No other sport manages to thrill the senses or stir the soul as gloriously as the beautiful game. Its most celebrated competition, the FIFA World Cup, possesses the ability to conjure moments of magic as enchanting to an adult as Christmas is to a young child. In anticipation of the 2014 edition hosted across 12 state-of-the-art stadiums in Brazil, I have decided to run through my defining moments of the tournaments glowing history.
Two icons embrace
In 1958, gangly teenage sensation, Pele, burst onto the scene as an unknown leading his Brazilian teammates to their first ever World Cup trophy after an emphatic 5-2 victory against the host nation, Sweden. In Chile four years later they cemented their reputation as the undisputed kings of football as they made it two consecutive world champion titles having seen off the challenge of Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the 1962 final.
When the South Americans next had to defend their title in 1966, they were widely favoured to be the first country to make it a hat-trick of successive World Cup victories but a shock defeat to Portugal paved the way for England to pick up the Jules Rimet trophy on their home soil under the twin towers of Wembley Stadium.
This all served to set-up a titanic encounter for when the two teams met in the searing heat of Guadalajara during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Due to the lack of a seeding system, the two gargantuan nations of world football were drawn to face each other in what would become the most famous group fixture in the tournament’s history. One team determined to prove their mettle as world champions, the other attempting to re-establish their position at the summit of the footballing elite.
Having initially quit international football, Pele was tempted out of retirement and involved in a key moment of the first half. Rising to meet a cross, the iconic talisman shouted “goal” as he powered a downward header into the corner of the goal. Before crossing the line, England goalkeeper Gordon Banks appeared from nowhere and got down, not only to reach the ball but to defy the laws of gravity in somehow turning it up and over the crossbar. A save so astonishing that Pele himself would later recite it as the best he had ever seen.
It was one of the few occasions a dazzling attacking quartet featuring the silky skills of Pele, Rivelino, Cesar and Tostao had managed to manoeuvre a route past the rock at the heart of England’s defence, their leader and captain, Sir Bobby Moore. Producing what could only be described as heroics at the back for the Three Lions, Moore epitomised composure time and again as he directed a backline that would break up some South American side’s most intricate play.
The eventual breakthrough came on the hour mark, a signature move of exquisite Brazilian creativity. Brazil’s number nine, Tostao followed a quick one-two by breaking into the England penalty box, nutmegging Moore and jinxing past another before looping a ball to the feet of Pele. With three white shirts in front of him, Pele feinted a shot before disguising a flick with the outside of his boot into the path of the onrushing Jairzinho. As Banks scrambled out to confront him, Jairzinho rifled a venomous shot over the England number one and into the roof of the net.
England hit back with a flurry of chances, notably an Alan Mullery drive striking the crossbar and a miskick in the Brazilian penalty area which left the ball falling fortuitously at the feet of striker, Jeff Astle. His instinctive first-time shot was screwed just inches past the post, a missed opportunity that would haunt him for the rest of his footballing career. Brazil saw the game out winning 1-0, a result which symbolised a return to the balance of footballing power.
At the final whistle, Pele and Moore, approached each other with smiles, briefly exchanged words and embraced before swapping shirts. Images of the two legends embodied all the hallmarks of greatness: honour, respect, nobility and remains today as the definite emblem of true gamesmanship.
Brazil would go on to win the World Cup in style, smashing four past Italy in a final that they won comfortably 4-1. That 1970 World Cup winning side is today widely regarded as the greatest that has ever existed, but it was Bobby Moore’s robust England side who gave the boys from Brazil their sternest test.
The World Cup’s biggest shock heralds the arrival of the Africans
Everyone loves an underdog, or so the saying goes, but Cameroon’s victory in the opening game of Italia 90 against the world champions, a Diego Maradona led Argentina, was a shock of such magnitude that it has gone down as the stuff of fantasy and myth.
