World Cups are never just about what transpires on the field. When the 2014 soccer World Cup kicks off in Brazil on June 12, tens of thousands of Brazilians will likely protest, angered by the wasteful government spending that has led up to the tournament. What better platform to make a statement than one watched by billions around the planet?
Soccer’s unchallenged place in the global imagination also means that what happens on the field carries special resonance. The goals scored aren’t just markers of sporting success: they are moments of national glory and humiliation, acts of cultural expression and political defiance. World Cup goals can change history. Here are 20 that did. (Feel free to tell us what we missed in the comments below!)
Alcides Ghiggia, Uruguay vs Brazil, 1950
The final of the 1950 World Cup, the first after World War II, was hosted in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana, an epic high-modernist bowl constructed for the tournament. Fitting 200,000 fans, it was the biggest stadium in the world at the time and was hailed as a symbol of Brazilian prowess. The country’s victory over tiny neighboring Uruguay was considered a formality. But the unthinkable happened. With 11 minutes left, Alcides Ghiggia surged down the right and powered a shot past the near post. “When Ghiggia scored,” wrote the Uruguayan essayist Eduardo Galeano, “the silence in the Maracana was deafening, the most raucous silence in the history of soccer.” The trauma of that 2-1 defeat on home soil continues to haunt Brazilians, despite their team’s unmatched World Cup success since then. Brazilians are desperate for their side to put the ghost of 1950 to bed, this time at the glitzy, redesigned Maracana.
Joe Gaetjens, U.S. vs England, 1950
An upset more remarkable than the 1980 Miracle on Ice, a team of American amateurs defeated heavyweights England 1-0 in Porto Alegre. The goalscorer, Joe Gaetjens, was a Haitian-American who just a few years later was reportedly murdered by the death squads of Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The victory barely caused a stir at the time in the United States. Compared to the blanket coverage planned for this year's tournament, the country in 1950 was still in the sporting Dark Ages, totally oblivious to its own countrymen's incredible achievement in the World Cup.
Pele, Brazil vs Sweden, 1958
The Swedish king looked on as a Brazilian team featuring a teenage striker named Pele tore the hosts apart in the 1958 tournament’s final, winning 5-2. Pele scored twice. His first goal involved a brilliant display of improvisation and strength: chesting the ball down, lobbing it over a defender and then slapping a volley past the keeper in one breathless, fluid movement. “I got my foot on it and flicked it over his head, which was something the Europeans weren’t used to,” Pele would recount. “I hit the ball before it touched the ground and in it went. It was one of the most beautiful goals of my career.” In a sport dominated for so long by largely white teams, Brazil, dependent on black stars like Pele, provided a new model. He told his biographer of the reception he got visiting Africa: “Everywhere I went I was looked upon and treated as a god, almost certainly because I represented to the blacks in those countries what a black man could accomplish.” The Brazilian team led by Pele would win two more World Cups, in 1962 and 1970, and become the chosen team of fans across the developing world.
Garrincha, Brazil vs England, 1962
Pele got a lot of plaudits, but Garrincha, a right-sided dribbler who endlessly tormented opponents, was of equal stature, at least metaphorically. He played a brilliant game and scored two goals in the quarterfinals against England en route to Brazil winning the 1962 tournament, which was held in Chile. Here's Galeano on the man known as the "little bird":
In the entire history of soccer no one made more people happy. When he was playing, the field became a circus ring, the ball a tame beast, the game an invitation to a party. Like a child defending his pet, Garrincha would not let go of the ball, and together the ball and he would perform devilish tricks that had people in stitches.
Pak Do Iik, North Korea vs Italy, 1966
There was a time when North Korea was beloved in the West. In 1966, a squad of North Korean amateurs gained followers — and shocked Italy — by playing an energetic, spirited game likened to the Chollima, a winged horse from Korean mythology. Pak Doo Ik, an army corporal, scored the match’s sole goal after a teammate won the ball back from the overwhelmed Italians and it dropped to him in the box. The North Koreans went on to get their wings clipped in the quarterfinal against Portugal. But 3,000 residents of the northeastern English city of Middlesbrough, where the Italy match was held, journeyed to Liverpool to cheer them on for that round. “When I scored that goal, the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts,” said Pak during a carefully managed return visit in 2002. “I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.” North Korea’s next World Cup appearance was in 2010, where a much less inspired team lost all three games and endured a six-hour-long public excoriation by regime officials on their return home.
