Best World Cup Moments of All Time
It seems like just yesterday that France won the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but we’ve already started qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. There have already been 21 World Cup tournaments, and it remains the world's most-watched sporting event as over half the global population tuned in for the latest tournament.
During the 21 World Cups, there have been more than 800 matches, and all of that time on the pitch has produced some awe-inspiring moments. Unbelievable goals, shocking upsets and unthinkable acts on the pitch have made the World Cup a topic of conversation even during the four years in between each.
We will look back at those moments that were memorable in either a good or bad way. After all, fame and infamy go hand-in-hand when it comes to being remembered, and these are the top 25 moments in World Cup history.
25. That Type of Kicking Is Not Allowed, Mr. Beckham
Location: Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Etienne, France
What happened: In his debut World Cup, England’s David Beckham kicked an Argentine player to earn himself a red card during the Round of 16.
Bottom Line: That Type of Kicking Is Not Allowed, Mr. Beckham
Beckham hadn’t quite reached the worldwide fame he would eventually have back in 1998, but striking an Argentina player earned him infamy rather than fame. Beckham was upset that he was fouled by Diego Simone, and while Beckham was lying face down on the ground, he purposely lifted his famous right foot and struck a backpedaling Simons in the calf.
Simone did what soccer players do best and took a dive, which was enough to sell the ref on the foul. Beckham received red, was sent off, and England, down a man, would go on to lose in a penalty shootout.
24. Les Bleus Les Blew Up
Location: South Africa
What happened: Two French players got into confrontations with team personnel, which led to a mutiny from the rest of the team.
Bottom Line: Les Bleus Les Blew Up
France was not in a good place for their first World Cup post-Zidane. First Nicolas Anelka got into it with coach Raymond Domanech. After Domanech met with team captain Patrice Evra about the incident, they agreed to send Anelka home.
Then, Evra got into it with a team trainer, and that led to the rest of the French team returning to their buses and refusing to practice. By the time France returned home after losing in the group stage, four players were suspended, the team’s managing director resigned, the French Football Federation’s president resigned, and Domanech was fired.
23. Suarez Takes a Bite Out of the Competition
Location: Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil
What happened: Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was caught on camera biting the shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.
Bottom Line: Suarez Takes a Bite out of the Competition
Coming into the 2014 World Cup, Suarez already had a reputation, thanks to two previous biting incidents. There’s no way he would resort to this tactic on the biggest stage possible, right? Wrong.
During a group match against Italy, Suarez and Chiellini got tangled up, and Suarez lunged at and bit the left shoulder of the defender. Suarez then fell to the ground, as he was the one attacked, but Chiellini then pulled his shirt collar to the side to show off the bite marks. Suarez would later say that he lost his balance, which led to the bite but later admitted fault. He was suspended by FIFA for nine international matches, which is the longest ban in World Cup history.
22. Not One, Not Two, Not Three, Not Four…
Location: Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California
What happened: Russia’s Oleg Salenko sets a World Cup record by scoring five goals in a 6-1 group stage win over Cameroon.
Bottom Line: Not One, Not Two, Not Three, Not Four…
Getting a hat-trick at the World Cup is rare — have been only 52 in the more than 800 matches played at the tournament. Scoring four goals is even rarer, having occurred only seven times in World Cup history. But only one man has netted five goals, as Salenko did so in a thrashing of Cameroon.
Salenko reached a hat-trick in the first half of the game, thanks to a penalty goal in the 44th minute. He then got two more in the second half to give him five for the game and six for the tournament. Russia wouldn’t win another game in the World Cup, but Salenko’s six goals still won him the Golden Boot. He remains the only person to win the award without advancing past the group stage.
21. You Get a Card! You Get a Card!
Location: Frankenstadion in Nuremberg, Germany
What happened: Portugal defeated Netherlands in the Round of 16, but the real story was the referee issuing a FIFA record of four red cards and 16 yellow cards.
Bottom Line: You Get a Card! You Get a Card!
