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Always Second Best

"He's willing to be second best, the perfect lodger, the perfect guest..."
Bob Seger, "Beautiful Loser"

Some people always win, some people always lose, and these people... end up second place.

They're usually competent, skilled, or (if it is romance we are talking about) relatively inoffensive at least. But they never quite succeed. There's usually some character (usually, but not always, the protagonist) who beats them. If it wasn't for That One Person they'd be number one, but they aren't.

So they're number two, making them prime material for Rival Turned Evil. If a Sibling Rivalry is involved being always second best often comes part and parcel with being the Unfavorite.

Compare Can't Catch Up. The Worf Barrage. Romantic Runner-Up is a version of this character specific to romance stories. Poor Man's Substitute is the version where a character acts as a poor replacement. When it's more perceived than actual, it's Always Someone Better. Often related to Second Place Is for Losers and The B Grade


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime 
  • Yuuya from Super Gals, nicknamed "Second Place", always playing second fiddle to everyone else. He ends up with The Rival and the last episode shows them running around town winning contests...
  • To some degree Rock Lee from Naruto fits this trope: He is usually described as (and shown as) one of the strongest of the younger ninjas... but never actually wins (although he always gives a good account of himself).
    • He curb-stomps both Naruto and Sasuke. He even went as far as to one-shot the main character, Naruto. Lee beat his double in Shippuden. I know what you're thinking: "How hard is it to beat yourself?" Well, think about it. This is Rock Lee we're talking about, one of the best taijutsu specialists in Konoha; when you take that into consideration, taking out his double is quite a feat.
    • The reason why Sasuke betrayed Konoha in the first place. He was second best to Itachi and felt that he would become second best to Naruto.
    • Madara Uchiha was this to the 1st Hokage. Many, many of the current problems in the ninja world are ultimately the result of Madara's inability to accept this and his subsequent actions. Talk about petty...
  • Vegeta of Dragon Ball Z. He's practically the poster boy for this trope. His anger at this state is a large driving motivation for him throughout the series.
  • Mello from Death Note. He joins the mafia, kidnaps poor little Sayu, kills Souichiro, kidnaps Takada, and gets his best friend killed - all in the name of being better than Near at the "L's Successor" game.
    • Meanwhile, Near feels the same way with L, only in the "Greatest-Detective" game
  • In the earlier half of Eyeshield 21, the Deimon Devil Bats managed to beat weak teams like the Cupids or the Chameleons, but lost against strong teams like the White Knights, the Aliens, and at best tied with the Sphinx. (Technically winning because the Sphinx didn't want to fight the Aliens after such a hard battle anyway.) They got better as the series went on, but through out the entire series, you could never be so sure that they were going to win or not.
    • Parodied with Saburo Mitsui, kicker for the Hakushu Dinosaurs who always tries to be third best at everything.
  • Gaka Izumi from Flunk Punk Rumble. A formidable fighter/student on his own accord, but it's practically a running gag that he's only second to Hana and Chiba at strength and academics, respectively.
  • Yzak Joule from Gundam SEED. He manages to be great at everything, but always ends up losing to Athrun Zala at all that at the same time. Guess what place he ranked among the Red Suits upon graduation.
    • Outright parodied in the Chibi Character Theater shorts, where Yzak (and Dearka) actually manages to beat Athrun (and Kira) at beach volleyball...but the crowd STILL reacts like Kira and Athrun won, to Yzak's utter exasperation.
  • Kyo in Fruits Basket.
  • Some think that this is Ryouga's fate in Ranma 1/2; no matter how much he tries he will always be the runner up to Ranma. Others note that by simply matter-of-fact comparing their track records and stats he has beaten Ranma twice as many times.
  • This is the defining trope of Special A, with Hikari forever trying (and failing) to beat Kei at anything.
  • Pokémon's Ash Ketchum has participated in 4 major league tournaments, and the best he has accomplished is to reach the semifinals.
    • Except for the Orange Island Leagues (a filler arc), which he actually won. Though it doesn't seem to be anything special as it was never mentioned again, nor did the Orange Islands appear in any of the games. Gets really strange in the later seasons when his Pokemon should be the equivalent of level 100 by now.
      • That Orange Island bit didn't help his case much either. The first thing that happens after getting back to Pallet Town, Team Rocket manages to set them up in a trap that would have worked had Gary Oaks not come in as a Deus ex Machina to save everyone. He even points this out to his rival, that his victory didn't mean much if he still fell for Team Rocket's trap. Angry, Ash challenges him to a battle, and Gary's Eevee effortlessly beats Pikachu.
  • Koujirou Hyuuga from Captain Tsubasa is a very good player, but not good enough to beat Tsubasa. This is played for drama towards the final episodes of the original series, during the third Championship final match, which is all about Hyuuga doing everything possible to at last defeat Tsubasa. In the end, the match ends on a draw and both teams are declared champions
  • After knowing she was seconded to NAGO in school again, Yanagin in Daily Lives of High School Boys dared NAGO to beat her in karate and then ramen eating...in which Yanagin was decisively defeated in both. In a later skit she tried daring NAGO to beat her in tolerance in the sauna, and defeated again—not only to NAGO, but presumably her two other friends Habara and Ikushima.
  • Dio from Casshern Sins sees himself as this to Casshern. And it irritates him to no end
    Dio: We are perfectly identical, in both skills and specs! So explain to me why I'm inferior to Casshern!
  • In Omake chapters of Fullmetal Alchemist, Mustang constantly suffered this to Edward in regards to the popularity polls. Whenever there was poll, Ed would always win, by a large landslide and Mustang would get pissed.
    • The picture above was also the source a Brick Joke. Prior to the final popularity contest, Mustang was sure that he would come in first place because Ed and Al had been Out of Focus during that period of the manga.
  • In Mobile Suit Crossbone Gundam: The Steel 7, Tobia goes to recruit Giri, former Ace Pilot for the Jupiter Empire and his one-time rival, for a mission to stop the Jovians from blasting Earth with a colony laser. Giri refuses at first, but that changes the nanosecond he learns that the Empire's leader is Callisto; back in the Empire's Newtype Corps, Giri always came in second to Callisto, who would smugly rub it in. Thus Giri joins entirely for the chance to ruin Callisto's plans, and takes great pleasure in mocking him over how a supposedly inferior pilot is showing him up.
  • This is used as a key plot point in Variable Geo. When Damian first senses Satomi's latent energy, he runs a background check on her which reveals she used to be undefeated and a top competitor... until she met Yuka. Satomi continued to lose each time they competed against each other, with each loss chipping away at her confidence until she finally stopped competing altogether, out of fear that she'd never be able to defeat Yuka. Damian uses this to The Jahana Group's advantage by playing on her insecurity so she'd enter the VG tournament.
  • Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko: Madoka always ends up being second to Yohko, bet it sports, studies, or starship pilot Yohko is way ahead of her. Its a bit jarring as Yohko spends most of her time being a slacker and still get better grades than her.
  • Kuroko no Basuke: As a collective group, the "Uncrowned Kings" are this in comparison to the "Generation of Miracles". Both groups are five extremely gifted basketball prodigies who have greater skills than any of their peers. The Generation, however, are as far beyond the Kings as the Kings are from everyone else. Their Meaningful Name comes from the fact that if they had been born in any generation before now, THEY would be the Generation of Miracles.

