This article explores the 20 greatest World Cup goals in history. There are many pieces out there that present the most wondrous goals on a purely aesthetic basis, based on technique, finesse, power or unpredictability.
This editorial doesn’t ignore the beauty of a moment or the sheer delight of a stunning finish. However I have interpreted "Greatest" as most impactful, most important and most consequential as well as considering the overall spectacle of the contest and the way the goal alters the complexion of a tie, a tournament or even a strain of history.
For each slide and each goal, I present the Context, i.e. the setting, the build-up to the goal; the Moment, i.e. the physical goal itself; and the Consequences, i.e. the impact the goal had, both short-term and long-term.
I hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane, and please do let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Context: England v. Argentina, World Cup second round 1998
The Moment: Youngster Owen, a hitherto unknown outside of England, whose readiness had been questioned by Glenn Hoddle before the World Cup, summarily took on and shredded the entire Argentine defence before hammering a belter past Carlos Roa.
The Consequence: As an Englishman, I will readily admit that this goal has made the list almost purely for aesthetic reasons, rather than the other 19 goals featured, almost all of which had major consequences or far-reaching impacts.
What I will say, however, is that Owen’s goal is perhaps—along with Pele’s performances in 1958—the finest expression of the World Cup’s capacity to throw up the unexpected and to reveal new stars to the world on the grandest stage of all.
And plus…it was great to see the Argentines flounder with such fear in their eyes!
The Context: The dying seconds of the 1966 World Cup Final, with hosts England leading arch-enemies West Germany 3-2.
The Moment: Skipper Bobby Moore, showing characteristic composure in his own half, sends a delicious ball forward to Geoff Hurst. Despite the confusion over the final whistle, and the supporters deliriously pouring onto the field of play, Hurst holds his nerve to fire the ball past Hans Tilkowski.
The live drama is captured perfectly and eternally by BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme.
The Consequence: Wolstenholme coined a phrase which, to this day, remains sacrosanct in the hearts of Three Lions fans. Hurst became the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final and England won their one and only world title.
The Context: A Group Stage clash at the 1950 tournament between England, the assumed Kings of the Sport, and no-hopers the United States.
The Moment: A hopeful shot by Walter Bahr was deflected past Bert Williams in the England goal by the Haitian Gaetjens’s brave diving header.
The Consequence: England give everything they have in order to break down the assembled amateurs of the States, but are unable to and America claimed an infamous 1-0 victory. The England team are humiliated in failure, although both they and the U.S. crashed out at the group stage.
The Context: Cameroon open their World Cup account against holders Argentina at the San Siro on Group B’s opening day.
The Moment: An ill-tempered contest characterised by Cameroonian aggression and growing Argentine frustration is decided in the 67th minute as Francois Omam Biyick leaps to meet a corner.
The Consequence: Nine men of Cameroon secure a priceless result, introducing the football of Sub-Saharan Africa to the wider footballing universe. The Indomitable Lions would race into the quarter-finals during a pulsating campaign, yet to be bettered by an African side and all originating from this unbelievable giant-killing.
The Context: In a near mirror image of the previous slide, first-timers Senegal meet the holders, France, in an astonishing World Cup opener.
The Moment: French arrogance is caught perfectly on camera as David Trezeguet smiles and shrugs as his ferocious shot hits the bar. Senegal break expertly, stealing the ball from Djorkaeff and exploding down the left-flank through the beloved El-Hadji Diouf. His cross is met by Barthez who can only fumble the ball into the path of Papa Bouba Diop.
The Consequence: Senegal held on to secure a memorable 1-0 victory before embarking on a terrific run to the quarter-finals. The vanquished Bleus would endure a horrible campaign as they surrendered their title and skulked home after the group stage—the worst ever defence for reigning champions.
A Golden Generation was shot to pieces by Diop’s bundled effort.
The Context: The World Cup semi-final in Dortmund, 2006. Old foes Germany and Italy contend a classic.
The Moment: 119 minutes of deadlock and 24 years of anguish were broken as Del Piero’s corner fell to Andrea Pirlo. The regista slips in Grosso with a deft ball and in one delicious movement the full-back fires home.
The Consequence: Ecstatic scenes were replicated five days later as Italy beat France 5-3 on penalties in another dramatic clash. Grosso’s goal sent the Azzuri to their first World Cup final in over a decade.
The Context: The fourth and final giant-killing on this list as Italy met the unfancied North Koreans at Ayresome Park.
The Moment: Pak Doo-Ik, a name never to forget, receives the ball on the edge of the Italian box with the defence trying to pull away from goal. He lets the ball drop over his shoulder and spanks it past Ricky Albertosi, sparking delirium among the pro-Korea Ayresome Park faithful.
