While legends are born annually at the Super Bowl, BCS National Championship Game, World Series, and NBA and NHL playoffs, the magnitude of the World Cup is unparalleled. Similarly to the Olympics, the monumental tournament occurs every four years and players are fighting for more than just a city; they're fighting for an entire nation. It truly is the biggest stage in sports.
Four years ago in South Africa, Spain won its third consecutive major trophy and its leading goal-scorer, who happens to be the runner-up on this list, was among the best players at the tournament. The players on this list have shown the ability to bring their ticking soccer clocks to a halt, and continue their admirable play in multiple World Cups.
Retired Brazilian forward Ronaldo is the all-time leader in World Cup goals with 15. However, he will be watching the tournament cautiously; his record is in jeopardy this year.
The 2014 World Cup kicks off June 12th, and the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Balotelli, and Neymar are the noticeable favourites to capture this year's Golden Boot award. Though, a quick look back at the 2010 World Cup reveals that a dark horse may emerge. Few could have envisioned Thomas Müller seizing the treasured hardware in South Africa.
As we inch closer to Brazil, here is a look at the World Cup's all-time leading goal-scorers who will be playing again in 2014.
6 4: (Tie) Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands – 5 Goals
Fresh off a treble with Italian Serie A club Inter, Sneijder was in top form, playing the best football of his career upon travelling to South Africa in 2010. The crafty attacking midfielder played an integral role in his country's deep run in the tournament.
In the quarter-final against odds-on favourite Brazil, Sneijder catapulted his nation to victory with an unorthodox header off a corner kick that found its way past Júlio César. The goal will live on in Dutch soccer history for eternity.
Despite not playing as a true "number 9" or in a "second striker" role like most of the names on this list, Sneijder managed to produce four more goals to boot, and take Netherlands to the final. His phenomenal play invited accolades; he was selected to the team of the tournament at World Cup 2010, and achieved the same honour two years prior at Euro 2008. Unfortunately, Sneijder's squad fell to Spain in the final. Will Sneijder add to his total in Brazil?
5 4: (Tie) Lukas Podolski, Germany – 5 Goals
Much hype surrounded the über-talented Podolski prior to his first World Cup in 2006 at the age of 22. The Germans relied upon the partnership of Podolski and Klose to carry them on home soil. The duo combined for eight goals, with Podolski netting three.
Germany reached the semi-final, but suffered heartbreak when it was knocked out of the tournament by eventual champions Italy. Podolski's performance garnered praise from FIFA as he was named the tournament's best young player.
In South Africa, Podolski extended his total to five World Cup goals, but once again Germany was ousted in the semis by the eventual champions, this time at the hands of Spain. A torn hamstring forced him to the sidelines for all but five Premier League matches with Arsenal this season, but he has been nursed back to full fitness and will be ready to go in Brazil.
4 4: (Tie) Thomas Müller, Germany – 5 Goals
Fresh off a new deal with German giants Bayern Munich in February of 2010, the 20-year old made his World Cup debut that summer. Müller dawned German legend Michael Ballack's famous No. 13 (previously worn by German goalscoring maestro Gerd Müller as well), and throughout the tournament, he was just as legendary.
Müller was the joint-top scorer of the tournament, scoring five goals on just five shots on target. He was a catalyst for the Germans in more ways than one; his three assists broke the tie among the other top goal-scorers, giving Müller the Golden Boot award.
"Twelve months ago I was wondering if I could stake a claim to play for Bayern in the Bundesliga," said Müller shortly after the World Cup. "Now I'm in the national team and it's like a dream. It cannot get any better."
He was rewarded with a contract extension immediately following his breakout performance at the World Cup, a deal that would keep him at Allianz Arena until 2015.
Müller displayed his ability on the world's biggest stage in 2010, and as a more polished player in 2014 with a World Cup in his belt, he could do just as much damage to defenders in Brazil. At just 24 years old in his second World Cup, he may challenge his compatriot for the top spot on this list sooner rather than later.
3 3: Diego Forlán, Uruguay – 6 Goals
Form is temporary; class is permanent. Forlán undoubtedly proved this adage in South Africa. Each time Forlán touched the ball, something magical occurred. In Uruguay's second group game, he scored a sublime free kick, and initiated his run of scintillating goals at the World Cup. He found the back of the net five times, and was the talk of the tournament.
Despite not receiving any recognition in the form of hardware for his goals due to his counterparts recording more assists, Forlán was given the Golden Ball award, handed to the best player of the tournament.
Forlán was used as a substitute in his first World Cup in 2002, but managed to score his first goal at that tournament as a 23-year old. His six goal total, and subsequent lead over the aforementioned trio of stars, would be even more substantial had Uruguay qualified for the World Cup in 2006. At the age of 35, World Cup 2014 will likely be Forlán's final chance at increasing his career total.
2 2: David Villa, Spain – 8 goals
During Spain's spectacular run on the international stage from 2008-2012, David Villa was in elite form and one of the world's most clinical finishers. Xavi and Iniesta were the straws that stirred the Spanish drink, but Villa was the one altering the scoreboard in his nation's favour.
Spain is renowned for its quick-passing, ball possessive style. It lulls teams to sleep, and hits them in the mouth with one swift jab when they least expected it. Villa was the quintessential player to provide that knockout blow; he often needed just one touch to leave an everlasting impact. As a 24-year old in 2006, he scored three goals at the World Cup, tied for second behind Miroslav Klose. He led Euro 2008 in scoring with four goals in four games, and at World Cup 2010, he added five more. No matter his club form, Villa always seemed to elevate his game when he had the Spanish crest coating his heart.
Spain boasts the World's best squad, and that does not bode well for the aging Villa. His leash will be short in what will likely be his final World Cup.
1 1: Miroslav Klose, Germany – 14 goals
While some have been fortunate enough to play in one World Cup, Klose has hit the trifecta. The prolific German striker participated in 2002, 2006, and 2010 and will play in his fourth World Cup in two weeks in Brazil. It will mark the first time in Klose's career that he heads to the World Cup as a member of a non-German club team; he now plays with Italian Serie A club Lazio.
Klose scored five goals at World Cup 2002, recorded five more in 2006, and added four in 2010 in South Africa. If Klose can find the back of the net at least once in Brazil, he'll make history. Klose will pass Gerd Müller and become Germany's all-time leading scorer with his next World Cup goal. If Klose adds two, he'll jump Brazil icon Ronaldo for top spot in career World Cup goals. The Brazilian fans will surely hope he fails in his attempt to accomplish the feat; last time Ronaldo participated in a World Cup, he scored eight times in seven games and helped embroider the fifth star on the Brazilian jersey.
One thing is certain: the German national team heads to Brazil with its eyes set on winning its first World Cup since 1990. But make no mistake, Klose's opportunity to surpass Ronaldo is on their mind, and they'll be looking to help him get there. The ageless Klose will be ready to pounce in Brazil.