Assembled like a footballing Frankenstein of spare parts, unappreciated journeyman, semi-professionals playing in the lower leagues of French football, their main striking threat a 38-year-old, Roger Milla, who had retired three years prior, Cameroon were a team largely considered to be making up the numbers. Even at 500-1 as rank outsiders, these odds appeared generous.
On the eve of the tournament, their most established player, the goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell who had just been voted in second place for France’s footballer of the year said in a newspaper interview that his side had “no chance of coping with Argentina” and that they “will go out in the first round without much glory”. He was subsequently dropped making what was perceived as a weak team, practically handicapped.
Cameroon’s preparations for the World Cup were shambolic and their squad divided. They had suffered a humiliating exit from the African Cup of nations with defeats against Zambia and Senegal and frequently lost to obscure club sides in their pre-tournament run-up to the main event.
Their manager, Valeri Nepomniachi, a Russian with no grasp of the French of English languages, was an unexceptional player with a coaching record that was considerably less noteworthy. His only experience as a coach was a single season in charge of a Turkmenistani club playing in Russia’s third division. His speeches to the squad were delivered by a Cameroon embassy driver and were largely ignored by the players who had little to no respect for him.
All in all, you could argue that the footballing gods couldn’t have conspired to stack the odds against Cameroon with more gusto if they tried.
Prior to the beginning of the tournament, FIFA had introduced ultra-strict guidelines for the match officials. General Secretary, Sepp Blatter, criticising the conduct of players who “want to destroy the game instead of letting creativity and genius flow”. Not that this had much impact on the way Cameroon set about their business.
After a relatively lacklustre first half, a pattern began to emerge that involved the Cameroon dealing with any crafty Argentinean ingenuity by kicking anything in a blue and white striped shirt. Inevitably, on the hour mark, an innocuous challenge on the Argentine forward Claudio Caniggia resulted in André Kana-Biyik becoming the first player to receive a red card in the opening game of a World Cup since its inception.
For all of the rough stuff dished out by Cameroon, it was, somewhat ironically, a contentious trip 40 yards from goal that earned the defender a straight red. What looked like being an impossible task for the Africans became something of so much greater difficulty that it merits its own newly conceived definition.
Five minutes later, something extraordinary happened. A free-kick for Cameroon put into the Argentina penalty box, cannoned off of a defender’s shin and hung in the air. It appeared relatively harmless, but Omam-Biyik, the brother of the man sent off just moments earlier, rose highest to power a ball with a snail’s pace towards the opponent’s goal.
Argentina’s goalkeeper, Nery Pumpido, a man who had won the World Cup in 1986, dropped to his knees and appeared to inexplicably let the ball trickle under his hands and brush his knee on its way to the back of the net. Cameroon went ballistic.
The African team held on for the remaining 24 minutes in much the same way they contained Argentine in the preceding 66. Benjamin Massing became the second Cameroon player to see red when his challenge, described as “a kind of full-pelt, waist-high, horizontal flying body check” in the Pete Davies book, All Played Out, left Caniggia on the deck once again.
When the full-time whistle blew no one could quite understand what they had just witnessed, it was one of those ‘pinch me so I know this is real’ moments that you would expect from what remains today, the biggest shock in the history of the World Cup.
The result was celebrated not just in Cameroon, but across the entire African continent and heralded the arrival of Africa on football’s world stage. Afterwards, the Argentine coach Carlos Bilardo called the loss “the worst moment of my sporting career” whilst Maradona was gracious in defeat saying “I cannot argue, and I cannot make excuses. If Cameroon won, it was because they were the best side.”
It was a result with reverberating effect. When Cameroon arrived in Italy for the 1990 World Cup, their 22 man squad consisted of 11 players at domestic level with not one outfield player based at a top-flight European team. By 2002, all but two of Senegal’s 23 players were based in Europe.
In later rounds, Roger Milla’s knack for dancing a jig at the corner flag announced the birth of the ‘creative goal celebration’, prior to this all anyone did was stick their arm aloft or pump a clenched fist victoriously.
