Moacyr Barbosa Nascimento’s life sentence (1950)

On the morning of the final of the 1950 World Cup, Brazilian newspaper O Mundo had declared host Brazil winners. When Friaca put the home team ahead in the 47th minute, close to 200,000 supporters at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro went delirious with joy.

Later, Uruguay’s Juan Schiaffino equalized and Alcides Ghiggia’s 79th-minute goal saw Uruguay winning the match 2-1, sending the host nation into a meltdown.

No one paid a bigger price than Brazil’s goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa. He was blamed for the defeat, having being tricked by Ghiggia’s shot at the near post. He became an outcast in his own country. Barbosa lamented in a 2000 interview, “Under Brazilian law, the maximum (prison) sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years."

He was once turned away from a Brazil training session for fear that he would bring bad luck. The defeat has become a noun in Brazilian lexicon: Maracanazo.

The miracle on grass (1950)

England, having skipped the first three editions, finally made their World Cup debut in 1950. The perception at home was that the nation which had invented the beautiful game would bring the trophy home. They won their opening game 2-0 against Chile and were to face the US next—a team comprising amateurs and semi-professionals. Their primary occupations were an eclectic mix, ranging from mailmen to hearse drivers.

The match was decided by part-time dishwasher Joe Gaetjens’ solitary strike. When the score was telegraphed to England, there was a genuine belief that it was a misprint and England had won 10-1. The US had caused one of the biggest upsets in the sport and the match has since come to be known as “the miracle on grass". The scorer was actually a Haitian who never became an American citizen despite declaring his intention of becoming one.

Gaetjens, who belonged to a family of political dissidents, met a tragic end—he is believed to have died in a concentration camp of the Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc" Duvalier.

No cigar for the mighty Magyars (1954)

, Hungary’s goalkeeper Gyula Grosics is beaten by Helmut Rahn. Photo: Getty Images
, Hungary’s goalkeeper Gyula Grosics is beaten by Helmut Rahn. Photo: Getty Images

Hungary were a powerhouse in the early 1950s. Between June 1950 and July 1954, they went undefeated for 31 games—including humiliating then football royalty England 6-3 at Wembley.

The reigning Olympic champions started the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland as clear favourites. Hungary plundered goals—27 of them in Switzerland—and eight past West Germany in the group stage, also their opponents in the final.

Two Hungarian goals came in 8 minutes but the West Germans were level after just 18 minutes. Then Helmut Rahn received a headed clearance on the edge of the Hungarian box, feigned a shot with his right foot before moving to his left and let rip his shot amidst approaching defenders. Hungary may have been the Golden Team but the West Germans won the gold.

The Italian humiliation (1966)

North Korea’s Pak Doo-ik scores past Italy’s Enrico Albertosi. Photo: Getty Images
North Korea’s Pak Doo-ik scores past Italy’s Enrico Albertosi. Photo: Getty Images

The 44 countries in Europe have 13 World Cup berths, while the 54 nations in Africa get only five. There were times when football’s governing body was even less egalitarian.

In 1966, for example, Fifa had awarded one spot for Asia, Africa and Oceania combined, leading to a mass boycott of the tournament. Only Australia and North Korea participated, with the latter trouncing the Socceroos to book their tickets to England.

After drawing their opening match 1-1 against Chile, the North Koreans were up against then two-time world champions Italy. The Azzurri spurned multiple chances to break the deadlock in the first half. Pak Doo-ik’s strike 3 minutes from time proved enough to beat Italy and knock them out.

Stalingrad (1966)

The 1966 final between West Germany and England finished 2-2 in normal time. In the first half of extra-time, Geoff Hurst struck a rising shot past the goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski to score his second. The ball hit the bar and bounced out. The West German players raised their hands to signal it had never crossed the line while the English claimed the opposite.

Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst rushed to his linesman, the Soviet official Tofiq Bahramov, who signalled it as a goal. Hurst would score once more before the final whistle to help England to a 4-2 win.

The Germans still contend Hurst’s second never crossed the line. A study by two Oxford University researchers in 1996 supported their claim, while a 2016 recreation of the events by Sky concluded that it was indeed a goal. An apocryphal story is that when Bahramov was asked on his death bed about his decision, he had a one-word reply: Stalingrad. It was his way of settling scores with the Germans for the Battle of Stalingrad.

The goal that won the greatest game (1970)

Gianni Rivera about to settle the ‘Game of the Century’ at the Azteca. Photo: Getty Images
Gianni Rivera about to settle the ‘Game of the Century’ at the Azteca. Photo: Getty Images

Rarely do Italy score four goals in a game and it is even rarer for them to concede three. So the 1970 semi-final at the Azteca followed the script. At least for 90 minutes; after that, it was chaos.

