The 5 Most Iconic World Football Matches of the 21st Century so Far
There have been many magnificent football matches since the turn of the millennium.
Everybody has their favourites, and everyone has their own personal reasons as to why.
As such, there will never be a universal decision over which matches are the absolute greatest.
My choice here is not to merely choose what I deem to be the five "best" matches.
Instead, I'm offering five matches which will go down in the annals of history, whether it be due to the events that transpired or the historical context.
Here are my choice for the five most iconic football matches of the 21st century so far:
The Unbelievable Comeback
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2005 Champions League Final: Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan—Liverpool win 3-2 on penalties
Rafa Benitez led Liverpool to the final in Istanbul, where they would face an AC Milan side who were heavy favourites to claim a seventh European Cup.
Carlo Ancelotti's teamsheet read like a who's-who of serial winners, with the likes of Brazilian World Cup winning captain Cafu, the legendary Paolo Maldini, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo and Kaka all in attendance. For a Liverpool side including Djimi Traore, Harry Kewell, Steve Finnan and Milan Baros, from the outset it appeared that to win was going to require something special.
The night started in horrific fashion for Benitez and his troops, Maldini giving Milan a first minute lead when he swept a Pirlo finish past Dudek with his unfavoured right foot.
Kewell went off injured after a mere 22 minutes, Benitez's gamble over the fitness of the often-frustrating Australian having backfired. Vladimir Smicer replaced him, but Milan continued to dominate, with Kaka enjoying himself at the point of Milan's midfield diamond, revelling in the space he was being afforded.
By half-time the match appeared over. Two goals in the final six minutes of the half from Hernan Crespo, the second a divine chip after an outstanding through pass from Kaka, had put the Italian side into an apparently unassailable 3-0 lead.
Liverpool needed a miracle.
German international Dietmar Hamann was thrown on in an attempt to negate Kaka and Liverpool set about perhaps the greatest cup-final comeback there has ever been.
Six minutes was all it took for Milan's magnificent first-half performance to be undone. Six minutes when they appeared powerless and six minutes when fortune and destiny pointed in the English side's direction.
Skipper Steven Gerrard headed a John Arne Riise cross past Dida in the 53rd minute, and when the Brazilian keeper allowed a speculative Smicer daisy cutter past him less than 60 seconds later, it was very much game on.
As the clock ticked towards the hour mark, the comeback was complete; Gennaro Gattuso tripped an onrushing Gerrard in the penalty area, and although Dida saved Xabi Alonso's penalty, the Spanish midfielder reacted quickest to score the rebound.
Djimi Traore would clear a Shevchenko shot off the line before the ninety minutes were up, and in extra-time Shevchenko was denied a winner by the most incredible double save from Dudek.
A cross from Serginho was met by the Ukrainian 12 yards from goal, and his powerful header was parried by Dudek, straight back to the Milan number seven, who fired goalwards from no more than two yards, only to see the Polish goalkeeper somehow divert the ball over the crossbar.
Sometimes it just isn't your night. And this wasn't Shevchenko's.
With the score 3-2 to Liverpool on penalties, Shevchenko took Milan's fifth and final penalty. His unconvincing stab down the middle was saved by Dudek, to spark raucous scenes of celebration amongst the Liverpool supporters inside the Ataturk Stadium and to complete one of world football's most surprising comebacks.
The Notorious Finale
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2006 World Cup Final: Italy 1-1 France—Italy win 5-3 on penalties
The 2006 World Cup final was always going to be about one man. Perhaps the greatest player of his generation, this was to be the curtain call on the career of Zinedine Zidane.
His club career was over, having spent his final five years with Real Madrid, the world had watched events in Germany knowing that when France were eliminated, Zidane wouldn't be seen in a professional match again.
Instead they'd made their way to the final in Berlin, beating the likes of Portugal and Brazil en route. For Zidane, many hoped it would end in glory; nobody could have possibly imagined what was to come.
In terms of quality, the match itself wasn't a classic, particularly not in the way that the Germany-Italy semi-final had been. However, for notoriety, it will forever stand the test of time, and we may never know the full story why.
It took just seven minutes for Zidane to make an impact on proceedings. A penalty was awarded for a foul by Marco Materazzi on Chelsea midfielder Florent Malouda, and Zidane nonchalantly chipped his effort in off the underside of the crossbar past the worlds best goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Arm raised in salute, Zizou celebrated becoming just the fourth man to net in two World Cup finals (Vava, Pele and Paul Breitner the other members of that quartet).
