At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, era defining players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be looking to win their first World Cup in what is the last chance saloon for both of them. This is a daunting task, with just one bad game being all it takes to ruin a lifelong dream forever, but it can be done. Many legendary players of the game have saved their best World Cup for last, and have won their first World Cup trophy in their final outing. So as the 2022 edition kicks off in Qatar, lets look back at some of the players that Ronaldo and Messi can look back on for inspiration.
Gianpiero Combi, Italy – 1934
Going all the way back to the second ever World Cup is where we’ll find a goalkeeper who is often regarded as one the finest in Italian history. Which considering Italy’s fine tradition of producing goalkeepers, is a significant honour. Combi spend his entire career at Juventus where despite his small stature of 5ft8 he went onto make 367 appearances for the The Bianconeri. Regarded as the best keeper of his generation, Combi was a huge reason as to why Juventus won five Serie A titles from 1925-1934. His crowning achievement at this time being the 1925/26 season where he went 934 minutes without conceding a goal, a record that stood in Serie A for ninety years!
He was the number one for Italy going into the 1934 World Cup and although they were the hosts, it wouldn’t be easy. Central Europe was the power house of football at the time, with teams like Austria, Hungary, Germany and Czechoslovakia all considered to be tough opponents with a legitimate chance to win. But Combi brought his A-game to the tournament, Combi started every game and made two outstanding saves in a 1-0 semi final win against an Austrian side that many considered favourites, setting up a final with Czechoslovakia. Combi and Italy won the game in extra time, and as captain – went up to lift the trophy. Combi conceded just three games in the tournament and retired afterwards, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
Schubert Gambetta, Uruguay – 1950
In a country well known for tough and no nonsense defenders, Gambetta is one of the best fullbacks the small South American of Uruguay has ever produced! Gambetta was a serial winner with Montevideo side Nacional, winning ten Uruguayan league titles and was also captain for some of those league wins. He would make his debut for Uruguay in 1942 and would win the Copa América championship in 1942, a tournament in which Gambetta and Uruguay conceded just two goals in six games!
Heading into his first and only World Cup in 1950, Uruguay were an underdog side in Brazil but thanks to France withdrawing, Uruguay had to play just one game instead of two and rather than a traditional knockout stage, Uruguay entered a four team round robin to decide the World Cup winner. Uruguay picked up three points (a win was worth two points) in their first two games, setting up a defacto final against Brazil, the overwhelming favourites who only needed a draw and had scored twenty-one goals in just five games! Against the best attacking force in the world, Gambetta played a key role in containing Brazilian stars Zizinho and Ademir and against all football convention and expectation, Uruguay won 2-1, leaving the estimated 200,000 people in the Maracanã stunned in silence. Gambetta was included in the team of the tournament, a fitting world cup send off for a player who played a key role in one of the World Cups most iconic upsets.
Jimmy Greaves, England – 1966
One of the finest goal scorers English football has ever produced, Jimmy Greaves was a deadly finisher who to this day holds the record of most goals scored in England’s top flight with 357 goals. Spending his peak years with Tottenham Hotspur, Greaves scored 268 goals for the North London side, helping them win two FA Cups and one European Cup Winners Cup, as well as winning Serie A in his one season with AC Milan in 1961-62. Greaves was also clinical on the international stage, heading into the 1966 World Cup, Greaves had scored forty-three goals for England, winning five British Home Championships.
Greaves was part of an England side that reached the quarterfinal stage in 1962 and was the starting striker for Alf Ramsey’s side in 1966. Playing with home advantage, Greaves and England cruised into the last eight but for Greaves, his tournament was effectively over. He was injured against France in the final group game, forcing him to miss both the quarter and semi finals. Whilst he was fit for the final, Alf Ramsey opted not to change his side. England won the game, making Graves a World Cup champion, however back then FIFA only gave medals to the starting eleven of the final, it wouldn’t be until 2009 the Greaves was given a World Cup medal. Nevertheless, the greatest (statistical) English goalscorer ever ended his World Cup career on a high, and while it should’ve been earlier, a World Cup medal is special no matter what.
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Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany – 1974
Quite the polar opposite to Jimmy Greaves, Beckenbauer played for West Germany in the 1966 final, but unlike Greaves he didn’t end up on the winning side. Beckenbauer played mostly as a midfielder in 1966 and 1970, but by the 1974, Beckenbauer was playing in his iconic defender/sweeper role he would become most famous for. Beckenbauer is regarded by many as the greatest German footballer of all time; he is a two time Ballon d’Or winner, four time German player of the year, three time European champion for Bayern Munich, a UEFA European Championship winner with Germany in 1972 and was included in FIFA’s team of the century as a centre back.
Beckenbauer was at his peak in 1974, when the World Cup came to his home country of West Germany and the Germans negotiated their two groups stages with relative ease. In six games, Beckenbauer was part of a defence that conceded just three goals on their way to the final against a highly talented and well fancied Netherlands side. Beckenbauer and co had the tough task of containing Johan Cruyff and the total football Dutch team, and despite conceding an early goal, the Germans managed to stick to the task and scored two goals of their own to deny the Dutch the win! Beckenbauer lifted the World Cup trophy as West Germany’s captain and retired from international football three years later. He would then cement his legacy further by becoming West German manager in 1984 and winning the World Cup as manager in 1990.
