Picking the 10 greatest football matches ever is as complicated as selecting the 10 most beautiful gemstones from the Crown Jewels of England. Indeed, such an exercise borders on aesthetics, which is, by definition, quintessentially subjective. Nevertheless, I still managed to come up with a few objective criteria to do my rankings.
The rules are straightforward:
1) Competitive balance: No blowouts or one-sided affairs. Both competing teams should be evenly matched and the game itself highly disputed.
2) What’s on the line?: The greater the stake, the more impressive the achievement. The ability to perform well when it matters the most is the most valuable attribute in sports and football is no exception.
3) Quality of play: The game should feature crisp, creative, accurate passing and plays and continuity with a steady flow and rhythm and a minimum of hard fouls and botched plays.
4) Drama: Just like a compelling movie, the game should be riveting enough to send the casual fan into an emotional roller coaster ride across the spectrum from deep sorrow to absolute bliss.
5) Star power and individual brilliance: What’s a great movie without a great cast?
In the five years leading up to this tie, Blues and Reds had faced each other 24 times with most matches ending up in highly defensive stalemates, especially during the stints of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Rafael Benitez at Liverpool.
Chelsea had a comfortable lead 3-1 from the first leg at Anfield. Liverpool needed a three-goal margin win to advance. They took a first step into the right direction when Fabio Aurelio stunned Cech from 35-yard wide free kick. Xabi Alonso brought them even closer to the dream result when he doubled the lead at th 28th minute.
After the break, Chelsea scored twice in a span of six minutes (51st and 57th minutes) by Drogba and Alex. The Blues would take the lead thanks to Lampard well assisted by Drogba.
However, two goals from Lucas and Kuyt (81st and 83rd minutes) got Liverpool back on top, and they started dreaming again that another goal could put them through. Lampard crushed all Reds’ hope to complete a brace and give Avram Grant’s men a 7-5 edge on aggregate to advance to the Champions League semifinal.
Before the Istanbul Miracle, there was this goal fest in Dortmund in 2001. Liverpool was back in a European Cup Final for the first time since the Heysel tragedy.
The Reds quickly took the lead on a header by Markus Babbel over the Spanish minnows. They doubled their lead a few minutes later when a young Steven Gerrard left no chance to the goalkeeper after a brilliant pass by Micheal Owen.
Right before the 30-minute mark, Ivan Alonso got one back for Alaves. Gerard Houllier’s men thought they had smothered their rivals’ resilience when they pushed the lead back to two goals (3-1) on a penalty by Scottish veteran Gary McAllister before halftime.
Indomitable, Alaves rallied to level the score behind a brace by Javi Moreno right after the break. Reds legend, Robbie Fowler put them ahead again in the 76th minute before Jordi Cruyff (Johan’s son) equalized in the final minute of regulation. In extra time, Liverpool finally got the winning goal on an own goal from Defi Geli to cap an historical treble FA Cup, Football League Cup and UEFA Cup.
The two best European Players of their generation, Zinedine Zidane and Luiz Figo, were duking it out for a spot in the final against Itlay.
Portugal took the lead in the first half behind a Nuno Gomes clinical strike. France equalized in the second act by Thierry Henry well-served by Nicolas Anelka.
What exudes from this highly disputed semifinal is Zidane's unparalleled class. The French maestro delivered one of his finest performances in The Tricolore jersey, and put to rest all remaining doubts that he was indeed the Greatest European Player of his generation.
It’s only fitting that the game ended with Zidane firing a golden penalty strike past Portuguese keeper, Vitor Baia, in the waning moments of extra time to send France into the final.
This much anticipated showdown between the last two World Champions (at the time) was heralded as ‘The Final That Never Was.’ And it delivered on its promise.
It’s the Match of Superlatives! The Greatest Player Ever, Pelé, was at the height of his powers. Following a perfect cross from Jairzinho, Pelé’s smashing header was denied by Gordon Banks’ "Greatest Save Ever."
Both teams were able to withstand each other’s best shot for more than an hour. The imperial Bobby Moore even pulled a clean and spectacular tackle on Pelé to prevent an attempt at Banks’ goal by the Brazilian legend.
The breakthrough would come around the 63rd minute, when Jairzinho smashed home the winning goal on a masterful assist by Pele that was set up well by Tostao. England should have equalized after a Brito and Piazza’s miscommunication blunder, but Goeff Attle missed from close range.
Billed as ‘The Miracle of Berne’, the 1954 World Cup Final is, by many ways, the biggest upset ever in the history of football. The evidence for a David/Goliath mismatch type was overwhelming.
First, the Mighty Magyars had not lost a game since 1950 (34 wins and six draws) with memorable victories like the 1953 rout of England (6-3).
Second, the Hungarians boasted some of the biggest names in football history, Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Nandor Hidegkuti. On the other hand, the West Germans had a group of blue collar players led by skipper Helmut Rahn.
Finally, there was not a professional league back in Germany yet.
Puskas and Czibor wasted no time putting Hungary in front 2-0 after just eight minutes. And everybody started having flashbacks of the same nightmare scenario a fortnight ago in the (in-)famous drubbing of those same West Germans (8-3) in the group phase.
