So today I thought I would rank the top five greatest World Cup games. Some are included for the sheer entertainment they provided (1-3), while one is included for its historical significance as a turning point in a war-torn country’s history (4). Of course there are games not included that merit a place. After all, five is quite a small number.
5. Uruguay 2 Brazil 1 (1950 World Cup final group stage)
Estádio de Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro (16 July 1950)
URU – Juan Schiaffino 66′; Alcides Ghiggia 79′
BRA – Friaça 47′
For all the World Cups they have won (a record five), for a certain generation of Brazilians this is the final they like to dwell on. A crowd of over 200,000 people (depending on your sources) packed into the Maracanã was stunned into silence 11 minutes from time after Ghiggia’s winner.
If you think FIFA’s birdbrained decisions, such as awarding the 2022 World Cup to an oil-rich emirate with no footballing heritage, is a new phenomenon then think again. The final of the 1950 World Cup was the final in all but name. FIFA in its wisdom decided that after the first round of group games, the four group winners should play a round robin to determine the new world champion.
Thankfully the fixtures spared their blushes as first met second in the final game of the group (Sweden and Spain fought it out for third-place while the final was on). This meant Brazil needed only a draw to lift the brand new Jules Rimet trophy. It was assumed that Brazil would cruise to victory after scoring 13 goals in the first two group games.
The press and general public in Brazil were so assured of success that the O Mundo newspaper printed an early edition on the day of the final with a photo of the team with the caption, ‘These are the world champions’. In order to stoke the fires of his teammates, Uruguayan captain Obdulio Varela bought as many copies as possible, laid them on his bathroom floor, and encouraged them to urinate on them. Ultimately it was Uruguay’s solid defence and attritional style of play which wore down their rivals and sent the 200,000 spectators in deafening silence.
4. West Germany 3 Hungary 2 (1954 World Cup final)
Wankdorf Stadium, Bern (4 July 1954)
HUN – Ferenc Puskás 6′; Zoltán Czibor 8′
DEU – Max Morlock 10′; Helmut Rahn 18′, 84′
Hungary’s ‘Mighty Magyars’ are the only team to feature in two of the games on this list for a reason. Hungary’s sheer dominance of the footballing world in the early 1950s can be mirrored by Spain’s current monopoly on the international stage. They had the world at their feet; inflicting humiliating defeats upon those they came up against, including a 6-3 win over England, becoming the first foreign side to beat them at Wembley. They were the Spain of their day but far more entertaining and far less allergic to finding the back of the net. No side in history has ever had a higher Elo rating.
They were by and far the best team of the 1954 World Cup, surviving a 22-man brawl in the quarter-final against Brazil, christened the ‘Battle of Bern’ and overcoming Uruguay in an enthralling semi-final. The 1954 final would also take place in Bern; its moniker ‘The Miracle of Bern’ would probably tell you the fate of the Hungarian team.
Despite being hammered 8-3 in the group stages, Sepp Herberger’s decision to field a weakened side to conceal the true strength of his German side proved a masterstroke. Hungary raced into a two-goal lead inside eight minutes and another romp seemed to be on the cards. However, it the pouring rain Fritz Walter inspired his teammates to equal affairs within the first twenty minutes. With five minutes to go Helmut Rahn scored West Germany’s third. Puskás equalised two minutes from time but was ruled offside. The game was over. The truism that the Germans are never beaten until the final whistle emerged from this game. So unlikely was their triumph the game has since been dubbed ‘The Miracle of Bern’. Sadly it would be the end of the great Hungarian side. Two years later the Soviet tanks would roll into Budapest and the ‘Magical Magyars’ would be scattered to the winds.
3. Hungary 4 Uruguay 2 (a.e.t.) (1954 World Cup semi-final)
Stade Olympique de la Pontaise, Lausanne (30 June 1954)
HUN – Zoltán Czibor 13′; Nandor Hidegkuti 46′; Sándor Kocsis 111′, 116′
URU – Juan Hohberg 75′, 86′
It was the reigning champions against the favourites. Hungary had scored a whopping 21 goals en route to the semi-final and had not lost a game in three years. Uruguay only scored a modest 13 but had never lost a World Cup match (having not travelled to either Italy in 1934 or France in ’38). Both sides were missing their key players, Hungary were without Ferenc Puskás and Obdulio Valera for Uruguay. It was always going to enjoyable watching.
