The World Cup is the biggest football gala in the world. It has had countless matches that have gone down in folklore as some of the greatest ever football battles. Here’s more about the best World Cup games ever seen.
Did You Know?
While not one of the ‘top’ games, the most important pair of games in the history of the World Cup took place on July 13, 1930. With a simultaneous kickoff of 3 pm (Uruguayan Standard Time), the matches between France and Mexico, and the USA and Belgium, were the very first matches in the history of the FIFA World Cup.
When the biggest and baddest guys in a movie come head to head, usually at the end, we all know that the ensuing fight (oh, there IS going to be a fight, of course; amiable, peaceful discussions don’t really sell tickets) will be replete with stunning camera angles, slow motion replays, and a thumping background score.
Similarly, when the biggest and baddest teams in the footy world come together in the quadrennial FIFA World Cup, you know that sparks are going to fly, studs will be raised, and magic will inevitably happen. It is this unpredictable mixture of bravado and brilliance that makes for the special sport that we all know and love.
Over the years, the World Cup has had some of the greatest soccer matches the world has ever seen. These were either illuminated by individual brilliance, à la Maradona in the 1986 quarterfinal, or by tactical brilliance, à la Italy in the 1982 semifinal, or they may even be iconic upsets, à la the Maracanazo. Here’s a description of some of the top football matches the World Cup has given us.
NOTE: The matches are not ‘ranked’ in any way, but are instead listed chronologically. The matches are a personal choice of the writer, and are not claimed to be objectively selected. Opinions will almost certainly differ.
Best World Cup Games
- Brazil v Uruguay, 1950
- West Germany v Hungary, 1954
- Portugal v North Korea, 1966
- England v West Germany, 1966
- Italy v West Germany, 1970
- Brazil v Italy, 1970
- West Germany v Netherlands, 1974
- Brazil v Italy, 1982
- Argentina v England, 1986
- Spain v Netherlands, 2014
Brazil v Uruguay, 1950
Date: July 16, 1950
Venue: Maracana Stadium, Rio
With all due profuse apologies to Brazilian football, what better match than the ‘Maracanazo’ to kick things off?
Emotions were running high in the host nation Brazil as the team advanced to the match with minimal fuss. The whole country was in a celebratory mood, as scrappy Uruguay were widely expected to bow down to the might of the Brazilian team. Banners and newspaper headlines praising the Selecao had already been printed, and the Brazilian football federation had already commissioned gold medals for the expected victors.
However, the Uruguayans hadn’t quite read the script. Defying their manager’s calls to play defensively, inspirational captain Obdulio Varela instructed his teammates to come out and fight, and fight they did. Uruguay became the only team in the tournament to keep Brazil from scoring in the first half of games, but two minutes after the interval, Brazil scored through Friaça. Uruguay hit back through Juan Alberto Schiaffino, but since a draw was enough for Brazil to top the round-robin group, the hosts weren’t unduly concerned, and the Brazilian fans were still in full swing. Everything changed 11 minutes from time, when right winger Alcides Ghiggia stole into the box to slide the ball past Brazil keeper Moacir Barbosa, who was caught in no man’s land, having come forward expecting a cross.
The 173,000-strong crowd fell unnaturally silent, so much so that FIFA President Jules Rimet described the atmosphere as “… morbid, sometimes too difficult to bear”. Uruguay held on till the end to seal an epochal victory. The impact of the utterly-unexpected defeat was such that the defeat has been compared, by Brazilian writers, to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. Moacir Barbosa was blamed for the defeat, and claimed in 2000 that while the maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years, he had been paying for the defeat for 50 years.
* Though even FIFA themselves call the match a ‘final’, and it is universally considered as such, the match was not, in fact, a knockout game. It was the final game of a round robin group between 4 teams. The fact that it was the chronologically last game in the tournament and was played between the only two teams that could win the title, has led to it being termed as the ‘final’.
West Germany v Hungary, 1954
Date: July 4, 1954
Venue: Wankdorf Stadium, Bern
Hungary were riding high on the wave of the Magical Magyars, and reached the final of the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland in style. The Hungarian team in this period were without doubt the best side in the world (it has the highest Elo rating of any national football team in any period), having been unbeaten since 1950 and boasting of influential legends such as Ferenc Puskás, Gyula Grosics, and Sándor Kocsis. Their enthralling style of play had won them matches and fans alike, and would go on to inspire many modern tactical innovations. In contrast, West Germany were far from the favorites in the World Cup, and were playing in their first competitive tournament since the Second World War.