    Comics 
  • Flintheart Glomgold's main grievance with Scrooge McDuck is that Scrooge is the Richest Duck in the World, Flintheart the Second Richest Duck— a designation that he feels to be humiliating. Much of the humor in his first two appearances is that the characters have similar skill-sets and about equal fortunes. Scrooge gains the victory in their first story by having some more string than Flintheart, and wins the rematch by a rather small sum of coins. The problem is that they are both too competitive to accept anyone as an equal.
  • Batgirl 2009 is Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler, aka girl Robin, aka girl who screws up every major plan. Her predecessor, Cassandra Cain, was a much better fighter, with a far better track record and a cooler tragic backstory note . Key to this relationship, however, was that Stephanie showed no bitterness towards Cassandra for all of this — they were, in fact, good friends —and accepting it in good humour, attempting now and then to do the best with what she had rather than seethe about being in second place. This was also partly because there was one key area that Stephanie could trump Cassandra — social skills (Cassandra having such a maladjusted upbringing that she could barely read, write or speak coherently until her teenage years).
  • Jason Todd, the second Robin feels this way towards Dick Grayson, the first Robin and current Nightwing. It really doesn't help that Bruce expected him to be exactly like Dick, and that, as a family, Dick is by far Bruce's preferred son. Arguably second most preferred son after Damian's introduction, although it's debatable, and either way, Dick is the one who will inherit the title of Batman.
  • Doctor Doom's boiling hatred of Reed Richards stems from the fact that Reed is the smartest man in the world — just the tiniest bit smarter than Doom is. He also came up second to Doctor Strange in a contest between the world's mages; though Doom being Doom, he managed to suppress his pride long enough to work the situation to his advantage.

