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England's 10 most heartbreaking tournament exits since 1966 | Euro 2021 watch

  • England have had plenty of heartbreaking tournament exits over the years; here we rank their 10 most painful ones.
  • The Three Lions have crashed out of both World Cups and European Championships in dramatic ways.
Scott Newman
Top 5 / Top 10
Modified 25 Mar 2020, 07:24 IST

Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate's penalty miss at Euro 1996 remains a painful memory for England fans

With the news that Euro 2020 has been postponed to the summer of 2021, England fans will have to wait an extra year to – hopefully – see Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions end what is now 56 years of hurt, or so the song goes. Over the years that have followed their lone World Cup victory in 1966, perhaps no other international team has suffered quite so badly as England. Sure, the Three Lions have been victims of their own hubris at times – the 2010 World Cup and 2016 European Championship instantly come to mind – but at times they’ve simply come out on the wrong end of some seriously bad luck or bad refereeing decisions.

Here, then, are England’s 10 most heartbreaking tournament exits since 1966.

#10 World Cup 1970

The 1970 World Cup saw England eliminated by their old rivals Germany
The 1970 World Cup saw England eliminated by their old rivals Germany

This one could well be put down to hubris; after all, boss Sir Alf Ramsey, who famously led England to their lone World Cup victory in 1966, chose to substitute star player Bobby Charlton with 20 minutes to go in the Three Lions’ quarter-final match against West Germany while his side were 2-1 up, hoping to give the Manchester United man some extra rest prior to a semi-final clash with Italy.

As it turned out, no semi-final happened for England; Uwe Seeler equalised for the Germans with just 8 minutes of normal time remaining before Gerd Muller struck an extra-time winner, but in reality it’d be hard to blame Ramsey’s decision to substitute Charlton for the loss.

England were already up against it prior to the game, when goalkeeper Gordon Banks – arguably the world’s best at that point – was sidelined with a stomach complaint, leaving backup keeper Peter Bonetti between the sticks instead. Would Banks have saved at least one of the German goals? Quite possibly.

Either way, this one was certainly a heartbreaking loss because apart from anything else, it’d be easy to argue that the England team in this tournament was better than the one that had won the World Cup 4 years previously.

#9 Euro 2012

Ashley Cole became a victim of England
Ashley Cole became a victim of England's penalty shootout curse in 2012

Euro 2012 looked like a disastrous tournament for England before it’d even begun; manager Fabio Capello resigned just a month before the competition and was replaced by Roy Hodgson, star striker Wayne Rooney was suspended for the first two matches, and a ton of injuries left the Three Lions shorn of players like Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill and Gareth Barry.


But when the tournament begun, everyone was stunned as England actually looked good. Hodgson had clearly worked on their organisation, and the Three Lions looked tough to break down at the back and dangerous going forward, as they advanced into the knockout stages following a draw with France, an entertaining win over Sweden and finally a victory over hosts Ukraine.

Italy proved to be a step too far for them in the quarter-finals; Cesare Prandelli’s side dominated Hodgson’s and really should’ve won in normal time, but when the game somehow went to penalties, for a moment it felt like it would be England’s day.

A miss from Riccardo Montolivo put the Three Lions in the driving seat, but misses from Ashley Young and Ashley Cole meant England crashed out in what was a repeat of the same old story. Sure, Hodgson’s men didn’t deserve to win the game – but that didn’t make another penalty shootout loss any easier to take.

#8 World Cup 2006

Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney's red card helped torpedo England's World Cup dreams in 2006

The 2006 World Cup was supposed to be the crowning moment for England’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry were at the peak of their powers, the competition was being played in Germany rather than a far-flung corner of the world, and even an injury to Wayne Rooney prior to the tournament didn’t dampen expectations.

Unfortunately, when it came down to the nitty-gritty of the tournament, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team flattered to deceive from the off. They won their group thanks to wins over Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago and a draw with Sweden, but never really kicked into gear, and a dull 1-0 win over Ecuador in the round of 16 hardly set the world alight.

Still, they were in the quarter-finals, and surely a game with Portugal – who’d eliminated them from Euro 2004 – would get them fired up. Well, it almost did. England played their best game of the tournament, but a controversial red card for Rooney, who was accused of stamping on Ricardo Carvalho despite not really doing so, left the Three Lions with their backs to the wall.