Hungary’s star player and captain Puskás had featured in an earlier 8-3 defeat of Germany in the group stage, but he also got injured in the same match. In spite of his absence, Hungary beat the top two teams at the preceding World Cup (Uruguay and Brazil) in their quarterfinal and semifinal. A still-injured Puskás took his place in the team for the final.
The decision to field a half-fit Puskás seemed to pay off, as he gave the Magyars the lead after just 6 minutes, with Zoltán Czibor adding another after 8 minutes. However, the Germans responded magnificently, scoring through Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn just 10 minutes after Czibor’s goal. Rahn became the hero when he scored what would be the winner, six minutes from the end.
Like in 1950, the result of the match caused a united outbreak of emotion in an entire nation. However, unlike Brazil, where a few fans even committed suicide, West Germany regained a patriotic fervor through this victory. Beaten, vilified, and ostracized after the Second World War, this match served, in the words of German historian Joachim Fest, as “… in certain aspects the founding day of the German Republic”.
Portugal v North Korea, 1966
Date: July 23, 1966
Venue: Goodison Park, Liverpool
North Korea had shocked the footballing world by merely qualifying for the 1966 World Cup. They became everybody’s second team when, providing a classic underdog story, they shocked mighty Italy in the round of 16 to set up a fearsome quarterfinal clash with the Eusebio-led Portugal.
Korea DPR relieved their nerves, and furthered the affection neutrals felt for them, by racing into a three-goal lead inside half an hour. Pak Seung-Zin gave the Asian minnows a dream start by scoring in the very first minute. Li Dong-Woon and Yang Seung-Kook further increased the lead in the 22nd and 25th minute, respectively.
In Eusebio, however, the Koreans had bitten off more than they could chew. The legendary striker reduced the arrears for Portugal in the 27th minute, before adding another via a penalty two minutes before halftime. He then added two more in the 56th and 59th minute to drag Portugal away from potential embarrassment, and into the lead for the first time in the game. The shell-shocked Koreans couldn’t hold on after this stunning one-man reversal, and conceded another through Jose Augusto in the 80th minute. The fairytale couldn’t last for North Korea, but they had provided one of the greatest matches and one-man performances the World Cup has ever displayed in the process.
England v West Germany, 1966
Date: July 30, 1966
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London
The World Cup had come home, held in the country that invented it, and the hosts responded to national fervor brilliantly with a classic match at the Wembley.
The match began well for the Germans, with Ray Wilson’s misplaced header out of the English defense allowing Helmut Haller to score the opening goal in the 12th minute. However, England were level within 7 minutes, as captain Bobby Moore’s quick thinking in taking a free kick right after winning it caught the German defense off guard, allowing Geoff Hurst to slip in his first of the game. With 12 minutes to go, England retook the lead, when Martin Peters slotted in a goal from Hurst’s deflected shot. The Germans, however, came back in the 89th minute, scoring in a goalmouth scramble from Wolfgang Weber. The goal was controversial, because there was strong suspicion of a handball having been committed in the buildup, and the free kick that led to the goal was also controversial.
In extra time, England always looked the more likely to get the winning goal, but the manner in which they eventually achieved it has been discussed ad nauseam ever since the game. With a minute gone past the 100-minute mark, midfielder Alan Ball delivered a cross to Geoff Hurst, whose shot cannoned off the underside of the bar, bounced on the goal-line before going out (back into the field of play). Amid confusion and protests from the Germans, the linesman adjudged the ball to have crossed the line. Hurst’s historic third, England’s fourth, came with the last kick of the game, with the German defense having gone forward in the hope of grabbing an equalizer.
Geoff Hurst remains the only player to score a hat trick in a World Cup final.
Italy v West Germany, 1970
Date: June 17, 1970
Venue: Aztec Stadium, Mexico City
The fact that this match was called the ‘Match of the Century’ immediately after it ended bodes well for this match to be considered an all-time football World Cup classic. There’s also the small matter of this match being voted as the best match ever by the Germans, who had ended up losing it. In the eyes of many, this match has a completely legitimate claim to being the best football game ever.
Italy, boasting the talents of legendary playmakers Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera, among others, had reached the semifinal thanks to their defensive tactics, a version of the notorious system of catenaccio. In contrast, Germany were centered around their midfield powerhouses, Franz Beckenbauer and Wolfgang Overath, and a deadly attack, containing Uwe Seeler and Gerd Müller.
