10 Greatest Moments in World Cup History
Russia 2018 is already shaping up to be a classic affair, with defending champion Germany just ousted by South Korea in the first round (Germans never seem to perform well in Russia), and longtime heavyweights like Italy (4-time champions) and the Netherlands (3-time runners-up) failing to even make the tournament. Regional giants like Ghana, Algeria, and Cameroon in Africa, and the United States in North America, also failed to make the tournament. Asia’s five teams have all been eliminated as the second round begins. Africa’s only hope is now (as of June 27) Senegal.
These crazy results should be reason to celebrate the World Cup, of course, and the beautiful game of soccer, but are also a good way to remind readers that the World Cup is still the place in sports where favorites rarely lose and minnows rarely survive. Tim Wigmore, a longtime sports analyst from England, has a piece in FiveThirtyEight explaining why Europe and Latin America continue to dominate soccer despite policies undertaken by FIFA to create more parity in the World Cup, and Branko Milanovic, an economist at CUNY’s Graduate Center, has an excellent piece explaining why corruption has gone hand-in-hand with attempts to democratize the game of soccer.
But I digress. Here are the 10 Greatest Moments in World Cup History:
10. Maradona’s Double. Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup (hosted by Argentina) consistently ranks as one of the greatest highlights in World Cup history. And why not? Maradona punched the ball into the back of the net and brazenly claimed afterwards that it was the hand of God that had pushed the ball through, and not his own. There is a good case to be made, though, for Maradona’s second goal of the same match, one that saw the attack-minded midfielder dribble the ball from deep within his own side’s territory all the way to the foot of England’s net, where he beat the goalkeeper with ease and solidified Argentina’s 2-1 victory over the English side, and scored the most memorable goal in World Cup history.
9. Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt. In the 2006 World Cup, hosted by Germany, Zidane’s France faced a tactically superior Italian squad in the final. The French team was aging and far past its prime - this was the team that eight years earlier won the ‘98 World Cup and a slew of other championships in Europe - while the Italian side was powered by plenty of great players, but none of Zidane’s stature. In the waning minutes of the game Zidane headbutted a trash-talking Italian player and was sent off with an immediate red card. The Italians went on to win with penalty kicks after the depleted French side found itself unable to muster any more attacks without its star playmaker.
8. Luis Suárez bites an Italian. In the 2014 World Cup, hosted by Brazil, Suárez, a high-scoring Uruguayan, bit an Italian defender. Suárez, at the time, was one of the world’s best strikers on one of the world’s best club teams (FC Barcelona) and had helped make Uruguay relevant again in international competitions. The bite led to a four-month ban from international games and even though Uruguay beat (and eliminated) Italy that day, the loss of its star player meant Uruguay was vulnerable, and the tiny country lost to Colombia in the second round of play. Was is it with Italians being subject to such abuse from their opponents?
7. The 1954 World Cup Final. The 1954 World Cup was hosted by Switzerland and the final was a tantalizing match between east and west. The Cold War was, of course, in full swing at the time, but the Soviets and the Americans - not known for their soccer prowess - were passive spectators (if at all) and took a back seat to the regional rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact: West Germany vs. Hungary. Hungary was heavily favored to win the game. The Hungarian squad boasted some of the best players in the world and was nicknamed, by the Western press, the “Golden Team.” In a riveting matchup that pitted tactical precision against pure skill, the West Germans beat the Hungarians, 3-2, in one of the fairest, most open games in soccer history.
6. Cameroon’s 1990 run to the quarterfinals. Africa has long been considered a backwater for international tournaments. Most of the great African players - and there have been many - are transported to Europe at a young age to develop their raw talents, and because of this, the national teams of Africa are often at a severe disadvantage. African teams are characterized by having lots of talent and virtually no team cohesion. In 1990, however, Cameroon’s national squad broke the mold and charged all the way into the quarterfinals before being beaten by an English squad that eventually finished fourth.
5. South Korea’s 2002 run to the semifinals. The 2002 World Cup marked the first time the tournament was held outside of Europe or Latin America. Japan and South Korea co-hosted the event, and the hosts made the most of their time by not only proving to be wonderful hosts but by fielding two excellent soccer teams as well. Japan made it to the quarterfinals before bowing out, but the South Korean squad electrified the world by making it all the way to the semifinals before losing to Germany, 1-0. Their run included a 2-1 defeat of Italy, a game in which the Italian press accused FIFA of employing too many “third world” referees.
4. The ‘Cruyff Turn’ and the Dutch’s ‘Beautiful Game.’ In 1974, the World Cup West Germany hosted (and eventually won), but it was the Germans’ smaller next-door neighbors who stole the show. Led by flamboyant stiker Johan Cruyff, the Dutch squad of 1974 played the silkiest, smoothest, flashiest soccer the world had seen since the 1950s. The Dutch Golden Generation never won a World Cup (the small country still punches well above its weight, with three runners-up notches on its belt), but it is lauded for the game it played. Cruyff’s turn against a Swedish defender was emblematic of the generation as a whole: Cruyff faked left and went right, leaving his defending flat-footed and wondering where his mark went.
3. Pelé’s debut. The 1958 World Cup, hosted by Sweden, marked the debut of the world’s most iconic soccer player: Pelé. At the tender age of 17 (17!), Pelé led his country to a World Cup title, eventually beating the hosts 5-2 in the Final. Pelé would go on to lead his country to another two titles, in 1962 and 1970, but his debut tournament is the most important, for it led to Brazil becoming the ambassadors for soccer as a whole. It was Pelé’s Brazil that laid the foundation for how the “Beautiful Game” is supposed to be played. Several international squads have mimicked the Brazilians of the ‘50s and ‘60s since Pelé’s debut, and because of it the sport has become the most popular in the world.
2. Ghana robbed in 2010? In 2010, the World Cup tournament was hosted in Africa for the first time. South Africa was awarded the honor, but it was Ghana, a small country in West Africa about the size of Oregon, who stole the show. In the quarterfinals, the Ghanaians had Uruguay on the ropes after a blatant handball by none other than Luis Suárez had prevented a sure goal from going through. Suárez was tossed, and Ghana’s main sharpshooter missed the penalty kick, forcing the game to go into extra time and eventually penalty kicks (during which Uruguay prevailed). The rules of the game were adhered to, and Ghana lost fair and square in this regard, but if Suárez hadn’t resorted to using his hands, could Ghana have gone all the way?
1. Germany humiliates Brazil, 7-1. The 2014 World Cup, hosted by the mighty soccer country of Brazil, saw the hosts and early favorites punished by a German squad that had a bit of a chip on its shoulder after all the noise before the match. The Brazilians and the Germans both sailed through the earlier phases of the competition, with zero loses and few goals scored against them. However, perhaps because Brazil was host, the Germans were underdogs in a semifinal, and played like it. In a span of six minutes the Germans scored four goals, with Brazil’s only goal coming in the last minute of the game. Germany went on to beat Argentina in the final, while Brazil received yet another whooping, this time by the Dutch, in the third-place match, losing 3-0. This game was supposed to represent the best of the best, but as often happens in soccer, unpredictability reigned, and the high-powered hosts got humiliated by their German guests.