The game eventually went to penalties, and in an awful shootout, somehow 5 of the 9 spot-kicks were missed. Inevitably, 3 of those misses came from England players – Lampard, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher – and once again, the Three Lions were sent packing. England never really played to their potential in this tournament, but the fact that they had so much potential in the first place made this loss a painful one.

#7 World Cup 1998

Michael Owen
Michael Owen's wonder goal wasn't enough to take England past Argentina in 1998

The 1998 World Cup was perhaps the toughest international tournament ever, packed to the brim with amazing teams, but Glenn Hoddle’s England were definitely amongst the best. They’d qualified masterfully from a tough group that included Italy and Poland, and then won the Tournoi mini-tournament in the summer of 1997, defeating Italy and France along the way.

Hoddle’s team – which was made up of a mix of veterans like Alan Shearer and Tony Adams alongside young talent like David Beckham and Michael Owen – defeated Tunisia impressively in their opening game of the tournament before stumbling to a loss against Romania, but a win over Colombia set up a tasty-sounding tie with Argentina in the round of 16.

The game turned out to be one of the best in World Cup history; the two sides traded penalties before Owen struck a wonderful solo goal to put England in front. Argentina found an equaliser when Javier Zanetti fired home following a clever free-kick routine, and going into the second half, the match was on a knife-edge.

The tide appeared to turn Argentina’s way when Beckham was red-carded for a petulant flick at Diego Simeone early in the half, but with minutes remaining in normal time, Hoddle’s men appeared to have found a winner when Sol Campbell headed home from a corner – only for referee Kim Milton Nielsen to controversially disallow it for a supposed push on keeper Carlos Roa.

Inevitably, the match went to penalties, and despite David Seaman giving England the edge by saving from Hernan Crespo, Paul Ince and David Batty’s misses meant it was Argentina who advanced into the quarter-finals. Would England have won the 1998 World Cup? Likely not, but the truth is that they deserved to win this tie, and that made it more painful than most of their tournament exits.

#6 World Cup 1986

Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona's infamous Hand of God sent England crashing out in 1986

The 1998, 2006 and 2010 World Cups all saw England come out on the wrong end of controversial refereeing decisions, but all three of those incidents could be put down to bad luck or – in the case of 2010 – incompetence. The 1986 World Cup, on the other hand, was different because the Three Lions’ exit from the tournament was largely caused by a moment of actual cheating.

Bobby Robson’s Three Lions had impressed in the competition after a sticky start that saw them lose to Portugal and draw with Morocco; a 3-0 win over Poland put them into the knockouts, where they then defeated Paraguay to set up a quarter-final showdown with Argentina.

An even match saw the game tied at half-time with neither team finding a breakthrough, but early in the second half, Argentine striker Diego Maradona – the world’s best player at the time – capitalised on a sliced clearance by leaping into the air and punching the ball into the net with his left hand.

Somehow, referee Ali Bennaceur allowed the goal despite the blatant infraction, and England’s players were left shell-shocked; 4 minutes later, Maradona scored the goal that would become known as the ‘Goal of the Century’, dribbling past multiple defenders before slotting home. Gary Lineker did pull a goal back on 81 minutes, but England couldn’t find an equaliser and that was that.

Maradona would later christen his first goal as the ‘Hand of God’, but the truth is that Robson’s side were cheated in this match, and it’s hard for fans of the Three Lions to not feel aggrieved – and hurt - even years down the line.

#5 World Cup 2002

David Seaman was inconsolable following his error against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup
David Seaman was inconsolable following his error against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup

Expectations were relatively low when it came to England’s chances in the 2002 World Cup; the Three Lions had a young and relatively inexperienced team, inspirational captain David Beckham was racing to recover from a broken foot in time for the tournament, and other key players like Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard had already been sidelined.

But Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side performed brilliantly in their early games in Japan and South Korea, defeating Argentina to practically eliminate the South Americans in their best tournament performance since 1996, and then whitewashing Denmark 3-0 to ease into the quarter-finals.

Unfortunately, the luck of the draw wasn’t on England’s side in this tournament, and despite many unfancied teams advancing, the Three Lions were faced with Brazil – probably the most impressive side on offer.

