THREE weeks today, the 21st World Cup gets underway when Russia take on Saudi Arabia in Moscow.
With the eyes of the World watching over five weeks of competition, it’s the chance for the best players to take centre stage and showcase their talents to show everyone why they are the best at their trade.
Whilst some big names have underperformed at the Worlds greatest sporting event, the World Cup has seen stars emerge by bringing their club form to the global stage. Here’s a few of the best performers at the World Cup since Italia ’90!
Roberto Baggio – Italy
Toto Schillaci stole most of the headlines at Italia ’90 with his golden boot haul of six goals, and he was assisted in the hosts campaign by Roberto Baggio.
Lined up for a big money move to Juventus, Baggio showed exactly why he was rated so highly with a brilliant individual goal in the match against Czechoslovakia. He scored one more goal in the tournament, in the Bronze Medal match against England, as the Italians finished the tournament in third place.
“Oh Yes” – Baggio’s wondergoal against Czechoslovakia
Four years later at USA ’94, Italy and Baggio got off to a stuttering start, finishing third in their group and only qualifying as one of four best third placed sides. It was very close to getting worse in the last sixteen as the Italians trailed 1-0 to Nigeria and were two minutes away from a humiliating exit from the tournament.
That’s when Roberto Baggio came into his own! His 89th minute equaliser spared Italy’s blushes and he completed the turnaround by cooly netting a penalty in extra time. He was the hero once more in the Quarter Finals as he netted a late winner against Spain in a 2-1 victory, setting up a Semi Final meeting with shock troops Bulgaria, who’d knocked defending champions Germany out in the last eight. Baggio was the talisman once more, scoring a fine double to secure a 2-1 win that took Italy to the World Cup Final to face Brazil, and they had Roberto Baggio to thank for singlehandedly getting them there.
A largely forgettable game ended goalless, creating history in that it became the first World Cup Final to be decided by a penalty shootout. After four penalties each, the Brazilians led 3-2, heaping the pressure on Baggio knowing he had to score to keep the Italians hopes alive. He ballooned his kick over the bar and it was Brazil who won their record fourth World Cup. It was not the ending Roberto Baggio deserved for the way he carried his team to the Final with his tremendous performances and vital goals.
Baggio’s goals and missed penalty at USA ’94.
Baggio lost his way for a couple of years after that tournament with a move to AC Milan not working out. However, after a confidence boosting season at Bologna, he was back in the Italian squad that went to France ’98, and preferred to Allesandro Del Piero as strike partner for Christian Vieri. In their opening match against Chile, the 31 year old showed he still had class with a terrific assist for Vieri’s opener before converting a late penalty, exercising some ghosts from four years earlier, to secure a point in a 2-2 draw. He also netted in the final group win over Austria as Italy reached the Quarter Finals, going out to hosts and eventual winners France on penalties.
With nine goals in three consecutive World Cups, and singlehandedly taking Italy to the 1994 Final, Roberto Baggio’s name is written into World Cup folklore!
Ronaldo – Brazil
Il Phenomeno was the golden boy of World Football during the late 90’s with his remarkable goal scoring record at PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Inter Milan going into the 1998 World Cup. He’d been part of the Brazil squad that won the tournament four years earlier, though the then 17 year old didn’t play a single minute in America, and was now the man who the Brazilians depended upon to defend their title.
Although he didn’t score in the opening game against Scotland, Ronaldo showed glimpses of his quality to show he was going to be a major player in this tournament and, subsequently, opened his World Cup account in the next match against Morocco. A double against Chile in the last 16 and a strike against Holland in the Semi Final helped his country progress to the Final against host nation France.
Before the Final, news emerged that Ronaldo had been sensationally left out of the starting eleven, with Edmundo taking his place, with rumours circulating that he was carrying an injury. Within half an hour, another teamsheet submitted confirmed that Ronaldo was now starting, prompting rumours as to why he was suddenly reinstated, one of which was the suggestion that his sponsors Nike insisted that he started. The truth was he suffered a fit hours before the game and had been to hospital before arriving later to join his teammates. Ronaldo was clearly not mentally fit that night and his Brazil colleagues were affected as they went down 3-0 to the French.
For four years, Ronaldo struggled to make the same impact for club or country but he was still their first choice striker at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. In their opening game against Turkey, he scored the equaliser in a game they went onto win 2-1, announcing that he was back and looking to make up for lost time. He added five more goals in the next five matches to take Brazil into their third consecutive World Cup Final, this time to face Germany. Could Il Phenomeno complete his comeback by firing Brazil to victory?