Dino Zoff, Italy – 1982
The IFFHS rated third best goalkeeper of the 20th century, Dino Zoff is still regarded today as one of the best goalkeepers of all time and from 1968-1982, was almost irreplaceable for Italy as Zoff won 112 caps for the Azzurri, the most of any Italian at the time of his retirement. He had an outstanding career with Udinese, Mantova, Napoli and Juventus; winning six Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia cups and a UEFA Cup. His international career started well for Italy, winning the 1968 European Championship and finishing as a World Cup runner up in 1970. From 1972-1974, Zoff went 1142 minutes without conceding a goal for Italy.
After coming so close in 1970, Italy took backwards steps in 1974 and 78 and by the time of the 1982 World Cup, Zoff was forty years old. However he was still a regular for Juventus, and was in the team of the tournament at the 1980 European Championship, so Zoff was far from a spent force. In a must win game against Brazil in the second group stage, Zoff pulled off a spectacular save right at the end to preserve a 3-2 shock win for the Italians eliminating the pre tournament favourites in the process. Italy went onto beat West Germany in the final, cementing Zoff as the first and only Italian to win both a World Cup and European championship! Zoff was named goalkeeper of the tournament, and is regarded still by many as Italy’s greatest ever goalkeeper.
Rivaldo, Brazil – 2002
A start who shone brightly when he was at his best, Rivaldo was one of the best players of his generation. Used as either an attacking midfielder or a striker, Rivaldo was at his best for Barcelona and AC Milan from 19997-2003; where he scored 137 goals, won La Liga twice, Serie A once, a European Super Cup, UEFA Champions League and was the 1999 Ballon d’Or winner. He was also a star for his country; scoring thirty-five goals, winning the 1999 Copa América, 1997 Confederations Cup and finishing runners up to France in the 1998 World Cup.
Having missed out on the 1994 squad, Rivaldo went into the 2002 looking to win his first World Cup title, and alongside his strike partner Ronaldo, Rivaldo had his finest tournament performance for Brazil. Rivaldo scored in five consecutive games for Brazil, helping his side reach the final against three time winners Germany and despite not scoring, Rivaldo left his mark. Brazil won the final 2-0, with Rivaldo being heavily involved in both goals, first with his shot being rebounded in by Ronaldo, and then his dummy set up Ronaldo to make it 2-0 and secure Brazil an unprecedented fifth World Cup title. Rivaldo was named in the 2002 All Star team, and thanks to the 2002 World Cup, will go down as a Brazilian legend. (Just try not to think about ‘that dive’ versus Turkey too much)
Francesco Totti, Italy – 2006
Arguably the most iconic one club man of the 21st century, Roma have never been the most successful club in Italy, but Francesco Totti spent his entire career at Roma from 1993-2017, making 786 and scoring 307 goals – he is the undisputed greatest Roma player of all time. Totti did win a Serie A title with Roma in 2001, and also won the Copa Italia titles in 2007 and 2008. But at an individual level, he won much more! Five time Italian Serie A player of the year, 2007 European golden boot winner, Italian football hall of fame inductee, UEFA European Championship 2000 team of the year and much more. Totti had a glittering career.
Despite being the man of the match in the 2000 European Championship final, Italy lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, and then followed it up with a highly controversial last-sixteen elimination against South Korea in 2002. Heading into 2006, Totti’s tournament was hanging in the balance because of an injury, but he recovered in time to be the top assist provider in the tournament with four assists and even scored the winning goal against Australia in the last sixteen. Totti started the final against France, and although he was substituted, Italy won the game, and Totti was named in the 2006 All-Star team. Totti shortly retired from Italy to concentrate on Roma. Totti is often seen as the embodiment of loyalty, a player who could’ve played for any club in the world but stayed with his boyhood club. And winning the 2006 World Cup will triumph over any potential trophy he could’ve won at the club level.
Miroslav Klose, Germany 2014
Whilst perhaps not the biggest name in German football, Klose is one of the deadliest international goal scorers of all time, especially on the big stage. The striker scored 71 goals for Germany, and Die Mannschaft never actually lost a game in which Klose scored in. He is synonymous with the World Cup, having scored five goals in 2002, five goals in 2006 and four goals in 2010, meaning that going into his fourth World Cup, Klose was just one goal behind Brazilian legend Ronaldo in the all time World Cup goal scoring record.
Klose and Germany finished as runners-up in 2002, and had consecutive third-place finishes in 2006 and 2010 meaning that there was a feeling that Germany was close to getting over the line in 2014. Klose was thirty-six now but still managed to get on the scoresheet against Ghana to equal the all-time goal-scoring record. His big moment would come in the semi-final against Brazil. Twenty-three minutes in, Klose would out through on goal and after his initial shot was saved, he tucked the rebound home to score his sixteenth World Cup goal, more than anyone else in World Cup (men’s) history. Germany dispatched Brazil 7-1, and in the final against Argentina, a Mario Götze extra-time winner was enough to secure Germany their fourth World Cup, and Klose’s first World Cup in what proved to be his international sendoff. Sixteen goals in twenty-four games is an outstanding record, and winning the World Cup is a fitting send-off for the greatest goal-scorer on the world’s greatest stage.
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