The match began perfectly for the Italians, with an 8th-minute Roberto Boninsegna goal allowing them to drop back and implement their preferred defensive tactics. The first half was dominated by the Italians, and Germany couldn’t break through. However, the Germans started to rediscover their rhythm in the second half, with the Italian goalkeeper having to make several important saves. After growing in stature over the course of the second half, the Germans finally drew level in the final minute. The goal arrived through the unlikeliest of sources, left back-sweeper Karl-Heinz Schnellinger scoring his first and only goal for the German national team.
The last-minute drama aside, what made this match the ‘Match of the Century’ was the unbelievable goal-fest in extra time. Germany went ahead for the first time in the match in the 94th minute through the irrepressible Gerd Müller, only to be pegged back by Tarcisio Burgnich’s equalizer four minutes later. Italy then turned the tables and managed to go into the second half of extra time in the lead, with Luigi Riva scoring in the 104th minute. However, the drama was far from over. ‘Der Bomber’ Müller scored again in the 110th minute to bring Germany level once again. Within a minute of Müller’s equalizer, Italy snatched what would be the winner, with midfielder Gianni Rivera slotting in a goal from just inside the penalty area. Rivera’s goal followed Müller’s goal so closely that some TV channels were still showing replays of the latter when Rivera scored.
Italy ultimately held on to clinch one of the most famous and celebrated games in World Cup history. The match became so famous that a monument was constructed at the Aztec Stadium, paying homage to the two teams. The match was also notable for the bravery of Franz Beckenbauer; having broken his clavicle in a tackle earlier in the game, Der Kaiser played on with his arm slung by his side, because the Germans were out of substitutions and a numerical disadvantage would be disastrous for his team. This remains the only World Cup game in which 5 goals were scored in extra time.
Brazil v Italy, 1970
Date: June 21, 1970
Venue: Aztec Stadium, Mexico City
The 1970 Brazil team, featuring all-time legends of the game such as Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, and Carlos Alberto, all in their prime, is considered one of the best international teams ever. Their performance in the 1970 tournament is, accordingly, considered the most dominant performance by one team in a World Cup tournament.
Having reached the final through completely contrasting strategies, the match was billed as a battle between attack and defense (though a different match between Brazil and Italy would make this oversimplified characterization even more obvious), with the flair-filled, creative forces of Brazil confronted by the defensive, rigid Italians.
Brazil took the lead in the 18th through a header from Pele, who would set up two more goals in the match. Unable to build upon their lead, the Brazilians were pegged back 8 minutes form the halftime whistle, when Roberto Boninsegna, who had played a crucial role in Italy’s semifinal victory over West Germany, pounced on a mistake to bring Italy level. The teams went in at halftime on level terms. Brazil came out with ferocious purpose in the second half, and their second half performance is a shining example of positive, attack-minded football grinding down even the most famously stubborn of defenses.
Gérson got the party started with a hard drive into the net, and then provided a cross for Pele to provide a headed assist for an onrushing Jairzinho to extend Brazil’s lead to 3-1. With his goal, which he almost missed but eventually scuffed in, Jairzinho became only the second player in history to score in all of his team’s games at a World Cup tournament. Since he played in more games than Alcides Ghiggia, the other player to achieve this feat, Jairzinho holds the (joint, with Ronaldo) record of scoring in the most matches in a single edition of the World Cup.
Brazil’s fourth goal in the game, finished by Carlos Alberto after an intricate passing move featuring 8 of the 10 outfield players, is considered one of the best goals ever scored. The move started deep in the left side of the Brazilian half, with the ball eventually reaching Pele on the right side of the Italian penalty area, through―in that order―Tostao, Brito, Clodoaldo, Pele himself, Gérson, Clodoaldo again, this time toying with the Italians by beating four players in his own half before passing the ball, and Jairzinho, who crossed the ball from the left wing to Pele. Pele, being aware of the attacking run made by the full-back Carlos Alberto, held the ball up for a moment, before releasing a perfectly weighted pass through the Italian defense and onto the right foot of Alberto, who smashed it in.
With this victory, Brazil became the only three-time winners of the Jules Rimet Trophy (original name of the World Cup), edging fellow two-time winners Uruguay and Italy.
West Germany v Netherlands, 1974
Date: July 7, 1974
Venue: Olympic Stadium, Munich
The Dutch national side of the 1970s is considered among the best teams not to win a World Cup. Inspired by the game-changing philosophy of coach Rinus Michels and his favorite disciple Johan Cruyff, the ‘Total Football’ of the Netherlands had blazed a path through the preliminary rounds. A system where tactically flexible players switched positions as the game developed was revolutionary at the time, and changed the game forever.
