There have been 21 World Cup tournaments since 1930 and, ahead of the 2022 edition, we decided to re-examine and rank every single one. There were arguments and spreadsheets; we had data and reason colliding with gut feeling and uncut emotion. In the end, we emerged stronger, wiser, more respectful of one another's opinions and, most importantly, with a rock-solid ranking from "worst" to "best."
So what were those moments, players and scorelines that we'll always remember more readily than the birthdays and anniversaries of those we love? First up, here is how we did it.
Because there are so many different ways to react to and grade a tournament, we needed to set some guidelines. The rankings below were created via a 50-point scale.
Up to 10 points awarded for:
- Great players
Up to 5 points awarded for:
- Great final
- Goal quantity/general excitement level.
Finally, up to 10 points were available as bonus points based on particularly fun memories and a general X Factor.
Was this ranking process strange, subjective and emotions-based? Did we actually reward tournaments for being controversial? Did this process make only so much sense? Yes. Just like the World Cup itself.
Every major event has to begin somewhere and the first edition of the World Cup scores poorly for a number of reasons. This was very much a case of "let's get this tournament off the ground" and with the sport still so new as a global product, there was little star power to speak of.
The hosts won and there was some added spice in that six goals were scored in the final, which itself was a rematch of the 1928 Olympic final (also won by Uruguay). Oh, and Uruguay's manager, Alberto Suppici, was just 31 when he accepted the trophy. Beyond that, though, there was little of the pro wrestling-style drama we've come to demand from every major sporting event. With just 13 teams and no real sense of form or talent level, upsets weren't really a thing yet. Equally, there were few goals (70) compared to other World Cups, though only 18 total matches.
Uruguay seemed like a great spot for this party to begin, too. Six countries submitted bids to host, with five withdrawing to leave Uruguay as the victors by default. Three stadiums were used and crowds certainly showed up en masse, with over 90,000 present for their win over Argentina in Montevideo.
Bonus points are for the pure "love of the game" here: the European teams (Belgium, France, Romania and Yugoslavia) all came by boat, while Romania's squad was reportedly selected by the newly elected King Carol II barely a month before the tournament was set to begin. Oh, and Romania hadn't played a competitive match in eight years. These elements make this feel even more like the odyssey and spectacle FIFA is trying to sell to us in the modern era. -- James Tyler.
Final: Italy 2-1 Czechoslovakia (after extra time)
Top goal scorer: Oldrich Nejedly, Czechoslovakia
With defending champions Uruguay boycotting the tournament (allegedly on the grounds that not many European teams had come to their tournament in 1930), there was no known powerhouse to take down and little continuity from 1930. Instead, the 1934 World Cup -- the first of many with an ill-advised host selection -- is primarily remembered as a showcase for Benito Mussolini and his fascist government. Allegations of rigged officiating persisted, though it was also pretty clear that Italy was probably the best team in the tournament.
The Czechs most certainly didn't make things easy in the final. Antonin Puc's goal gave the visitors a 1-0 lead in the 71st minute before Raimundo Orsi equalized 10 minutes later. The second ever World Cup final was the first to go to extra time, and Angelo Schiavio scored five minutes in to give the hosts the win.
One poignant subplot in retrospect: This was Matthias Sindelar's only World Cup. The Austria captain was one of the sport's first true greats and helped to lead the country to a fourth-place finish. After refusing to play for Nazi Germany, he died suspiciously in his home in 1939. -- Bill Connelly.
This tournament is perhaps best known for the full-on collision of sports and geopolitics as the world perched on the cusp of World War II, which would officially begin in early 1939. However, by the time the 1938 World Cup rolled around, Germany had already annexed Austria -- which led to the latter withdrawing from the tournament -- and Spain couldn't participate because they were still in the thick of their own Civil War.
France had won the hosting duties almost by default as FIFA opted for a second straight competition in Europe and, well, Germany just wasn't an option. However, the knock-on effect caused several big nations (namely Argentina and Uruguay) to stay away in protest and there would be ugly on-field scenes when defending champions Italy chose to wear black shirts over their traditional blue in the quarterfinal against France, even giving the fascist salute to the crowd before kick-off.
Rumors that Mussolini had both urged the uniform change and even sent motivational messages to the team swirled around the business end of the tournament, though it didn't prevent Italy from beating France, Brazil and Hungary on their way to a second World Cup title in what would be the final tournament until after the war.
Even the presence of the dazzling Giuseppe Meazza, arguably the best Italian player of all time and the man whose name was put on the San Siro -- where Inter Milan and AC Milan, two teams Meazza represented during a glittering club career, still play to this day -- couldn't drown out the "blackshirts" and the cloud of real world events hanging over their win. -- JT.
Final: Argentina 3-1 Netherlands (after extra time)
Top goal scorer: Mario Kempes, Argentina
Coming off an incredible run of tournaments in 1966, 1970 and 1974, this one fell rather flat for a couple of reasons. First, the star power was tamped down considerably thanks to both Johan Cruyff's international retirement and the fact that England, the Soviet Union and European champions Czechoslovakia all failed to qualify. You still had stars like Brazil's Rivellino, Italy's Paolo Rossi and Kenny Dalglish of Scotland, who provided a memorable 3-2 upset of Netherlands in the group stage. There were also goals galore -- 14 matches featuring at least four of them, including the final -- but the standard fell a bit.