It’s never good when the referee is the most talked about person of a World Cup match, but that’s what happened to Valentin Ivanov. The Russian ref had an itchy trigger finger, and cards popped out of him like a Pez dispenser.
After handing out five cards in the first half, Ivanov called an even tighter second half in which he handed out 11 more cards for a total of 16. Two players from each side received their second yellow cards and were sent off. By the end of the game, the teams were playing 9v9 instead of 11v11.
20. GOOOOOOOOAL … Wait, Never Mind.
Location: Estadio José Zorrilla in Valladolid, Spain
What happened: France scores a goal against a Kuwait team that stopped play after hearing a whistle from the crowd.
Bottom Line: GOOOOOOOOAL … Wait, Never Mind.
France was on its way to an easy win over Kuwait in the group stage, but they were also looking to increase their goal differential. Late in the game and with France leading 3-1, they were making their way downfield when there was a whistle from the crowd. Apparently, everyone on Kuwait heard the whistle, and no one on France heard it. So, the Kuwait team stopped playing while France continued and scored a goal against the helpless Kuwait keeper.
The referee initially allowed the goal until the brother of Kuwait’s king ran into the pitch to protest the goal. The ref was apparently convinced and disallowed the goal to the outrage of the French. However, France would get its fourth goal just minutes later and won 4-1.
19. FIFA Embraces Technology
What happened: The 2018 World Cup becomes the first to use video assistant referee (VAR), which led to an increase in correct calls over human refs.
Bottom Line: FIFA Embraces Technology
VAR had been around since the early 2010s but wasn’t used by FIFA until the 2017 Confederations Cup. It was then implemented for the next year’s World Cup, and a total of 335 incidents were checked.
Just 14 of those calls by human refs were overturned, but the VAR system had a success rate of 99.3 percent, compared to 95 percent for human refs. Because of the success of the system, you can expect all World Cups going forward to use VAR to help clean up the game.
18. No Blood. No Foul.
Location: Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium in Seville, Spain
What happened: France’s Patrick Battiston leaves a game with damaged vertebrae, cracked ribs and missing teeth after a collision with West Germany’s Harald Schumacher.
Bottom Line: No Blood. No Foul.
Soccer is considered a contact sport, but during one game in 1982, it resembled a collision sport. With a semifinals matchup tied 1-1 in the second half, Battiston received a through ball, and the only thing between him and the goal was Schumacher. The keeper came off his line and met Battiston right as he was shooting, and Schumacher apparently thought the best way to defend was to launch himself and twist his body so that his hip smacked Battiston right in the face.
The collision knocked out the Frenchman, who laid motionless on the ground. Medics had to administer oxygen to him on the pitch, and he later slipped into a coma. A teammate thought he was dead because Battiston “had no pulse and looked pale.” No foul was called on the play, and Battiston was subbed out as the West Germans eventually won on penalties.
17. Keep It Simple, Stupid
Location: Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia
What happened: Iran’s Milad Mohammadi’s attempt of a somersault throw-in doesn’t go as planned, forcing him to abandon the idea.
Bottom Line: Keep It Simple, Stupid
When the somersault throw-in is executed perfectly, it may be the most beautiful thing in The Beautiful Game. When it’s not executed correctly, it makes its way onto a bloopers tape, as Mohammadi’s attempt did.
To Mohammadi’s credit, he knew his wasn’t going to end well, so he abandoned it after not generating enough momentum after his flip. Mohammadi then proceeded to do just a regular throw-in, which comes with less reward but also less risk as well.
16. If You Can’t Beat Them, Spit on Them
Location: San Siro in Milan, Italy
What happened: Over the span of two minutes, the Netherlands-West Germany game featured four yellow cards, two players sent off and two loogies.
Bottom Line: If You Can’t Beat Them, Spit on Them
Frank Rijkaard of The Netherlands and Rui Voller of West Germany got into it on the pitch during their Round of 16 game. But this was more than just pushing and name-calling, as there was plenty of that, but Rijkaard became so frustrated that he spit on Voller after picking up a yellow. The German complained, and he also received a yellow card. Then, just one minute later the two got entangled again. Rijkaard twisted Voller’s ear and stamped on his foot, and before Voller could retaliate, the official sent both players off with their second yellow cards.