Geoff Hurst, England vs West Germany, 1966
England's only World Cup triumph came against the old enemy in London. It was controversial: the game-winning goal, scored by Geoff Hurst, was given even though the ball appeared to not actually cross the line. Hurst added another one at the end, making him the only player in history to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final.
Gianni Rivera, Italy vs West Germany, 1970
The Italians and Germans appear frequently on this list on the wrong side of proceedings, but that's in part a consequence of their ceaseless consistency in international competition. In 1970, Italy and West Germany played in an epic, nail-biting semi-final, dubbed the "Game of the Century" that was won by a late strike in extra time by substitute Gianni Rivera. Exhausted from their exertions, the Italians didn't really stand a chance in the next game against Brazil.
Carlos Alberto, Brazil vs Italy, 1970
Carlos Alberto's emphatic finish, set up by Pele, in the final against Italy came after a devastating team move up the field, one that seemed to embody this era of imperious Brazilian joga bonito.
Gerd Muller, West Germany vs Holland, 1974
The Dutch team of the 1970s, led by the irrepressible Johan Cruyff, were masters of “total football”— utopian perfection of the game, full of dizzying movement, swift passing and tenacious pressing. They reached the 1974 final against Gerd Muller’s West Germany undefeated, and were heavy favorites. But the Germans, playing at home, withstood the Dutch attacks and dispatched them with ruthless efficiency. With the scores level toward the end of the first half, Muller, a lethal poacher, collected a pass in the box and swiveled, arrowing the ball into the far corner. That’s all the Germans needed. For the Dutch, it was a bitter loss, compounding tensions that lingered from World War II. Allusions to wartime hostilities have continued to frame encounters on the field between the two neighbors. In 1988, when the Dutch defeated West Germany in the semifinal of the European championships, fans sang songs describing the victory as vengeance for the Nazi invasion in 1940.
Johan Cruyff, Holland vs Brazil, 1974
The goal scored by the great Dutch star Johan Cruyff, which sealed his country's place in the final, captured the spirit of the Dutch total football -- clever running, quick passing and a deft finish.
Mario Kempes, Argentina vs Peru, 1978
Two years before Argentina hosted and won the 1978 World Cup, a military junta came to power in a coup. The generals hoped to make the tournament a grand nationalist spectacle, hiring a New York public relations firm and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lavish new stadiums. All the while, students, leftists and those deemed opponents of the regime were being disappeared, kept in hidden concentration camps or killed.
To reach the final, Argentina had to beat Peru by four goals. Mario Kempes – described by Galeano as “an unbreakable bronco” – charged right through the Peruvian defense, impervious to their tame tackles, and slotted in the opener. It was the beginning of a 6-0 mauling that is now clouded in controversy, with many convinced the match was fixed. A British report published more than a decade later quoted anonymous Argentine officials alleging that Argentina had agreed to ship 35,000 tons of free grain to Peru as well as unfreeze $50 million in credit for Lima’s own military government. But despite an Argentine victory, the tournament did little to burnish the regime’s image. Instead, it shone a light on its cynicism and brutality. The Dutch players, losers of yet another final, refused to salute the junta in the event’s closing stages.
Socrates, Brazil vs Italy, 1982
The most popular team in the history of the sport never won a thing. The Brazilian side that went to 1982 World Cup in Spain still presents the gold standard of the beautiful game. They were joyful, inventive, dazzlingly quick. Soccer purists purr over the team’s stars: the genius Zico, the great Falcao, the fleet-footed Eder and the elegant Socrates, the Brazilian captain. Socrates was always a philosopher: a chain-smoking, hard-drinking pavement intellectual who had earned a degree in medicine, he was an outspoken critic of Brazil’s authoritarian rulers and tried to inculcate “democratic” values in the dressing rooms of whatever team he captained. His 1982 World Cup goal against Italy – a sumptuous bit of pass-and-move collaboration with Zico – embodied everything Socrates’ Brazil was about. But Brazil’s attacking verve led to defensive frailties and the Italians went on to win the Cup, to the heartbreak of neutrals everywhere. Chastened by disappointment, Brazil won World Cups in 1994 and 2002 with far more pragmatic, stodgy squads.