The style was centered around the brilliant Johan Cruyff, who, while a nominal forward, roamed the lines between attack and midfield, establishing his grip on the game thanks to visionary passing, stunning dribbling, as well as deadeye finishing. He was ably aided by tactically and technically adept players such as Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink, Arie Haan, Ruud Krol, and Johan Neeskens. The Dutch team was considered the best team in the world at the time, and they were overwhelming favorites to triumph over the Germans. The Germans, meanwhile, had a team overflowing with talent in the form of indomitable Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Paul Breitner, Berti Vogts, Sepp Maier, etc.
The Dutch drew first blood in ominous fashion, taking the lead with a penalty just after the first minute. The penalty was awarded at the culmination of one of Johan Cruyff’s mazy runs, in which he was brought down by Uli Hoeneß. Johan Neeskens converted the penalty, giving the Netherlands a precious lead before any German player had even touched the ball!
However, the Germans responded with typical gumption, and won another penalty in the 25th minute. Breitner converted it successfully, making the scores level. Gerd Müller then scored the winner in the 43rd minute. Fittingly, given his glorious career, it was his last ever goal for West Germany before retirement from the international game.
The second half was eventful, with chances falling to either side, but the Germans held on to clinch their second World Cup trophy. This was the last World Cup tournament for Johan Cruyff, who retired in 1977. The Netherlands also reached the final of the next World Cup in 1978, but again lost in the final, this time to Argentina.
Brazil v Italy, 1982
Date: July 5, 1982
Round: Second Group Stage
Venue: Sarria Stadium, Barcelona
This is the match that best defines a battle between attack and defense, between proactive, creative football and reactionary, counterattacking football. Telê Santana’s Brazil team in the early 1980s, featuring Zico, Socrates, Falcão, etc., was the third great generation of Brazilian players, following in the ranks of the Pele-Jairzinho-Carlos Alberto band of brothers that had so utterly dominated the 1970 World Cup and the Didi-Vavá-Garrincha group that had won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. They were famous for their carefree, attacking football. They were considered the best team in the world, and were the favorites to emulate their glorious predecessors in winning the ultimate prize while playing an attractive brand of football.
Italy, on the other hand, were still reeling from the aftereffects of the Totonero match-fixing scandal in 1980, in which their star striker Paolo Rossi had been indicted. Rossi had returned to the Italian national team after a two-year ban due to manager Enzo Bearzot’s faith in his abilities, but was obviously out of shape and out of match practice. His performances in the first group stage had been deplorable, and the press and fans were starting to turn on him, though Bearzot still doggedly persisted with him.
The match began in a way nobody had imagined, with the much-maligned Rossi opening the scoring with a header after just five minutes. This was Rossi’s first goal in the tournament, not having scored in the first group stage at all. Brazil responded quickly, with captain Socrates leveling the scores in the 12th minute. However, their compulsive dedication to passing the ball out of defense, in keeping with the general pursuit of a beautiful game, cost them dearly, as Rossi intercepted a pass played in the Brazilian backline, and buried the shot to make it 2-1 in the 25th minute. After Rossi’s second goal, the match became a demonstration of the dedication both teams had to their choice of strategy: Brazil threw everything at the Italians, utilizing their flair midfielders to attempt to sneak past the Italian defense, which held its lines with virtually no intention of breaking and scoring more goals. Most of the play was concentrated around the Italian penalty area.
The relentless Brazilian onslaught finally paid off in the 68th minute, when Falcão’s fiercely hit shot from just outside the penalty area nestled into the back of the net. The implications of the 2-2 scoreline were that Brazil would top the group on goal difference, and would advance to the semifinals on the virtue of having scored one more goal than Italy.
Rossi, however, was not about to give up his greatest day so easily. In the 74th minute, he pounced on a poor clearance by the Brazilian defense from an Italian corner, and slipped the ball in from six yards to seal one of the most famous matches in World Cup history.
Having not scored in the World Cup before this game, Rossi went to score two more in the semifinal against Poland and another in the Final against West Germany. This scoring streak earned him the Golden Boot, as the top scorer of the tournament with six goals, as well as the Golden Ball, as the best player of the tournament. Rossi is one of only three players to win a trifecta of the World Cup, Golden Boot, and Golden Ball trophies.
This match was considered a death knoll for the top-heavy, positionally loose style utilized by the creative Brazilians. The triumph of the tactically astute Italians, despite lacking (relatively) big names, is considered one of the best examples of tactical understanding and pragmatism defeating attractive but naive flair play. Fittingly, Zico, arguably the best player in the world at the time and the best exponent of Brazil’s policy of all-out attack, called it “the day football died”.