Elsewhere, Thomas N’Kono’s heroics in the Cameroon goal, a man drafted into the first team just five hours prior to the Argentina game after first choice keeper Joseph-Antoine Bell was dropped, inspired a 12-year old from Tuscany to give up his blossoming career as a promising midfield player and revert to a role between the sticks. “It was N’kono and his spectacular saves that made me fall in love with the position”, said Gianluigi Buffon who would name his son Thomas in homage to the Cameroonian.
As astonishing as the victory was, it is hard to see how it can ever be emulated now that the cat is out of the bag. “No team could ever again do what we did in 1990. The element of surprise is not there. Everybody knows everything about all the teams now”, said their strike sensation Roger Milla, which only serves to make Cameroon’s achievement of beating Argentina all-the-more memorable.
Hand of God and Goal of the Century arrive within minutes of one another
From the biggest shock in the World Cup to its biggest refereeing blunder and it’s most sublime moment of unfathomable skill both within five magical minutes during the quarter-final match between England and Argentina in 1986.
Tensions were high before the game which represented the first meeting of the nations since the Falklands conflict just four years earlier. It was also the first time the two teams had faced each other on the football field since an ill-tempered affair 20 years earlier, another World Cup quarter-final in 1966.
That tempestuous affair was a bruiser and witnessed Argentine captain Antonio Rattin receiving a red card in a bad-blooded affair. Appalled at the decision, the captain stomped over the royal carpet which made the England manager, Sir Alf Ramsey deliver instructions to his players not to exchange shirts with their opponents at the final whistle.
To the credit of the fans and the players alike, both approached the game in good spirits, the Argentine players gifting their counterparts with personal pennants as a goodwill gesture before kick-off. It would soon turn ugly once again however as a flash incident of dishonest rule breaking grew in infamy as one of the prime examples of cheating witnessed in the history of sport.
The game kicked off in a balmy Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The first half a largely uneventful affair peppered with moments of unerring anticipation whenever the ball arrived at Maradona’s feet. Such was the excitement of the talent that Argentina’s little number 10 possessed it was though every time he was he had the ball he would spontaneously open up the footballing heavens and produce an otherworldly moment of inspired genius at the drop of a hat. He produced one such moment early in the second half but not before being involved in arguably the most controversial passages of play in the entire tournament.
Six minutes into the second half, Maradona cut inside from the left and jinxed his way down the channel past Glenn Hoddle, Peter Reid and Terry Fenwick before playing a diagonal pass towards Jorge Valdano on the edge of the England penalty box. The pass was slightly awry allowing Steve Hodge to get a foot on it. The England defender, in attempting to hook the ball away, only managed to skewer it up into the penalty area where Maradona had continued his run.
Somehow, the pint-sized Argentine managed to get above the towering frame of England’s 6’1 goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the empty net the ball bounced. Without the benefit of modern technology including a multitude of omnipresent television cameras covering every blade of grass and ultra-high definition replays, one commentator, Barry Davis, was a little perplexed as to why the Shilton, Fenwick and Butcher were all furiously slapping their forearms at the Tunisian referee, Ali Ben Nasser.
“They’re appealing for offside, but the ball came back off the boot of Steve Hodge”, said Davis. Maradona would later state “I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came, I told them, ‘Come hug me, or the referee isn’t going to allow it’”. What he and his teammates knew as well as the English backline, was that he had used his left fist to punch the ball into the goal.
During the post-match conference, Maradona flippantly commented that the goal was scored “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”). This only fuelled the vitriol of foaming English tabloids who coined the phrase “Hand of God”.
What people tend to forget is that on the subject of laying waste to the rulebook, England were not entirely blameless themselves. Terry Fenwick, who had received a yellow card for taking Maradona out in the ninth minute, decided to continue his assault on the Argentine with a left elbow just before the break and a clump to the head five minutes after it. He again struck Maradona on the head on the 66-minute mark before rounding off his robust display by upending Jorge Valdano with five minutes of the game remaining.