The Consequence: A stunned Italian side are unable to muster a response and they slip out of the competition when even a point would have been sufficient. The result is—predictably—not well-received back in Italy; the team are met by a barrage of rotten vegetables upon their return home, many of them with their reputations in tatters.
The Context: Wembley 1966, World Cup final between England and West Germany. Having seen their lead slip away a minute before the final whistle, these two old foes headed into extra time…
The Moment: Alan Ball sprints down the right side and sends a Jairzinho-esque ball into the German box. It is brought down expertly by Hurst who then swivels and smashes the ball against the underside of the German cross bar. It rebounds down behind Tilkowski and then bounces clear…
The Consequence: Despite dubious—and now famous—official authority, as well as the oft-ignored laws of physics, the goal stands. It pushes England into a lead that, this time, they do not surrender.
Germany only gain a measure of revenge 44 years later when Frank Lampard’s clear goal against the old enemy is disallowed in South Africa.
The Context: The World Cup final between bitter adversaries Holland and Germany: Total Football, the tournament’s darlings, against the hosts.
The Moment: The goal isn’t anything special, a professionally struck penalty from defensive midfielder Johan Neeskens. The build-up, however, is breathtaking. A dazzling Holland side keep the ball among themselves for the first minute of play, the Germans unable to get close to the ball. After 17 majestic passes, Cruyff sails through the heart of the defence only to be brought down by Uli Hoeness.
Step up Neeskens.
The Consequence: Arguably the most intoxicating, imperious display by a national side—particularly at such a rarefied level.
This is as good as it gets for one of football’s greatest national sides and certainly its most innovative and daring. The Netherlands’ arrogance gets the better of them and they toy with Germany without securing a second goal.
Gerd Muller makes them pay for their profligacy…
The Context: Italy and Germany met in the so-called Match of the Century in the Azteca Stadium to contest a World Cup semi-final in 1970.
The Moment: In a game littered with consequence and pure theatre, the victory was seized by substitute Gianni Rivera, who bagged the extra-time winner that sent a roller coaster of a contest beyond the Italians.
The Consequence: Despite being eventually overcome by Brazil, so beautifully, in the final. The Azteca Stadium still bears a plaque commemorating the 20th Century’s finest-ever contest. Rivera’s fine finish brought it to a close and sent Italy to their third centrepiece occasion.
The Context: The 1982 Final at the Bernabeu between Italy and West Germany. The Azzuri lead 1-0 but are struggling to contain the German onslaught.
The Moment: Italy regain possession and enjoy a rare break forward, after some foreplay in the German box, the ball falls to Marco Tardelli who makes up for a shoddy first touch to slam the ball home.
The Consequence: Tardelli knows that with only 20 minutes remaining, his terrific strike puts the contest all-but beyond Germany. He runs off into the distance, screaming the scream of a nation’s delirium. Italy win their first title since before the Second World War.
The Context: Argentina and England meet to contest a World Cup semi-final at the Azteca Stadium in the context of lingering Falklands animosity.
The Moment: Maradona attempts to play a one-two with Jorge Valdano after a delicious, mazy run. The ball is cut out, however, by Steve Hodge who succeeds in diverting it towards England stopper Peter Shilton. El Diez is having none of it and leaps prodigiously to divert the ball—somehow—past the England ‘keeper.
The Consequence: The moment goes down in World Cup and sporting history as one of, if not the most brazen example of cheating in an elite contest. Argentina would go on to win the 1986 title—a World Cup generally attributed to Maradona himself, rather than the collective—as the iconic player would proceed to show some of the more refined and praiseworthy aspects of his talent as the tournament, and the game, wore on…
The Context: A tetchy, heated World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and Holland looks to be bubbling towards extra time and the dreaded Golden Goal.
The Moment: With only minutes remaining, Frank De Boer sends a long, hopeful (if expertly measured) punt forward.
Arsenal frontman Dennis Bergkamp brings the ball down sublimely with one touch, wipes Roberto Ayala off the scene with another and then sends a curling shot past Carlos Roa. The goalkeeper can only look on in astonishment as the Dutchman’s right foot sends him and his teammates crashing out of the tournament.
The Consequence: Holland would advance to play—and lose to—Brazil in the semi-final.
While the goal had no far-reaching or particularly significant consequences, it remains a classic example of a spectacularly beautiful build-up, a pristine finish and a match-winning goal, in the last minute of a hugely important contest, on the grandest stage of all.
It doesn’t get much better than this.
The Context: For the first time since 1978 a World Cup final features two teams never to have won the globe’s highest prize. European Champions Spain have endured a testing campaign, but find themselves up against the disappointingly reactive Dutch.