However, Marcello Lippi's Italy, who had been somewhat brought together by the Calciopoli scandal that was overshadowing Italian football, recovered to level just 12 minutes later.
Andrea Pirlo, man of the match on the night just as he had been in the aforementioned semi-final in Dortmund, whipped across a right-wing corner, which was met by the towering Materazzi who powered his header past Fabien Barthez to level the scores.
Pirlo corners continued to cause problems during the first period, Materazzi seeing an effort cleared off the line before Luca Toni nodded against the crossbar.
The second half saw France and Zidane assert themselves, Thierry Henry and Frank Ribery causing the Italian defence problems. Yet, it was the Italians who came closest, but the linesman's flag saw another Toni header ruled out for offside.
However, it was during extra-time when this rather unremarkable final became something much, much more.
With 10 minutes remaining, Zidane and Materazzi engaged in an off-the-ball disagreement. Words were exchanged as Zidane jogged past the Azzurri defender, at which point the French legend, who had so lit up the World Cup final eight years previously, shrouded the occasion in darkness and controversy.
Zidane turned, faced up Materazzi, before viciously planting his head into the chest of the defender. The Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo was informed of the incident and was left with no choice but to show Zidane a red card.
The legendary playmaker made his way from the field, television cameras showing the player walking past the FIFA World Cup trophy without even looking at it, leaving the field of play for the final time in disgrace.
The final would continue, and Italy would emerge victorious on penalties, David Trezeguet the guilty party for France hitting the crossbar with the only missed kick. However, the match itself has almost become of secondary importance.
The 2006 World Cup Final has become a tale of villainy. Who the villain is depends on who you ask.
Marco Materazzi became Persona non Grata in France for the events that transpired.
But for many, the great villain of the piece remains the enigmatic Zidane, the man who robbed himself of 10 additional minutes trying to win football's greatest prize, simply to plant his head in the chest of another man.
The Perfect Club Performance
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La Liga 2010/11: Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid
The Pep Guardiola era at Barcelona was one of magnificence. Los Cules were in the midst of winning 14 trophies in just four years.
However, this was their Piece de resistance.
Jose Mourinho had arrived in Madrid in the summer of 2010 having guided Inter Milan to Champions League success, beating Barcelona in the process. Having been turned down for the Barcelona job in 2008 at the expense of Guardiola, his mission in Madrid was to lead Los Merengues to the pinnacle of Spanish football once again and also to win a 10th European Cup. He was in the midst of enjoying the greatest start of any coach in Real Madrid's illustrious history.
Then he arrived at Camp Nou.
From the outset, Barcelona set about their task with relish, controlling the game in imperious fashion. Nine minutes in, they opened the scoring. A clever pass from Andres Iniesta found Xavi in the penalty area, and after a fortuitous bounce he volleyed past Iker Casillas.
Soon after, the match began to resemble a bull fight. Only this was a bull that had no chance, and a Matador at the very top of his game.
And Camp Nou, full of cheers and "Oles" was delighted.
The midfield trio of Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets were dictating play. Lionel Messi in his "false nine" role was creating havoc whilst David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez, the wide forwards, a constant threat.
The second goal arrived before the half was up, 20 passes and a minute of uninterrupted possession before Casillas parried a David Villa cross into the path of Pedro. 2-0
Half-time and Mourinho had his work cut out for him. How to get his side back in the game the question. Little did he know, he was powerless.
Two minutes into the second half, Messi had a goal disallowed. Seven minutes later however, the third duly arrived. A perfectly weighted pass from the Argentine found Villa, who fired home.
Moments later, the former Valencia striker netted the fourth, again from a Messi pass. Villa timed his run to perfection and toe-poked past Casillas. Thirty minutes remaining: Barcelona 4-0 Real Madrid.
Barcelona continued to pass and move. Xavi, magnificent in the centre of the field, completed half as many passes as the entire Madrid side.
Real, a side costing in the region of €280 million simply couldn't get near them, and when the substitute Jeffren netted a fifth in stoppage time, the only surprise was that it had taken that long, such was the Catalans complete and utter dominance.
Jeffren's strike turned it into a manita—a little hand. A goal for each finger. Such was the beauty and the control of Barcelona throughout that Roberto Palomar wrote (Marca):
They could have played with two balls, and Barcelona would have controlled both.
He wasn't wrong. This was the ultimate team performance.
Match Highlights (Youtube)
The Inspirational Story
Africa Cup of Nations Final 2012: Zambia 0-0 Ivory Coast—Zambia win 8-7 on penalties
It was on April 28, 1993 when tragedy struck the Zambian football team. On their way to meet Senegal in a World Cup qualifier, their plane crashed in Gabon due to a mechanical fault in the left engine, killing 18 members of the football team and 30 people in all.