The ‘Mighty Magyars’ dominated the game from the onset, taking a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Czibor and Hidegkuti. It was the dazzling dribbling skills of star man Juan Schiaffino that drove the South Americans and ignited their ‘garra’ (used to describe Uruguayan teams’ collective belief and strength in belief). Hohberg, making only his first appearance of the tournament, scored a brace to send the game to extra-time.
Pinpoint accurate crosses from Budai and Bozsik found the bull-neck of Sándor Kocsis who headed in his tenth and eleventh goals of the competition. Awaiting them in the final was a team they had thumped 8-3 in the group stage.
2. Italy 4 West Germany 3 (a.e.t.) (1970 World Cup semi-final)
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City (17 June 1970)
ITA – Roberto Boninsegna 8′; Tarcisio Burgnich 98′; Luigi Riva 104′; Gianni Rivera 111′
DEU – Karl-Heinz Schnellinger 90′; Gerd Müller 94′, 110′
Until Karl-Heinz Schnellinger’s 90th-minute equaliser this match, dubbed by many as the ‘Game of the Century’, looked set to finish as a sterile 1-0 victory for the Italians. Thanks to Schnellinger viewers and spectators alike were treated to the greatest period of extra-time in World Cup history. It appeared as if the Germans had completed a smash and grab after Gerd Müller took advantage of a poorly executed back-pass but in uncharacteristic fashion the German defence went to sleep and shipped two goals in six minutes. Half-time in extra-time and the scoreboard read 3-2 in favour of Italy.
Müller scored once again after the restart thanks to less than stellar defending from the Italians. His harmless header was misread by Gianni Rivera who believed the ball was going out for a goal-kick. It crept inside the post. Within a minute Rivera went from zero to hero, slotting the winning goal coolly past the flapping Sepp Maier. 22 minutes, 5 goals. By the final whistle it wasn’t just the players who were completely drained. Such is the esteem in which the game is held, a monument to the game sits outside the Azteca, which reads: ‘The Azteca Stadium pays homage to the National Teams of Italy (4) and Germany (3), who starred in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, the “Game of the Century”.’
1. Italy 3 Brazil 2 (1982 World Cup second group stage)
Estadio Sarriá, Barcelona (5 July 1982)
ITA – Paolo Rossi 5′, 25′, 74′
BRA – Sócrates 12′; Falcão 68′
The greatest World Cup game of all time? Without a shadow of doubt. The eventual winners versus the pre-tournament favourites.
This Brazilian side, widely regarded as second only to their 1970 counterparts as the finest team to emerge from the samba nation and the greatest side never to win the World Cup, were defending a 24-match unbeaten run. A draw was all that was required to advance to the semi-finals. Among Telê Santana’s charges were Eder, Sócrates, Falcão, and the world’s best player, Zico. 13 goals in just four games guaranteed they were the darlings of neutrals in Spain ’82. In sharp contrast, Italy started the tournament in stuttering fashion, managing only three draws in the first group stages. Not many gave them a chance of winning this fixture.
The shift in momentum constantly changed. Italy took the lead twice, only to be pegged back by the Brazilians. Zico, at the height of his powers, was in resplendent form setting up both of Brazil’s goals. Ultimately the difference between the teams was a resurgent Paolo Rossi, whose two-year ban for match-fixing was only lifted a number of weeks before the tournament.
None of his three goals were stellar but a hat-trick against the greatest team in the world, even one traditionally defensively inadequate as Brazil was no mean feat. Ultimately it was Italy’s ironclad back four which held the Brazilian onslaught in the final 15 minutes at bay, thus breaking the hearts of neutral supporters around the world.
By Eoghan Wallace