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The Greatest World Cup Moments

Tilt Magazine looks back at 25 great moments in World Cup history.

Top 25 Best Moments in World Cup History

The 2022 Qatar World Cup is finally upon us. Sports fans love the hype surrounding the NFL Super Bowl, the intensity of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the tradition of the Olympics, and the jet-setting appeal of Formula 1, but nothing really compares to the World Cup. Football, or soccer if you will, is a simple game to understand. 11 players on each side, one of which is a goalkeeper, with the objective of simply kicking the ball into the net. There are many nuances to the game, but in essence, that sums it up. 

One need only glance at the viewership figures for the most recent edition, Russia 2018. The final, which pitted France against Croatia, was seen by 1.12 billion people. Billion, not million. That’s almost the entire population of India, the second-most populated country in the world. 

Given the sport’s unshakable popularity and the feverish passion with which the world enjoys its biggest stage, people from all corners of the globe have witnessed the World Cup’s highest highs and lowest lows. As such, Tilt Magazine marks the kickoff of the 2022 edition by looking back at 25 of the tournament’s memorable moments. 

25-Pupil Becomes the Teacher (2002)

World Cup moment
US scores against Mexico (credit: FIFA)

In some respects, there’s a rivalry between the United States and Mexico as footballing nations. One may need to squint a bit to see it if only because the Americans practice so many sports whereas Mexico mostly concentrates on the beautiful game. 

That, in turn, means that the U.S. doesn’t get the upper hand on their southern neighbours very often. That all changed in the round of 16 at the 2002 tournament. Whether it was just a bad day at the office for Mexico, overconfidence, or the Americans were simply too good, the U.S. took their rivals out of the Cup with a brilliant 2-0 victory. 

24-Giant Killers (Senegal defeats France, 2002)

World Cup moment
Senegal celebrates (credit: FIFA)

Not for the first time in World Cup history did a defending champion’s campaign get off on the totally wrong foot. Older fans may remember when in 1990 Cameroon made Argentina start their journey on a stunningly negative note. 

A similar episode transpired 12 years later during the 2002 event. France, heavy favourites to go deep after winning it all four years prior, opened their defence against a Senegalese unit most viewed as easy to handle. Papa Bouba Diop’s 30th minute goal ended up being the shocking difference-maker in a 1-0 victory for the underdog Africans. Moreover, the loss seemed to corrupt the French side’s psyche as they didn’t even survive the group stage. 

23-Quintet of Goals (Oleg Salenko, 1994)

Russia nor Cameroon experienced a tremendous 1994 tournament. After all, neither survived the group stage. That said, they still partook in a memorable game against each other. This match looked back on fondly for what two players on each side accomplished. First, Russian Oleg Salenko scored all five of his side’s goals in a 5-1 thumping of their African rivals. It was certainly a day to cherish, but not only for him. Believe it or not, the lone goal scorer for Cameroon, Roger Milla, became the oldest player to score at the World Cup at the age of 42 years and 39 days. 

22-Rodriguez to the Maxi (2006 vs Mexico)

The 2006 round of 16 contest between Argentina Mexico did not live up the expectations. The 2-1 extra-time win for the Argentines was, for all intents and purposes, a rather tepid affair. That said, the winner was the stuff of legend. 

As Argentina attacked, teammate Juan Pablo Sorin crossed the ball over the middle of the pitch from the left side to the right. In a piece of footballing genius, Maxi Rodriguez controlled the pass with his chest and volleyed from a shocking distance. The ball soared over the Mexican keeper and into the top left corner. 

21-East vs West (divided Germany in 1974)

1960: West Germany Captain Franz Beckenbauer #5 shakes hands with the East Germany Captain before a match. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

Those with even a cursory knowledge of Cold War history are well aware that the WWII-winning superpowers took Germany as the political spoils of war. The country was divided between East Germany (eastern block) and West Germany (western allies).