Nineteen years later, and the Chipolopolo were back in Gabon for the African Cup of Nations. Tournament underdogs, they had spoken of the strength they had gained in remembering the tragedy.
Led by French coach Herve Renard, the Zambians had battled and fought their way through to the final in Libreville—close to where the plane crash had occurred—showing a glorious inner strength throughout. They would call on that remarkable team spirit once more, as they met a heavily fancied Ivory Coast in the final.
With the likes of Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers, Gervinho and Didier Ya Konan amongst their number, the Ivorians were expected to claim a crown which had so far eluded their golden generation.
The match itself was far from a classic. Drogba had the chance to win it on the hour mark after Gervinho had been fouled in the penalty area, but the then-Chelsea striker blazed his penalty over the crossbar.
The game was never likely to be an open array of attacking football; Zambia had conceded only three goals on their way to the final, whilst Ivory Coast stopper Boubacar Barry had yet to be beaten at all.
The game went into extra-time and as the clock ticked down towards the 120th minute, the occasion began to get more tense. Max Gradel was inches from a winner, but the Zambians, buoyed by the encouragement of Renard, held on to take the game to penalties.
The first 14 attempts were all scored. Kolo Toure's effort was then saved by Kennedy Mweene, to give Zambia a shot at victory. However, Rainford Kalaba blasted way over the crossbar.
Next up stepped Gervinho, but he could only fire high and wide, giving Stoppila Sunzu the chance to make himself and his team mates national heroes.
He made no mistake, firing past Barry to make Zambia African champions for the first time. Renard later said (BBC Sport):
I told them if we got to the final we would play in Gabon where the plane crashed. There was a special significance in that.
They found the strength. I don't know where.
Penalty Kicks (Youtube)
The Rubberstamping of Greatness
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European Championship Final 2012: Spain 4-0 Italy
In 2008, Spain ended its 44-year wait for a major footballing trophy, beating Germany 1-0 in Vienna to claim the European Championship.
Two years later in South Africa, they added the World Cup, beating the Netherlands, to make them the greatest Spanish international side without question.
In 2012, they made history, superseding any international side that had gone before as they staked their claim to be the greatest international side of all time with a third major trophy.
Heading into the match in Kiev, Vicente Del Bosque's side had been heavily criticised. They had been "boring" on their way to the final. Their tiki-taka style wasn't to everyone's liking and even Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had a pop (BBC):
(Spain) have betrayed their philosophy and turned it into something more negative.
Unfair? Almost certainly.
If a team only wants to defend against them for 90 minutes (or more), then why should they be gung-ho and give up the control which is so vital to them? There is something beautiful about keeping a clean sheet at the top level, and Spain have mastered that art. The last time they conceded a goal in the knockout stages of a major international tournament was in 2006.
Nevertheless, perhaps stung by criticism, they began the game not only with their usual control, but playing at a tempo that the Italians struggled to keep up with. Prandelli's side, who had beaten a heavily fancied Germany in their semi-final, wanted to attack, with both Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano on the pitch.
However, the mercurial duo were never really in the game, such was the Spanish dominance, and it took a mere 13 minutes for them to take the lead.
The majestic Andres Iniesta slalomed his way in from the left before finding Cesc Fabregas, and his cross was met by the head of David Silva, who arched his header past Gianluigi Buffon.
Soon after Cassano would force two good saves from Spanish captain Iker Casillas, but they would be the Azzurri's best opportunity to get back into the game as a second Spain goal arrived in the 40th minute, effectively killing the contest.
And my word what a magnificent goal it was.
Casillas lofted a ball out to the left for Iniesta who deftly nodded down to Jordi Alba. He touched inside to Xavi before continuing on a 40-yard run, beyond the Italian defence. Xavi, Europe's chief playmaker, found him with a perfect slide rule pass, and Alba coolly slotted past Buffon.
The second-half saw Italy give it a go, but when their third substitute Thiago Motta suffered an injury within minutes of arriving on field, it killed the game.
Down to 10 men, the Azzurri were no match, and Spain toyed with them, playing well within their comfort zone. However, like a cat with a mouse, eventually they moved in for the kill.
Substitutes Fernando Torres and Juan Mata both scored in the 83rd and 87th minute respectively, adding a gloss to the scoreline, that such a magnificent virtuoso performance deserved.
Spain's critics could consider themselves well and truly answered. For the 2012 vintage of La Roja, greatness had been well and truly assured.