Over the years, the World Cup has featured an astounding array of legendary players performing extraordinary feats. But occasionally, a player comes along who commands the attention of the entire globe, grabbing the headlines and bringing glory to himself, and quite often, his country. Sometimes it’s a relative unknown who bursts into international superstardom overnight. Other times, a great will cement mythical status in the footballing pantheon. Here are six examples of players who rocked the world and stole the show:
Just Fontaine/Pele, 1958
The 1958 World Cup in Sweden was blessed with not one, but two truly memorable performances from a pair of greats. First, Just Fontaine, fresh off a Ligue 1 title with Stade Reims, obliterated the World Cup record for most goals in a tournament, netting an incredible thirteen times, in every game he played in, leading France to a third-place finish. Unfortunately, this would be Fontaine’s only World Cup, as the France great, who scored 30 goals for the side in just 21 matches, suffered a career ending injury in 1962, at he age of 28. Fontaine’s France, however, met its match in a Brazilian side led by a precocious seventeen year old who went by the name of “Pele.” Pele, at the beginning of his glorious career, set records for youngest player, goalscorer, and hat-trick scorer in World Cup history. Having scored the winner against Wales, he put three past Fontaine’s France before adding two more in the final, for a total of six. Incredibly, he scored all of his goals in the knockout rounds. He would go on to become the greatest footballer of all time, but 1958 was where he made his first mark on the World’s Game.
Geoff Hurst, 1966
Geoff Hurst wasn’t even supposed to play in the 1966 World Cup. When England star Jimmy Greaves was injured against France, requiring stitches, Hurst’s international career was just five months and eight games old. He impressed enough in the next two games, against Argentina and Portugal, scoring the winning goal and getting the winning assist, respectively, to keep his place in the team for the Final against West Germany, where he achieved immortality. The Germans took an early lead through Helmut Haller, but Hurst responded to even the scoreline six minutes later. Martin Peters put England on top in the seventy-eighth minute, but Wolfgang Weber scored a controversial last-gasp equalizer to send the game into extra time. Eleven minutes into extra-time, Hurst sent a close-range shot into the underside of the crossbar. It bounced down, hit the ground and was called a goal by the Soviet linesman. In the dying moments of the game, with spectators crowding the pitch, Hurst completed his hat-trick, securing England’s World cup and his eternal place in football history.
Paolo Rossi, 1982
Paolo Rossi entered the 1982 World Cup out of shape, internationally disgraced, and a laughingstock in many circles. He left it with an awe-inspiring collection of silverware. In 1980, he was allegedly involved in one of Italy’s inevitable scandals, this one for betting, although he proclaimed his innocence throughout. For this, he was given a two-year ban, and when he returned for the World Cup, he was short on fitness and shorter on form, harmlessly ambling his way through Italy’s group matches. In the second group stage, Italy was drawn with reigning champions Argentina, containing the likes of Daniel Passarella, Ossie Ardiles, Mario Kempes, and a young Diego Maradona, and a Brazilian side boasting the talents of Falcao, Socrates, and Zico. Italian manager Enzo Bearzot was under intense media and public pressure to drop Rossi, but he stood by the maligned striker, a decision that paid rich dividends. Italy won their first match against Argentina with a fine display of defensive skill, and Rossi sprung to life in brilliant fashion in the third match, putting a hat-trick past Brazil to send Italy into the knockout rounds. He scored twice against a Polish team led by legend Zbigniew Boniek, and again in the final, where Italy defeated West Germany. For his efforts, Rossi took home the Golden Ball as best player and Golden Boot as top scorer, adding European Player of The Year and World Player of the Year awards to his collection later that year. Not bad for a man who had been described as an “aimless ghost” in the group stage.
Diego Maradona, 1986
I wrote last week about the controversy surrounding Diego Maradona’s meeting with England in the 1986 World cup quarterfinals, but the entire 1986 tournament will forever be known as his. In the group stages, Maradona scored an equaliser against Italy to maintain Argentina’s unbeaten record, but it was his performances in the knockout rounds that cemented his legacy. The quarterfinal victory over England, inflamed by latent tension leftover from the Falkland Islands War, and stage of his “hand of god” and “goal of the century” goals, is possibly the most dissected and discussed game of soccer in history. In the semi-final, two more individual moments of individual Maradona genius ended Belgium’s World Cup dreams. He capped off his tournament by setting up Jorge Burruchaga for the winning goal against the Franz Beckenbauer-managed West German team. The final over, he hoisted the World Cup trophy and confirmed his position as best player in the World
The 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan was Ronaldo’s redemption. Widely regarded as the most dominant player in the world in the late 1990s, he had been dubbed “The Phenomenon,” but missed almost all of the previous three seasons through debilitating knee injuries, requiring two surgeries and months of intensive rehab work. But fully recovered in time for the World Cup, nobody else stood a chance. From the first whistle, he was the proverbial unstoppable force, supported by a completely stacked Brazilian team employing the services of such footballing luminaries as Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Roberto Carlos. Ronaldo’s four goals in the group stage helped to ensure Brazil’s safe passage to the knockout rounds. He scored the second in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Belgium in the round of sixteen before scoring the only goal against Turkey in the semifinal. In the final, the unstoppable force met the unmovable object: Germany’s Oliver Kahn, the finest goalkeeper in the world, and at the peak of his formidable prowess, who had allowed just three goals so far in the tournament and would subsequently be awarded the Golden Ball. With help from partner Rivaldo, and an uncharacteristic error from Kahn, Ronaldo scored twice while sporting one of the most atrocious hairstyles ever seen. He went home to Brazil with the Golden Boot, the World Cup Trophy, and the admiration of the world.
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.