This June sees the greatest tournament in sport begin when Russia take on the might of Saudi Arabia in football’s World Cup. Hardly an auspicious start, but nevertheless a mouth-watering month for those of us that love our football and can’t wait to sit in front of the ‘box’ and salivate over the best players on the planet showcasing their talent in front of millions across the globe.
With Italy failing to qualify, the streets of Rome and Milan will be a lot quieter than usual, but the rest of us can relish the prospect of the famous names in football doing battle to establish who can lift the famous trophy and forever be called a legend. I have given up hope of England ever winning the tournament again with my hopes, dreams and optimism often left shattered in a flood of seemingly endless disappointment and despair.
So, WHO is the greatest World Cup player then? I’m going to start at 1970 and choose a contender from each of the 12 tournaments that have passed since.
1970 - four years after England won, Brazil were the champions in Mexico when Brazil were well deserved winners having scored more goals than anyone else. The honour of the top spot went to West Germany’s Gerd Mueller with ten goals, three ahead of Brazil’s Jairzinho who scored what has been described as the best goal in the competition. Pele was only fifth highest with four goals and one of three Brazilians in the top ten goal scorers, but because of his goal scoring, this year’s contender is Gerd Meuller.
1974 saw West Germany win the tournament for the first time beating a Holland team 2-1 that contained the incredible talent of Johan Cruyff, Jonny Rep, Robbie Rensenbrink and Johan Neeskens. Nevertheless, it was Poland’s Grzegorz Lato who had the honour of being top scorer with seven in seven to complement his nation topping the team charts with 16 goals. The stand out player was West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer who was a rock and seemed not only to win every challenge and header but also had the poise and precision to pick out a pass that no one else could. Cruyff won the Golden Ball for the best player, but to captain the eventual Champions, my choice is Franz Beckenbauer.
1978 was when we first witnessed thousands of ticker tape streamers cascading down from the stands whenever the host nation, Argentina played. An incredible sight matched by the team as Argentina went on to win the World Cup beating Holland 3-1 in the final. The goal of the tournament was scored by Scotland’s Archie Gemmill, weaving past Dutch defenders as if they weren’t there as the Scots triumphed 3-2. The leading scorers were Argentina that featured Ossie Ardilles and Ricky Villa, who both went on to have successful spells at Spurs and the top scorer was Argentine striker Mario Kempes, who after scoring twice in the final is my contender this year.
1982, Spain and I can’t recall there ever being another team other than England being knocked out without losing a game! Back then it was goal difference in the second group stage as England were left to rue consecutive 0-0 draws against West Germany and Spain. The sight of an unmarked Kevin Keegan heading wide against Spain with virtually the last attack still haunts me today, though Northern Ireland showed how it’s done by beating the hosts 1-0 thanks to a Gerry Armstrong winner. Italy were the undisputed Champions this year beating West Germany 3-1 in the final. But I still have difficulty working out how the Italians managed to beat, for me, the best Brazilian team never to win the World Cup; a team that contained Socrates, Falcao, Eder, Junior and Zico. It was largely down to one man, Paolo Rossi who scored a hat-trick that day and finished as top scorer with six including the first goal of the final. Contender: Paolo Rossi
1986 - Diego Maradona made his World Cup debut in Spain and despite the ‘Hand of God’ goal that helped knock England out in the quarter finals, 1986 was without doubt Maradona’s year. Not only did he lift the famous trophy as Argentina captain after they beat West Germany 3-2 in the final, but his touch, vision and astounding brilliance with the ball at his feet was a joy to behold. Much to people’s surprise Maradona was not the leading scorer in the 1986 tournament, that honour fell to Gary Lineker with six, but arguably the best goal ever scored in a World Cup was Maradona’s second against England when he picked the ball up inside his own half and ran the length of the pitch gliding past defenders before rounding Shilton and sliding the ball into the net. Genius! Contender: Diego Maradona.
1990, Italy. Other than Gazza’s tears, the agony of losing to Germany in a penalty shootout in the semi-finals or Nessun Dorma by Pavarotti, this was the tournament where we first heard the name of Italian striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, a quality finisher who led the way in the scoring charts, despite the host nation finishing third. Inevitably the West Germans triumphed having been the best side with the perfect blend of dominance and class and scored the most goals, eventually getting revenge by beating Argentina 1-0 in the final. In Italia ’90 we first realised that Jurgen Klinsman, despite his undoubted talent, was a diver and arguably Lothar Matthaus, the German Captain and the engine room of that brilliant side should be the contender. But for his efforts alone, after Italy had only scored twice in the last 7 games prior to the tournament, and for his manic wide-eyed celebrations, this year’s contender is ‘Toto’ Schillaci.