What should the luck of the group stage draw decide for 1974 but a match pitting these similar if ideologically opposed nations? West Germany would go on to win the World Cup, but East Germany could hold on to the fact that they took the group stage match 1-0. At a time when any demonstration of superiority in all its forms meant the world, it was a big moment in socio-political and World Cup history.  

20-Brazilian Bicycle Kick (1938)

Leonidas World Cup
Brazilian Leonidas (credit: Alberto Sartini/Gazeta Press)

One of the great soccer moves known the world over for its audacity is the famous bicycle kick. A player jumps with his back to the goal as the ball falls in front of him and, much a volley, hits the ball before it reaches the ground, only they do it whilst falling in the air.

No one knows who performed the first-ever bicycle kick in football history, but most point to Brazilian player Leônidas as the one who exported it to the world at the 1938 edition in a quarter-final match against Czechoslovakia. 

19-No Goal? (England in 2010)

The English have a dubious World Cup history when it comes to big moments and big goals. Their winner at home in the 1966 final has been hotly debated, and there was the matter of Maradona’s Hand of God effort in 1986. 

2010 in South Africa saw the English suffer more controversy. A mouth-watering round of 16 clash against Germany ended in a 4-1 defeat. But do not let the unimpressive final score fool you. Down 2-1 in a brilliant match, Frank Lampard took his chance with a solid strike from distance that smashed the crossbar and, as clear as daylight, bounced behind the goal line. For whatever reason, the referees remained unconvinced. German keeper Manuel Neuer picked up the ball immediately, none the wiser. The game played on and Germany eventually netted a couple of insurance markers. 

18-Screaming Eagle vs Spain (1998)

One of the great World Cup goals wasn’t scored in a final or a semi-final. In happened in the group stages between a surging if overlooked Nigerian side and regular heavyweights Spain.

The Spanish found themselves in a much closer, more intense match than they bargained for, with the score tied 2-2 late in the second half. The Super Eagles earned a throw-in deep in Spanish territory, with the pass easily defended. However, the defence simply sent the ball into a nice, wide-open area of the pitch about 20 or 25 yards out from goal. In came Nigerian Sunday Oliseh who smashed a screamer that flew into the net. Nigeria held on to their 3-2 lead, announcing to the world that they had arrived and were not to be taken lightly. 

17-Ronaldinho’s Coming Out Party (2002 quarter-final vs England)

Ronaldinho’s career really took off after moving from Paris-Saint-Germain to Barcelona ahead of the 2003-2004 La Liga campaign. That said, the moment when fans around the world took notice was in the 2002 quarter-final against England. 

With the match tied 1-1, Brazil (sporting their blue shirts for once) was granted a free kick from about 35 yards out toward the right flank. Enter wonder kid Ronaldinho, who takes advantage of English keeper David Seaman’s position far from his line. He lofts the ball high but with considerable power. Seaman scuttles backwards, only for the ball to dip over his arms and into the net. Intentional? The point is debated to this day.

16-Ghana Carries a Continent (2010 quarter-finals)

Credit: WSJ

African Nations rarely perform well at the World Cup. Most fail to reach past the group stages and none has ever even played a semi-final.

With that in mind, on face value knowing that the Ghana national team reached the 2010 quarter-finals may not sound all that special. However, one should keep in mind that the tournament was held in South Africa, the first ever on the continent itself. Witnessing Ghana survive the group stage and then, surprisingly, knock out the U.S in the round of 16, held a special quality. It was akin to when the Toronto Raptors, the lone Canadian team in the NBA, do well and go deep in the playoffs. For all intents and purposes, the team had an entire continent cheering it on. Unfortunately for them, the journey ended in the quarter-finals against Uruguay on penalties.

15-South Korea Home Cooking (2002 round of 16 and quarters vs Italy and Spain)

South Korea World Cup moment
Credit: Associated Free Press

Similar to the 2010 Ghana national squad, the 2002 South Korean unit experienced a dream-like tournament. What’s more, they did so in front of their fans as hosting duties were shared between Korea and Japan that year. 

