Disclaimer: Whilst the events depicted below are steeped heavily in facts, their order is most definitely a matter of opinion. My very biased opinion.
Football has been around for very a long time, offering us so many unforgettable moments. It is understandable that our discussions in the pubs, parks, and stadiums often turn into ranking exercises – the classic this player is better than that player kind of conversation or the infamous “my team is better than yours” debate. Classifying in such a way can either be a harmonious or a hotly contentious affair, and yet, we all enjoy doing it.
Given the recent drought in live football, I have compiled a list of some of the key moments from the past five World Cup tournaments that will always stick in my memory when given the buzzwords “international football”. Condensing several years-worth of material into just five specific moments is quite the feat and there will be some notable omissions. So, before the big reveal, a special mention goes out to Mario Balotelli for his wonderous solo effort against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-finals. Having already put Italy 1-0 up, he sent the Azzuri wild after beating the offside trap to make the score 2-0. He duly celebrated what can only be described as a “thunderbastard” by taking his shirt off and flexing every meme-able torso muscle with maximum effort. Glorious. Another shout out must go to Nigel de Jong for his chest-high Street Fighter antics in the World Cup final of 2010, which by some miracle was only punished with a yellow card, despite two of his studs (probably) remaining in Xabi Alonso’s chest. And, of course, a fleeting look-back at Sol Campbell’s infinite slide tackle is worthwhile, because, well, it’s funny.
The following events certainly shook the footballing world in one way or another, and some more so than others. But the moments we will look at next are engrained in my memory for better or for worse, and I would wager that some of them will resonate with you as well.
The World Cup in South Africa in 2010 was easily one of my favourite tournaments. The colours, the songs, the football. It had everything. For starters, the Adidas Jabulani was a complete enigma. Whilst many blamed the altitude as an attributing factor, the ball itself completely rocked the tournament with its erratic behaviour. Goalkeepers hated it, as I am sure Adidas eventually would too, but it certainly made for wonderous entertainment as the ball swerved of its own volition, leaving all at the mercy of its unpredictable whims.
The world was also introduced to quite a menacing “musical” instrument, capable of an ear-deafening drone that drove many watching at home to mute their televisions and watch in silence…but more on that later.
If you are English, this campaign is most likely a sour memory you would rather forget, a perplexed and strained Frank Lampard etched in your mind as his perfectly good goal was chalked off for a lack of goal-line technology and some incompetent officiating. The entire stadium, let alone those at home, knew Lampard had made it 2-2 but the referee was adamant, and England would go on to crumble, losing 4-1 to the old enemy.
But I do not recall 2010 in a bad light for the crime against football aforementioned, nor for the egregious vuvuzela that drowned every match with its monotonous hum. I remember the tournament with fondness, primarily for its opening goal. Tshabalaba toed the line between on and offside within an inch of its life, and after latching onto a through-ball, launched a dazzling half-volley that nestled itself perfectly in the upright of the goal. There was no better way Bafana Bafana could have opened the tournament and the noise generated by the crowd and their “instruments” as the South African players danced was pure World Cup magic.
4. Germany’s 7-1
The World Cup in 2014 has almost faded into a distant blur mainly because of England’s disappointing early exit from the group stage alongside both Italy and the holders, Spain. This was a real shame for a tournament widely regarded as one of the best to date. James Rodriguez with THAT goal and Chile stunning the Spanish, but it is the jaw-dropping annihilation of the hosts in the semi-final that keeps this tournament in focus for a bitter England fan. 7-1. Yes, Germany: Seven. Brazil: One. The Germans humbled the flamboyant South Americans in one of the most humiliating World Cup displays that I have ever witnessed, and in their own backyard to make matters worse. David Luiz cut a bewildered figure after Müller made it 1-0, and, before half-time, Germany would score four in just six minutes for some seriously embarrassing viewing for the home nation. Brazil’s last-minute consolation goal made little difference. That first half blew by in a flurry of bemusement and disbelief for the shambolic Brazilian defence and us spectators alike.
Two players had always captured my imagination when growing-up, one of which was Zinedine Zidane. He owned complete mastery of the ball wherever it found him, and I could quite happily watch clips of him controlling the ball for hours. See for yourself. I will always remember what I believe to be THE best Champions League goal ever (don’t worry, Gareth Bales’ bicycle kick is in joint first place). Roberto Carlos crossed the ball high, so high that mere mortals needed binoculars to track its flight. But not Zidane. He carefully watched that ball drop and, meeting it with a sweeping left foot, buried it into the top corner. Zidane made the outrageous look easy, a casual affair. And so, we arrive at his last international game in the World Cup final of 2006 against the Italians, and the stage is set. It could have been the perfect way to say goodbye to his 108-game international career. It began perfectly too with Captain Zidane caressing a penalty off the underside of the bar past a helpless Gianluigi Buffon. A panenka in a World Cup final – the audacity. However, Italy equalised, and the game stalled to a 1-1 draw after ninety minutes. Then it happened. Jogging back up the pitch alongside Marco Materazzi, a little tug of the shirt, then an almighty headbutt. The Italian hit the floor and Zidane was rightly red-carded. Italy continued to win on penalties. Although Zidane was still named as the Player of the Tournament, his lasting legacy in international football is remembered not for the cheekiest, most pressure-filled penalty you have ever seen, but for the sight of his dome burying itself in Materazzi’s chest.
