Let’s take a deep dive into the best World Cup performances of all time.
The World Cup is the world’s most popular sporting event, with over half of the world’s population ages 4+ taking in the 2018 World Cup and over 1.12 billion viewers watching the final.
Whether you tune in to soccer all year round or once every four years, everyone can agree that the World Cup is a month where everyone can pause for a little bit and enjoy one of the world’s greatest spectacles.
For many years, children have grown up idolizing soccer stars from around the globe. The most crucial soccer stage comes at the World Cup every four years. For many, it is a lifelong dream.
Pelé, Diego Maradona, and Zinedine Zidane are some of the first names that come to mind when discussing World Cup legends. Here are the best World Cup performances of all time.
10 Best World Cup Performances of All Time
Counting down from ten, here are our ten best player performances at the World Cup of all time.
10.) Gerd Müller (West Germany, 1970)
One of the greatest German strikers of all time, Gerd Müller, had some of his finest moments at the 1970 World Cup, where he led the competition with ten goals. He scored back-to-back hat tricks in the group stage three days apart. Ultimately, West Germany had to settle for a third-place finish in Mexico.
9.) Eusébio (Portugal, 1966)
The Benfica legend stormed into Portugal’s first World Cup in 1966 and put on a show. Scoring nine times in six games, Eusébio could not complete a comeback from 2-0 down against England in the semifinals. His most remarkable performance came when he hit four past North Korea in a 5-3 quarterfinal win. With a third-place finish, no other Portuguese team has ever finished higher at a Word Cup.
8.) Pelé (Brazil, 1958)
At 17, Pelé shocked the world with a pulsating World Cup showing in 1958. Scoring six goals at the tournament, the teenager guided Brazil to their first World Cup title. His big performance came in the final, where he scored twice to secure a 5-2 win. It signified just the beginning of one of the greatest careers in sporting history.
7.) Walter Zenga (Italy, 1990)
In his homeland, it took Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga 517 minutes until he conceded his first tournament goal in the semifinals. After five consecutive shutouts, Zenga was finally beaten in the 67th minute of the semifinal matchup against Argentina. Eventually falling to Argentina in a penalty shootout Zenga and Italy rebounded to beat England to finish third at the 1990 World Cup.
Zenga’s incredible record came very close to being broken by Spain’s Iker Casillas in 2014. Carrying nearly 500 minutes of shutout soccer over from the 2010 World Cup, Casillas fell 40 minutes shy of Zenga’s record when he conceded 44 minutes into Spain’s 2014 World Cup opener against the Netherlands, leading to a 5-1 defeat.
6.) Sándor Kocsis (Hungary, 1954)
Scoring 11 goals in five games, Kocsis took the world by storm in 1954. He became the first player to score two hat tricks at the World Cup when he scored hat tricks in his first two games of the tournament. He added two goals in both the quarterfinal and semifinal but was held scoreless as the Hungarians fell to West Germany in the all-European final.
More of the Best World Cup Performances
And, now our top five player performances.
5.) Zinedine Zidane (France, 1998)
Eight years before Zidane’s infamous headbutt, the Frenchman catapulted France to their first-ever World Cup title on home territory. Zidane scored two first-half goals for France en route to a decisive 3-0 win over South American giants Brazil. Known for his work on the ball, it was two venomous headers from corner kicks that Zidane scored from.
4.) Geoff Hurst (England, 1966)
For once, England did not disappoint at a major tournament. It came in 1966 when Geoff Hurst burst onto the international scene with one of the greatest championship performances in sports history. Hurst put England into the semifinals after his lone goal was enough to beat Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Hurst then became the only player to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup final, resulting in a 4-2 extra-time win over West Germany. After going down 1-0 early, Hurst equalized to make it 1-1 in the first half. Level at 2-2 after 90 minutes, the ‘66 World Cup final was sent to extra time, in which Hurst scored two more to deliver England its only major trophy in the nation’s history.
3.) Oliver Kahn (Germany, 2002)
Germany was fortunate to make the 2002 World Cup, one of soccer’s great powerhouses, requiring a playoff to qualify. Once getting to the tournament, goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was stellar. In the final, the Bayern Munich legend conceded just one goal in six games before falling 2-0 to Brazil. Khan’s heroics were enough to become the only goalkeeper to be awarded the Golden Ball.
2.) Just Fontaine (France, 1958)
At 24, Fontaine enjoyed an incredible month at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He scored a record 13 goals in six games. For comparison, the most career goals at the World Cup is 16, held by Germany’s Miroslav Klose, who scored 16 goals across the span of four World Cup tournaments from 2002 until 2014.
Fontaine had to settle for a third-place finish in the tournament even with such great offensive production. The Frenchman is one of only four players to record multiple hat tricks at one World Cup. With lower-scoring games nowadays, it is unlikely that anyone will ever come close to Fontaine’s record of 13 goals at a single World Cup.
