With the 2018 FIFA World Cup just days away – the opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia kicks off Thursday at 11 a.m. ET – TSN.ca looks back at some defining World Cup moments. But rather than examine memorable plays that happened during the 88-year history of the tournament, we’ll focus on seven iconic moments from more recent competitions.
The World Cup is the world’s most prestigious football tournament. It’s also the one competition that most soccer players will never win as they suit up for their respective countries. The event is held every four years and only the best of the best 32 nations eligible to compete after qualifying are crowned champions.
It’s why we’ve seen the likes of Brazil win it all five times, while Italy and Germany have each captured four World Cups. These teams have been the powerhouses of world football for generations.
Some of the best players to ever grace the pitch have won this glorious trophy, and in doing so became legends in their native countries and around the world.
On the other hand, sometimes it doesn’t work out so well, and players buckle under the pressure in the biggest games of their careers.
Mexico 1986 - The Hand of God/Goal of the Century
The Hand of God is a moment in football history that everyone remembers. If you weren’t alive at the time, you likely know about it today. It’s a World Cup moment that has become a part of soccer lore.
Argentina’s Diego Maradona was one of the most talented and renowned soccer players of all time and was the star embroiled in this controversy.
The stage was set in the quarterfinal match against England. Tensions were already high between the two countries because of their 10-week conflict over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands four years earlier.
Following a back and forth, not to mention, heated first half, the second half started with a moment that has stood the test of time.
A mis-hit clearance was heading towards England goalkeeper Peter Shilton when Maradona came streaking in full steam ahead and jumped just in time to meet the bouncing ball by clearing punching it into the net with his fist.
Maradona made it look like he was heading the ball, but he clearly hit it with a fist and his head was nowhere near the ball. But from the referee’s vantage point, most likely, the play couldn’t be seen as clearly.
The England squad burst into protest but the deed was done as the opening goal stood.
The momentum clearly shifted in favour of the Argentinians as Maradona wasn’t finished. After the most controversial goal in World Cup history was allowed to stand, a clear wonder goal was scored by the same player shortly after.
The Argentine legend blazed through the England team and rounded a beautiful ball past Shilton for one of the most sublime goals in World Cup history.
From a moment of madness to a moment of beauty, Maradona led his team past a frustrated England team 2-1 to reach the semifinal. They would eventually go on to win their second World Cup to cement Maradona’s legacy.
1994 - Roberto Baggio Misses Penalty Kick
It’s a moment that will live in infamy for Italians everywhere.
For most Italian-Canadians living in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada, this was a moment that broke their spirits for many years before the glory of 2006.
The World Cup Final was all set between Italy and Brazil, two international heavyweights. At the time, both teams had three World Cup titles to their names and were vying for their fourth title.
Roberto Baggio almost single-handedly led an aging Italian side to that World Cup Final.
With the game tied 0-0 after extra time, the game went to penalty kicks.
After both teams missed their first attempts, Brazil hit their next three penalty kicks, while Italy hit their second and third before Daniele Massaro missed Italy’s fourth, setting the stage for Baggio, their star player, to tie the shootout once more.
But it didn’t go exactly as planned.
Italy’s number 10 took a big run from outside the box for the spot kick only to sky the ball with his right foot well far of the cross bar.
With the miss, Brazil won its fourth World Cup, firmly establishing the team’s dominance on the biggest stage.
As for Baggio, he was ridiculed for years after missing the kick, even though Italy was already down in the shootout.
He wasn’t the only player who missed his spot kick, but he took all the blame.
1998 - Zidane Leads France to World Cup Victory at Home
Zinedine Zidane secured his legacy in French national team lore with his performance at the World Cup.
Although there were other superstars who also shone at the tournament for France – the likes of Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera – Zidane was the catalyst for the French midfield.
It was almost destiny for the French to win at home.
The World Cup Final featured the host country versus Brazil, the defending champion, with their own budding superstar in Ronaldo, who had already been making waves at the tournament after scoring four goals.
Controversy, however, plagued the pre-match buildup as the Brazilian striker was not listed on the team’s roster with an apparent illness. It was said at the time that the 21-year-old suffered a seizure and was whisked away to hospital.
Somehow, he miraculously recovered and was hastily returned to the team sheet, but underperformed in the final.
Regardless of the speculation, this was ‘Zizou’s’ night as he took the bull by the horns and scored two goals before half-time.
That proved to be enough as Les Bleus blanked Brazil 3-0.
It was a glorious night for the 26-year-old midfielder. Even when the team had glowing veterans and superstar youngsters, Zidane proved – in front of his home crowd – that he was the man of the hour.