Argentina v England, 1986
Date: June 22, 1986
Venue: Aztec Stadium, Mexico City
Containing one of the most famous moments in the history of organized sport, this match owes its popularity to the *resourcefulness* and brilliance of Diego Maradona.
Played four years after the Falklands War, in addition to the backdrop of an infamous match in the 1966 World Cup, this tie had already gained national importance in both countries, even before a ball had been kicked. Neither team was in the frame of possible champions when the tournament began, with the perennial powerhouses Brazil and West Germany, as well as a Platini-led France and holders Italy being the favorites. However, both England and Argentina had been solid and sometimes spectacular in their progress through the tournament, with Argentina depending mainly on the outrageously talented Maradona, and England swiftly becoming experts in getting the job done.
The first half, though dominated by Argentina, ended scoreless. Maradona had already created havoc in the England lines, creating several chances for himself as well as his teammates. It was in the second half, though, that he decided to take matters into his own hands. In the 51st minute, Maradona jumped alongside England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to contest a high ball. Realizing that he couldn’t reach the ball with his head, he raised his hand and tapped the ball beyond Shilton into an empty net. While the English team and the fans were outraged, the linesman didn’t spot the blatant handball, and the goal stood. Maradona later cheekily attributed the infamous improvisation to the “head of Diego Maradona and the Hand of God”, giving rise to the famous expression.
Though his first famous act in this game was in bad spirit, he more than made up for it with his second. Receiving the ball in the right channel in his own half, Maradona embarked on possibly the most famous solo run in football history. Dribbling past Beardsley, Reid, Fenwick, and twice past Butcher, Maradona then went on to round Peter Shilton, and poked the ball into the net with the outside of his left foot. The 55th-minute goal, coming after a 60-yard solo run, was voted the best goal in the history of the World Cup, and is called the ‘Goal of the Century’.
Though England managed to get a goal back, through tournament top scorer Gary Lineker, Argentina held on to earn a famous victory.
Spain v Netherlands, 2014
Date: June 13, 2014
Round: Group Stage
Venue: Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador
A salivating matchup had been thrown up in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup when Spain and the Netherlands, finalists four years ago, were paired in the same group. But fans, experts, and players alike had no idea just how unbelievable the tie, the first ever group stage encounter between the two finalists of the preceding tournament, would turn out to be.
Coming into the tournament, Spain, managed by Vicente del Bosque, were still among the pre-tournament favorites in spite of the widely recognized flaws of having an aging unit of core players and predictable tactics. The Netherlands, on the other hand, had been completely revamped under the forceful guidance of Louis van Gaal, having stripped off many of the players who had starred in the previous two international tournaments, and with a heavy reliance on young colts. Spain were the favorites to repeat their 2010 success over the Dutch.
The match started with the Netherlands combatively fighting Spain’s famous obsession with possession. Though not dull, most of the play occurred in the middle of the park, with either goalkeeper rarely troubled. Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa drew a penalty for Spain in the 27th minute, and the ever-dependable Xabi Alonso stepped up to give Spain the lead. Spain had mastered the art of grinding out 1-0 wins in their previous successes (all four of their knockout games in the 2010 World Cup had been won by the same scoreline), and a similar success was on the cards against a Netherlands side set up to counterattack.
However, Netherlands captain Robin van Persie equalized the game, a minute before halftime, with a diving header from just inside the Spanish penalty area, having beaten the Spanish offside trap. The equalizer, which made Van Persie the first Dutch player to score in three separate World Cup tournaments, rejuvenated the Dutch, and with the Spanish now unsettled, they ripped through the holding champions in the second half with little mercy. Arjen Robben joined his captain in scoring at his third World Cup tournament, giving Netherlands the lead. Defender Stefan de Vrij, who had conceded the penalty on Costa, made amends by extending the lead with a header from a free kick. Van Persie then capitalized on a bad first touch from Casillas by scoring the fourth, and Robben completed the rout with a virtuoso solo run from the halfway line. Leaving the Spanish central defenders Pique and Ramos trailing in his wake, he took out Casillas by waiting till the hapless goalkeeper went to ground, before calmly slotting in the fifth.
The rout at the hands of the Netherlands set the tone for Spain’s 2014 World Cup campaign, as they were undone in their next match by a similarly energetic Chile team set out to counterattack, and went out of the World Cup with 2 losses from their opening 2 games.
These were some of the most famous and most influential games in the history of the FIFA World Cup. Apart from these, there are many other matches that could be included in this list. As mentioned before, this list is a personal choice of the writer. Dissenting opinions are more than welcome; which match did you enjoy watching? Which match does your dad never shut up about? Which do you think should make this list? Let us know!