After winning their third World Cup title in 1970, Brazil made the semifinals in both 1974 and 1978, but as West Germany and Argentina rose to the top, Brazil sunk back into the shadows.
Brazil exited in the second round in Spain in 1982, lost to France on penalties in the quarterfinals in the 1986 tournament in Mexico, and lost to rival Argentina in the round of 16 four years later in Italy.
However, Brazil would make a long-awaited return to the top in 1994, and that would be the first of three consecutive final appearances for Brazil, who added a record-breaking fifth title in 2002 after a disappointing final loss to hosts France in 1998.
But as it stands, nipping close at their heels is Italy, who holds the title of reigning World Cup champions after breaking their own two decade-plus drought four years ago in Germany.
A new chapter will be added to the World Cup history books in a few short months, but for now, we close out our look through the decades by taking you on Brazil’s journey from glory to agony and back to glory, to Italy’s thrilling title run in 2006.
1994 World Cup (United States)
Final: Brazil 0-0 Italy (Brazil won 3-2 on penalties)
Brazil opened against Russia and won 2-0, thanks to goals from Romario and captain Rai. Romario would once again score a first-half opener in the next match against Cameroon, and Brazil won 3-0 to put themselves within reach of top spot. Top spot would be secured in the finale against Sweden, as Romario cancelled out Kennet Anderson’s 23rd minute goal with a strike moments after the restart, enabling Brazil to finish two points ahead of Sweden at the top.
In the round of 16, Brazil faced the host country, who held gamely for more than 70 minutes. But in the 72nd minute, Bebeto broke the deadlock, and Brazil advanced with a 1-0 win. Next up was a meeting against the Netherlands, and after a goalless first half, the floodgates opened for both sides in the second half. Brazil took a 2-0 lead through Romario and Bebeto, but the Netherlands responded with goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Aron Winter. But in the 81st minute, Branco’s brilliantly struck free kick snuck inside the right post to spare Brazil’s blushes and deliver a 3-2 win.
It would be yet another tight affair in the semifinals against surprising semifinalist Sweden, but Romario’s 80th minute goal was all Brazil needed in a 1-0 win.
In the final, Brazil faced Italy in a rematch of the 1970 final, and after a goalless 120 minutes, the World Cup final was to be decided by penalties for the first time ever. Both sides missed their first spot kicks, then proceeded to make their next two. The tide turned when Daniele Massaro missed Italy’s fourth kick, and Dunga (who’d taken over the captaincy from Rai earlier in the tournament) put Brazil ahead with a successful spot kick. Moments later, the celebrations were on for Brazil, as Roberto Baggio sent his kick sailing over the bar to hand Brazil a long-awaited fourth title.
1998 World Cup (France)
Final: France 3-0 Brazil
France only reached the quarterfinals in their first go-round as World Cup hosts in 1938, but 60 years later, they put on an absolute show in front of the home support on the way to taking the title.
France rolled in the group stage, trouncing South Africa and Saudi Arabia and edging Denmark 2-1 to easily win Group C. In the round of 16, France faced Paraguay, with Laurent Blanc’s 113th minute golden goal sending France through. Blanc would be a hero in the quarterfinals as well, as he converted what was the winning penalty in a 4-3 shootout win, after normal and extra time ended 0-0.
In the semis against upstart Croatia, France fell behind in the first minute of the second half, but Lilian Thuram quickly replied and then added a second with 20 minutes remaining to send France to their first World Cup final.
In the final, Brazil were looking for the repeat, but it wasn’t to be. Two first-half goals by Zinedine Zidane would prove to be more than enough, and in second half injury time, Emmanuel Petit put the capper on a stunning French victory.
2002 World Cup (South Korea/Japan)
Final: Brazil 2-0 Germany
Brazil fell behind in the first half to Turkey in their World Cup opener, but after rallying for a 2-1 win on a late winner by Rivaldo, there was no stopping Ronaldo and Co. They were only one of two sides to win all three group games (Spain was the other), and they scored 11 goals in the process.
In the knockout rounds, Brazil were a second-half team through and through. They defeated Belgium 2-0 in the round of 16 with second-half goals from Rivaldo and Ronaldo, eliminated England 2-1 in the quarterfinals with an early second-half strike by Ronaldinho (with an assist from David Seaman), and overcame Turkey 1-0 in the semis with an early second half goal from Ronaldo.
Second-half magic would once again be needed in the final against Germany, and not only would Ronaldo score the two goals that delivered Brazil a record fifth World Cup, but he tied and then surpassed Gerd Muller as the all-time leading World Cup goalscorer.
2006 World Cup (Germany)
Final: Italy 1-1 France (Italy won 5-3 on penalties)
Italy were drawn into a tough Group E that included themselves, the Czech Republic, the United States, and Ghana. Marcelo Lippi’s side emerged top of the group with seven points, as 2-0 wins over Ghana and the Czechs were sandwiched around a tense 1-1 draw with the U.S., in which three players were sent off.
In the round of 16, Italy got all they could handle from a game Australia squad and were down a man for the final 40-plus minutes after Marco Materazzi’s sending off. But in the dying stages, Italy won a controversial penalty, which was converted by Francesco Totti with the last kick of the match for a 1-0 win.
Italy had a much easier time of it in the quarterfinals, disposing of Ukraine 3-0, with Totti netting a second-half brace. In the semis, Italy faced hosts Germany, and after 118-plus scoreless minutes, Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero struck twice to send Italy to their first final since 1994.
There was even more drama to come in the final between Italy and France, who’d made a surprising run to the final by knocking off Spain, Brazil, and Portugal. Italy fell behind in the seventh minute, but Materazzi countered Zinedine Zidane’s penalty with a goal in the 19th minute. There were no more goals for the final 100 minutes, but there was an infamous headbutt that’s remembered almost as much as the penalty shootout.
In the shootout, Andrea Pirlo and Materazzi connected on their spot kicks to put Italy up 2-1, and they went into the driver’s seat when David Trezeguet missed France’s second penalty. After both sides connected on their next two penalties, Grosso furthered his hero status, beating Fabien Barthez to erase the memories of 12 years prior and put Italy on top of the world once again.
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