Five Best World Cup Finals

Ahead of the 2014 Final, Sporting Index looks back at some of the best, most controversial and memorable World Cup Finals that have helped shaped the narrative around the greatest tournament on the planet - Here's our 5 best World Cup finals.

1954 Final - West Germany 3-2 Hungary

It’s hard to imagine now, considering they are currently ranked 47th in the world and haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986, but Hungary were once the best football team on the planet. In the lead-up to the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland they were unbeaten in 32 games, were reigning Olympic champions and holders of the now defunct Central European International Cup. They boasted the best striker in the world in Ferenc Puskas and had thrashed England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest in the run up to the tournament. Hungary were warm favourites for the World Cup and romped to the final beating Uruguay and Brazil, winners and runners-up from 1950, on the way. They had already beaten their opponents in the showpiece, Germany, 8-3 in the group stages. Clinching glory was surely a formality? Wrong. The Germans won 3-2 for one of the biggest upsets of all-time – The Miracle of Bern as it became known. Despite going 2-0 up the Hungarians struggled in the heavy rain which made pitch conditions difficult and allowed Germany to take control of the game as time went on. They had new boots with screw in studs which meant they coped with the slippy surface much better. And Puskas, although scoring the opener, wasn’t fit having suffered an ankle injury earlier in the competition and subsequently missing the knockout rounds. The German coach had also played a reserve team in the earlier 8-3 defeat and perhaps over-confidence was the Hungarians’ downfall. However, more sinister theories exist. The Germans were allegedly injected with methamphetamine before the game under the pretence that it was vitamin C. Whatever the truth, it remains a painful day in Hungary’s sporting history, while for Germany it marked a rebirth on the international stage after the ravages of two world wars.

1958 Final - Brazil 5-2 Sweden

You might have heard of Pele? The 17-year-old took the 1958 tournament by storm and it was fitting he had the widest grin on his face after an instrumental performance in crushing the Swedes to lift their first World Cup, eight years after the painful 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the decider at the Maracana. Brazil will never forget the pain of that reverse but a whirlwind attacking display headed by Pele, who scored a glorious goal in the second half and then rounded off proceedings with an injury-time header, went some way to putting the Samba Boys on the map as the preeminent footballing power. Pele would of course go on to etch his name into footballing folklore, winning three World Cups in total and scoring more goals in his career than you’ve had hot dinners. But Sweden played their part too on home turf, in what was a golden age for the Scandinavians; their runners-up finish following on from fourth and third in 1938 and 1950. Three World Cup records were made in this game – both the youngest and oldest goalscorer in a World Cup final; by Pele (17 years and 249 days) and Nils Liedholm (35 years, 263 days), respectively. It also holds the record for the lowest attendance at a final. 

1966 Final - England 4-2 West Germany

Gary Lineker once coined this following truism: “football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” This wasn’t always the case however, and it might surprise some that the Three Lions didn’t lose a single game against their arch nemeses until 1968, claiming eight victories and one draw. The crowning glory of English football is undoubtedly their 4-2 victory over West Germany to lift the 1966 World Cup, but in many ways, it can be seen as a last a hurrah and a farewell to their supremacy. Since then, they’ve managed just four wins over their German cousins in 21 meetings. Because of this, that final has taken on something of a rose-tinted mythical quality amongst England fans, but that shouldn’t diminish the fact that it really was a great final on its own merits. West Germany took the lead after just 11 minutes, a calamity in the England box allowing Helmet Haller to open the scoring, but they were swiftly pegged back 1-1 in the 19th when Geoff Hurst headed in from a free kick. Martin Peters looked to have won it in the 77th minute, having tapped in a poorly dealt with corner, but the match was to take another frantic turn. An 89th minute free-kick rebounded off Karl-Heinz Schnellinger’s back, wrong-footing the English wall and allowing Wolfgang Weber to make it 2-2 at the final whistle. In the first half of extra time, Geoff Hurst scored one of the most controversial goals in World Cup final history. He leathered a shot towards the German goal from close range, seeing it smack off the crossbar, bounce on the line and then get cleared, only for the referee to award a goal. In an era before goal-line technology had even been mooted, let alone introduced, the ref’s word was law. Studies by Imperial College and Oxford using computer simulation have latterly claimed that the whole ball did not cross the line, and thus was not strictly speaking a goal. With one minute to play before the final whistle, Hurst, on a hat-trick, burst towards the German box and shot – later claiming his intention was to kick it as far out of play as possible to kill time. Instead, the ball flew into the back of the net, prompting Kenneth Wolstenholme to utter one of the most famous pieces of football commentary:  "And here comes Hurst. He's got... some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over. It is now! It's four!"