It was an emphatic yes as he opened the scoring following a rare Oliver Kahn fumble then added a dolly taken second to secure a 2-0 win, giving him the golden boot, a winners medal and exercising the ghosts of Paris from four years earlier.
Redemption! Ronaldo’s double in the 2002 Final
With twelve World Cup goals to his name, Ronaldo was just three away from beating Gerd Müller’s goal scoring record of 14, which had been standing for 32 years, and had the opportunity to do so at the Germany 2006 tournament. Although Brazil won their opening two matches against Croatia and Australia, they were unconvincing in their displays, where Ronaldo was booed by a group of supporters questioning his fitness.
In typical fashion, Ronaldo bounced back with two goals in the holders final group game against Japan and set them up with a last sixteen match against Ghana. It was now set up for the great man to beat overtake Müller and become the top scorer in the history of the World Cup. Five minutes into the game, he delivered by scoring the opener in a comfortable 3-0 win. Brazil went out in the Quarter Finals to France, preventing Ronaldo from winning a fourth World Cup Winners medal, and his World Cup career was over having set a new goal scoring record, which was beaten by Miroslav Klose in 2014.
Having come back from a huge psychological blow to then win his team the World Cup, Ronaldo deserves his place in World Cup history as one of the greatest players to grace the competition.
Zinedine Zidane – France
One of the greatest players in modern history had a colourful chapter to his career during the World Cup!
With France hosting the 1998 event, Zidane was under intense pressure to deliver his club form at Juventus onto the biggest stage and win a first ever World Cup for the nation who created the tournament. Things didn’t initially go to plan for Zizou as he was sent off in the second game against Saudi Arabia for stamping on an opponent. His side struggled without him in the next round against Paraguay, requiring a golden goal winner in extra time to see off the South Americans.
Zidane was back in the team for the Quarter Final against Italy, which France won on penalties, then overcame Croatia to book a Final date with defending champions Brazil. This was when Zidane came to the fore in the tournament as he netted twice in the first half. His first was a downward header from an Emmanuel Petit corner, his second right on half time was a bullet of a header from a Djorkaeff corner. France went onto win 3-0 to claim their first ever World Cup triumph and Zinedine Zidane became an instant hero with the French support.
La Triumphe – France’s World Cup win in 1998
Four years later, France arrived at the Korea/Japan 2002 tournament as heavy favourites having won Euro 2000 to add to their World Cup triumph. Zidane, now at Real Madrid, was at his peak and had scored a wonderful winner for Madrid at Hampden in the Champions League Final, and was once again expected to inspire the French to further glory.
Unfortunately, Zidane picked up a thigh injury in a pre-tournament friendly and missed his side’s first two matches, where they suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to debutants Senegal and were held 0-0 by Uruguay. Zidane was risked for the final do-or-die match against Denmark but he was unable to inspire his team this time as France limped to a 2-0 defeat.
Having previously retired from International football, Zidane returned to help his side qualify for Germany 2006, and he announced that he was going to retire from the game completely after the tournament. His campaign got off to a slow start as he picked up bookings in uninspiring draws with Switzerland and South Korea, sitting out the final group game against Togo through suspension. His teammates got the job done to prolong Zidane’s goodbye from the game.
In the knockout stages, Zidane returned to the side inspired to go out on a high and was in scintillating form. He assisted one and scored the clincher in the 3-1 win over Spain in the last 16, set up Thierry Henry’s Quarter Final win over defending champions Brazil and netted the only goal in the Semi Final win over Portugal, setting up a Final meeting against Italy.
The stage was set for Zinedine Zidane’s grand exit and was written for him to bow out with the World Cup in his hands. Things were going according to plan when his cheeky penalty opened the scoring. Just a few minutes later, Marco Materazzi’s header levelled proceedings, taking the game into extra time.
With a few minutes remaining and the game heading to penalties, the most jaw dropping moment in World Cup history occurred between the two goal scorers. With the ball at the other end of the pitch, Zidane and Materazzi exchanged a few words before, inexplicably, Zidane charged at the Italian and stuck his head in his chest to floor the big defender. It took a couple of minutes for the referee to produce the red card and Zidane paid the price with his alternative great bow, walking past the World Cup he should’ve collected. Italy went onto win the trophy on penalties, and Zinedine Zidane’s illustrious career ended in disgrace.
The imperfect bow – Zidane’s Final act
Whilst his career didn’t have the perfect ending, Zinedine Zidane will still be fondly remembered as one of the greatest players to perform at the World Cup, and his impact on the Worlds biggest stage will go down in history.