Korea was an incredibly tough outing in 2002. Their journey ended in the semi-finals in a tight, 1-0 defeat to powerhouse Germany. Most people remember the round of 16 game in Daejeon against Italy. It was a tense, controversial affair that went into extra time. In a sense, it was the sort of contest in which one of the opponents was, on paper, inferior, but spurred on so emphatically by the roaring home fans, they made the impossible possible. Fans of Italy will (justifiably) point out a controversial red card that handicapped their side, by Korea’s accomplish echoes to this day in World Cup lore. 

14-Goal Festival (2018 final)

Take a look at the final scores of the World Cup finals and a trend appears. 

1990: West Germany 1-0 Argentina. 

1994: 0-0 with Brazil winning on penalties. 

1998: France 3-0 Brazil. 

2002: Brazil 2-0 Germany. 

2006: 0-0 with Italy winning on penalties. 

2010: Spain 1-0 Netherlands in extra time. 

2014: Germany 1-0 Argentina in extra time. 

The final match rarely makes for a fun game for those fans who enjoy their football when the free-flowing Premier League is on. In other words, with plenty of goals. 

France and Croatia met on the ultimate day in Russia in 2018 and said “hold our beers.” The 4-2 final score was a breath of fresh air, even though anyone who watched the game closely knows that France was the superior team. Croatia’s second gold was actually the result of a silly gaff on France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris when the score was already 4-1. Still, there were a lot of high fives by goal scores on the day, something that hadn’t been the case in several years. 

13-Rivaldo is no dummy (2002 final vs Germany)

Those who don’t follow the sport closely and just assume Brazil always wins may be surprised to learn that the last they hoisted the trophy was 20 years ago at the 2002 final in Japan. Facing Germany, the boys from Brazil claimed a 2-0 victory on the night. Both goals were courtesy of the most popular player on the squad, Ronaldo, but a key moment came from his fellow teammate Rivaldo. 

Already up 1-0 in the second half, Brazil put on their thrusters and carried the ball into the attacking zone from the right. A low pass toward the center of the pitch seemed to be intended for Rivaldo, but he played a “dummy”. That is, he pretended to get ready for the pass and at the last moment got out of the way for Ronaldo, who slammed home his second goal of the game. 

12-The Cruyff Turn (1974)

The Netherlands have never won a World Cup, although they have played the final in 1974, 1978, and 2010. That doesn’t mean no great players have sported the beautiful bright orange throughout their history. 

One of the all-time legends was Johan Cruyff, who, along with his countrymen, presented “total football” to the world at the 1974 edition in West Germany. All attacking, brilliant, precision passing, and some wonderful footwork had fans falling in love. One of if not the most memorable episode came in the group stage against Sweden when Cryuff handled the ball outside the box on the left side with his back to a defender. What followed moments later was pure magic as the Dutchman dragged the ball behind is standing leg, then spun around to continue his attack. 

11-Fabulous Fabio (2006 semi-final)

Italy and Germany have engaged in many memorable World Cup games. One of the most iconic came in 2006 when the tournament was played in Deutschland. The semi-final was a tense affair, with chances to go ahead on both sides, yet the score remained deadlocked at 0-0 for the better part of the night.

The funny thing about World Cup knockout games is that, more often than not, when it goes to extra time tied at 0-0, penalties typically decide the matter. Not on this day, however. With only a couple of minutes left before penalties, Italy sent in a corner kick from the right side. Germany defended but couldn’t properly clear the ball. Italian giant Andrea Pirlo took the ball and, rather than fire, found a relatively open Fabio Grosso open 15 yards out. Grosso one-timed the pass with pace and precision from the right side of the box into the left side of the net. A buttery smooth goal that stunned Germany and ultimately sent Italy into the final.

