Say what you will about the slow death of nationalism, but a single cursory glance at the crowd in virtually any major international sports tournament will confirm that nationalism is alive and well in the world. We may no longer stream into urban centers for military parades, flags waving in the breeze, but that doesn’t mean that people got tired of playing ‘my country is better than your country’, no matter how subjective and arbitrary it may be. In fact, sports are probably last bastion of open, unabashed nationalism. Most major sports have some form of international competition, and if not the Olympics can get fans fairly riled up for their native athletes, but nothing comes close to the burst of energy nationalist sentiments get around World Cup time. There are nations on this planet whose populace go absolutely banana sandwich for soccer, and many – if not all of them – take international soccer extremely seriously. Seeing as how the World Cup is the biggest event in international soccer, which only comes around once every 4 years, the stakes are naturally very high. Players can become heroes or villains, depending on the outcome of their tournament run. For every Andrés Iniesta – who led Spain to their first World Cup victory in 2010 – there is someone who lets his teammates and countrymen down, sometimes with disastrous results. Andrés Escobar, captain of the Colombian national team during the 1994 World Cup (held in the USA), scored an own goal in one of their first games at the tournament. They subsequently failed to advance past the round robin stage, despite the fact that they were being painted as a possible contender for the entire tournament. Only 6 days after his national squad was officially eliminated from the World Cup, Andrés Escobar was shot and killed in Medellín, Colombia. The full story of Escobar and the 1994 World Cup is detailed extensively in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Two Escobars, and I highly recommend it. Why am I bringing this up? Because although it’s an extreme example, it highlights the very real pressure faced by World Cup players by their fans in the stands and back home. As heart-wrenching as it must be to fail under the big lights, I can only imagine the adrenaline rush that success brings. As with most team sports, that adrenaline rush probably spikes every time a goal is scored. Defense is necessary, a creative midfield is a huge advantage, but without the offense to seal the deal then all a team’s efforts are for naught. Some star strikers can’t perform at the World Cup, whether it is due to the pressure or just a lack of chemistry with their national team. Likewise, some men shine on the international stage. This is a list of the most prolific international goal scorers in the history of the tournament.
7. Sándor Kocsis – Hungary – 11 Goals
This Hungarian striker was a dominating force in the early days of the World Cup. He was active for the Hungarian national team from 1948 – 1956, and was instrumental in their run during the 1954 World Cup. Incredibly, Kocsis opens the list of all-time top World Cup scorers with only one tournament appearance. He scored all 11 of his World Cup goals during Hungary’s 1954 tournament run, when Kocsis nearly single-handedly dragged the Hungarian national team into the finals against West Germany, where they would eventually lose 3-2. Kocsis scored in every single one of Hungary’s games leading into the final – including two separate hat tricks – but failed to score in the final, which allowed West Germany to edge out a win with only one extra goal.
6. Jürgen Klinsmann – Germany – 11 Goals
The current head coach of the US men’s national team is also one of the most prolific world cup scorers of all time. Klinsmann made his debut for West Germany in 1987, at the age of 23. He would go on to be the 3rd most capped German national team player, with 108 appearances. He was instrumental in West Germany’s 1990 World Cup victory, scoring 3 times throughout the tournament. After the fall of the Berlin wall and German reunification, West Germany competed internationally as simply Germany. He played in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups for the new German national team, scoring 5 goals and 3 goals, respectively. He became the first player in history to score at least 3 goals in 3 consecutive World Cups, a record that was later matched by fellow German Miroslav Klose and the Brazilian Ronaldo. He retired from both club and international soccer in 1998 before entering into coaching in 2004.
5. Pelé – Brazil – 12 Goals
Pelé (born Edson Arantes do Nascimento) is considered by many to be the single greatest player to ever step foot on the pitch. He made his debut for the Brazilian national team in 1957, at the age of 16 years and 9 months, scoring in his first game and becoming the youngest player to score in international football. He led Brazil to World Cup victories in 1958, 1962, and 1970, in the process becoming the only player to ever win 3 separate World Cups. During his career, Pelé was the undisputed best player in the world, a title he emphasized by scoring 6 times in the 1958 World Cup, once in 1962, once in 1966, and 4 times in 1970. Pelé retired from international soccer in 1971 as a Brazilian and worldwide soccer legend.
4. Just Fontaine – France – 13 Goals
Like, Sándor Kocsis, Just Fontaine’s World Cup record took place in a single tournament rather than over a period of several years. Fontaine’s entire international career was spent with France. Despite being Moroccan, he was eligible for the French national team, as Morocco was a French colony up until 1956. In the 1958 edition of the World Cup, held in Sweden, Fontaine exploded onto the international scene with a performance that to this day has yet to be topped. He found the net 13 times in a single tournament, and made France seem unbeatable until being stopped by Pelé’s Brazil 5-3 in the semi-finals. Fontaine, with 9 goals in hand and perhaps simply out of frustration, scored 4 more goals in the 3rd place match against West Germany to bring his tally to 13. He was awarded the Golden Boot – the award for most goals in the tournament – and the record for most goals in a single World Cup, which stands to this day. He retired from international soccer in 1960.
3. Gerd Müller – Germany – 14 Goals
Gerd Müller is one of Germany’s most prolific goal scorers, and was instrumental in their 1970 run and their 1974 World Cup victory. His opponents have described his movements as explosive and his pace ‘unmatched,’ which would disorient defenders as he was short and had a low center of gravity. Müller used that unexpected pace to find the net 10 times in the 1970 World Cup, including twice in the semi-finals against Italy, where the Germans were minutes away from advancing to the finals before eventually losing 4-3 in overtime. He scored 4 more times in 1974, including in the final against the Netherlands to secure the championship for West Germany. The goal in the final was his 14th, and allowed him to break Just Fontaine’s record of 13 World Cup goals.
2. Miroslav Klose – Germany – 14 Goals
The only player on this list who is still active, Miroslav Klose has been an instrumental part of the 21st century incarnation of the German national team. He played his first game for Germany in 2001 and has competed regularly for his national team since. Klose has been one of the most consistent German players in World Cup competition, and has been a key part of their tournament success in recent times. He scored 5 times in the 2002 World Cup, 5 times in the 2006 World Cup, and 4 times in the 2010 World Cup. Now 35, Klose will be playing his 4th World Cup this summer in Brazil. If he scores at least once he’ll be tied for #1 on the list of all-time top World Cup scorers with the next man.
1. Ronaldo – Brazil – 15 Goals
No, not that Ronaldo. He may be overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s immense form in recent years, but everyone above the age of 20 all have memories of the Brazilian Ronaldo (born Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima) when he was in his prime. He made his debut with the Brazilian national team in 1994, but would have to wait until 1998 to make his World Cup debut. He scored 4 times in 1998, helping Brazil reach the final where they would eventually lose to host France. He rebounded in 2002 by scoring 8 goals, including both of Brazil’s goals in the 2-0 victory over Germany in the final, clinching Brazil’s 5th and record-breaking World Cup championship. Ronaldo is one of 3 players to have won the FIFA Player of the Year Award 3 or more times, the other 2 being Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi. He retired with the World Cup scoring record and a solid reputation as one of the all-time greats.