The Ten Most Iconic Games in the History of the World Cup

Things are getting interesting at the World Cup. The first part of the Qatari tournament delivered a mouth-watering menu of four Quarter Finals featuring football giants and historical reoccurrences, especially in the case of the Argentina vs Netherlands matchup.

And so, as the tournament catches its breath and with two days with no games ahead, we thought to take a look at the World Cup history and offer you a roundup of what we believe are the ten most iconic games of the Mondiale.

Now, what do we mean by “iconic”?

The games we chose are not necessarily the most beautiful ever played – even though you will find some absolute goal-fests in our selection – but we believe they represent the true essence of the tournament. This is a collection of the essential moments that set the key milestones in the World Cup: ultimate battles, shocking upsets, David vs. Goliath tales, clashes of football philosophies, and controversies. You will see samples of everything that make this quadrennial sport-fest so unique and special.

So follow us along our journey back in time and don’t hesitate to let us know if you agree or not with our choices!

10 – 1990 Group Stage: Argentina vs Cameroon 0-1

The game that announced a new era for football, a global one where the beautiful game would no longer be a hunting territory reserved to European and South American sides only.

This was not the first time that an African team beat a representative from the traditionally dominating continents in a World Cup, but no such exploit had made so much noise as Cameroon shocking no less that the incumbent champions in a tournament opener!

As Francois Omam-Biyik’s goal left Argentina and Diego Maradona speechless, the world of football understood that Africa meant business now.

9 – 1998 Final: France vs Brazil 3-0

The Final that everybody wanted to see: the host country, a France selection finally ready for their rendezvous with history at the World Cup, and a Brazil squad powered by Ronaldo Luis Nazario da Lima, the most dominating player of the 1990s decade.

Unfortunately, the game saw the notable absence of Ronaldo himself – who did take the field but appeared totally out of play. It would be eventually revealed that the Fenomeno had suffered convulsions before the match, but the episode is partially shrouded in mystery still today.

That does not take anything away from France’s triumph, however, as the Bleus dominated the last act and wrapped an emphatic 3-0 success to become World Champions for the first time.

8 – 1930 Final: Uruguay vs Argentina 4-2

The first World Cup Final ever played could not be excluded from this best game selection. With most European sides declining to make the trip to Uruguay for the inaugural edition and Brazil only sending a patched-up representative, a Rio de La Plata Derby between the host country and Argentina was the most natural conclusion.

To give you an idea about what was the atmosphere surrounding the game, the Belgian referee John Langenus accepted to direct it only on the condition that he would be given a boat ticket to flee the country as soon as the match ended.

Fierce rivalries aside, Uruguay won the game 4-2 with a stunning second-half comeback, becoming the first national team to lift the Rimet trophy.

7 – 1982 Second Round: Italy vs Brazil 3-2 

Italy vs Brazil is perhaps simply THE World Cup game, and you will find more occurrences of it in this roundup.

This matchup from the second round of the 1982 World Cup in Spain had everything that a football supporter could ask for: plenty of goals, back-and-forth, drama, and last gasp saves. It was an absolute football fest.

The Azzurri fans remember it as the game when a seemingly average striker like Paolo Rossi suddenly woke up and delivered an astonishing hat-trick, en-route to becoming the tournament top scorer. The Brazilians blamed the defeat on their lackluster defense, still wondering how a team featuring the likes of Socrates, Zico, and Falcao – which many believed to be the best Brazil ever seen – could fail to win the cup.

6 – 1966 Final: England vs West Germany 4-2

Where was the VAR when we most needed it? The final showdown of the tournament hosted by England in 1966 has gone down in history because of Geoff Hurst’s presumed “ghost goal”.

The hosts took on West Germany in the Final and while the final score should leave no room for recrimination, England’s third goal with the score set at 2-2 has been the source of endless controversy.

Hurst’s shot from an Alan Ball cross crashed into the crossbar, then bounced right on (or past?) the goal line before bouncing back in play. The referee allowed the goal but the camera footage from the days was not able to settle the matter, which remains unsolved to date.

The English won it on extra times to capture their only international trophy so far.

5 – 1950 Final Round: Brazil vs Uruguay 1-2

The game of the infamous Maracanazo – Brazil’s shocking home defeat in a World Cup played at home. The first world tournament hosted by Brazil had a bizarre formula featuring a final four-team group to assign the title. Luckily enough, the last matchup in the pool between Brazil and Uruguay also ended up being the decisive one.