    Film 
  • Salieri in Amadeus is presented as this trope.
  • Bjorn Turoque in real life documentary Air Guitar Nation against C-Diddy. Widely Considered the Second Best AIR GUITARIST in the World. During the movie, he gets eliminated several times but always comes back and earns the respect of fellow air guitarists for his performances.
  • The Cincinnati Kid with Lancey Howard's cracking line at the end; "You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around you're second best."
  • Loki in Marvel's Thor, as well as its source mythology. As the trickster figure he often takes a back seat to the bravo-ed brawn that it his brother.
  • Steven Prince in The World's End was always just a bit less cool than his friend Gary King, who also got it on with the girl Steven liked.
  • Galaxy Quest: After Alexander frees the suffocating Thermians.
    Thermians: COMMANDER TAGGART HAS SAVED US!
    Alexander: (resigned sigh) It just isn't fair.

    Literature 
  • Demandred from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time is this trope. He is mentioned that "He would have been the greatest man of his age, had he not lived at the same time as Lews Therin Telamon." He was apparently born one day after Lews Therin, setting a trend of always being a step behind for their entire lives, the envy at this turning him from one of the most prominent good generals in the fight against evil into one of the most prominent evil generals. He was and likely still is second best at most (though he's one of the Shadow's most potent servants, he's still stuck playing second fiddle to Ishamael). Really, it's small wonder the man is more than a little insane by now.
  • The book The Shadow Club by Neal Shusterman is about a group of kids like this who band together. It does not end well.
  • Illvin in the Chalion series to his brother Arhys. Unusually, he doesn't mind too much. ("If I ever run into the third best swordsman in Carabastos, he's going to be in very big trouble.")
  • In Under the Volcano, Hugh Firmin (in spite of his excellent qualities) finds that his older brother Geoffrey keeps getting in ahead of him doing the things that Hugh aspires to, and, even worse, throwing those accomplishments away: Geoffrey was a decorated (then disgraced) hero in World War I, while Hugh has not managed to see action in the Spanish Civil War; Geoffrey married (and lost) the woman Hugh loves; etc.
  • Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series suffers from this throughout the first half of the series. To start off with, he's always in the shadows of his older brothers who were, in order: Head Boy, Captain of the Quidditch Team, a prefect, and Popular Pranksters. Add to the fact that his best friends were respectively The Chosen One, Harry, and top student of their year, Hermione, Ron suffers a massive inferiority complex for much of the series.
  • Denethor and Faramir in The Lord of the Rings. Denethor was second best in his youth to Thorongil in both his father's heart and his people's, which left him very bitter. He grew so afraid of this trope (being second best to Gandalf in his son's and knights' respect and affection, being second best to Aragorn in honor and glory in his people's opinion) that it is one of the reasons he succumbed to despair in the end and committed suicide. As for Faramir, he was deemed second to his brother by his people all his life, being less flamboyant and more gentle and scholarly in nature than Boromir in those times of war, but he never grew jealous about it. He also accepted to be second to Aragorn with grace after the war.
  • Elleston Trevor's Bury Him Among Kings is a World War I novel about the Sibling Rivalry between two brothers, the younger of whom feels Always Second Best.
  • Exaggerated in the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Wraith Squadron. One of the pilots, Falynn Sandskimmer, feels this way about herself. She's second-best in several areas (TIE pilot, security expert, scout), but doesn't see herself as number one at anything. She fails to see how her versatility makes her valuable (she's number two to several different people). At the end of the novel, she makes a desperate attempt to be "first" at something; she succeeds, but dies in the process.
  • In the Halo novels, Fred is this to John (Master Chief), in every area. John is convinced he does this on purpose so he doesn't have to be in charge.
  • Zhou Yu towards Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As a matter of fact, Zhou supposedly died out of despair out of this trope. This dynamic even caused this trope to be called the "Yu-Liang Complex" in China—although it was not historically true.
    Zhou Yu: If [Heaven] have gave birth to Yu, why did [he] give birth to Liang?!
  • Our Dumb World, brought to you by The Onion, says this about South Korea.
  • In The Book of Joe, this is how Joe feels in comparison to his older brother Brad especially in their father's eyes- mostly thanks to Brad's sporting prowess. Touchingly subverted when Joe finds out how proud his father was of his literary career.
  • The mysterious villain of the Anthony Horowitz book I Know What You Did Last Wednesday, Captain Randle/Johnny Nadler, came second in every subject and never really stood out of the group he was part of in school (which consisted of everybody who came first). He doesn't respond too well; he lures everybody who bested him to a secluded island and kills them with cruel and ironic death traps which somehow relate to the subject they beat him in.
  • Warrior Cats:
    • Tigerstar suffered from this. He claims that he was a great warrior, but as soon as Bluestar discovered Firestar, he was reduced to "a great warrior, just not as good as Firestar".
    • Ashfur in the second arc, The New Prophecy. He would be the best choice for deputy...if not for Brambleclaw. He could have been StarClan's chosen one...if not for Brambleclaw. He could have had Squirrelflight's affections...if not for Brambleclaw. See the pattern?
    • Gray Wing from Dawn of the Clans to his brother Clear Sky. He's the Tribe's second best hunter after Clear Sky, second place in their little brother Jagged Peak's Big Brother Worship, and second place romantically to Clear Sky's mate Bright Stream and second mate Storm. It stems from Gray Wing being a deconstruction of series protagonist Firestar.
  • A major source of tension in the romance between Locke and Sabetha of the Gentleman Bastard series. The two of them are equally skilled grifters. However, Locke very easily wins the recognition that Sabetha craves, often stumbling into it by accident. It's unclear how much of this is due to sexism and how much is due to Locke's penchant for insane, flamboyant, improvised schemes (as opposed to Sabetha's meticulous preplanning).