2. “The Hand of God”
Summer 2018 – The Summer of the Waistcoat. As the nation once again ramped up football fever with It’s Coming Home topping every playlist, Southgate’s youthful lions recaptured the imaginations of a weary English public. The birth of the wonderfully bizarre “Love Train” from corners, packed out “fan-zones” and unicorn pool floats, it was certainly memorable. The summer would peak for me as I stepped off a British Airways flight in Pisa. It was my friend’s wedding on World Cup final day (unbelievable, I know), and we had flown out to Italy on the Wednesday before we knew England’s fate. As the seatbelt sign flicked off and signal returned to our phones, the news came in, England 1-0 – a Kieran Trippier freekick just five minutes in. A stream was pulled up in time to watch the replay as we embarked into Italy fuelled with optimism. But it was not to be. England had crashed out in extra-time, and we had no dinner that night either. Horrible. Yet, this is not the defining moment of my summer.
To reach this point, you have to rewind back to England versus Colombia from the round of sixteen. In what was one of the most anti-football displays to this day, Colombia fouled their way to extra time and took it even further to penalties. The entire English nation must have felt the weight of despair for we do not win on penalties. But we had our not-so-secret weapon, Harry Kane. Kane’s penalties had been emphatic during the tournament and he did not disappoint with his opener. Rashford too followed with a tidy finish after a nerve rattling “run-up” and the mood shifted slightly. But 3-2 down, Jordan Henderson took the conch. With some retrospectively regrettable keepie-uppies, Hendo approached the spot and kindly delivered his penalty into Ospina’s hands. This is now bottom of the barrel stuff. Colombia go again, Pickford dives the right way, but it is the underside of the crossbar that is at hand to deny Colombia. Game on. ‘Get in – 3-3!’ – Trippier sends it top bins, cool as you like. Carlos Bacca steps up for Colombia’s fifth. With what would later be dubbed “The Hand of God”, Pickford stuck out a firm glove to deny the Colombian and put England on the brink of something special. As Eric Dier began his leg-jangling walk, my friend Michael (who’s house I was at) muttered something and walked out the room. He couldn’t watch. Three calm steps and Dier sent us through. It says a lot about the English that despite scoring the winning goal, Eric Dier is still remembered more fondly for his crunching challenge on the “Master of the Dark Arts”, Sergio Ramos. That night, Dier and Pickford helped break the penalty curse and Southgate got to excise some personal demons in a game that I will never forget.
1. Was it a Cross? Was it a Shot? No, it was just Ronaldinho.
The World Cup of 2002 is hard to trump. I mean just look at that Brazil side: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Carlos, Kaka. Such talent. Such flair. Japan also had the Adidas Fevernova, one of the slickest footballs ever designed. The competition was made even better in that the majority of its games were shown in the morning here in England given the tournament’s location. What is remarkable about England’s campaign is that it was bookended by two incredibly similar, but equally contrasting, events.
England are not at the World Cup. They are not even on the plane or at the airport. They are at Old Trafford and it is 06 October 2001. A draw with Greece was all that was required, and yet, we were trailing 2-1. Our Captain, David Beckham, had put in an almost super-human performance throughout this game, perhaps one of his best in an England shirt. He had delivered a wicked ball for Sheringham to level earlier on but England disappointingly fell behind again just one minute later. As the end was nigh, England were awarded a freekick. Despite his unquestionable dead-ball ability, Becks had missed a LOT of freekicks already this game. But wow. Just wow. With his signature swerve, Beckham finds the top corner past an immobile Antonis Nikopolidis, sending the nation into ecstasy. Beckham had redeemed himself for his immaturity in ’98. Then England were at the airport, they boarded the plane, and off they went to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
But, much like a Beckham set-piece, what goes up must come down. Brazil – Ronaldinho. I could end there, but I won’t. While Zidane was one of the two greatest players to inspire me, Ronaldinho was the other. Although he did not stay at his peak anywhere near as long as he should have, he was a total magician. He was at PSG at the time, and not at the peak of his Barcelona powers just yet, but he was still a devastating player. In the quarter final, England were one up after Owen took advantage of a defensive mistake, chipping the keeper in a sublime fashion. On the brink of half time, Brazil were looking dangerous. Having embarrassingly nutmegged Paul Scholes earlier on, Ronaldinho got running again and this time at Ashley Cole. The Englishman lost his balance as Ronaldinho ghosted past him with a step-over, shoulder feint, and burst of pace. He then shipped the ball wide to Rivaldo with the outside of his boot. 1-1. It was an ominous sign of what was to come in the second half.
I had watched the first half at home but what was remarkable about this campaign is that the primary school I was at, like many others across the country, opened early in order to show the game on the projector in the assembly hall. Living across the road, I strolled over and entered the completely packed out hall ready for the second half. Every year must have been there. Five minutes later, we wished we hadn’t been. Not even the Headmaster yelling at the top of his lungs could plunge that many students into the same kind of silence as Ronaldinho did when he lobbed David Seamen with that thirty-two-yard freekick. There was absolutely no danger, yet somehow, Ronaldinho dispatched the perfect set-piece to beat the England keeper. I was so sure that it was a fluke, a cross, he was good, but he wasn’t that good. Having since watched the Brazilian humiliate players at the highest level for Barcelona and AC Milan, I’m not so sure anymore. He probably did mean it. In fact, watching it back now as I write this, he definitely meant it. That infuriatingly talented bastard.
Ronaldinho was somewhat harshly red-carded soon after this fluke (I’m going to pretend it was accidental again because it makes the defeat easier for me). Nevertheless, the damage had been done. England were out. David Seaman certainly still thinks about that freekick alongside the majority of England fans who continue to talk about Beckham’s equally jaw-dropping whippage and long may that continue.
With the best players representing their country at the highest level, World Cup and international competitions always produce some truly remarkable footballing moments. Sensational goals, officiating cockups, and bizarre tactics as well as moments of individual brilliance and stupidity are almost guaranteed. And that is why I cannot wait for the next one.