Many of world football’s most memorable performances have been enacted on its most prestigious stage.
This is hardly surprising, given that the best footballers on the planet have typically saved their best moments for the biggest audiences.
Over the next few slides, we’ll put forward a World Cup All-Time XI for your consumption—set out in a 4-3-2-1 formation and including a full bench that will bring the squad to its maximum number of 23.
The only criteria is that the players considered had to have played in a World Cup finals, and as such our team is not so much a “Best-Ever XI,” but a side selected from a single, albeit exalted, competition.
So without further adieu, we begin with the goalkeeper.
Only three goalkeepers have ever started successive World Cup Final matches.
Two of them—The Netherlands’ Jan Jongbloed and Germany’s Harald Schumacher—failed to win either of them.
The other—Brazil’s Gilmar—won both.
Between 1953 and 1969, the Corinthians and Santos legend earned 94 caps for Brazil, and in 1958 he kept clean sheets against Austria, England, The Soviet Union and Wales as his country won its first of back-to-back World Cups.
Four years later, the tall, athletic goalkeeper—widely regarded as the best in South American history—blanked Mexico and Czechoslovakia as Brazil lifted the trophy a second time.
We’ll be seeing a lot of Carlos Alberto over the next few months.
Along with Amarildo, Bebeto, Marta, Ronaldo and Mario Zagallo, the 69-year-old will be an official ambassador for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
But for several years—more than four decades ago—he was the best full-back on the planet—perhaps the best ever.
A seven-time state champion during a club career that included stints at Fluminense and Santos, in 1970 Carlos Alberto was the tireless, positionally sound right-back that helped Brazil to its third World Cup triumph.
He retired as a New York Cosmos player in 1982 and most recently was involved in international football as the manager of Azerbaijan in 2005.
Perhaps Germany’s greatest-ever international, Franz Beckenbauer started World Cup Finals matches in 1966 and 1974 and was part of the West Germany side that came third at the 1970 tournament in Mexico.
However, four years later the legendary sweeper finally got his hands on the trophy following a come-from-behind win over The Netherlands in Munich. With the victory, Germany became the first side to hold European and World Cup titles simultaneously.
But it was Beckenbauer’s performance against England in 1970 that truly marked him out for greatness.
Trailing 2-0 in the second half, his strike with just 21 minutes remaining inspired a German fight-back that ended in a historic, 3-2 victory.
Vengeance, no doubt, for 1966.
If the 1982 World Cup isn’t remembered for a stylish Brazil side that heartbreakingly failed to win a fourth championship, then it is surely remembered for the heroics of Paolo Rossi that inspired Italy to a third.
But behind the exploits of the controversial Rossi was a rock-solid defense, back-stopped by goalkeeper Dino Zoff and anchored by the exceptional Claudio Gentile.
A Juventus icon, the Tripoli-born Gentile helped manage the magical Zico in the Second Round encounter with Brazil in Barcelona, but it was his showing against Diego Maradona in the same city that really earned him plaudits at home—and made him reviled abroad.
Gentile man-marked the Argentine maestro out of the contest at Estadio Sarria and, most impressively, he managed to do it after picking up a booking inside the first minute.
An accomplished midfielder at Bayern Munich, for the West German national team Paul Breitner functioned as a left-back, and in 1974 started the World Cup Final against The Netherlands alongside Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Franz Beckenbauer and Berti Vogts.
In case anyone had forgotten his versatility, he scored three goals at the tournament—including the match-winners against Chile and Yugoslavia—and the opener against the Dutch in the Final.
Breitner also found the back of the net in the 1982 Final against Italy, and in so doing joined Pele, Vava and Zinedine Zidane as the only players to score in two World Cup Final matches.
He retired from international football following that loss to the Azzurri but played one more season for Bayern Munich.
Johann Cruyff is the only starter in our XI, and one of just four players in our entire squad, who failed to lift the World Cup.
But in a sparkling international career that included 33 goals in just 48 games, the Netherlands playmaker took his country on an unforgettable ride to the 1974 World Cup Final, beating Uruguay 2-0, Argentina 4-0 and Brazil 2-0 along the way.