    Live Action TV 
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Dr. Julian Bashir graduated second in his class from Star Fleet Medical. For a while he seemed to have a bit of a complex about this, until it was decided that he did it on purpose so as not to draw too much attention to himself.
  • Amanda Kimmel and Russell Hantz both made it to the final Tribal Council on Survivor twice in a row. And both lost twice. In a row.
  • The Brady Bunch:
    • Bobby's dilemma in "The Winner," from Season 2.
    • Jan's famous cry, "Marcia Marcia Marcia!!!" in "Her Sister's Shadow."
  • The writers of Merlin have set up an interesting dynamic between Arthur and Lancelot that seems to be based on this trope in which both of them are always second best to the other. Where Arthur is arrogant, Lancelot is humble, yet he has been the only male character thus far that has ever been able to best Arthur in combat. However, he declines membership into Arthur's knights as he considers himself unworthy. Later, on noticing that Arthur clearly has feelings for Guinevere, Lancelot bows out of the Love Triangle without a fight so as not to get in the way of Arthur's intentions - even though he obviously had the more advantageous suit. Lancelot is only second best to Arthur because he chooses to be - and Arthur knows it.
    • Conversely, Lancelot adores Merlin and Guinevere to the point of worship. He has stepped into the void for their sakes. However, their lives revolve completely around Arthur, and he's all they ever seem to talk about in Lancelot's presence.
  • Part of the Sibling Rivalry between Niles and Frasier Crane stems from the fact that they both consider themselves this trope. Whether it be the success of their personal lives (for much of the show's run, Frasier was twice-divorced and once left at the altar, while Niles was mired in a miserable, abusive marriage), the prestige of their professions (Frasier had fame from his radio show, while Niles's private practice was more dignified and lucrative), their parents' love (they both took after their dead mother, and barely resemble their father at all), or anything else under the sun, a staple of their dynamic was to declare they were better than the other, rub the other's face in it, and then privately worry that the other was better than them.
  • Friends: Played with between Chandler and Richard. Chandler feels like he's second best to Richard, who is the mature, sophisticated man he always wanted to be and the love of Monica's life. In fact Richard is second best to Chandler, as when faced with a choice between the two, Monica picks Chandler (with all his immaturity and quirks) over the seemingly perfect Richard and repeatedly reassures him he is the love of her life.
    • Prior to this Chandler was also second best to Joey whenever they tried to pick up girls. Though again subverted when Joey's serious girlfriend falls for Chandler instead. (Though he still worries he's second best in bed, so much of his belief he's second best comes from his own rampant insecurities).
  • There was a commercial in which the main character was a man who had a history of being second-best at everything he'd ever done, and had developed something of a complex about that fact. However, the fact that he has managed to get second place at everything should mean he's still ridiculously talented in a wide range of skills.
  • Allison Harvard reached the final Runway of America's Next Top Model in Cycle 12 and 17. She finished 2nd both times.
  • Saturday Night Live once did a commercial parody for "The People's Second Choice Awards". Hosted by Ed McMahon, celebrity presenters included Oates, Tom Wopat (referred to as "the dark haired guy from The Dukes of Hazzard"), etc.
  • The Vampire Diaries: Damon Salvatore fits this trope.
    • After the events of 4x20, Katherine Pierce may qualify in regards to Elijah. She finally admits she loves him and wants to be with him, and he chooses his brother over her. For the third or fourth time. This has also happened to her various times throughout her life.