10-Head Scratching Zidane (2006 Final)

Zidane World Cup moment
Zidane’s final World Cup moment (credit: Reuters)

Just as Zizou had earned himself a place in World Cup history for all the right reasons in 1998, the complete opposite happened in 2006 in Germany. Ironically, things had gone swimmingly leading right up into the Final against Italy. He had even helped his country knock out Brazil (again) in the quarter-finals with a stunning free kick that landed on Thierry Henry’s foot for a tap in. 

And then…extra time in the final. With the score tied 1-1 and tensions running high, Italian Marco Materazzi spewed one annoyance too many into Zidane’s ear. The Frenchman, absolutely fed up, turned around and head-butted Materazzi in the chest. The referee had no other choice but to punish the act with a red card. Italy would go on to win on penalties, yet one of Germany 2006’s most well-known images is that taken of Zidane as he walks off the pitch with the World Cup trophy mere feet to his right. 

9-Baggio: Over and Out (1994 final)

Italian forward Roberto Baggio has a near-impeccable World Cup record. He scored multiple goals at the 1990, 1994, and 1998 tournaments. Few players can claim similar effectiveness over so many Cups. 

However great he was, the fact is many cannot forget his howler over the net as the last penalty kick taker in the 1994 final in the U.S. against Brazil. The latter, for all their attacking brilliance, we stymied by rigorous Italian defence and goaltending and the game went to penalties tied 0-0.

With the boys in yellow leading 3-2, it was up to Baggio to keep the penalties going, but his shot sailed spectacularly high over the bar. Brazil and their fans cried for joy while Baggio could do no more but remain at the spot, as if frozen in shock.

8-Ground Zero (1930 World Cup)

Uruguay win the first World Cup moment
Credit: FIFA

All great traditions begin somewhere. As such, no list of great World Cup moments is complete without at least passing mention of the very first edition. Held back in 1930 in Uruguay, it’s the tournament that got the ball rolling (pun intended) to where the sport and tournament is today.

There were fewer teams and groups back in those days, and curious statistics stand out. For one, it was the first of Uruguay’s two titles, both of which were earned early in the event’s history (the second being in 1950 in Brazil). Second, it showed that even as far back as 1930, Argentina was a threat as they made it all the way to the final. Third, believe it or not, but the United States finished third!

7-Hand of God (Maradona in 1986)

Any astute football fan worth their salt in World Cup knowledge has heard the term “Hand of God.” The Mexico 1986 quarter-finals pitted two rival nations, Argentina and England. It wasn’t just that the two sides were seen as heavyweights that deserved to go deep. Their respective governments were living in heated animosity over the famous Falkland Islands at the time. The match meant a place in the semis but so much more as well.

In the 51st minute with the score tied 0-0 and with the sun beaming down on the pitch enough to cook an egg, football’s most controversial goal was scored. Argentine legend Diego Maradona carried the ball toward the box from the left side. A quick give and go with a teammate enabled the forward to sneak pass the English defence and receive a small pass through the air. England goalie Peter Shilton read the play and came out to intercept Maradona’s attempts, but the latter jumped high enough to make contact with the ball, sending it into the net. The only problem was that video footage reveals that he probably hit the ball his with hand. VAR wasn’t a thing back then, and everything moved so quickly with the celebrations that the game played on, with Argentina eventually winning 2-0. In a post-game interview, Maradona cheekily explained the goal was scored a little bit with his head and a little with the hand of god, hence this unbelievable World Cup moment’s name. 

6-Ruthless German Efficiency (2014 semi-final)

Brazil can’t always win the World Cup. Their five titles certainly have many justifiably believe the squad always has a chance, but the truth is sometimes another team is simply better. Never in Brazil national team history was this ever more apparent than at home in the 2014 semi-final against Germany.

Playing in front of a raucous home crowd, albeit without their young superstar Neymar Jr., Brazil was surprisingly not the favourite. The Germans were regular heavyweights but had failed to reach the promised land in recent tournaments, including in 2006 at home. What followed was one of, if not the single most shocking thrashing in World Cup history. The score was 5-0…at halftime. 