But Rijkaard wasn’t done being a pest, so as the two were walking off the pitch, Rijkaard again spit on the back of the head of Voller. West Germany would win the game and eventually the World Cup, while Rijkaard would apologize for his actions, which Voller accepted.
15. Senegal Shocks the Defending Champs
Location: Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea
What happened: France walked into the World Cup as the reigning champions but walked out of their opener versus debutante Senegal as a disgraced team.
Bottom Line: Senegal Shocks the Defending Champs
There’s momentum and then there’s this: France won the 1998 World Cup, the 2000 Euros, the 2001 Confederations Cup and was the No. 1 ranked team in 2002. A victory over Senegal, which was playing in its first-ever World Cup, seemed a given.
But with French star Zinedine Zidane injured, Senegal shocked the world by knocking off France 1-0 in the opener. France would not win a game at the tournament as they were bounced in the group stage, which led to the firing of their coach and France losing its No. 1 FIFA ranking.
14. There’s a New King in Town
Location: Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
What happened: Germany’s Miroslav Klose became the World Cup’s all-time leading scorer with 16 goals.
Bottom Line: There’s a New King in Town
Klose entered the 2014 World Cup as a 36-year-old reserve who was two goals shy of passing Brazil’s Ronaldo as the tournament’s all-time leading scorer. He got his first during the group stage and then broke the record during the semi-finals. But he didn’t just break Ronaldo’s record, as he broke it in a 7-1 rout of Brazil.
And he didn’t just break Brazilian great Ronaldo’s record in a 7-1 rout of Brazil either — no, he also broke it in Brazil. Ronaldo, Brazil (the team) and Brazil (the country) all took L’s that day at the expense of Klose.
13. Wink Wink, Nudge Nudge
Location: FIFA WM-Stadion Gelsenkirchen in Gelsenkirchen, Germany
What happened: Cristiano Ronaldo winks to Portugal’s bench after appearing to influence the referee to send off Wayne Rooney of England.
Bottom Line: Wink Wink, Nudge Nudge
Back in 2006, Ronaldo wasn’t yet a global superstar, but he was teammates at Manchester United with Rooney. However, nothing gets in the way of pride for your nation, and after Rooney appeared to unintentionally stomp on a Portugal player, Ronaldo went to work. He appealed to the referee and may have influenced the ref’s decision to send Rooney off with a red card.
Just seconds after Rooney’s dismissal, Ronaldo was seen winking to his bench as to signal, "I took care of Rooney." Ronaldo would then go on to score the game-winning penalty in a shootout against an undermanned England squad.
12. No, That’s Not a Baseball Score
Location: La Pontaise in Lausanne, Switzerland
What happened: Austria defeats Switzerland 7-5 in the quarterfinals to set a record for the most combined goals (12) in a World Cup game.
Bottom Line: No, That’s Not a Baseball Score
If win probability had been around back in the 1950s, then Switzerland would have probably had a 99.9 percent win probability after taking a 3-0 lead just 19 minutes into the game. But then Austria came out like gangbusters and scored five goals over a nine-minute stretch. The Austrians would never relinquish the lead on the way to a victory.
It's speculated that the 104 degrees Fahrenheit temperature for the match played a factor in the lack of defense, as Austria’s keeper suffered from hyperthermia early in the match which led to the three quick goals from the Swiss.
11. God Didn’t Help Him With This One
Location: Foxboro Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts
What happened: Argentina legend Diego Maradona is sent home from the World Cup after two games for failing a drug test.
Bottom Line: God Didn’t Help Him With This One
By 1994, the 33-year-old Maradona was a shell of his former self. He had been banned by his club team for 15 months following a failed drug test for cocaine in 1991, and Maradona’s problem with substances reared its ugly head again during the World Cup.
