And with the countdown well and truly under way to the start of the biggest football event in the world, it’s time for Back Page Football to cast an eye over the 10 most headline-grabbing moments to ever grace a football pitch at a World Cup finals.
From sublime skill to controversial madness, spectators worldwide have seen it all.
But who remains branded in our memories forever and for what reasons?
Baggio’s botched Italian Job
Roberto Baggio came into USA ’94 as one of the best players in the modern game.
Nicknamed ‘The Divine Ponytail’, there was little the skilful Italian could do wrong, or so it seemed.
With breath-taking touches and extraordinary goals the norm for Baggio, it seemed almost written in the skies for him to bag an important penalty in the final against Brazil.
Neutrals willed him to tuck his spot-kick away, but his nerves seemed to wilt dramatically as Italy’s World Cup hopes evaporated in the intense American heat.
Famously, he skied his spot-kick high over the bar, leaving his reputation tarnished on the world’s biggest stage. In truth, it was a cruel injustice for one of the greatest playmakers never to lift the famous golden cup.
Milla making magical memories
Sticking with the Italian theme, it’s the turn of legendary Cameroon international Roger Milla to take to the spotlight.
Capturing a nation’s hearts by helping his side to the quarter finals of Italia ’90 (Ireland weren’t the only ones surprising the world back then), the now 61-year-old became just as famous for his goal-scoring tendencies as he did for the way he celebrated tucking them away.
Adding a real party vibe to proceedings, Milla and his contagious corner flag dance routine showed how football could reach past the tactics and the pride to a more universal, human level.
Of course, the legendary Pele later recognised his considerable talents by including him in his list of the 125 greatest players of all-time.
Not a bad recommendation.
Zizou le fou
Perhaps more of a meltdown moment than Baggio’s penalty misfire was Zinedine Zidane’s rush of blood to the head during the 2006 showpiece final.
An undeniably gifted player, the former French international’s coming together with Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the showdown tie at home was as unexpected and uncharacteristic an event as football aficionados are ever likely to witness.
After head-butting the Azurri defender, there was only one place for Zizou to go and he was promptly dismissed, causing him to have to walk straight past the trophy he had fought so hard to win.
His red card offence underlined the intense pressure the biggest stars place themselves under and showed us all just how heart-breakingly fine the line between victory and defeat really is for the stars at the top.
Ronaldinho humiliates Seaman
With England facing up to Brazil in the last eight of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, there was always going to be room for a little bit of samba magic with the three Rs of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho on the pitch.
And in the second half, after a typically clumsy challenge from Paul Scholes, Ronaldinho duly obliged with a stunningly memorable 40-yard free-kick that had the ‘keeper all at sea.
In a single swing of his boot, it summed up just how wide his repertoire of skills were, and gave his side a slender lead that they managed to hold until the final whistle blew with a little bit of help from their free-spirited, “Joga Bonito” style of play.
Of course, what many seem to forget is that he was red-carded later on for a poor tackle on Danny Mills; still, the goal was pure genius.
Football’s cynicism dumps Algeria out
Having shocked the entire football community with an opening day 2-1 win over the reigning World Champions West Germany over 32 years ago at Spain 1982, Algeria soon found themselves unexpectedly on the cusp of qualifying for the next round.
But their imminent joy soon turned to exasperation and dejection as they were played out of the tournament thanks to a pair of conspirators who tarnished the spirit of the game.
With West Germany and Austria needing a particular result to ensure they qualified, rightfully angry Algerian fans witnessed a pre-ordained fixing of the game. Having won the earlier match against Chile 3-0, Algeria needed a favour in order to qualify.
But with the Germans having scored early on, both teams set up the result they desired before playing out the rest of the match in a simple kick-about void of any semblance of attacking threat.
The result was a horde of upset fans and the integrity of football momentarily smirched.
Thankfully, the legacy of their elimination was that FIFA now ensure all final group stage matches are played simultaneously – something they might get the benefit of this summer when they compete in Brazil.
