September 01, 2020

Iconic FIFA World Cup Goals

As important as attacking, defending and creating goal opportunities are, scoring is ultimately the most significant aspect of football. Goals win matches, define the outcome of a game and separate the winner from the loser.

The basic definition of football? Moving the ball beyond the goal line into the opposing goal. So, no matter how beautifully a team plays, what counts in the end is the number of goals scored and, of course, by whom.

With the FIFA World Cup being the ultimate of all football tournaments, goals scored here are arguably more significant than others scored elsewhere.

To date, and since the first tournament was staged in Uruguay in 1930, a total of 2,546 goals have been scored in 21 editions of the World Cup.

The record for the highest number of goals scored in a single tournament is jointly held by France, in 1998, and Brazil, in 2014. The total number of goals scored in the tournaments hosted by France and Brazil topped 171.

Tournaments hosted by Uruguay, in 1930, and Italy, in 1934 hold the record for the lowest scoring with only 70 goals recorded each.

While all goals are important, some, however, stand out more than others. They stick in our minds for a host of different reasons: for their significance, their overall impact on the match, the records and games they are associated with, the style of scoring, and the reputation of the scorer, amongst others.

Though the list is understandably inexhaustible, here is our choice of ten of the most iconic goals of the FIFA World Cup. Enjoy!

1. Pele: Brazil vs Sweden, 5-2 (1958)

At just 17 years and 249 days, Edson Arondes do Nascimento, known the world over as Pele, took the world by storm. His commanding performance and footballing skills, as Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 to win their first World Cup in 1958, were the talk of the match.

The young player hit a brace on football’s most important stage, etching his name in history as the youngest player to ever score in the final of a World Cup. Of the two goals he scored, his first would eventually go down in history as one of the most outstanding goals of a FIFA World Cup final.

With ten minutes gone in the second half, the young Brazilian took control of the ball inside the penalty area, chipped the ball over the defender, then smashed it past a helpless Kalle Svensson to extend Brazil's lead to 3-1. Consequently, the mostly Swedish crowd of the 49,737 in attendance at the Råsunda Stadium in Solna, were stunned into silence.

It was not only the beauty of the goal that wowed the football world but that a teenager could maintain composure under such pressure to score is what made it so astounding.

The football legend would later complete his brace with a fine header in stoppage time, sealing the 5–2 victory for Brazil.

2. Diego Maradona: Argentina vs England, 2-1 (1986)

England's 1-2 defeat to Diego Maradona-powered Argentina in the quarter-final match of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City, is undoubtedly one of the greatest matches in World Cup history.

Each of the two goals scored by Maradona, regarded as one of the greatest players to lace a football boot, could doubtlessly separately make this list on their own merit. They are famous (or infamous as the case of the first goal) for the ingenuity of the scorer, and the fact that no other player has been able to score goals of similar nature and delivery on the World Cup stage since that time.

In front of a 114,580 strong crowd at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, the first goal was the controversial “Hand of God” goal scored six minutes into the second half. Maradona cleverly, or in a moment of madness depending on your viewpoint, hit the ball with his left fist into England's goal during an aerial challenge with goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

Maradona should have been issued a yellow card for the offence. However, Tunisian Referee Ali Bennaceur validated the goal, after seeking the advice of his second linesman who also ratified the goal, despite protests from the English players.

The Argentine later went on to score the 'Goal of the Century'. Picking up the ball in his own half, he proceeded to go on one of the greatest dribbles ever seen, shrugging off challenge after challenge to finish past Shilton.

3. Roger Milla: Cameroon vs Russia, 1-6 (1994)

This Group B match of the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA is best remembered for two major records it broke. First, the record for the highest number of goals scored by an individual in a World Cup match - Oleg Salenko with five goals - and then that of the oldest World Cup goal scorer - Roger Milla of Cameroon.

Previously, Sweden legend Gunnar Gren held the record for oldest World Cup goal scorer. He held onto the record for over three decades, scoring for the hosts of the 1958 semi-final at age 37 and 236 days.

Roger Milla broke the Swede's record twice. He scored four goals at the 1990 FIFA World Cup at age 38. And, in 1994, he broke his own record by quite a margin at age 42, when he kicked to score against Russia in Cameroon’s final match at the 1994 tournament.

4. Tim Cahill: Australia vs Netherlands, 2-3 (2014)

Tom Cahill was nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, which has also been mooted by experts as one of the best goals scored in a football World Cup. His out-of-this world 21st-minute goal, in Australia’s 2-3 loss to the Netherlands in Brazil, definitely earns a spot on this list.

Cahill, when he retired in 2019, was Australia's all-time leading goal scorer. He was the first Australian to score at a FIFA World Cup tournament and, during his career, scored more World Cup goals than any other Australian. So, that he scored such a glorious goal of skill and beauty at the 2014 tournament should come as no surprise. 

On the day, the Netherlands had just taken a 1-0 lead through Arjen Robben when the Everton legend, Cahill let a long ball drop over his shoulder before unleashing an unstoppable volley past Jasper Cillessen into the goal. It was an incredible strike indeed as the Aussie managed to do it with the ball coming over his shoulder and using his weaker left foot.

5. Carlos Alberto: Brazil vs Italy, 4-1 (1970)

Brazil's fourth goal in the final of the 1970 World Cup is considered as one of the greatest ever to be scored in the history of the tournament.

Up against the Italians usually unyielding defence, the Brazillian's humiliated the Azzuri with a 4-1 win. In the 85th minute of the match and taking advantage of the Italian's heat exhaustion, Brazil executed a flowing nine-man move of magic dribbles and passes and a perfectly finished goal to secure their win.

