By Jamie Spencer
In 84 years of history the World Cup has seen the very best players ever to grace a football pitch. Individuals like Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane are legends of the sport for their brilliance on the biggest stage, but what of the players who captured our imagination for different reasons?
Various characteristics make up cult heroes in the sport of football. They’re not necessarily the best players, but whether it be an eccentric nature, an unrivalled passion, a penchant for controversy, a one hit wonder, or a combination of everything, they’re all legends in the eyes of the fans.
Here’s an XI selected from the World Cup’s greatest ever cult heroes.
1 – Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita is one of football’s most colourful characters. He scored nearly 50 goals throughout his career, including seven at international level and is known for his eccentric nature which often involved rushing out of his goal, dribbling and generally taking unnecessary risks. Higuita gained international notoriety at the 1990 World Cup for his antics dribbling the ball, most notably when he was dispossessed by Cameroon player Roger Milla and could only frantically chase back as the forward put the ball into an empty net.
2 – Whilst hardly a household name in his own country, Josimar was a complete unknown outside Brazil when he arrived in Mexico for the World Cup in 1986. The Botafogo defender was previously uncapped for the Selecao, only receiving a call-up when first choice right-back Leandro was injured prior to the tournament. Still only a back-up for Brazil’s first two games, Josimar got his chance to play when usual stand-in Edson also got injured.
Making his international debut against Northern Ireland, Josimar became an instant celebrity when he unleashed a scorching drive past legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings in one of the iconic moments at that World Cup. However, the goal proved to be the pinnacle of Josimar’s career as his celebrity status took over and he wound up an unwanted journeyman of Brazilian football within a few years.
3 – Mwepu Ilunga is not a name that many may remember, but the actions of the player one day in 1974 remain one of the most infamous and amusing memories in World Cup history. Zaire made their bow at the World Cup in 1974.
Losses against Scotland and Yugoslavia had already confirmed Zaire’s elimination by the time they faced Brazil. The South Americans won 3-0, but it was Ilunga’s involvement in a free-kick which remains the abiding memory from the game. Whilst several Brazilian players were deliberating over who would take the free-kick on the edge of the Zaire penalty area Ilunga suddenly decided he would break out of the wall and kick the ball away, an act widely derided as clownish by the footballing world.
The player later explained that his actions were not out of ignorance, but a protest that he was hoping to get sent off for because he no longer wanted to play without being paid whilst wealthy people watched from the stands.
4 – A member of the victorious Italian team of 1982, Claudio Gentile was one of the toughest and most brutal defenders anywhere in the world in the 1970s and 1980s. Ahead of their second round clash with Argentina the Italians knew they had to stop Diego Maradona and the only way to stop him was to prevent him from getting on the ball. It was a task that was easier said than done, but it was vital if Italy were to have any chance of winning and the job of man-marking the dangerous forward fell to Gentile.
It has become known one of the most infamous individual battles in World Cup history and from the tie’s opening moments it was clear there was only going to be one victor. Gentile played a cynical game and mercilessly kicked lumps out of Maradona for 90 minutes. The Italian committed 23 fouls, but his tactics worked and Maradona, who cut a frustrated and physically battered figure, had no impact. Gentile later cruelly commented “football is not for ballerinas”.
5 – Full-back Alberto Tarantini played in two World Cups for Argentina, but is mainly remembered for his big hair and fiery temper. Nicknamed ‘Rabbit’ for his large front teeth, Tarantini first came to international prominence as a member of his country’s World Cup winning side in 1978.
Following the World Cup Tarantini moved to Birmingham City, but he didn’t enjoy the same success his international colleagues Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa had at Tottenham. Criticised for having no positional sense of discipline the defender lasted just 23 games in England, ending his spell by punching a heckler.
He returned to Argentina and in 1982 was part of the Albiceleste team attempting to defend its title. However, the reigning champions were knocked out in the second round group stage.
6 – Nobby Stiles won the hearts of England fans in 1966 for his infectious personality and on-field tenacity, while his celebratory dancing remains a lasting memory of England’s sole World Cup triumph. His never-say-die attitude rubbed off on those around him and was a great asset to have in a squad of players at an international tournament.
But beyond just his personality Stiles was vital to England’s success in 1966. The Manchester United player had only made his international debut a year earlier but he was an established starter by the time of the World Cup and manager Alf Ramsey referred to him as one of just five world class players in the victorious squad. In the semi-final against Portugal he did an excellent job of keeping superstar Eusebio quiet, while in general he was a much better footballer than he is often given credit for.
7 – Another of Italy’s heroes from 1982, Marco Tardelli is responsible for producing one of the most iconic moments in the history of the World Cup. The midfielder’s wild celebration when he scored his country’s second goal in the final against West Germany epitomised the emotion of the occasion and stripped away all the surroundings bringing football back to its purest roots.
Tardelli returned to the World Cup in 1986, but didn’t play as Italy failed to defend their title.
8 – There are arguably few more recognisable individuals in world football than Carlos Valderrama. The Colombian legend is famed for his unmistakable blonde afro and moustache, but he was also an extremely technically gifted creative midfielder and captained his country at three World Cups.
9 – North Korea shocked the world with their exploits on the very biggest of stages in 1966 and one name is synonymous with their success, Pak Doo-Ik.
North Korea were only the third Asian country to play in the World Cup and little was expected of the team. In the opening game against the Soviet Union they were comfortably beaten, but a subsequent 1-1 draw with Chile kept hopes of progressing alive and a win against the mighty Italians, however unlikely, would be enough for a place in the next round.
But the unthinkable did happen. Pak’s solitary goal shortly before half-time stunned Italy who, down to 10 men having lost the influential Giacomo Bulgarelli to injury, couldn’t find a response. It was one of the great upsets in World Cup history.
10 – In 1990 host nation Italy could boast a front line containing world class players like Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and a young Roberto Baggio. But despite such talent the Azzurri found the unlikeliest of goal-scoring heroes in the form of the relatively unknown Toto Schillaci.
Schillaci started Italy’s first game against Austria from the bench, but came on to score the decisive goal in a 1-0 win, his first for his country. He was a substitute once more against the USA, but started the third game against Czechoslovakia, scoring after just 9 minutes. Given his chance, it was as though the player couldn’t stop scoring and he added further strikes in the second round, quarter final and semi-final to bring his total to five.
He scored his sixth and final goal in the Third Place Playoff against England and walked away with the Golden Boot.
11 – Roger Milla was a big name in African football years before the World Cup in 1990. Having already enjoyed a long and distinguished career the forward had been named African Footballer of the Year in 1976, finishing as runner up in 1975 and 1988. He played for Cameroon at the 1982 World Cup, but by 1990 Milla was ready to enjoy his retirement having moved to the Indian Ocean island of Réunion a year earlier.
However following a late plea from Cameroon president Paul Biya, Milla was drafted into the squad for the World Cup in Italy. Even at 38 years of age, Milla became one of the tournament’s stars.
The corner flag dance following each strike became world famous and made Milla a fan favourite. He scored two more goals as the Indomitable Lions pushed past Colombia in the second round, capitalising on a calamitous mistake by goalkeeper Rene Higuita to seal the win.
Cameroon lost out in the quarter-finals to England, but unbelievably a 42-year-old Milla was back again four years later. The team couldn’t replicate their Italia ’90 heroics, but Milla was still on the score sheet, dancing at the corner flag as ever.
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