Maradona’s mazy run undoes England
There are only very few moments that can transcend time and space to become forever etched in our collective memories.
Diego Maradona’s slaloming run past half the England team in 1986 is one such instant.
Perhaps re-lived more than any other goal since or before, it was an absolute masterclass in how the diminutive Argentine was capable of single-handedly beating any opponent in his path.
Called into question in recent years by some as being a legitimate own goal scored by the outstretching England defender Terry Butcher, it would have been a shame to see its status demoted so dramatically.
Of course, it wasn’t turned in by the defender. In fact, not one English footballer got even the slightest touch as the game’s biggest personality ran rings around Bobby Robson’s men from one half to the other.
Argentina’s orchestral team goal
Arguably one of the most dazzling displays of team exhibitionism ever to feature on the global stage was the goal scored by Argentina against Serbia and Montenegro midway through the last decade in 2006.
As succulent a move as you’re ever likely to see, they managed to string 24 uninterrupted passes together before Esteban Cambiasso rifled the ball into the roof of the net beyond the despairing ‘keeper inside the six-yard box.
Passing and moving with grace and telepathic certainty, they lulled their opponents into a mesmerised state and simply glided through them to score one of the best team goals ever.
A patient build-up, combined with an incisive, up-tempo cutting edge and quick exchanges at key areas in the park pinpointed the sizeable difference in quality between the two sides.
Of course, the Argentine’s didn’t quite have the stamina to go on and win the tournament that year despite their star-studded squad, but that goal was a real gem of a memory that’s sure to live long in the hall of fame.
Ireland turn cartwheels to draw with Germans
Mark Renton once said: “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978.”
Republic of Ireland fans might have something similar to say about Robbie Keane’s smash-and-grab strike against Germany back in 2002.
With the game nearing its inevitable conclusion of a German victory, Ireland did what they’ve always done best; by hoofing a ball into the opposition box in hope.
But when the towering Niall Quinn directed a cushioned header down into the path of the ever-reliable Keane, Irish fans’ hope was soon transformed into pure ecstasy as the plucky former Inter Milan frontman managed to fashion an extra yard of space to power the ball past the flailing Oliver Kahn.
With that, the Boys in Green qualified for the second round and Keane became the only player, alongside Brazil’s Ronaldo to deny Kahn a clean sheet in that World Cup.
El Phenomenon’s final brace
With 15 World Cup goals to his name – more than any other player in history, Ronaldo can surely stake a claim to spearhead the Best International XI of any generation’s most clued-in pundits.
Tucking away his 11th and 12th of those goals in none other than the World Cup Final against Germany in 2002, one of Brazil’s brightest talents of the last few decades put paid to his emotional trauma that was the defeat to France that came four years prior.
And boy did he deserve it.
Scoring no less than eight goals throughout the month of action, he was head and shoulders above everyone else and duly took home the golden boot award.
The Canarinho‘s favourite no.9 displayed tremendous hunger and clinical finishing to put Rudi Voller’s men to the sword as football continued its global tour in Korea/Japan 12 years ago.
Germany had the best defence of that competition, but that didn’t stop the Selecao from unleashing the former Real Madrid star on them with devastating effects.
Green’s keeping calamity
There are goalkeeping howlers and there are World Cup ‘keeping howlers.
And when England faced up to the United States in South Africa four years ago in an effort to put themselves on the road to international glory once again, there can’t have been many who would’ve foreseen such an horrendous clanger.
Following Steven Gerrard’s strike to give the Three Lions a slender one goal lead, it looked as though they might just grab the three points they needed.
Enter their chosen guardian between the sticks, Robert Green.
Just before half-time, Clint Dempsey had an opportunistic pop on goal from the edge of the 18-yard box that the former West Ham ‘keeper failed to deal with as he let it pop up and over his arms.
Flailing helplessly to snatch the ball back, it tricked painfully away from his extended arm and over the line to gift the States a way back into the tie.
Ultimately, it cost him his place as their no.1 choice as David James took up the role for their scoreless draw with Algeria at none other than Green Point Stadium a few days later.