Brazilian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English fans can console themselves with the fact that the only thing worse than losing in a World Cup quarter-final is losing in a World Cup semi-final. To be so close to the biggest game of all and not make it is harrowing. However, that is also the reason why teams in the semi-finals do everything they can to make the final and why the semi-finals are so often the best game of any World Cup tournament.
Ahead of the 2022 World Cup semi-finals this week, here are the five finest World Cup semi-finals ever, in reverse order.
The Five Finest World Cup Semi-Finals to Ever Happen
Spain 1, Germany 0 in South Africa in 2010
On the surface, it would seem that the best semi-final at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was the first one, between the Netherlands and Uruguay, which the Netherlands won 3-2. However, that only shows that goals alone do not decide the quality of a match. There may have been only one goal in the second semi-final between Spain and Germany, but that was why it was such a tense, nervy thriller between the two best sides in world football at the time.
Between 2008 and 2014, Spain and Germany were undoubtedly the two best international teams in men’s football, with Spain initially dominating the series before Germany finally ended up winning the biggest prize of all, namely the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In 2010, however, Spain came out on top, as they had in the Euro 2008 Final two years earlier, and again by a single goal.
In Vienna, it had been Fernando Torres, coming off his finest-ever season with Liverpool (a season he would never come close to replicating), who got the winner with a wonderful close-range finish. Then, in Port Elizabeth, it was Carlos Puyol (aka Captain Caveman, as he was known because of his shaggy locks and near-Neanderthal facial appearance) who headed the late decider. Thus, Spain proved that they could play not only beautiful football to win a tournament but, if necessary, ugly football, too.
Italy 2, Germany 0 (After Extra Time) in Germany 2006
Given the current financial scandal involving Juventus, which has led to their entire board of directors, including Andrea Agnelli and Pavel Nedved, resigning en masse, Italian football fans must really be rueing the fact that their side did not qualify for the World Cup (for the second time in succession). That’s because, on the previous two occasions that Italy won the World Cup, in 1982 and 2006, Italian football was similarly engulfed in scandal.
In 1982, Paolo Rossi had only just returned from a two-year ban after involvement in illegal betting before he scored the goals that won the Azzurri their third World Cup (after the two they had won in the 1930s). And in 2006, the Calciopoli scandal, involving the bribing of referees, was the precursor to Italy winning their fourth World Cup. Consequently, 21st-century Italian fans must wonder what would have happened in 2022 if only their team had qualified.
In 2006, the Calciopoli scandal, which Juventus were again at the heart of (and would ultimately be relegated to Serie B for), undoubtedly helped to breed a siege mentality among the Italian team. And that siege mentality had to be at its strongest in the semi-final against hosts Germany, who were playing at the Westfalenstadion, Borussia Dortmund’s home ground, where they had never previously lost. It seemed that they would not lose again, at least not in regulation play or extra time. That was until Italy scored two goals within a minute right at the end of extra time, first through full-back Fabio Grosso and then through Juventus and Italy poster-boy Alessandro del Piero, to win the match and reach the final.
West Germany 1, England 1 (West Germany Win 4-3 on Penalties) in Italy in 1990
Older England fans will remember the sheer agony of the 1990 semi-final defeat to West Germany at Italia 90. Ultimately, it might have provided the impetus for the revamping of English football with the formation of the Premier League just two years later (not to mention being the inspiration for Chris England and Arthur Smith’s superbly funny play An Evening With Gary Lineker). At the time, however, it was only a source of desolation, as England came so close to beating the eventual champions, West Germany, before beginning their hate-hate affair with penalties and crashing out.
Some of those older English fans will have remembered that crushing last-four loss after England similarly had the better of France in their 2022 World Cup quarter-final. Just as in the French game, England impressed against West Germany in the 1990 semi-final and arguably should have won before it went to penalties. However, just as happened against France at the weekend, ultimately the West Germans kept their cool better than England and scored all four of their penalties, while Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, just like Harry Kane, lost theirs and fired over.
West Germany 3, France 3 (West Germany Win 5-4 on Penalties) in Spain in 1982
READ MORE: Will France Win the World Cup in 2022?
If France should go on to beat Morocco in their semi-final this week (which certainly won’t be easy, especially as Morocco is effectively playing at home in Qatar), they will have reached their fourth World Cup Final in 24 years, with a chance of winning a third Coupe de Monde. So, notwithstanding Spain’s run of three tournament wins in a succession between 2008 and 2012 (one World Cup and two European Championships), France can legitimately claim to be the greatest World Cup nation since Brazil won three World Cups out of four between 1958 and 1970.
Arguably, that age of French greatness began 40 years ago in Seville, when a team led by Michel Platini agonisingly lost a World Cup semi-final to West Germany on penalties, after one of the greatest World Cup matches ever. France actually led 3-1 in extra time, before Germany (who, of course, should have had goalkeeper Harald Schumacher sent off for his assault on Patrick Battiston, which didn’t even receive a yellow card) fought back to level at 3-3 and eventually win 5-4 on penalties, in the first-ever World Cup penalty shootout.
Les Bleus lost that match, but two years later Platini and co. would win the 1984 European Championships on home soil, laying the groundwork for all the international silverware that has flowed into France ever since.
1. Italy 4, West Germany 3 (After Extra Time) In Mexico in 1970
▪️ Equalizer in the 92nd minute
▪️ FIVE goals in extra time
▪️ Rivera scored the winner while the TV was still showing replays of Müller’s equalizer
Imagine if any of the 2022 World Cup semifinals are as wild as Italy vs. West Germany in 1970 🤯 pic.twitter.com/MwPVTqT3B5
— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 12, 2022
The Italy-West Germany semi-final at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City in 1970 was officially recognised by FIFA as “The Game of the Century” and a plaque to that effect has been installed at the Azteca. In truth, it would probably be more accurate to call it “The Extra-Time of the Century”, as five of the seven goals were scored in the additional 30 minutes and the Brazil-Italy 1982 World Cup match, which Italy also won (3-2 within 90 minutes), was probably the better match overall. However, what is undeniable is that the Italy-West Germany clash in 1970 was the greatest World Cup semi-final ever.
The initial game ended 1-1 after West Germany’s Karl-Heinz Schnellinger scored a 92-minute equaliser to cancel out Roberto Boninsegna’s eighth-minute opener for Italy. But having waited over 80 minutes for a second goal, the 100,000-plus crowd at the Azteca then saw five goals in less than half an hour. First, Gerd Müller put Germany ahead right at the start of extra time, before Tarcisio Burgnich made it 2-2 soon afterward. Then Luigi Riva made it 3-2 to Italy before Müller got his second to make it 3-3. Finally, in the 111-minute, Gianni Rivera, the golden boy of Italian football at the time, scored Italy’s fourth, and the Azzurri held out to win 4-3.
It was a match totally at odds with the largely defensive football that had dominated much of the 1960s in Europe, especially in Italy. However, it was also a match that proved – yet again – that the World Cup is the biggest prize of all, and teams and players will do anything to win it (or, as in this case, just reach the final). If either semi-final this week is even a fifth as good, it will be a classic.