The play looked effortless but was the embodiment of team sport, and, of course, months of training. The final pass from Pele was caught by Alberto as he cruised unfettered down the right-wing of the pitch. From there he slung the ball into the goal with aplomb.

6. Helmut Rahn: West Germany vs Hungary, 3-2 (1954)

Hungary were the top favourites to win the fifth edition of the FIFA World Cup in 1954. In the five years leading up to the final, the national team claimed a record 32 consecutive games unbeaten. Such was the level of their imperious form that they walloped the Germans 8-3 in the Group stage game.

Thus, when the two teams met again in the final, not many people gave the German team any chance against the rampaging Hungarians. Indeed, Germany was left trailing 2-0 inside the first eight minutes of the game at the Wankdorf Stadium in Switzerland.

However, Helmut Rahn turned the tide on the fortunes of the Hungarian national team. He restored parity for the Germans in the 18th minute after Max Morlock had reduced the deficit in the 10th. Then, having picked up Hungary's Mihály Lantos' short clearance, he feinted a pass to centre forward Ottmar Walter that wrong-footed the Hungarian defenders. From here he moved into the penalty box and drove the ball hard and low past Grosics for the third German goal. That goal ended up being one of the most celebrated goals in the history of the World Cup as it earned Germany the first of its four World Cup titles. The match is famously known as, "The Miracle of Bern".

Subsequently, the final of the 1954 World Cup is not only known as one of the greatest matches in World Cup history but also one of its most unexpected upsets.

7. Paolo Rossi: Italy vs Brazil, 3-2 (1982)

Few people could have predicted the outcome of the 1982 FIFA World Cup second-stage, group round final between Italy and Brazil. Considering the Italian's uninspiring form in their earlier tournament matches, their decisive 3-2 win against the Brazilians surprised many.

But when Juventus striker, Paolo Rossi got onto the end of Antonio Cabrini’s pinpoint cross to head Italy into a shock lead only five minutes into the match, most began to shift in their seats - stunned by what was happening on the field at the Estadio Sarriá in Barcelona.

Against the USSR and Scotland, in the group stages, Brazil had recovered from falling behind early to win. However, this time around, it was not to be. Italy's number 20 bagged another goal in the 25th minute creating a 2-1 lead.

With 15 minutes left in the game, Rossi sent the Italian fans into a frenzy. He scored again. In the ensuing years, those goals became the most fabled Italian hat-trick.

Italy ended up winning the tournament after beating Germany 3-1 in the final. Rossi's six tournament goals helping him to bag the 'Golden Boot' for the event's highest goal scorer.

8. Dennis Bergkamp: Netherlands vs Argentina, 2-1 (1998)

No football fan of a certain age can forget the moment Dennis Bergkamp scored in the dying minutes of the Netherlands versus Argentina game of the 1998 World Cup. Both the goal and the commentary, when the goal was scored, have gone down in the football history annals.

Dutch commentator, Jack van Gelder was so excited by the goal in the penultimate minute of the match he could only shriek the goal scorers name over and over again. Not surprising considering what a goal it was. Described by some as the perfect goal, it was neat, controlled and powerful.

Three skilful touches on the ball, just outside the goal area, ensured a 2-1 win over Argentina and put the Netherlands through to the World Cup semi-finals.

A long pass from Frank de Boer was neatly caught by Bergkamp, who skilfully took a second touch on the ball to bring it inside the Argentinian defender. From there, the third touch on the ball shot it into the back of the Argentine's net. The whole move took less than three seconds.

The Netherlands went on to claim fourth place in the tournament after being beaten in the semis by Croatia.

9. Ronaldo: Brazil vs Germany, 2-0 (2002)

When the tournament's two most successful sides, Germany and Brazil, met in Yokohama, Japan to contest the 2002 World Cup Final, sparks were predicted to fly. But, it was the Samba boys who were victorious, lifting their record fifth title with Ronaldo scoring the two goals that led to the win.

It wasn't until the second half of the game that the first goal was put into the back of the German net. In the 67th minute, and after four attempts by the Brazilians, Ronaldo scored from a rebound off the German goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn. In the 79th minute, he scored again off of a pass from teammate Kleberson. Within two touches he landed the ball in the bottom corner of the opposition's net and sent Brazil into the history books.

Brazil became the first team to win a record five World Cup winners titles. They also became the first team to win all seven matches in the 32 team tournament format and to win a World Cup outside of Europe and the Americas. Ronaldo won the Golden Boot award.

10. James Rodriguez: Colombia vs Uruguay, 2-0 (2014)

For the first time in its history, Colombia made it to the World Cup quarter-finals. Up against Uruguay, Colombia scored 2-0 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to take the win.

A then 23-year-old James Rodriguez scored both goals for Columbia, one so well played it has to be one of the best across the World Cup tournaments to date.

The first of his brace, and the most stunning, was scored in the 28th minute of the game. With his back to the goal and almost 30 yards from the opponent's goal, Rodriguez took a header from Abel Aguilar, chested it down, turned to meet the dropping ball and volleyed it into the Urugian's net with his left foot. It was an audacious goal, controlled and excellently executed.

The sublime goal garnered over 42% of the total votes cast to earn the Real Madrid player the 2014 FIFA Puskás Award for the most beautiful goal of the year.

With the focus of the world next on the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar, the biggest event ever to be staged in this part of the world, another feast of goals is in the offing for lovers of the game and the tournament.

If you liked this article, check out our Best and Worst World Cup Matches review.

Main image:
Diego Maradona at the 1986 FIFA World Cup
, by Dani Yako, cropped

Published: February 09, 2020
Last updated: September 01, 2020
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