The Moment: After 116 minutes of stalemate and 80 years of abject disappointment, Iniesta finds the breakthrough for Spain. A Dutch penalty appeal is waved away and the Spaniards break for goal through Jesus Navas, Iniesta and then, crucially, Cesc Fabregas. Iniesta makes no mistake with the finish—the Dutch resolve finally broken.
The Consequence: Spain’s Barcelona-inspired possession game finally saw them claim the ultimate prize, and consequentially, the meat in their sandwich of European Championships triumphs.
The emotional whirlpool of a truly historic achievement.
The Context: 43 minutes into Holland’s World Cup final clash with West Germany at the Olympiastadion. The home side have pulled the contest back to 1-1 following Neeskens’s early goal.
The Moment: Textbook Der Bomber.
A Rainer Bonhof cross finds Muller surrounded by Dutchmen. His first touch is away from goal, baffling the defenders and sending them all off balance. Using his low centre of gravity, Muller swivels expertly and somehow manages to hook the ball past the despairing Dutch keeper.
The Consequence: Total Football was silenced as West Germany held on to claim their second World Cup. The goal, tying into numerous threads of animosity, breaks Dutch hearts and can perhaps be considered the starting point of Holland’s reputation as the “nearly men” of international football.
The Context: Brazil and Uruguay contest the world title at the Maracana, 1950. The home side have already decided that this is their year to finally ascend to the throne.
The Moment: 200,000 in attendance fell silent as right-half Julio Perez—who had earlier soiled himself with fear during the anthems—plays in Alcides Ghiggia. The Brazilians, who by now have lost some of their earlier bravado, expect a cross, but Ghiggia goes for goal. His shot is not exceptional, but he gets enough on it to beat
The Consequence: Ghiggia later said: “Only three people have ever silenced 200,000 people at the Maracana with a single gesture: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and I”. The result would forever be remembered in Brazil as The Lost Final and the nation took a long time to recover from the Uruguayan’s fortuitous strike, the defeat prompting a national, communal depression.
The Context: The competition’s two most successful sides met in Yokohama to contest the 2002 World Cup Final.
The Moment: Having given Brazil the lead soon after the hour mark with a tap-in following a rare Oliver Kahn blunder, Ronaldo was to put the result beyond doubt. Seizing the ball on 79 minutes, he pulled the ball out from under his feet and sent a snapshot past Oliver Kahn, despite the despairing lunge of Gerald Asamoah.
The Consequence: Beyond giving Brazil their record fifth title victory, Ronaldo completed an amazing personal turnaround.
Few sportsmen have had as incredibly intense a personal narrative accompanying their careers as the Phenomenal One, and this clash and particularly, the second goal, finally buried the ghosts that had accompanied him since the tragedy of France ’98.
The Context: Italy, unfancied heading into the tournament, require a win against the mighty Brazil to advance.
The Moment: In a furious, fantastic contest played in searing heat at the Estadio Sarria, the game rolls this way and that tempestuously. Paolo Rossi, previously the villain of Italian football following a suspension for his part in a betting scandal, has already scored twice. His third, the winner and a smart poacher’s finish, seals arguably the most pulsating, exhausting game the World Cup has ever known.
The Consequence: The Brazil team of 1982 who forayed forward with such relentless offensive invention were left unfulfilled, while Italy went on to beat Germany 3-1 in the final. Pragmatism and resilience won out over naivety and blossom and international football was never the same again.
The Context: One of history’s finest-ever sides have already won the World Cup. Italy are trailing 3-1 and Brazil are looking imperious in a very one-sided final.
The Moment: Clodoaldo’s trickery and flawless technique allows him to escape from several Italians before playing in Rivelino. He finds Jairzinho, cutting inside at pace, and the winger centres the ball to Pele.
The Great One, as composed as composure can be, calmly pausing as if to allow the Italians a moment of repose, opens his body and casually lays the ball off into space.
To the viewer at home it appeared as though Pele had just played the ball to nobody, but right-back and captain Carlos Alberto bursts into shot following a galloping run and, without breaking his stride, hammers the ball into the corner of the Italian goal. An incredible team effort, containing a handful of moments of brilliance, in a World Cup final.
The Consequence: Football was confirmed as The Beautiful Game, the most graceful, elegant sport known to man.
And Brazil were its rightful champions.
The Context: The World Cup quarter-final of 1986 between England and Argentina, the former still reeling following Maradona’s deceitful handball.
The Moment: Taking advantage of the shell-shocked Three Lions, Maradona picks up the ball in his own half and then proceeds to go on one of the greatest dribbles that mankind has ever experienced, shrugging off challenge after challenge to finish past Shilton.
The Consequence: England were finally defeated as Argentina strode off towards the World Cup title. Maradona delivered an unmatched expression of individual footballing excellence and ingenuity on the highest stage, confirming his immortal aura in the process.