the truth of Fatih Terem’s classic line that, “Statistics are like mini-skirts – they don’t reveal everything”, five of Salenko’s six goals came in a first-round match against Cameroon. All his goals were not enough even to get Russia out of their group, let alone win the tournament. The other top scorer, Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria, at least made the semifinal.
Similarly, in Italia 90 Salvatore “Totò” Schillaci was the tournament’s top scorer, again with six goals. However, he could not emulate his fellow countryman, Paolo Rossi. Rossi’s goals inspired Italy to a surprise World Cup win in Spain in 1982. Instead of lifting the trophy, Schillaci’s sad face after Italy had lost on penalties to Argentina in the semifinal showed the misery of a fine footballer who realises he will never lift the greatest prize of all.
The fate of these top scorers who could not lead their teams to tournament wins is a reminder, if it were needed, that football is a team game. Individual honours, such as winning a Golden Boot, only really matter if they are achieved alongside team success. In that context, it is worth remembering the extraordinary feats of probably the greatest goal scorer in football history, Gerd Müller.
Müller was the top scorer at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico with 10 goals. However, even reaching double figures for goals at a tournament (Müller and Just Fontaine are the only players to reach that landmark in 19 World Cup tournaments) was not enough to win that tournament for West Germany (as they were then), after Italy beat them 4-3 in a classic semifinal. Four years later, however, with the World Cup on home soil, Müller scored four goals (a relatively poor haul for such a compulsive scorer). However, one of them was the winner in the 2-1 defeat of Holland in the final.
A Man Apart
What sets Müller apart from even the other great goal scorers in football history, from Dixie Dean in the 1920s to Ronaldo and Messi today, is that many of his most important goals were scored in major finals, including several winning goals. To this day, he remains the only man to have scored in the finals of the three biggest competitions he competed in: the European Cup (he scored two in the replayed match against Atletico Madrid in 1974); the European Championship (he hit another brace as West Germany beat Russia in 1972); and the World Cup (famously spinning and shooting, seemingly all in one movement, to net the winner against the Netherlands in 1974).
When the lists of the greatest players of all time are compiled, Müller is rarely included, and it is true that he was not the most graceful or skilful of players. However, as a goal scorer he was incomparable. His nearest rival during his own playing days, Jimmy Greaves, was an exceptional goal scorer for his clubs, including Chelsea and Spurs, but he never even played in a World Cup final (Alf Ramsey preferring to pick Geoff Hurst instead of him), let alone scored in one.
It is that ability to score in the biggest matches of all that marks out Müller as the consummate striker, even ahead of other top scorers in World Cups such as Paolo Rossi, and certainly ahead of the men such as Antoine Griezmann, who may have scored the most goals in a tournament but never got that one vital goal when it was most needed.