    Multiple Media 
  • In Noob, this is explictly the situation of Amaras in regards to Fantöm until it turns out that Fantöm had been unknowingly getting an illegal boost from the game creators and the creators delete Fantöm's avatar in an attmept to cover their tracks and make Fantöm's player the scapegoat. This automatically made Amaras number one.

    Music 
  • "Beautiful Loser" by Bob Seger (see the page quote) sums up someone who fits this trope nicely.
  • Small Faces were considered this to The Who, who were themselves considered this to The Beatles.
  • Any musical act that has had several songs go to #2 but has never had a #1. In the United States, Creedence Clearwater Revival are the kings of this trope, reaching #2 five times without ever hitting the top spot.
    • By 1981 Foreigner scored five Top 10 hits in Billboard, with "Double Vision" hitting #2. Then "Waiting For a Girl Like You" spent an agonizing ten weeks at #2, kept out of the top spot mainly by Olivia Newton-John's "Physical". They finally got to #1 with "I Want To Know What Love Is" in 1984.
  • Dave Mustaine's band Megadeth have always been behind his former band Metallica in terms of popularity. He has long been frustrated about this situation (as heard in the documentary Some Kind Of Monster), despite being extremely successful himself, just out of sheer rivalry.
  • In their documentary, Fearless Vampire Killer's Laurence Beveridge admits to feeling this about Kier Kemp. Both sing and play rhythm guitar for the band and were best friends since they were 9. Laurence feels that Kier is a better singer than himself and that people notice Kier more than himself.
    • Conversely, Kier Kemp also feels this to a lesser extent about Laurence. He says that he feels inferior to Laurence based on his ability to perform and get a crowd going.
  • Boy bands One Direction and The Wanted were considered equals...until the former soared to international superstardom while the latter got completely flattened by their rivals.
  • Paul Simon has complained from time to time about people viewing him as this in comparison to Bob Dylan.
  • "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty spent six weeks at #2 in 1978, trailing "Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb all of those weeks. Reliable sources (scroll down) report that some backroom shenanigans at Billboard prevented Rafferty from hitting #1.

    Video Games 
  • In Tales of Legendia, Shirley is always getting overlooked by her big sister Stella, as well as both sisters' mutual love interest, Senel. Senel continues to choose Stella over Shirley even after Stella dies partway through the game.
  • Juan Corrida to Matt Engarde in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All. Even in Jerkassery.
  • Yellow, the professional StarCraft gamer, was titled king of second place for always getting oh so close to the gold, but never EVER winning a major title. Another gamer, Stork, had inherited his title until finally getting a gold in a relatively recent finals.
    • Further, in Starcraft 2, Marine King Prime has been in more GSL finals than anyone else (3 out of 5 so far) and has come in 2nd every time.
  • Dex from Mega Man Battle Network, he even has to lie to his little brother Chisao to hide this fact.
    • In the classic series, this trope is intergal to Dr. Wily's backstory. Despite winning many awards in robotics, Wily was consistently second place to Dr. Light despite his best efforts. This eventually drives him completely insane, and he becomes obsessed with taking over the world primarily just to prove that he's better than Light.
  • The Rivals from the Pokémon games, especially Blue and Silver. They're all highly skilled trainers who manage to beat all eight Gym Leaders (and, in Blue's case, the Elite Four) yet always manage to lose to the player. The first two generations tied this into An Aesop about The Power of Love, but in the third and fourth generations, you're just better than them.
  • Aperture Science to Black Mesa. In Portal 2, you come across several second-place trophies in the 1950s Aperture Science area; it is implied they lost every time to Black Mesa. This is after they've been shown to go out of their way to engage in everything they do in the most ridiculous, inefficient, dangerous, and/or pointless manner possible, so what they succeed at must be rather phenomenal. On the other hand, there is a branch in which Aperture managed to trump Black Mesa: Potato Sciences.
  • Luigi in the Super Mario series, every version, has had to feel this his entire life. Every time he wants to do something, Mario beats him to it or outperforms him when the brothers are both present. This has since become a defining character trait for Luigi from Luigi's Mansion and onward, with him nearly snapping in Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time.
  • Subverted in Touhou: Marisa's pretty proud of being second only to Reimu, since it means she's still skilled enough to take on everybody else, even without any special powers of her own.
  • Riki from Little Busters! sees himself as this - not as strong as Masato, as strong-willed as Kengo, or as generally perfect as Kyousuke, or anything really all that special in general. It actually doesn't bother him, though, and he's content to just follow after his friends for his whole life.
    • Also, Haruka is this for her twin sister, Kanata. Their parents enforced a heavy competition between them as to which would be the heir and which the unnecessary child, and in almost everything Kanata would win. She takes it much worse than Riki, though.
  • In Class Trip Crush, twins Taketo and Yasuto Kanzaki manage to be mutually Always Second Best to one another. Taketo is good at everything he puts his hand to, where Yasuto is rather clumsy outside of baseball and quite conscious of that fact; Taketo, however, describes Yasuto as a "genius" and observes that no one can possibly match him at the one thing he's devoted all of his effort to. The feeling that he couldn't measure up to his brother led Taketo to switch from the baseball team to soccer team to avoid competing with Yasuto, and his route shows that he has something of a complex about it.
  • In Batman Arkham Series, The Riddler is this to Batman. His attempts to prove himself the intellectual superior through his riddles and deathtraps only serve to disprove this notion when Batman constantly defeats him. In fact during one of his Death Trap scenarios when Edward attempts to cheat, in order to "outwit" the Dark Knight, it fails because Batman is also better at cheating.

     Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Disney's Aladdin:
    Aladdin: (to snake Jafar) The genie has more power than you'll ever have!
    Jafar: What?!
    Aladdin: He gave you your power, he can take it away! Face it Jafar, you're still just second best!
    • In The Return Of Jafar, the tables were turned. Jafar was delighted enough to make a whole song taunting Genie, "You're Only Second Rate".
    • Even before he got the genie, Jafar was Always Second Best in another way; by being beneath the Sultan, who he saw as immature and unfit to rule (and... he was kinda right). The reason he fell for Aladdin's goading so much toward the end might have been because he couldn't stand the thought of still being second-best after all he'd gained.
  • The Simpsons had an episode where a new student was slightly better than Lisa at everything, mostly slightly more knowledgeable and better on the sax. She even has a dream where she performs in "Garfunkel, Messina, Oates, and Lisa", the second-most popular band in America, which is sponsored by Avis Rent-a-Car and has a #2 single called "Born To Runner-Up". She awakes wondering why people would come to the concert just to boo them.
    • Lisa's voice actress Yeardley Smith even remarked about how often Lisa would enter a contest and end up in second place; two notable examples are Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington and Lisa the Beauty Queen. Also when she entered a cruciverbalism (crosswords) contest, she went to the finals and lost to Gil.
  • Cars: Apparently, Chick Hicks has been "chasing that tail fin" his entire career, always trying to beat The King. He wins the big race, but the fans were so upset at what he did to win the "victory" wasn't worth it.
  • In South Park this is apparently why Bono is quite an overachiever: To his father, he will always be a "Number Two." Bono IS literally a number two, thus revealing why he also holds the record for the biggest shit ever taken.
  • In ThunderCats (2011)
    • This is present with young Prince Lion-O and his adoptive older brother Tygra, a beneficiary of Parental Favoritism who actively upstages Lion-O every chance he gets. Tygra makes an explicit point of successfully taunting Lion-O during some Gladiator Games, ensuring Lion-O loses his temper, and with it, the match.
      Tygra: When it comes to everything except the crown, you're always going to be second place.
    • In fact, Tygra tries to be Always Someone Better because of a deep Inferiority Superiority Complex, and an abiding suspicion that as a mere Spare To The Throne, he will forever lose to Lion-O, a motivation underscored when Tygra bitterly rants about how Lion-O's taken away both his chance to wear the crown, and, he suspects, his chance to romance Cheetara, the Love Interest of their Sibling Triangle.