1994 - USA, the only time its been held in the States. Remember when Italy’s Roberto Baggio blazed his penalty kick high over the bar in the final to hand victory to Brazil, but who remembers that Russia’s Oleg Salenko finished as the top marksman, or that Sweden scored the most goals? Neither team qualified for the final and neither did any of the Home Nations, so this year didn’t live long in the memory. But, who was the stand out player? For me there were two candidates; Romario of Brazil and Baggio of Italy. Both scored five goals, but the Brazilian gets the nod because it was one of the all-time individual performances at a World Cup, which helped to end Brazil’s 24-year wait for the title. That same year Romario also became the first Brazilian to be crowned FIFA World Player of the Year. Contender: Romario
In 1998 the World Cup was held in and won by France and Les Bleus, with Petit, Henry and Zidane who were nothing short of phenomenal that year as they crushed all before them, including much-fancied Brazil 3-0 in the final that included their own superstar, Ronaldo. The latter’s performance in the final was so disappointing, it later emerged he’d been ill the previous night having suffered a convulsion. France ’98 will also be remembered by England fans for that wonder goal by Michael Owen and David Beckham’s red card, both against Argentina as the Three Lions went out on penalties. Croatia’s Davor Suker was the Golden Boot winner, but the stand out player of this tournament for me was Ronaldo for his lightning speed, individual skill and four goals including the opener in his side’s semi-final win over Holland. Contender: Ronaldo
2002 was held in South Korea and Japan. England went out in the quarter finals 2-1 to eventual winners Brazil after an incredible strike by Ronaldinho from a free kick near the half way line, South Korea beat Italy meaning the Azzurri didn’t qualify for the knock out stages and Brazil beat Germany 2-0 in the final courtesy of a Ronaldo double who ended up also winning the Golden Boot. A fantastic way for him to bounce back from the disappointment of four years earlier. The Golden Ball Award went to German ‘keeper Oliver Kahn for his displays in getting Germany to the final but for me, the contender for 2002 should go to Ronaldo again for how he bounced back from the heartache of ’98.
2006 - Germany were the hosts and home striker Miroslav Klose was top scorer as the host nation led the goal scoring charts. BUT Germany didn’t win the famous trophy this year. That honour fell to the best defence as Italy won it for the fourth time, beating France on penalties after a 1-1 draw. French captain Zinedine Zidane won the Player of the tournament (Golden Boot), but sadly his last appearance in the finals will be remembered for his red card in the final after a ‘spectacular’ head butt into the chest of Juventus player Giorgio Chiellini. It’s worth mentioning that playing in his third World Cup Finals, Ronaldo features again after his three goals helped Brazil reach the quarter finals. Incredibly, Marco Materazzi was Italy’s top scorer with only two goals but my stand out player this year is Zidane.
In 2010, the tournament took place in South Africa (who remembers the vuvuzela?) and won by Spain who beat Holland in the final refereed by Howard Webb. Quite the opposite of the anticipated classic match, the game was settled by a solitary Iniesta goal four minutes from the end of extra time. But the final will likely be remembered more for the twelve yellow cards handed out by the English referee, a record in a Final. The Golden Boot went to Germany’s Thomas Müller while Uruguay’s Diego Forlan who was one of four players to score five goals, three of which were stunning strikes from outside the penalty area which helped his team reach the semi-finals. And they did it without Luis Suarez who was banned after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. (Now where’ve I heard that before?) My 2010 contender is Diego Forlan.
Finally, 2014 saw the World Cup return to Brazil. Germany won for the fourth time after beating Argentina in the final, but this tournament will be remembered for how Germany annihilated their hosts 7-1 in the semi-final in front of their own fans. Brazil had the weakest line up of any Brazilian side I’d seen at a World Cup and were without their talisman, Neymar for this match, which was Brazil’s heaviest ever defeat. Germany were mightily impressive throughout the whole competition scoring the most goals and having the highest pass completion rate of 82%. Thomas Müller covered more ground than anyone else and Manuel Neuer, Germany’s goalkeeper made the most saves so no surprise they won this year. Columbia’s James Rodriguez finished as the top scorer and for his outstanding displays, Lionel Messi won the award for best player of the tournament. For single handedly carrying Brazil to the semis, my contender is Neymar.
To decide who wins the Platinum Sport BEST player at a World Cup, I looked at this list to see which player had the most impact for his country and whose contribution was the most telling. My top three works out like this:
In 3rd place, Italy’s Paolo Rossi for scoring a hat-trick against the best Brazil team NEVER to win the World Cup.
In 2nd place, Diego Maradona for probably the best display from one player that I’ve ever seen at a World Cup including arguably the best ever goal. He single handedly took Argentina to World Cup glory and would have won if it wasn’t for his cheating with the ‘Hand of God’ goal against England!
In 1st place, there is only one clear winner for me; with 15 goals, Brazilian superstar Ronaldo has scored the most goals in the World Cup, a feat he accomplished in 19 matches spread over three World Cups, in 1998, 2002 and 2006.
But who will win the award for 2018 in Russia? Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Hazard or Salah? My money is on someone we haven’t heard of yet!