Eriksson’s men took a stunning lead early in the first half through a poacher’s effort from Michael Owen, but Phil Scolari’s side equalised on the stroke of half-time with a beautifully taken goal from Rivaldo. And with the game looking like anyone’s to win in the second half, the outstanding Ronaldinho took everyone – including England keeper David Seaman – by surprise by lofting a free-kick high into the air before the ball dropped into the corner of the net.

The forward would receive a red card for a poor tackle on Paul Scholes later in the game, but England couldn’t capitalise on their numbers advantage and failed to find an equaliser. Nobody could really claim the Three Lions were cheated or were even unlucky in this instance – they were simply beaten by a better team – but this one was still painful as the side that lost to Brazil in the final – Germany – had been dispatched by England 1-5 during qualification. It could easily be argued, sadly, that the two best sides in this tournament faced off in the quarter-finals.

#4 World Cup 2018

Kieran Trippier
Kieran Trippier's free-kick gave England a dream start to the 2018 World Cup semi-final - but it wasn't to be

The most recent defeat on this list, England’s loss to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals didn’t come under controversial circumstances, nor could you ever accuse Gareth Southgate’s young side of performing below par. If anything, England’s campaign in Russia was far more impressive than anyone could’ve expected going in. So why is this one ranked so highly?

Well, because the Three Lions were literally one game – and essentially, as Ivan Perisic equalised in the 68th minute, 22 minutes – away from their first major final since 1966, where they would’ve faced a France side who were excellent, but certainly not unbeatable. So essentially, 2018 was perhaps the best chance England have ever had – at least since 1996 – of ending those years of hurt.

Despite being drawn in a favourable group – qualifying for the knockouts by beating Tunisia and Panama despite a loss to Belgium – nobody really expected the Three Lions to go deep into the tournament, but when some of the favourites – the likes of Germany and Argentina – fell early on, it was hard not to dream.

That became even harder when England defeated Colombia – after a penalty shootout – in the round of 16, then swatted Sweden aside to make it into the semis. Even Croatia looked like they were about to crumble when Kieran Trippier’s free-kick hit the net after just 5 minutes, but unfortunately, Southgate’s side just didn’t quite have the quality to combat Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield.

Unlike what happened after previous defeats, England have since improved markedly – and now count themselves amongst the favourites for Euro 2021 – meaning the feeling of ‘what if?’ is hard to shake. Sure, they lost to a better team in 2018 – but it still hurt.

#3 Euro 2004

David Beckham became another victim of England
David Beckham became another victim of England's penalty curse at Euro 2004

2018 might’ve represented the best chance of England winning a tournament for years, but in reality, a lot of that was to do with the failings of some of the teams around them as much as it was their own abilities. At Euro 2004, on the other hand, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team were – until Wayne Rooney broke his foot – genuinely the best team on show in the entire competition, and the fact that they didn’t win it, and a workmanlike Greece team did, still galls for fans of the Three Lions.

Faced with holders France in their first game, Eriksson’s side – which contained the likes of Rooney, John Terry and Frank Lampard in their first major international tournament – showed neither respect nor fear for their more illustrious opponents. They took the game to them, opening the scoring in the first half through Lampard, and could’ve doubled their lead had David Beckham not missed a penalty. Somehow, Jacques Santini’s side were able to turn the match around and win 2-1 thanks to a late penalty from Zinedine Zidane – but everyone who watched the game knew who the better side had been.

England then swept aside both Switzerland and Croatia to qualify for the knockouts – with Rooney becoming an international sensation by scoring 4 goals – to set up a quarter-final meeting with hosts Portugal. Once again, Eriksson’s team came flying out of the blocks, Michael Owen scoring after just 3 minutes, but this time – largely due to Rooney’s injury – they failed to go for the kill, and it cost them.

Helder Postiga headed an equaliser with 7 minutes to go, and despite Sol Campbell heading a winner, referee Urs Meier controversially chalked it off, apparently for a foul on goalkeeper Ricardo. Portugal then took the lead in extra time through Rui Costa, only for Lampard to find another equaliser 5 minutes later.