Diego Maradona, Argentina vs England, 1986
The 1986 Cup belonged to Diego Maradona, an impish scallywag who may be the greatest soccer player of all time. His most famous moment came in the quarterfinal against England. The ball looped fortuitously to him in the box and he punched it, with his fist, into the net. The “hand of God” goal, as Maradona himself dubbed it, was allowed to stand, to the disbelief of the English. Maradona saw it as an act of justice. Four years previously, Argentina had fought a bitter war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. “We blamed the English players for everything that happened, for all the suffering of the Argentine people,” Maradona wrote in his autobiography. “This was revenge.” For good measure, Maradona scored again, slaloming through half the English team. That strike has been dubbed the “Goal of the Century,” and Argentina would go on to win the tournament, defeating West Germany 3-2 in the final.
Roger Milla, Cameroon vs Colombia, 1990
Cameroon didn’t win the 1990 World Cup in Italy, but it was that tournament’s biggest story. For the first time, an African team reached the quarterfinals, pulling off a string of improbable results before losing unluckily to England. The talismanic figure of the side was equally improbable: 38-year-old Roger Milla. He scored twice against Colombia: most memorably stripping the ball from over-adventurous keeper Rene Higuita and stroking it into the empty net. The belly-wiggling celebration that followed became so iconic that it was branded by Coca-Cola. Cameroon’s success won fans from across Africa and the developing world. The solidarity was real: When Cameroon finally lost, a woman in Bangladesh killed herself, saying in a suicide note that the country’s elimination meant the end of her own life as well. To this day, African teams still live in Milla and Cameroon’s shadow. “It’s thanks to football that a small country can become great,” Milla later told a French magazine.
Andres Escobar (own goal) Colombia vs. U.S., 1994
On June 22, 1994, Andres Escobar, the celebrated captain of a much-fancied Colombian team, accidentally diverted the ball into his own goal during a match against the United States. Colombia crashed out of the tournament early. Less than two weeks later, Escobar was gunned down in a Medellin parking lot by the bodyguard of a druglord who allegedly lost money on the game. Escobar’s death was a moment of national reckoning for Colombia, then notorious for the seemingly unchecked influence of its cartels. Many of its brightest talents quit the national team in disgust. The players lining up in Brazil this summer are part of the strongest Colombian squad since the ill-fated 1994 side. Their country’s darkest years, on and off the pitch, are hopefully in the past.
Dennis Bergkamp, Holland vs Argentina, 1998
Dennis Bergkamp's wonder goal in France yielded the most memorable bit of commentary in the history of sport.
Zinedine Zidane, France vs Brazil, 1998
Zinedine Zidane scored twice in France's 3-0 1998 World Cup final victory in Paris against Brazil. The drive and determination he showed with a bullet header in the first-half seemed to epitomize the hunger of the French national team, which had never won a World Cup until then. The sublimely talented Zidane was emblematic for other reasons: of Algerian descent, the team he led was considered a model of European integration, with many players hailing from immigrant communities.
Papa Bouba Diop, Senegal vs France, 2002
France entered the subsequent tournament in Japan and South Korea as the favorite. Its first match was against Senegal, a former French colony making its debut on soccer’s international stage. Most of the Senegalese team plied their trade in the French league; some had been born in France. Their miraculous victory over France – the winning goal trundled home by Papa Bouba Diop – was celebrated in bars from Dakar to Paris.
Andres Iniesta, Spain vs Holland, 2010
In the depths of extra time after a tough, battling contest in Johannesburg, Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta rifled home an unstoppable drive that won Spain its first-ever World Cup. The Spaniards were already European champions and this ultimate prize established this generation of players as one of the best ever assembled on the pitch. The team's stylish passing and relentless pressing made them worthy heirs to the "total football" Dutch masters of the 1970s, an irony not lost on the losing nation.
Read other World Cup-related posts:
- This year's World Cup song hardly excites us. Here are six that will.
- The "true football" of Brazil
- See our full 2014 World Cup coverage