The World Cup has given us tournaments every four years that make us stand up from our seat, gaze in awe and scream with excitement. Other times, it can make us sad, devastated, or just plain bored. Ever since its inaugural event in 1930, the FIFA World Cup gives every football fan around the world the full range of emotions, and that’s what makes it one of the best sporting events in the world – if not the best.
On this list, we’ll be looking at 10 of the most memorable tournaments the quadrennial event has ever seen, from as early as the tournament in Brazil in 1950 to as recently as the one in Germany in 2006. From Brazil’s inability to capture the World Cup at home in 1950 all the way to Zinedine Zidane’s career-ending headbutt in 2006, we’ll be focusing on some of the most unforgettable moments in the tournament’s history, for good and bad reasons.
Whether it’s stars being made (the entire Brazilian team of 1970), fallen stars making a comeback (Paolo Rossi in 1982), attendance figures being smashed (the World Cup in the USA in 1994) or a lack of goals throughout a tournament (Italia '90), the World Cup is never an event that can necessarily be determined on paper, and football fans around the world are better off for it.
As the tournament will be making its way back to Brazil after 64 years this year, one can only hope that this year’s World Cup can get up there among the most memorable the game has ever seen. With a Brazilian team that could potentially take home the trophy, it’s certainly possible, even if they’ve got some stiff competition. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the top 10 most memorable World Cups in history.
10 Brazil 1950
As the World Cup in 1950 was the first to be held after World War II, and Brazil was hosting it for the first time, many expected this Brazilian team to win the World Cup on home soil. In the final round, all Brazil needed was a point against Uruguay to clinch the trophy. Unfortunately, it was not to be: Uruguay took the final game 2-1 to win their second World Cup. One World Cup tournament played entirely in a round-robin format, the finals in 1950 broke attendance records that would be broken again at the finals in the USA in 1994, and included a shock victory by the Americans against England.
9 USA 1994
Attendance figures at the 1994 World Cup in the United States averaged around 69,000, which is still a World Cup finals record. During the tournament, we saw numerous surprises in the form of Bulgaria (who beat Germany) and Sweden, who went all the way to third place. Brazil edged the Italians in a thrilling penalty shootout in the final. The American team was made up of many players without clubs, but ended up making it to the second round anyway, and the MLS would be founded a couple years afterward. Sadly, the 1994 World Cup may also be remembered for Colombian defender Andres Escobar being murdered upon his return home following an own goal that sent Colombia out of the tournament.
8 Switzerland 1954
The first and only World Cup finals hosted in the country FIFA is headquartered in, the 1954 tournament in Switzerland went back from a fully round robin system to a knockout format after the group stage. The Hungarian team known as the Magical Magyars – with Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis leading their offense – made it to the final only to blow a 2-0 lead against West Germany and lose, a final known commonly as "The Miracle of Bern." The finals in Switzerland also set a record for highest average goals per game (5.38), and this World Cup may also be remembered for the violent “Battle of Bern” between Hungary and Brazil.
7 Italy 1990
Although it had some memorable matches, Italia '90 is on this list because of how bad the quality of play was rather than how good it was: the average number of goals scored per game was 2.21 – still the lowest to date. 16 red cards were handed out during the tournament, also a record at the time. However, there were positive memories: a 38-year-old Roger Milla came off the bench to score twice for Cameroon that saw the Indomitable Lions make a run for the quarterfinals, and David O’Leary won a penalty shootout for Ireland to upset Romania in the round of 16.
6 England 1966
As hard as it is to believe that the “home of football” had only hosted the sport’s showpiece event once, England did everything they could to make sure it was worth it, both for the world and for themselves. The biggest surprise of the group and early knockout stages was North Korea, who upset Italy 1-0 and lost in a thrilling 5-3 match against a Portuguese team led by Eusébio. Eventually, the hosts beat West Germany after Geoff Hurst scored twice in extra time to give England their first and only World Cup title. No English team has even reached the final since.
5 Germany 2006
Although the 2006 finals held in Germany may be more well-remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt against Marco Materazzi in the final that saw Zizou bow out of his football career in the most ungraceful of ways, the tournament still had its moments that made people react for reasons actually related to football. Argentina completed 24 passes in a goal from Esteban Cambiasso in a 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro; Brazil – who were expected to repeat – were upset by France in the quarterfinals; and Italy scored two goals within minutes of each other in extra time against Germany in the semis to move on to the final, which they won on penalties.
4 Mexico 1986
After Colombia couldn’t host in 1982 after initially being chosen to by FIFA, 1970 hosts Mexico filled in – and did so in a way that was almost as memorable as the first time. First, there was Maradona. Yes, the finals in 1986 saw Diego Maradona score his “Hand of God” goal, as he dribbled past five different English players in the quarterfinal – the only quarterfinal not to be decided on penalties – to score a second goal after getting his first by punching the ball past the goal line. Argentina would eventually go on to the final, where they would beat West Germany 3-2.
3 Mexico 1970
If nothing else, the 1970 World Cup in Mexico will be remembered for featuring arguably the greatest team ever to take the pitch at a World Cup finals tournament: the Brazil team that won their third title with Pelé, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Tostão in tow. However, there were other highlights: a 10-goal haul from Gerd Müller that won him the Golden Boot on the way to West Germany’s third place finish – which came after a dramatic quarterfinal victory over England in a rematch of the 1966 final which Gordon Banks dropped out of due to food poisoning – and an overall goal per game average of 2.97.
2 France 1998
1998 was the first World Cup tournament to feature 32 teams rather than 24. First was Ronaldo decided to play in the final at the last minute following a seizure the night before, only to see himself and Brazil lose the 3-0 to the hosts. Before that came Croatia, who had made their debut as an independent nation at the World Cup and seized their opportunity with both hands, making it all the way to third place with an inspired run of form throughout the tournament. But of course, there were the hosts themselves who won it all on home soil after failing to qualify four years earlier, with a team of Zidane, Blanc, Thuram, Henry and many others capturing the Jules Rimet trophy in style.
1 Spain 1982
As the 1982 World Cup in Spain was about to begin, Paolo Rossi had just come back from being banned for two years following his involvement in a match-fixing scandal. He ended his World Cup campaign by winning the Golden Boot with six goals during Italy’s journey toward a third trophy. Other memorable moments included the upsetting of West Germany in the group stage by debutantes Algeria, the winning of third place over France by Poland (the second time they’ve made it that far), and West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher knocking French player Patrick Battiston unconscious during the semifinal game they won on penalties.