He tested positive for a banned weight-loss drug and was removed from the team by the Argentine soccer federation. This tournament also turned out to be Maradona’s last international game for Argentina, which bowed out in the Round of 16.
10. Germany Makes the Wrong Kind of History
Location: Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia
What happened: Defending champion and the No. 1 ranked FIFA team, Germany gets upset in the group stage by No. 56 South Korea.
Bottom Line: Germany Makes the Wrong Kind of History
The Germans were the favorites to repeat as World Cup champions as they entered the 2018 competition as the No. 1 ranked team in the world. But things went from bad, when they lost their opener to Mexico, to worse when they were later upset by No. 56 South Korea.
The loss marked the biggest upset of a defending champion and the biggest upset of a top-ranked team in World Cup history. Germany also failed to advance past the group stage for the first time in World Cup history.
9. The Miracle on Grass
Location: Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
What happened: The heavily favored English squad is upset by an American squad that featured several part-time players.
Bottom Line: The Miracle on Grass
Entering this group stage matchup, the USMNT had lost seven straight matches by a combined score of 45-2! Meanwhile, England was nicknamed the “Kings of Football” and was the favorite to win the entire World Cup.
But a U.S. squad, featuring several semi-pro players, including three guys who weren’t even American citizens, scored the lone goal of the match in the 38th minute for the huge upset. The United States would not win another World Cup game versus any team for 44 more years until the 1994 World Cup game held on American soil.
8. Crowds Can Set Records, Too
Location: Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
What happened: Nearly 200,000 fans pack into Maracanã Stadium to watch Brazil take on Uruguay in what is the largest attendance ever for a soccer game.
Bottom Line: Crowds Can Set Records, Too
Back in 1950, there was no knockout stage for the World Cup as a round-robin stage took place after the group stage. The decisive match pitted the home nation of Brazil versus its neighbor in Uruguay.
The match was contested in Maracanã Stadium, which had no seats at the time and was mostly all-grandstand. The paid attendance was 173,830, but the actual attendance was 199,854, making it the most-attended soccer game ever.
7. Brazil Humiliated at Home
Location: Mineirão in Minas Gerais, Brazil
What happened: Brazil’s quest for a World Cup title on home soil is shut down by Germany in an embarrassing 7-1 semifinals defeat.
Bottom Line: Brazil Humiliated at Home
Losing is one thing; losing on home soil is another. But what the Germans did to the Brazilians was historic on many levels. The six-goal margin of defeat tied for the largest ever for Brazil, the outcome was the worst loss by a host country in World Cup history, and Germany overtook Brazil as the highest-scoring nation in World Cup history.
But the biggest record to fall was Brazil’s unbeaten streak at home. Playing on Brazilian soil, the team had not lost 62 consecutive matches dating back to 1975. That mark also fell as Germany would top it off by winning the World Cup in front of thousands of Brazilian natives.
6. What Happened to Ronaldo?
Location: Stade de France in Saint-Denis, France
What happened: The reigning two-time FIFA Player of the Year, Ronaldo suffered a mysterious medical event just hours before the World Cup Final.
Bottom Line: What Happened to Ronaldo?
Many soccer fans are still waiting for a 30 for 30 on what really happened to Ronaldo, but the Brazilian had dominated with four goals and three assists leading to the final versus France. But just hours before the game, he suffered a seizure, and while he played in the Final, “the lights were on, but nobody was home.” One writer described Ronaldo’s play as “sleepwalking,” and the favored Brazilians were thrashed 3-0 by France.
Over 20 years later, it is still a mystery as to what happened to Ronaldo and what caused it. There are theories that he played too many video games in the night prior, which resulted in a fit. Another theory is that he was simply stressed out from being a 21-year-old on that kind of stage. Some have even suggested that he was drugged by supporters of the French team as the ’98 World Cup took place in France.
5. The Goal of the Century
Location: Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico
What happened: Argentina’s Maradona scores what many consider to be the greatest soccer goal of all time against England in the quarterfinals.