1986 Final - Argentina 3-2 West Germany

An encounter featuring the same two nations that will compete for the grand prize this Sunday to get you excited. After just 23 minutes the Germans failed to deal with an Argentina free-kick, and Jose Luis Brown headed the South Americans into the lead. The peerless Argentinian captain Diego Maradona is often credited for winning the 1986 trophy for his country – or at least their semifinal with England (literally) single-handedly, but to West Germany’s credit, they kept him subdued for much of the final. It can be argued that their focus on tightly marking Maradona allowed the Argentinians to catch the Germans out of position for Jorge Valdano’s swift breakaway goal to make it 2-0. The game looked almost assured until the 74th minute, when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge clawed one back from a corner. Rudi Voller levelled the scoring seven minutes later from a near identical set-piece and the tide looked to have turned. Then Maradona stepped up. Tightly marked by five players around the half-way line in the 84th minute, he turned and produced a sensational through ball to set Jorge Burruchaga through. Burruchaga finished coolly, ensuring that Argentina would lift the trophy and that Maradona would take home the Golden Ball – awarded to the best player in the tournament. 

2006 Final - Italy 1-1 France (5-3 on penalties)

A modern classic – perhaps not in terms of the quality of the football on display, but in terms of sheer drama. France’s Zinedine Zidane controlled the narrative of the entire tournament. The midfield maestro would retire at the end of the competition, and was very much still at the peak of his game. His country had been much maligned after their dismal showings at World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004, and there were huge question marks over the ability of their manager Raymond Domenech. After scraping through a group containing Switzerland, South Korea and Togo, Zidane took their campaign by the scruff of the neck and produced one superlative performance after another as they navigated fearsome knockout rounds against Brazil, Spain and Portugal. Italy, on the other hand, were a well-assembled crop of players in something of a golden-era for Italian talent – the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti. Within seven minutes, Zidane had put France ahead with a sublime Paneka-penalty, controversially conceded by Marco Materazzi. He instantly redeemed himself twelve minutes later, powering in a header from a Pirlo corner. Then ensued a to-and-fro as both sides had chances aplenty to break the 1-1 deadlock. Italy’s Luca Toni hit the crossbar and had a goal disallowed, while the French midfielder Florent Malouda saw no penalty given when he brought down in the box by Gianluca Zambrotta. The pivotal moment came when Gianluigi Buffon, then widely recognised as the best goalkeeper in the world, tipped a Zidane header over the bar in the 90th minute of normal time. Extra-time brought about one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history. With ten minutes of the second half still to play, Zidane and Materazzi were walking up the pitch, when the Italian uttered something (still unknown) that prompted the Frenchman to promptly turn and head-butt him square in the chest. Zidane was dismissed and the sight of him defiantly storming off past the trophy on the way to the dressing room has become almost as iconic as the head-butt itself. France held on till the shootout, but succumbed 5-3, after David Trezeguet – the golden goal scoring hero of the Euro 2000 final between the same sides – missed with his attempt. Italy lifted the trophy, whilst France erected a statue of Zidane’s infamous nut, the incident only further solidifying his hero status amongst the general public.

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