1.) Diego Maradona (Argentina, 1986)
We have seen many of the world’s greatest players struggle when it matters the most. But Diego Maradona rose to the occasion at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Argentine icon made the summer of 1986 his career-defining moment. Maradona contributed five goals and five assists en route to Argentina’s only World Cup title in 1986.
His career-defining game came in the quarterfinal against England, scoring two of the most famous goals ever scored four minutes apart. Maradona scored his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in the 51st minute to put Argentina 1-0 up.
Four minutes later, Maradona made a long run that was later touted as ‘Goal of the Century’ as he put Argentina 2-0 up. Maradona scored two more in Argentina’s 2-0 semifinal win before an assist helped Argentina to a 3-2 win over West Germany in the final.
Here are some star performances that fell just below the level to include them on our top ten list.
Paolo Rossi (Italy, 1982)
A win and two draws allowed Italy to squeeze into the second group stage in the unusual format, from which Paolo Rossi took over. A Rossi hat trick against Brazil put Italy into the semifinals. Rossi scored two in the semifinals and one in the final to deliver Italy’s third World Cup title.
Tim Howard (The United States, 2014)
If not for Tim Howard, Belgium would have had a blowout win over the United States in the Round of 16. Instead, a record-breaking 16 saves for the U.S. goalkeeper kept the Americans in it, though they eventually fell 2-1 in extra time. The 35-year-old had to play the game of his life to earn his ‘Secretary of Defense’ title.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, 2018)
At 33 years, 130 days old, Christiano Ronaldo (CR7) scored three times in a 3-3 tie in their opening game against Spain, becoming the oldest player ever to record a hat trick at a World Cup. He scored the game-winner next time out against Iran before the European champions fell to Uruguay in the Round of 16.
Lionel Messi (Argentina, 2014)
The Argentine captain put on a show before a silent knockout stage display during the group stage. Scoring four goals in the opening three games and nearly single-handedly getting Argentina into the knockout stage, Messi relied upon his teammates to deliver the rest of the way as they fell to Germany in the final.
James Rodriguez (Colombia, 2014)
One of the great stories from the 2014 World Cup was the stunning showing from James Rodriguez. Taking home the Golden Boot and becoming a household name with six goals and two assists in five games, the Colombian scored one of the greatest goals in World Cup history against Uruguay. His success at the 2014 World Cup earned him a contract with Spanish giants Real Madrid.
World Cup Fast Facts
- The World Cup is the peak of soccer, taking place every four years in a different host nation(s). The first World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930.
- No country outside of Europe and South America has ever won a World Cup.
- Brazil leads the world with five World Cup championships.
- An American, Bert Patenaude, scored the first-ever hat trick at a World Cup, shooting three past Paraguay in the 1930 group stage. That is the only time an American has ever recorded a hat trick at a World Cup.
- How did the World Cup get its name? Well, it was originally simply called “Victory.” It was renamed the World Cup in 1946 to honor Jules Rimet, the FIFA president who helped create the competition in 1929.
- 3.5 billion people watched the 2018 World Cup.
History of the World Cup
The World Cup is soccer’s biggest tournament, played every four years since 1930 (other than 1942 and 1946). Organized by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, the World Cup has grown from 13 teams to 32 teams, with 48 expected to compete in the 2026 World Cup jointly hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Over 200 nations, or member associations, compete in qualifying for the World Cup out of six of FIFA’s regional governing bodies. Eight nations have dominated the competition from two regions: UEFA (Europe) and Conmebol (South America).
Brazil is the most successful nation with five World Cup titles, though they haven’t won a title since 2002. Germany’s Miroslav Klose has the most total World Cup goals, scoring 16 throughout four tournaments from 2002 until 2014.
Youth World Cups
Out of the success of the World Cup came similar tournaments in other sports and even in other soccer. FIFA instituted youth world cups, beginning with the first U20 World Cup in 1977. The first Cricket World Cup was also in 1977, followed by the Rugby World Cup 10 years later. The first Women’s World Cup sprung up in 1991, with women’s youth soccer world cups soon following.
FIFA gave the original World Cup trophy, the Jules Rimet trophy, to Brazil in 1970 until its disappearance in 1983. Creating a new replica trophy every four years since 1970, the only original aspect of the modern re-makes is the plate engraved with all the competition’s winning nations.
As we inch close to the 100th anniversary of the World Cup, it is always important to remember all the good that this competition, the sport of soccer, and sports, in general, have done for the world.
Changing the World
As Nelson Mandela is credited with saying: “Sports have the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire and unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sports is the game of lovers.”
On a stage where so many falter, all of the players listed above stepped up and carved out a name for themselves in World Cup history.
By Nathan Dunn
Nathan is a sportswriter and college soccer player who lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
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