Roberto Boninsegna put the Azzurri ahead in the 8th minute, a lead that they protected until the last minute of normal time, when Karl-Heinz Schnellinger chose the elevated stage to score his only international goal in 47 games, pushing the game into extra time.

In an enthralling encounter, goals were exchanged like boxers trade punches, and, as if to enhance that imagery, Franz Beckenbauer played from the second half onwards with his arm in a sling after dislocating his shoulder. After four goals in the first 20 minutes of extra time, Gianni Rivera settled the game with a 111th-minute goal. A plaque at the Azteca celebrates the clash as the “Game of the Century".

The apotheosis of a great team (1970)

Carlos Alberto scores to make it 4-1 against Italy in the 170 World Cup final. Photo: Getty Images
Carlos Alberto scores to make it 4-1 against Italy in the 170 World Cup final. Photo: Getty Images

By 1970, Brazil were already world champions twice over. But their team in Mexico was special, perhaps even more than the last two winners. They had irresistible quality in all areas of the pitch, but most so in their strikers, with Jairzinho, Pelé, Gérson, Tostão, and Roberto Rivelino.

Before the final against Italy kicked off, the general sense wasn’t who would win but how big the margin of the Brazilian victory would be. The match was tied 1-1 at half-time before the Brazilian show began in the second half. Goals from Gérson and Jairzinho put the game beyond the Italians’ reach.

But the best was yet to come.

Tostão, the centre-forward, chased down Antonio Juliano, making a run on the Brazilian left wing to dispossess the Italian. After a few short passes, the ball was laid out to Clodoaldo. The defensive midfielder, uncharacteristically, evaded four Italians before a casual pass to Rivelino, who played it along the left wing for Jairzinho to play it for Pele. The legendary No.10 had spotted his captain Carlos Alberto’s run before he even received the ball.

After holding the ball just long enough, he laid it perfectly for an onrushing Alberto, who, without breaking a stride, leathered it past the hapless Enrico Albertosi—the perfect finish for a great team.

You are an Englishman (1974)

The Total Football of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff had enthralled spectators at the 1974 World Cup. The final, it seemed, would be a coronation for the Netherlands, one of the most attractive sides to ever play the game. It all seemed to be going to script when the Netherlands took the lead in the second minute of the match.

Johan Neeskens slotted the ball past Sepp Maier from the penalty spot. But that was merely symbolic of the Dutch dominance.

The Netherlands kicked off the match and each player touched it at least once in a 17-pass move—much to the dismay of the whistling and jeering German supporters at the Dutch exhibition of Total Football—before Cruyff took the ball deep in his own half and went on a slaloming run into the German box, only to be brought down, leaving the referee with no choice but to award a penalty.

Not one German player had touched the ball before Neeskens put his team ahead.

Thoroughly emasculated, all that the German captain Franz Beckenbauer could do was walk up to the referee Jack Taylor and muster a feeble, “You are an Englishman."

The Germans would have the last laugh though, winning 2-1.

Paolo Rossi made Brazil cry (1982)

Paolo Rossi past Brazilian goalkeeper Waldir Peres. Photo: Getty Images
Paolo Rossi past Brazilian goalkeeper Waldir Peres. Photo: Getty Images

When Italy faced Brazil in the second round of the tournament, the latter only needed a draw to reach the next round; a win would seal the deal for Italy. Brazil, with Socrates and Zico weaving magic in the midfield, were pre-tournament favourites to win. For Italy, Rossi, who had returned after serving a suspension for a betting scandal, was the chief source of goals.

The game was locked at 2-2 with about a quarter of an hour left. Rossi had scored both the Italian goals, and, in the 74th minute, he pounced on a loose ball to secure a famous win. The game is often cited by football obsessives as the day when a team of lesser talent playing to a system triumphed over a much more gifted team that couldn’t be bothered about tactical discipline.

“The day that football died," Zico remarked after the game. However, Rossi titled his autobiography I Made Brazil Cry.

The hand of god (1986)

Diego Maradona handles the ball past Peter Shilton. Photo: Bongarts
Diego Maradona handles the ball past Peter Shilton. Photo: Bongarts

When the 1.65m Diego Maradona leapt to head a cross past 1.83m Peter Shilton, there was no way he could have outjumped the English goalkeeper for the ball. Yet, the ball was at the back of the net and the Argentine wheeled away in celebration. Some of them had probably seen him punching the ball past the goalie, not heading it, to open the scoring.