The game ended up going to penalties, and after both sides’ talismans – Costa for Portugal, Beckham for England – missed, Darius Vassell ended up being the fall guy for the Three Lions, missing his penalty before Ricardo took his side’s final kick to seal England’s fate.

Eriksson’s side had fallen like England sides before them – in the dreaded shootout – but this one was more painful than most because it was hard to shake the feeling that before Rooney’s injury, nobody could’ve stopped the Three Lions from lifting their first trophy since 1966.

#2 World Cup 1990

Paul Gascoigne
Paul Gascoigne's tears remain the unforgettable image of England's semi-final loss at the 1990 World Cup

The 1990 World Cup – better remembered as Italia 90 – is fondly looked back upon by England fans despite being widely considered one of the more underwhelming tournaments of its era. Why? Because Bobby Robson’s side – who were largely unfancied prior to the beginning of the competition – made it to the semi-finals, the furthest any England side had done since 1966. The fact that they fell in the semis to West Germany after a penalty shootout – the first time such a thing had happened to England – only made the tournament more memorable, and more heartbreaking, too.

Robson’s Three Lions started slowly, with a dull draw with the Republic of Ireland being followed by a more promising draw with the Netherlands. Egypt were then beaten by a single goal to send England into the round of 16, where they squeezed past Belgium with a stunning David Platt goal in the last minute of extra time. All the while, England seemed to be growing in stature, with midfielder Paul Gascoigne in particular making a tremendous impact.

Cameroon – the tournament’s biggest underdogs – were next for Robson’s side, and despite going 1-2 down in the second half, they struck back with two penalties from Gary Lineker to send them into the semis. The clash with Franz Beckenbauer’s German side was actually England’s best showing of the tournament – they largely dominated the game, only to concede a freak goal, and were then able to equalise through Lineker later on.

Unfortunately, England had never faced the dreaded penalty shootout before, while the Germans had won matches via penalties in both of the previous World Cups. And the experience showed, as Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed their kicks badly while the likes of Andreas Brehme and Olaf Thon easily scored theirs.

The Three Lions had performed admirably and had only been eliminated – by the eventual winners – in the cruellest fashion possible, and nobody would forget the sight of a broken Gascoigne being consoled by Robson after the match. This one was so heartbreaking that it remains a tough watch for England fans even 30 years on.

#1 Euro 1996

England infamously failed to end 30 years of hurt at Euro 96
England infamously failed to end 30 years of hurt at Euro 96

This was of course the tournament that spawned the “football’s coming home” phenomenon, thanks to Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds’ famous theme tune. At the time, England were just emerging from the doldrums of the Graham Taylor era, and so despite the tournament being held at home and manager Terry Venables ushering in some new, exciting young talent such as Steve McManaman, Darren Anderton and Gary Neville, nobody was really sure what to expect from the Three Lions.

Their opening game – a dull draw with Switzerland – didn’t promise much, but a 2-0 win over Scotland, which saw the resurgent Paul Gascoigne score perhaps the greatest England goal of all time certainly got people talking. As did a thumping 4-1 win over the Netherlands, England’s best win arguably since 1966 itself, a game that saw strikers Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham score two goals each.

The quarter-final win over Spain was trickier; Venables’ team were second-best throughout but still managed to edge the tie, winning after a memorable penalty shootout that saw Stuart Pearce exorcise some demons, scoring his penalty to erase the memories of his crucial miss against Germany in 1990.

And naturally, the win over Spain set up another semi-final against Germany, and just like in 1990, it was England who had the better chances to win the game. This time the Three Lions scored first – in the opening minutes – through Shearer, only for Stefan Kuntz to equalise later in the half. Neither side could find a winner, and so we went to extra time, where Anderton hit the post – and Gascoigne missed a chance to win the game by a matter of centimetres.

In the end, of course, it came down to penalties – and history repeated itself as this time, future England boss Gareth Southgate was the man to miss, seemingly placing a curse on future Three Lions sides all the way to the 2018 World Cup when Southgate himself helped to lift it. 24 years on, this remains England’s most heartbreaking defeat in any tournament, simply because of the nature of the tournament being on home soil and the fact that it still remains the Three Lions’ closest attempt at winning a major trophy. Until Euro 2021, of course!

Published 25 Mar 2020, 07:24 IST
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