Every four years, patient soccer fans around the world can allow themselves to dream once again that their nation can—and will—claim FIFA World Cup glory.
In the decades since Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup in 1930—a much smaller-scale affair featuring 13 teams and only 18 days of play—the tournament has evolved beyond the wildest dreams of the original organizers. Still, despite the big business and ballyhoo behind what has become a truly global, month-long spectacle, the most memorable moments will still always take place on the field, during the 90 minutes between the kickoff and the final whistle. If the previous tournaments are anything to go by, then expect drama, scandal, agony and standout moments that make fans leap off their sofas, bar stools or folding plastic seats in ecstasy. Here are five of the very best:
1. Brazil v Italy – 1994 World Cup final
In 1994, the USA nervously dipped its toe back into the soccer waters—its last foray into soccer was the North American Soccer League, which had folded a decade earlier—with a bold move: hosting the World Cup. Fortunately, the powers-that-be needn’t have worried, as the tournament was a huge success on and off the field.
The final pitted old foes Brazil and Italy against each other. Not in keeping with the rest of the competition, a dreary game finished scoreless—even after extra-time—meaning for the first time ever a penalty shootout would determine who would lift the famous gold trophy.
At that moment, it seemed as though the entire planet paused to watch the nail-shredding tension unfold—and unearth its unfortunate victim. Italian striker Roberto Baggio had been one of the stars of the tournament, but in the heat of Pasadena, even he wilted. His crucial penalty attempt whizzed over the crossbar to hand the trophy to Brazil in the cruelest fashion possible.
2. Italy v Brazil – 1982
In stark contrast to their 1994 final meeting, 12 years earlier Italy and Brazil produced a game that is regularly referred to as not just the World Cup’s greatest ever, but that of the entire sport.
As usual, the flamboyant, free-flowing Brazilians were expected to win, but Italy would be the immovable object to the Samba stars’ unstoppable force, with the unlikely star of the show being Italy striker—and previously convicted match fixer—Paolo Rossi.
The two teams slugged it out like prizefighters, trading goals instead of blows, and the names of Rossi (twice), Socrates and Falcao appeared on the scoresheet, and later football folklore. With the score locked at 2-2 and Italy desperately needing a goal to advance at Brazil’s expense, Rossi dramatically completed his hat-trick, setting his nation on their way to eventual World Cup glory. Brazil’s talisman Zico declared it as “the day football died,” but memories of it will be eternal.
3. 3. Netherlands v Argentina – 1998
There is no more exciting moment in soccer than witnessing a last-minute winner in a crucial game. Not only did the Netherlands’ Dennis Bergkamp achieve that, but he also picked the perfect time to score one of the competition’s most beautiful goals.
Battling to reach the final four, Holland and Argentina were tied at 1-1 going into the final seconds. With both sets of fans mentally prepared for extra-time, the Netherlands’ Ronald de Boer threw caution to the wind and boomed a Hail Mary pass half the length of the field towards Bergkamp, who was in an implausible position to score.
However, with three majestic swipes of his wand-like right foot, the Dutch legend etched himself onto every future World Cup highlight reel. Caressing the dropping, speeding ball, he deftly flicked it between the legs of a defender before flashing an unstoppable shot into the net to send Holland fans into unbridled joy, and break the hearts of the Argentines.
4. England v West Germany – 1966
These days, video replays can be used to correctly determine if a goal has been scored, but back in 1966 it was simply down to the officials’ eyesight. On this occasion, fortune favored England.
The “guardians of the game” were on home soil when they reached their only final, which went to extra-time after a 2-2 scoreline. Soon afterwards, England striker Geoff Hurst swept a shot towards the goal which thudded off the crossbar and bounced down onto the goal line.
Fans watching on television gasped as they awaited the outcome of a fractured conversation between the Swiss referee and a Russian linesman, who contrived to decide the ball had crossed the line, much to the joy of the home crowd. Having scored the game’s first goal, Hurst would then become the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final, despite trying to blast the ball into the stand to waste time when he scored his third!
5. Argentina v England – 1986
This game is one that no-one watching will ever be able to forget, as it featured two of soccer’s most famous goals—but for very different reasons.
Six minutes into the second half and with the game tied 0-0, Argentina’s diminutive superstar Diego Maradona hopefully competed in an aerial challenge against goalkeeper Peter Shilton, but made up for his height deficiency by punching the ball over Shilton and into the net. It was undetected by the officials, and shockingly Argentina led.
But just four minutes later, the legendary superstar produced something angelic. Receiving possession in his own half, Maradona proceeded to legally take England on. After advancing 60 yards in 10 seconds while weaving his way past five defenders, he slipped the ball into the net to score the “Goal of the Century,” leaving all non-English supporters dancing with glee, having witnessed one of the game’s most incredible individual feats of skill.
Jonathon Rogers is a soccer journalist based in London, who has been an avid follower of the sport for over two decades.
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