From that point on, Zidane was viewed as one of the best players to ever grace the pitch and he remains a national hero in France.
2002- Ronaldo and Brazil Get Their Revenge
After a dismal performance at the 1998 World Cup Final, Brazil was ready to show the world that the 3-0 loss to France was a slip-up.
Brazilian Ronaldo was now four years older and arguably in the prime of his career.
Much light was shed on Ronaldo’s mysterious injury at the 1998 final and he was looking to shed that stigma in Japan.
Featuring the likes of Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and a young Ronaldinho on the team, Brazil looked to have more firepower than ever before.
But this was Ronaldo’s tournament.
Brazil coasted through the tournament, finishing 3-0 in the group stage and easily passing Belgium, England and Turkey to reach the World Cup Final once again.
The Seleção faced off against Germany and it was Ronaldo’s time to shine in the spotlight.
Despite playing against Oliver Kahn, the world’s best goalkeeper at the time, the Brazilian scored both goals in the 67th and 79th minute to lead Brazil to their fifth World Cup title and second in three tournaments.
With eight goals, Ronaldo easily won the Golden Boot as top goal scorer and silenced not only his critics but those who blamed him for the 1998 World Cup loss.
2006- Italy’s Fourth Crown
Italy is usually a favourite in every World Cup they compete in and this tournament was no different.
The team had their share of world-class players, with the likes of Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon.
The Italians breezed past the group stage only to find themselves in a pickle once the Round of 16 rolled around. They faced off against a stubborn Australian side and saw themselves go down to 10 men in the game.
Italy was saved by a controversial penalty in the dying moments of the game in which Totti made no mistake and gave the Azzuri a 1-0 win, punching their ticket to the next round.
The one game, however, that pitted Italy as an underdog was their semifinal match against host Germany, the tournament favourite.
It was a battle that went back and forth, with neither team giving an inch. The game then went to extra time. It was only in the dying minutes before penalty kicks that saw Fabio Grosso score in the 119th minute to shock the home crowd and send the Italians to the final against France with a 2-0 win.
Italy would go on to beat France on penalty kicks in the final, a game that will always be remembered for the Zidane head-butting incident. Despite that moment of infamy, Italy would win their fourth World Cup.
2010 - Spain’s Glory in South Africa
Spain had always been viewed as World Cup chokers. They were the team with the most talent that could never put it all together.
Through all their appearances, Spain had never won a single World Cup, let alone reach a final.
But 2010 would turn out to be different.
Spain was coming off their first European Championship in 2008 and arguably fielded a ‘golden generation’ roster with such players as David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos.
Through the sound of vuvuzelas constantly playing in the background, the Spanish team was pitted against elite teams in almost every round. From Portugal in the Round of 16 to Germany in the semifinals, Spain conquered them all, but only by a slim margin.
La Roja won each game by a score of only 1-0 heading into the final against the Netherlands.
The tiki-taka style of possession was in full force by Spain as they continuously passed in tight areas and maintained possession of the ball for long periods.
Though they didn’t score as often as many thought they would with their level of talent, Spain dominated games by controlling them. Once they reached the final, they did just that against a strong Dutch side, who coincidently had also never won a final.
Both teams left little room for error for most of the match, but it was Iniesta who finally broke through in the 116th minute to send Spain into a frenzy.
Finally, the talent matched up with the performance and Spain continued its dominance on the international stage over the next few years.
2014 - German Dominance
The 2014 World Cup was supposed to be Brazil’s to win as they were the host nation, but it was Germany that was ready to show the world how well they had developed over the years.
In the decade previous, the Germans had come close to winning world titles of their own. Either losing in the finals or semifinals, Germany was always on the cusp of doing something special. But finally in 2014 they had acquired the proper tools to finish the job.
It all cumulated not in the final, but in the semifinal, as Germany infamously dismantled the home side Brazil 7-1. It gave the hosts their worst defeat in the history of the Seleção.
Then in the final, Germany took on Argentina and Lionel Messi, the co-best player in the world. The German defence of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm proved to be too much for Messi as they managed to keep him off the scoresheet.
As in 2010, the 2014 final went into extra time and it was Mario Gotze who became the hero. His 113th-minute marker was enough to give Germany their fourth World Cup title, tying them with rival Italy for the second-most championships of all time.
Germany reigned supreme once again, not seen since the days of West Germany in the 1970s and early ’90s.
Heading into Russia as defending champions, Germany is the team to beat in 2018. They have the firepower to repeat the feat and could be an even more talented team than the squad that won it all four years ago.