    Real Life 
  • David Robinson was this to Hakeem Olajuwon.
  • Kevin Durant to LeBron James.
  • The Utah Jazz, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Seattle SuperSonics and Los Angeles Lakers all were this to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
    • Jordan, himself, had his own personal Second Best in the form of Clyde Drexler, who was known in his prime as "the best player in the NBA not named 'Jordan.'"
    • The spring of 1998 was frustrating for basketball fans in the state of Utah, because the University of Utah lost the NCAA mens' championship game, then the Jazz lost in the NBA finals to the Bulls for the second straight year.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers used to be this, losing to the Boston Celtics six times in The Sixties. Los Angeles has won 11 titles since, Boston 6.
  • The Dallas Cowboys in the late 1960s fit this trope, believe it or not. They couldn't quite win the NFL championship, resulting in several infamous defeats:
    • The 1967 Ice Bowl to Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.
    • The 1971 Super Bowl V loss to the then-Baltimore Colts, decided by a controversial call on the "double-touch" rule that has since been changed. It was also the only time the Super Bowl MVP was selected from the losing team.
    • There was even a book written at the time, sarcastically titled Next Year's Champions. They finally broke the jinx with a 24-3 victory over Don Shula's Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
  • Susan Lucci, long time Soap Opera actress, was notorious for being nominated, but not winning, the daytime Emmy for "Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series". It was only after 19 nominations over 21 years that she finally won, in 1999. Perhaps not a perfect fit to the trope, but worth mentioning.
  • The ancient Greek philosopher Eratosthenes was nicknamed "Beta" by one of his contemporaries, because he was supposedly "the second-best in the world at everything". This means this trope is one of the oldest ones in the book. Carl Sagan said in Cosmos, however, that Eratosthenes was clearly Alpha at many things, since among other achievements he was the first to scientifically and correctly measure the circumference of the Earth. Using nothing but sticks, shadows, and a bit of mathematics.
  • The Buffalo Bills lost 4 Super Bowls in a row, to three different teams, making them by definition the second-best team in the NFL, 1991-1994.
  • This trope is Tim Henman to a tee, it is.
    • Though as far as tennis is concerned, Rafael Nadal holds the dubious record of "Most Weeks Ranked No. 2" and while it would be immensely unfair to label him as anything less than an amazing player who's rightly known as the "King of Clay", the fact remains that he spent the first three years of his career struggling to get out of Roger Federer's shadow and that when it looked like he had finally succeeded and had a real chance of surpassing Federer's Grand Slam record, some guy named Novak Djokovic who had never given him any trouble before suddenly exploded onto the world stage and defeated him in seven straight finals, three of them Grand Slams. Nadal did finally beat him on clay at the 2012 French Open but still, that's gotta hurt.
    • Julien Benneteau, while hardly the second-best player on tour, still qualifies for this trope because in spite of having a career-high ranking of No. 26 and beating Roger Federer twice, he's finished as the runner-up in all of his tournament finals (8 of them) and consequently doesn't have a single individual title to his name.
  • There's a reason why figure skater Sasha Cohen is called "The Silver Belle". Very rarely has she won a competition; she almost always makes one mistake and comes in second... usually to Michelle Kwan.
  • A dreaded moniker in golf circles is "best player never to win a major." Phil Mickelson was stuck with this moniker until he won the Masters in 2004. The current holder of the moniker is probably Lee Westwood.
  • Raymond Poulidor, a French cyclist known for always ranking second (or close to second) in the races he participated in, to the point that his name became a French expression: "X is the Poulidor of this game," meaning X always comes second.
  • This has been a commonly zig-zagging trend in Country Music. From 1984 to 1991, The Judds were so commercially successful that no other duo had a chance at getting any of the industry's Duo awards — for most of those years, the closest anyone ever came to their success was the Bellamy Brothers, who had constant showing on the charts but comparatively poor album sales. The Bellamys went indie in 1991, the same year that Brooks & Dunn debuted. From then until the late 2000s, it was a Foregone Conclusion that Brooks & Dunn would get the awards (except for a fluke year in 1999, where it somehow went to Montgomery Gentry although they were brand new at the time); their commercial success was near-untouchable, and many duos got lost in the Follow the Leader stampede of singer-songwriter duos. Come the late 2000s, the tide turned highly in favor of Sugarland; Montgomery Gentry appeared to be warming up considerably in 2008-2009, but only one year later their star power fell considerably. And then Sugarland went on a long hiatus, allowing Thompson Square to sneak in… only for them to get trumped by Florida Georgia Line.
  • The Dutch football team is often regarded as the best team to have never won The World Cup, with three lost finals under their belt. Their most recent one defeated was to the other team that was until then regarded as the best to have never won a Cup, Spain.
    • Amusingly, the biggest winner of the World Cup, Brazil, is this in the Olympic Games, where their best result were three silver medals. The women's team even more (two silver Olympic medals and one lost final in the Women's World Cup).
  • Speaking of Italian football, Naples is an interesting case. While during The Eighties they outright dominated the championship — thanks to one man named Diego Armando Maradona — and had legendary team AC Milan as this to them, in the current decade they always ended up second (well, also third as of the last championship, but it was a quite small gap). The one team who always bested them recently? Juventus FC, from Turin.