Bottom Line: The Goal of the Century
Just four minutes after the Hand of God, which may be the most famous goal in soccer history, Maradona then executed what may be the greatest goal in soccer history. The diminutive Argentinian received a pass around midfield, put on a 60-yard dribbling exhibition past five English defenders, faked a pass that put the goalkeeper on his backside and put the ball in the back of the net. The goal put Argentina up 2-0, and they would go on to win the match and that year’s World Cup.
In 2002, FIFA had a poll to determine the greatest goal in World Cup history, and this goal won, earning it the nickname: “The Goal of the Century.”
4. Pele the Prodigy
Location: Råsunda Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden
What happened: At just 17 years old, Brazil’s Pele nets a hat-trick in a semifinal win over France before scoring again in a final win versus Sweden.
Bottom Line: Pele the Prodigy
No soccer list would be complete without Pele, and he became a global icon with his performance at the 1958 World Cup. After becoming the youngest goalscorer in World Cup history in the quarterfinals, Pele then became the youngest to score a hat trick in the semis versus France. But he wasn’t done there, as Brazil met Sweden in Sweden for the World Cup Title. Pele scored another two goals to set another record, becoming the youngest to score in a World Cup Final.
Brazil would win 5-2 for their first World Cup, and even opponents were in awe of the wonder kid as Sweden player Sigvard Parling said this about Pele: "When Pelé scored the fifth goal in that Final, I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding.”
3. The Headbutt Heard Around the World
Location: Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany
What happened: In World Cup Final deadlocked at 1-1 in extra time, French star Zinedine Zidane violently headbutted Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the chest to be sent off.
Bottom Line: The Headbutt Heard Around the World
Not even Andre the Giant had a headbutt as famous as Zidane’s, as the play took arguably the best soccer player in the world off the field. Materazzi had been tugging on Zidane’s jersey all match, which prompted Zidane to say Materazzi could have his shirt after the match. The Italian then said instead that he would prefer “the whore that is your sister.”
Zidane was given a red card while the game went into a penalty shootout, which was won by Italy.
2. Hand of God
Location: Estadio Azteca, in Mexico City, Mexico
What happened: Arguably the most famous play in soccer history, Argentina’s Diego Maradona uses his hand to punch the ball into the net and give his team a quarterfinal win over England.
Bottom Line: Hand of God
When you are 5-feet, 5-inches tall like Maradona and have a jump ball with a 6-foot, 1-inch tall goalkeeper, you know that, unless you’re gifted with Michael Jordan’s hops, you’ll need some divine intervention to win the ball. That’s exactly what happened when the ball was looped into the air, and Maradona used his left hand to strike the ball before England’s keeper could do the same.
The ball ended up bouncing one time before going into the net, and England’s team immediately called for a hand ball. But the referee said he didn’t see it and allowed the goal to remain, which gave Argentina a 2-0 lead. They would eventually win 2-1 and would also go on to win the 1986 World Cup. After the match, Maradona all but admitted to getting away with a hand ball, as he described the goal as "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."
1. A Fatal Own Goal
Location: Rose Bowl in Pasadena, United States
What happened: Colombia’s Andres Escobar’s own goal leads to a victory for the United States and, subsequently, leads to his murder in retaliation.
Bottom Line: A Fatal Own Goal
In a group stage match, Escobar inadvertently deflected a ball into his own net, thus giving the United States a 1-0 lead. The U.S. would eventually win the game 2-1, and Colombia would bow out of the tournament in the group stage.
Five days after Colombia was eliminated and 10 days after the own goal, Escobar was in his car in Colombia when three men pulled up and shot him six times. The gunman reportedly shouted “Goal!” after each shot, which mirrored the six times the South American commentator for the game shouted “Goal!” during the broadcast. Escobar would die just minutes later, and a bodyguard for members of the Colombian drug cartel confessed to the murder. The shooter also worked for a powerful figure in the country, who lost heavily while betting on the game, and he eventually served 11 years in prison for the crime.