The Selecao had steamrollered past all opponents and needed only one point to end top of the group, but ahead of their 150000 (yes, one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand) screaming fans at the legendary Maracana Stadium, they wanted another win to make their domination unquestionable.

Brazil attacked recklessly and found the lead with Friaca, but fatally exposed themselves to the late Charrua counterattacks. Goals from Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia wrapped a sensational upset for Uruguay as the host country plummeted in despair.

4 – 1974 Final: West Germany vs Netherlands 2-1

This was a battle of football philosophies: the German pragmatism and no-nonsense attitude against the revolutionary concept of “total football” preached by manager Rinus Michels of the Netherlands and embodied by the immense Johann Crujiff.

The goal by which the Netherlands opened the scoring in the Final was a spectacular commercial for the totaalvoetbal. Right after kick-off, the Dutch exchanged the ball 16 times without a single German player managing to touch it, before Uli Hoeness had no option but knock Cruijff down in the box. Johann Neeskens converted the penalty to draw his side ahead.

However, West Germany reacted fast and came from behind to beat the heavily favorite Oranje, exposing the “total football” as a marvelous yet unaccomplished experiment on the World Cup stage.

3 – 1970 Final: Brazil vs Italy 4-1

The ultimate battle for the Rimet Cup. Before the current, Italian-made Coppa Gazzaniga would become the official World Cup trophy, the tournament champions were awarded the so-called Rimet Cup and the tourney rules stated that the trophy would be retained for good by those who won it three times.

Brazil and Italy came to the last act of the 1970 World Cup having won it two times each already (1958 and 1962 the Selecao, 1934 and 1938 the Azzurri). Regardless of its outcome, this game was going to determine the ultimate owners of the Rimet Cup.

It ended in a crushing victory for Brazil, who overpowered the Azzurri in the second half with goals from Gerson, Jairzinho, and Carlos Alberto, after Roberto Boninsegna had equalized the iconic Pelé’s opener.

This was perhaps the game that truly cemented Brazil’s reputation as the most successful and iconic national team in football.

2 – 1986 Quarter Finals: Argentina vs England 2-1

Has there ever been so much happening in a single football game? This unique matchup with a heavy political meaning featured both one of the most controversial and one of the most beautiful goals scored in a World Cup!

Argentina and England squared off at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City as the relationship between the two countries was still tense in the wake of the 1982 Falklands War.

Diego Maradona decided to make it a day to remember as he opened the scoring with a blatant handball that went incredibly unnoticed by the referee. “It was the Hand of God”, the Argentine genius sneered afterwards.

Then, just as if to redeem himself, he came up with an absolute piece of footballing genius as he scored Argentina’s second with an incredible solo action, dribbling past six English players, goalkeeper included, before depositing the ball into the untended net. It has undisputedly been dubbed as “The Goal of the Century”, and rightly so.

A truly iconic game by all means.

1 – 1970 Semi Final: Italy vs West Germany 4-3

Okay, we know what you are thinking: “You guys at The Cult of Calcio are clearly biased if you choose a game where Italy won as your all-time best!

But hey, it is not just us. It is history itself. That plaque outside the Estadio Azteca commemorating the June 17, 1970, Italy vs West Germany matchup and dubbing it the “Game of the Century” was not hanged there by chance. (Coincidentally, all the top three games in our roundup took place at the Azteca in Mexico City…)

After all, a battle to the death in a World Cup Semi Final offering seven goals to the show, five of which scored during extra times, should be enough to grab the top spot.

The fun thing is that this game could have gone pretty much unnoticed and won by Italy with a Boninsegna lone goal, had Milan defender Karl Heinz Schnellinger not equalized for Die Mannschaft well into stoppage time!

The rest of the story is just legendary and has been recounted multiple times from a million different angles. We choose to freeze on a specific moment of it, right after Gerd Muller’s 3-3 goal, with Italy’s goalkeeper Ricky Albertosi furious at Gianni Rivera as he had moved away from the trajectory of Muller’s shot, believing it to be off target.

Don’t worry,” Rivera is reported to have said, “I’ll score another one right away.”

You can check the match scorecard to see how it ended, but we guess you know what’s coming. Pure World Cup magic.