But, this time around, the Germans fought back and grinded their way back into the game before halftime by levelling the score, thanks to Morlock and Rahn. The Hungarians dominated the second half, but West Germany was able to withstand their assault.
Then, six minutes from regulation, Rahn fired a low shot past the Hungarian goalkeeper to give Germany a lead as improbable as unexpected. Puskas thought he had equalized in the final minute of regulation, only for the referee to rule the goal offside.
What the world press calls ‘The Instanbul Miracle’ is above all else an emotional roller coaster for any fan.
Milan stunned the Reds by opening the score in the first minute by Maldini. Liverpool found itself in a deeper ditch after a brace from Crespo. And, just like that, it was an insurmountable 3-0 lead for the Rossoneri at halftime.
What follows is a confluence of resilience, force of character and luck. The most spectacular comeback/meltdown—depending on how you look at it—ensued with Reds’ skipper Steve Gerrard leading the way on a header to cut the lead. Czech international Vladimir Smicer fired a powerful low shot past Dida to bring the score at 2-3.
Xabi Alonso would go on to equalize. All of this happened within six minutes after the break. Milan created a couple of chances, but it seemed like destiny sided with Liverpool, and Milan’s star Shevchenko was cursed. Liverpool went on to win its fifth European crown in the eventual penalty shootout.
Only four years removed from the Falklands War, it was in a very tense atmosphere between the two rival nations in the heat of Azteca Stadium. No single game ever encompasses better the broad scope of an ego and a personality as complex as Diego Maradona’s.
‘The Most Gifted Player Ever’ comes across as an angel/demon and a savior/cheater in the same game. After a goalless first half, Diego went on to score two of the most storied goals ever.
Just after the break, El Pibe de Oro netted the most controversial goal in history; "The Hand of God" goal, a handball disguised as a header over Peter Shilton which everybody but referee Ali Bin Nasser saw.
A few minutes after, the Argentine legend went on to score "The Goal of the Century" by dribbling past six English defenders before beating Shilton. A goal from the tournament's eventual top scorer, Gary Lineker, didn’t change the outcome, as Argentina went all the way to win the world crown.
Both teams came into Barcelona with dreams of adding the last (and most prestigious) silverware to their Treble bid after winning both their domestic leagues and cups.
Early in the game, Bayern drew first blood on a free kick from the temperamental but brilliant Mario Basler. Without Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, both suspended, the Red Devils just couldn’t find their rhythm. They dodged the knockout blow twice as Mehmet Scholl saw his chip shot landing on the right post and Carsten Jancker, with the same bad luck, hit the crossbar on a powerful overhead kick.
That’s when Sir Alex Ferguson pulled two tricks up his sleeves by substituting in Teddy Sheringham and Ole Solksjaer. What followed is the perfect heist ever orchestrated in football.
A battered, bullied, outplayed and dominated Manchester United stole the title hopes away from Bayern and his skipper, the legendary Lothar Matthaus, with two late strikes in stoppage time leaving the German bench and supporters stunned in disbelief trying to realize what just hit them.
The single most spectacular football match I have ever seen. Some of you will say, "How come an exhibition made the list? How come it’s ranked so high?" My answer to you is, "There was nothing friendly about this game! Nothing…"
The tournament itself, featuring Brazil, Italy, England and France, was first conceived as a prestigious rehearsal one year before the 1998 World Cup kickoff. It turned out to be as compelling and competitive as any international tournament since and ever.
This game was the highest of highs, as Italy came out firing right from kickoff, catching off-guard a Brazil side that boasted the finest and most lethal offensive duo in modern football with legendary strikers Ronaldo and Romario. On the other hand, the brilliant Juventus tandem of Del Piero and Vieri gave Brazil’s back four all they could handle.
The Azzuri went ahead after a Del Piero header beat Taffarel on a beautiful cross by Vieri. It went from bad to worse for a stunned but brilliant Seleçao when Aldair deflected a direct free kick by Albertini into his own net.
Brazil would get one back thanks to Roberto Carlos blistering shot (deflected by Lombardo). A young and elusive Pippo Inzaghi, who replaced Vieri in the second half, won a penalty that Del Piero coldly converted. 3-1 Italy.
Then Brazil stormed back to equalize behind two goals from its pair of ‘Ro-Ro’ virtuosos.
This classic is heralded across football punditry as "The Game of the Century" primarily because a) it featured two football powerhouses, Italy and West Germany, b) provided five goals in extra time c) and it was a World Cup semifinal.
Boninsegna put the Italians in front very early in the game with a left-footed strike from the edge of the box. Just when most everybody assumed we were heading straight toward a victory for Italy, then German defender Schnellinger levelled up the score with a diving header in injury time.
Germany took the lead with a goal from Gerd Muller in the 94th minute. Burgnich went on to equalize four minutes later. Italy closes the first period of extra time with another goal by Gigi Riva.
The Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer had his right shoulder dislocated early in the game. He went on to play the remainder of the game with a scarf on.
The inevitable Muller scored again to level the game at 3-3. Rivera went on to score the winning goal immediately after, securing a spot in the final against Brazil.