Argentina went on to win 2-1. Maradona claimed his outstretched hand to be “the Hand of God". The bad blood between the two countries, after the Falklands War of 1982 made the goal even sweeter for Maradona.

It had a profound impact on Bulgarian linesman Bogdan Dotchev, who had spotted the handball but was overruled by the referee. In a morbid turn, Dotchev scrawled, “Maradona is my gravedigger", on a picture of the Argentine. Maradona remarked in 2005, “The truth is that I don’t for a second regret scoring that goal with my hand."

Goal of the century (1986)

If the “Hand of God" was an unsavoury part of Maradona’s football repertoire, then, just 4 minutes later, he gave a virtuoso display to stamp his genius. Picking the ball inside his own half, the Argentina captain ran through Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher (twice) and Terry Fenwick in a 60-yard, 10-second dash before slotting the ball past Shilton.

That Maradona scored a goal of such beauty against a bitter rival on the most elevated stage in football led it to be called the goal of the century. It was best summed up by the Uruguayan commentator Victor Hugo Morales: “Diegoal, Diegoal, Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this Argentina 2, England 0."

England would later pull one back, but this was Maradona’s match.

Dennis Bergkamp, Dennis Bergkamp, Dennis Bergkamp... (1998)

Dennis Bergkamp vies for the ball with Roberto Ayala. Photo: Ben Radford /Allsport
Dennis Bergkamp vies for the ball with Roberto Ayala. Photo: Ben Radford /Allsport

Argentina and the Netherlands had exchanged a goal apiece in the first 20 minutes of their 1998 quarter-final but there would be no more goals before the last minute of the match.

And what a goal it would be.

Frank de Boer strolled forward with the ball unchallenged as the Argentines focused on taking the game into extra time. The left-back unleashed an absolute peach of a pass for Dennis Bergkamp to run on to. Bergkamp’s outstretched right leg brought the ball under control, which he then flicked inside with the right foot, unleashing a thunderous shot to put the ball in the top corner. One swift motion, three silken touches.

That goal has been immortalized as much by its aural description by the Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder, who couldn’t stop screaming Dennis Bergkamp’s name the moment the ball touched his feet, as if anticipating what was to come. It’s surreal.

Debutants upset champions (2002)

Heading into the 2002 World Cup, France were not just the reigning world champions but also the reigning European champions. Despite the unavailability of the team’s talisman Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchmen were odds-on favourites to beat tournament debutants Senegal.

But Bruno Metsu’s men put on a nerveless display on world football’s grandest stage. It was El-Hadji Diouf’s cross that Papa Bouba Diop pushed over the line, causing one of the greatest World Cup upsets. France wouldn’t recover from the loss and went on to finish bottom of their group but Senegal proved that their win was no fluke, reaching the quarter-finals before losing in extra time to Turkey.

More importantly, they highlighted that quality in African football ran deep.

Beckham’s redemption (2002)

Fans celebrate David Beckham’s winner. Photo: Getty Images
Fans celebrate David Beckham’s winner. Photo: Getty Images

Diego Simeone, the Argentine defensive midfielder, was of the tribe who believed in leaving a stamp on the players they were marking. During Argentina’s 1998 World Cup round-of-16 encounter against England, one particularly nasty tackle from behind left David Beckham on the turf. The then 23-year-old retaliated by kicking Simeone but to his misfortune the referee saw it all, leaving him no choice but to send the young Englishman off.

England went on to lose on penalties. Back home, the Daily Mirror wrote a scathing headline, “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy". He was blamed for England’s exit.

As luck would have it, the two rivals were drawn in the same group four years later. Beckham was now the national team captain. When Michael Owen was brought down by Mauricio Pochettino in the box, the skipper stepped up to take the spot kick.

He duly slotted it straight past Pablo Cavallero to bury the ghosts from four years ago.

Iniesta’s tribute (2010)

Andres Iniesta dedicates his World Cup-winning goal to Dani Jarque. Photo: Getty Images
Andres Iniesta dedicates his World Cup-winning goal to Dani Jarque. Photo: Getty Images

In the tightly contested 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands that saw some ugly challenges, the better chances fell to the Netherlands. But it remained scoreless deep into extra time and appeared headed for a shoot-out before Andres Iniesta scored in the 116th minute. As he wheeled away in celebration, Iniesta took off his shirt, revealing a handwritten message “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros" (Dani Jarque, always with us). Jarque, Iniesta’s close friend, was Espanyol’s captain and had died about a year earlier at age 26.

To remember a friend at the time of the apotheosis of his own football career marked Iniesta’s greatness not just as a footballer but also as a person. Nice guys surely don’t finish last. Not Iniesta, at least.

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