  • German Football club Bayer Leverkusen deserves special mention as they are not just the only big-name, long-running club in the league never to win the championship, but in the 2002 season actually managed to come second in all three competitions they were in: National Championship, National Cup, AND the Champions League.
    • It gets worse; five Bayer players went with the German Football Team to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea and... Germany would lose in the final.
    • It gets even worse; the best of them, Michael Ballack, never won any international title despite taking part in another Champions League final with Chelsea and reaching the final with the German team in the 2008 European championship. He won quite a number of national titles (none with Leverkusen) though.
  • The England Cricket team has been to three World Cup Finals in 1979, 1987 and 1992 and has lost all three Finals. The 1992 one especially stings because they had the best team by far in that year in the final against a mercurial, injury-plagued and slow-starting Pakistan team that 1) only qualified for the semifinals after a very unlikely series of results from other teams and 2) had been demolished by England in the group match. Guess who was holding up the trophy at the end of the night?
  • Goran Ivanisevic was this in Wimbledon until 2001.
  • Megadeth at the Grammys. Over a span of 22 years, they have been nominated eleven times... and lost every single time. As if that weren't enough, there is only one category for metal, so they only have one chance per year.
    • It only gets worse when Dave Mustaine (guitarist/founder of Megadeth)'s former band Metallica has won seven times, mostly on albums/songs that are subpar in comparison to the bands previous works.
  • Andy Schleck seems to become this in Tour de France. Second in 2009, 2010 (to Contador) and 2011 (to Evans). Tour de France 2011 even had a perfect route for Andy Schleck, with four mountain finishes, only one individual time trial, a team time trial. Contador was tired after a hard Giro d'Italia, had a minor injury and a weak team. Andy still couldn't win. Joop Zoetemelk and Jan Ullrich also have quite a lot of second places (6 and 5), but also have one win each (1980 and 1997). Ullrich also lost TDF 2003 on good sportsmanship.
    • Then again, Andy Schleck has been named the official winner of TDF 10, after Contador got a doping penalty for clenbuterol use. It only took 18 months to reach a verdict.
  • One of the fastest Thoroughbred racehorses ever was Sham, a colt whose three-year-old racing season occurred in 1973. Sham had perhaps the fourth best time ever in the Kentucky Derby, but didn't win the Derby or either of the other two Triple Crown races — because unfortunately, he had the bad luck to be racing in the same year as another, slightly more notable Thoroughbred by the name of Secretariat.
    • Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. Alydar finished second in all three races.
  • Juan Manuel Marquez had long been this to fellow boxer Manny Pacquiao. After three competitive fights and while both were considered among the top ten best pound-for-pound, Pacquiao went on to be rated #1 pound for pound, dominate multiple higher weight divisions, make considerably more money through endorsements and the like, and become the biggest global boxing star in the world. Not to mention getting two highly disputed wins in the trilogy itself. Even in the pre-fight buildups before later matches Juan was largely talked of as if he were a tuneup to a potential record-shattering superfight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Then the fourth fight happened. So... subverted?
  • Chilean football team Universidad Católica ranks third in overall championships won (behind Colo-colo and Universidad de Chile), but holds a pretty-much insurmountable record of finishing up in second place, especially in recent years. The team has become the butt of ill-willed jokes for their "lackluster results", even though their campaigns are consistently very good if not outright impressive... only to lose to an even better team. Every time.
  • Truth in Television when it comes to tag teams in Professional Wrestling. It's quite rare when a team has both members have equal success.
  • Jimmy White was a runner-up in the World Snooker Championship six times; he never won. He also never got better than the second place in the snooker world ranking.
  • Mark Messier. Outstanding hockey player and team leader. Played on the same team as Wayne Gretzky in his prime, so you know how that worked out. Then they went their separate ways on other teams and Messier became recognized enough in his own right to have his jersey number retired by both the teams he starred on, one of only six players in NHL history to have their number retired by two teams. Of course, one of the other five was Wayne Greztky who had his number retired by two teams...as well as the entire league.
  • After the Battle of Salamis, the Greek commanders voted on who did the most for the victory. Everyone put himself first. The winner, of course, was Themistocles, since everyone put him second.
  • In South Korea, professional StarCraft player Hong Jin-Ho earned the nickname "King of Silver" after he managed to come in 2nd place in 6 different major tournaments but never won one.
  • Notre Dame has lost 3 of the last 4 NCAA Division I womens' basketball championship games. They did win one back in 2001, though.
  • In Philippine TV, GMA Network, despite its moments of dominance, was always a far second to ABS-CBN.
  • Joaquim Rodriguez has finished in the top 5 in seven grand tours since 2010, without winning. He came extremely close to the Giro and the Vuelta in 2012, losing on a time trial in the former and one bad day in the latter. He also has a third and a second in the world championships. He has won monument level classics, and finished first in the world rankings.

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