It was the sort of systematic fouling that football authorities have been tirelessly attempting to stamp out of the game for the past 30 odd years and that has given rise to the rather less conspicuous antics of crafty tugs, conniving pulls and cunning shirt yanks. On another day, the England defender could quite easily have seen a second yellow if not a couple of straight reds. Unfortunately for Maradona, nothing shouted ‘cheat’ quite as successfully as the image of his left fist making contact with the ball before it sailed into the net.
If the first goal was a horrible miscarriage of justice, the second, which arrived just four minutes later, was a unique master class in sublime dribbling that is regularly referred to as the greatest individual goal of all time. Indeed, it was honoured with the title of Goal of the Century in 2002 as voted by visitors to the official FIFA website.
Maradona collected a pass ten metres inside his own half from teammate Héctor Enrique. A light-footed shimmy got him away from the attentions of Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid and spun into the England half making his way down the right flank. As Butcher approached, he teased the big defender before ducking inside and skipped over the challenge of Fenwick on the edge of the box.
England’s goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, rushed off his line and spread himself well, but a delicate touch to the right whilst holding off Butcher, who had recovered for a second bite, got Maradona in on goal where he knocked the ball into an empty goal under a heavy challenge. The 60-metre mazy marvel were Maradona laid waste to the notion of football being a ‘team game’ was the sort of goal that young boys picture imagine scoring in their head but have never actually seen unfold in the cold realities of a real football pitch.
It was somewhat ironic, considering Maradona’s indiscretion just minutes earlier that he would later compliment the fair play of the England team in allowing him to make the best goal ever scored possible. “I don’t think I could have done it against any other team because they all used to knock you down; they [England] are probably the noblest in the world”.
A late England surge inspired by a double attacking substitution gave Gary Lineker the chance to pull one back, but Argentina held on to win 2-1. They went on to defeat West Germany in the final, collected the World Cup trophy and with it the golden ball accolade for Maradona who was crowned the player of the tournament.
This time, the two sets of players were permitted to swap shirts at the end. Steve Hodge approached his tormentor-in-chief, it was, as the old joke goes, the nearest he got to Maradona all day.
A nation weeps
Italia 1990 was the tournament that thrust a cheeky young Geordie blessed with as much natural ability with a football as any player that England has ever possessed, past or present, into the spotlight.
Paul Gascoigne, or Gazza, as he became affectionately known was that rarest of qualities, the everyman who embodied the boyhood dreams of a nation, representing his country and propelling them towards football’s ultimate treasure with an inspiring series of swashbuckling performances.
Gazza had been a sensation in the tournament, coming from nowhere to lead them into a semi-final where he was supposed to sweep aside England’s most bitter rivals, West Germany, and on to their first World Cup final since the triumphs of 1966, but with one mistimed challenge on the evening of 4 July 1990, it all turned sour.
The game was stalemated at 1-1 in and into nine minutes of extra-time when Gazza uncharacteristically let the ball run loose from his control. In a flash of madness, he dived in to retrieve possession but only succeeding in catching the ankles of Thomas Berthold.
Having already been booked in an earlier game against Belgium, Gazza knew that another booking would mean his suspension from the final if England were to progress. He held up his hands in apology and approached Berthold with the intention of helping him to his feet, but the referee reached into his pocket.
With one rash challenge, Gazza’s world fell apart and he evoked the sympathy of a nation who had nothing but compassion for their new hero. Famously, Gary Lineker turned to the bench with a grimace, gesturing to his eye and mouthing “have a word with him”, as Gascoigne was on the verge of losing it. England eventually lost on penalties and Gazza’s vulnerability got the better of him. With their dreams dashed a nation wept alongside Gazza and the image of those tears became symbolic of the heartbreak suffered in the face of defeat.
It would prove to be the only World Cup that Gazza ever played in following England’s failure to qualify in 1994 and the struggles with his personal demons meaning he wasn’t selected for the 1998 squad, but he will be remembered for that bittersweet night in Turin that promised so much but ended up going so wrong.