In the Final against West Germany, he was part of a 13-touch move that resulted in a successful Johan Neeskens penalty before West Germany had even touched the ball, but in the end, goals from Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller overturned the deficit as the hosts lifted the trophy in Munich.
Tragedy, perhaps, is part of what makes the Cruyff legend so fascinating.
Forty-three years after his international retirement, and 47 after England’s only World Cup triumph, Bobby Charlton remains his country’s top all-time goalscorer.
The first of Charlton’s 49 tallies for the Three Lions came in his international debut against Scotland at Hampden Park—barely two months after the Munich Air Disaster. He scored the first goal in that match, volleying Tom Finney’s pass into the goal and laying down his credentials as an England international for the next 13 years.
Incredibly, Charlton scored in all of them and bagged four hat-tricks for England before leaving the international scene in 1970.
Perhaps his most important performance came in the 1966 World Cup semifinal against Portugal when his brace helped England to a narrow, 2-1 victory over Eusebio’s Portugal.
Four days later, he was charged with marking Franz Beckenbauer as England went on to win the Final in extra time.
Zinedine Zidane’s final act as a footballer was the head-butt to the chest of Italy defender Marco Materazzi that saw him sent off in the 100th minute of the 2006 World Cup Final.
It was an act that may have cost his country a second championship in eight years, although his heroics in 1998 ensured he would never be vilified like he might have had he not delivered at least one championship.
Having just turned 26 and playing some of the best football of his life, Zidane pulled the strings for France throughout the tournament and scored twice in the Final against Brazil to secure the title.
Eight years later, he scored from the spot as France headed into extra time against Italy, but even though Les Bleus wound up losing to the Azzurri on penalties, their captain—in the final match of his career—was named Golden Ball winner of world football’s most prestigious competition.
Like Zidane, Diego Maradona is remembered not for his international exit, but for a series of performances that helped secure the World Cup for his country.
Eight years before his failed drug test at USA ’94, Maradona was without question the best footballer in the world.
But after being passed over for Argentina’s 1978 side and failing to impress four years later in Spain, he laid it all on the line in Mexico in 1986.
The rest is history.
Against England in the quarterfinals, Maradona scored twice—one of them the controversial “Hand of God” goal that saw him palm the ball past Peter Shilton; the other the “Goal of the Century” that took him past Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick before he rounded Shilton for what proved to be the match-winner.
He would bag another brace on June 25 against Belgium, and four days later he was a world champion following a 3-2 win over West Germany.
The story of Pele has, over time, reached mythical proportions. With just one exception: it’s true.
Called into Vicente Feola’s Brazil squad as a 17-year-old, and just eight years after he had watched his father weep following Brazil’s loss to Uruguay, Pele put the finishing touches on his country’s first World Cup title—scoring twice in the final against Sweden in Solna.
Five days earlier, he had caught the attention of the world by scoring a second-half hat-trick against Just Fontaine’s France, and five days before that he had scored the only goal in a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Wales.
Pele didn’t stop scoring until a 1971 friendly against Yugoslavia that would end up being his final match for Brazil, but in an international career that spanned 13 unforgettable years he saved his very best for the biggest matches of them all—a pair of World Cup Final matches that yielded four goals and two victories.
Who else would we have leading our line?
He took to world football’s grandest stage as a 17-year-old named “Ronaldinho” (little Ronaldo), but by the 2006 World Cup had grown unmistakeably into the legend that is “Ronaldo” — O Fenomeno.
Four years after serving as an understudy at USA ’94, Ronaldo entered the 1998 World Cup in France as the reigning two-time FIFA World Footballer of the Year, and went on to score four goals as Brazil reached the Final.
But a mysterious, pre-match episode saw his performance significantly diminished in that match, and it took another four years—until the 2002 Final in Yokohama—for his reputation to be rebuilt.
Against Germany he was a colossus—scoring twice in the second half as Brazil claimed their record fifth World Cup title.
In 2006 Ronaldo scored a further three goals and went on to retire from international football with the most World Cup tallies in tournament history, 15, eight of which came in the knockout stages.
Gordon Banks, Dino Zoff
Fabio Cannavaro, Bobby Moore, Djalma Santos
Jorge Burruchaga, Zico, Garrincha, Andres Iniesta
Gerd Muller, Just Fontaine, Giuseppe Meazza