Deutschland took what they wanted when they wanted it and made the Brazilian midfield and defence look amateurish in the process. The 7-1 final score lives on joyously in the minds of German football fans and in infamy for their South American rivals. 

5-Gerson’s Gorgeous Winner (1970 final)

Alas for the Italians, there would be no glory in the 1970 Mexico final against Brazil. The latter had a mesmerizing squad, led by the iconic Pelé. Players like Rivalino, Jairzinho, and Gerson may not have kept the same cache as Pelé, but make no mistake about it: the 1970 team was amazing. 

The final score of 4-1 suggests the Seleçao took care of business with relative ease. They did, mostly, but it was Gerson’s second-half beauty that truly sent the team on its way to victory. With the score tied 1-1, Gerson took the ball from about 20 yards out. He dribbled a few feet, crossing right to left, then hooked a shot that travelled back to the left, past defenders, across the Italian keeper’s space and out of reach. A wonderful goal that typified the quality Brazil brought to Mexico that year. 

4-Zizou to the Rescue (1998 final)

The 1998 tournament is remembered for so many brilliant and strange details. It was the fifth and, at the time of this writing, last time a host country won the trophy. It was also les Bleus’ first win. 

But it’s the final itself that stands out for a plethora of reasons. Defending champions Brazil were back on center stage, ready to hoist the trophy yet again. In a bizarre and unexpected plot twist, star Ronaldo suffered convulsions in the hours before the final. 

Conversely, the tournament concluded in a dream-like fashion for the hosts and superstar Zinedine Zidane in particular. He hadn’t scored at all throughout the event, even though he had created plenty of chances for his teammates to net tallies. He had even received a red card in the group stage. That said, he saved the best for last, netting two goals with headers from corner kicks en route to a 3-0 win over powerhouse Brazil. 

3-A Legend is Born (Pelé in 1958)

These days, no one in their right mind would predict that Sweden would reach a World Cup final. Things were different back in 1958, when the Scandinavian nation, playing at home, did just that. There was only one problem: this was a 17-year-old Pelé’s coming out party.

The Brazilians thrashed the hosts 5-2 (even coming back from an early 1-0 deficit). As fondly remembered as that Brazilian squad is, it was also the one when Pelé announced his presence. In the second half, the iconic forward received a center in the box. Controlling with his chest to fend off a first Swedish defender, he proceeded to lift the ball over a second defenceman. With both out of his way, Pelé slotted a shot in the lower right corner of the net. A touch of pure class from a soon-to-be legendary player.

2-Extra Time Equals Extra Goals (1970 semi-final)

We just described the intensity of the 2006 Germany-Italy semi-final, but that pales in comparison to the craziness of their clash in the 1970 clash in Mexico. Once again vying for a place in the final, Italy scored in the first half to take a 1-0 lead. For the remainder of regulation time, the Azzurri defended a barrage of West German attacks led by the great Gerd Müller. 

It was only in the dying seconds that West Germany sent to match into extra time tied at 1-1. But rather play tight defensively to maybe push the contest to penalties, both squads went ballistic, tallying five goals during the extra frames, with Italy scoring three times to West Germany’s two goals. Final: a wild and wacky 4-3. 

1-Living up to the Legend (Maradona, 1986 vs England)

Earlier we highlighted one of the event’s most controversial moments. Funnily, the very same game (1986 quarter-final Argentina vs England) also features what many consider to be the greatest individual goal ever scored. What’s more, the same player, Diego Maradona, was involved. 

Already leading 1-0 thanks to “you know what”, Argentina put their English foes away once and for all thanks to a bit of brilliance courtesy of Maradona. The forward scored his second of the match with a demonstration of pace, endurance, dribbling, and the uncanny ability the great players have of creating space because their presence worries defenders. He took the ball from Argentina’s own half, twirled past a couple of Englishmen, then raced down the right side, past more opponents, ultimately faking his way past not only a defender but the keeper as well. The stunning piece of soccer class is often cited as the Goal of the Century.

-Edgar Chaput

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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