Second, and more importantly, controversy was rampant, and not of the "fun to discuss in retrospect" variety. As with Italy 1934, Argentina used the hosting opportunity as a way to promote its brutal government. Political opponents, real or perceived, disappeared in waves (Google "Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo"), and Argentina's 6-0 win over Peru -- in a match that required a heavy goal differential for Argentina to advance -- is one of the most suspect in the history of the World Cup.
In the end, a Cruyff-less Dutch team still made a rousing run to the final and forced extra time with a late goal from Dick Nanninga -- Rob Rensenbrink actually had a chance to win it for the Dutch in regulation time but hit the post -- but goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni won it for the hosts. -- BC.
This World Cup promised a lot in terms of elite players and star power, but the tournament felt like one of systems over individuals as stronger, deeper teams prevailed over elite players surrounded by so-so squads. Lionel Messi managed just one goal, Croatia's Luka Modric earned the tournament MVP honors and Cristiano Ronaldo (four goals) saw his Portugal side sent packing by Uruguay in the round of 16. So much for that.
In the end, the deepest, most all-round talented team (France) took home the trophy, riding the goals of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to glory. (It may have also been the last time we saw Paul Pogba in his pomp, too.) Croatia's rock-solid collective benefited from a gentle draw to meet them there, with the two sides putting on a reasonably entertaining six-goal final.
We got some upsets -- Mexico and Sweden beating Germany in the group stage counts, though it was by far Die Mannschaft's worst-ever World Cup -- but many of the expected giants made it to the knockout stage. There were also precious few flashpoints on the pitch, too: Just four straight red cards were handed out over the whole tournament, the lowest number for a World Cup since 1978. You might think Croatia's run to the final was one big upset, but they had the benefit of veteran savvy and a generous side of the bracket (Denmark, Russia, England.)
The tournament's main issues were, as you'd expect, off the field, with hosts Russia facing intense criticism for their human rights issues and hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community, all of it compounded by the scrutiny of their winning bid. (The U.S. Department of Justice would eventually confirm they'd uncovered proof of bribes being handed to FIFA officials in exchange for supporting their hosting rights.) -- JT.
Final: Brazil 3-1 Czechoslovakia
Top goal scorers: Garrincha, Brazil; Florian Albert, Hungary; Valentin Ivanov, USSR; Drazan Jerkovic, Yugoslavia; Leonel Sanchez, Chile; Vava, Brazil
An incredible confluence of talent that produced little of lasting memory. Or at least, little good.
The 1950s generation of stars -- Brazil's Didi and Nilton Santos, Spain's Paco Gento and Ferenc Puskas (having changed his nationality from Hungarian) -- was well-represented, and the next generation of Brazil's Pele and Garrincha, as well as England's Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, was coming of age at just the right time. Garrincha in particular clinched his lofty spot as both a national hero and a presence on "Best Ever" lists with a dominant performance. (Most notably, he scored twice in a 3-1 win over England in the quarterfinals.) The Czechs provided Brazil with a stiff test in the final, taking an early lead and remaining tied into the final 20 minutes, but an inevitable surge gave Brazil a repeat title.
Still, this is remembered primarily as a nasty, violent tournament, characterized by the "Battle of Santiago," a 2-0 Chile win over Italy that required multiple interventions from police and inspired the yellow/red card system. Goal averages fell, only four Chilean venues were used after the damage from the famous 1960 Valdivia earthquake and attendance was iffy due to how difficult it was to get from Europe to Chile at the time. -- BC.
Final: West Germany 1-0 Argentina
Top goal scorer: Salvatore Schillaci, Italy
On paper, there is so much to love about this tournament in retrospect. You had major star power -- Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini for Italy; Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten for Netherlands; West Germany's Lothar Matthaus; Brazil's Romario; Argentina's Diego Maradona. You had a battle of heavyweights in the final, which followed a pair of penalty shootouts among heavyweights (West Germany-England, Argentina-Italy) in the semifinals. You also had the amazing story of Cameroon and 38-year-old striker (and dancer) Roger Milla, who shocked Argentina and Colombia on the way to the quarterfinals, then nearly eliminated England too. (The Republic of Ireland reaching the quarterfinals was fun and unique, too.)
You even had a "that can't possibly be true!" controversy in qualification, when Chile were banned after goalkeeper Roberto Rojas faked an injury -- with help from a razor blade hidden in his glove -- from a firework thrown from the stands. (Mexico were also banned from the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup for flouting age limits in youth competitions, which opened the door for the U.S. to qualify for the first time in 40 years.)
For anyone who actually watched Italia 1990, however, the positive feelings only go so far. This is generally known as the tournament that got the backpass banned -- lots of stalling, lots of 0-0 and 1-0 results. The final was a cautious and downright cynical affair, too. Argentina's Pedro Monzon received a 65th-minute red card after a pretty clear Jurgen Klinsmann flop, and West Germany prevailed after a penalty from Andreas Brehme in the 85th minute. (Argentina would get another, far more deserved, red card late on.) -- JT.
Statistically, Spain's run of dominance -- they won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, in addition to the 2010 World Cup -- may have been the most influential stylistic development the sport has seen. Beyond that, however, 12 of 16 knockout matches in 2010 were decided by one goal or penalties. The quarterfinals -- Uruguay beating Ghana thanks to Luis Suarez's handball denying them a late winner, with Asamoah Gyan missing the resulting spot kick, then triumphing on penalties; Netherlands 2-1 over Brazil; Spain with a late goal over Paraguay; Germany scoring three late goals to romp over Argentina -- may have been the best the tournament has seen.
Suarez's handball was an all-time moment, but this tournament also gave us Frank Lampard's goal-that-wasn't in England's round-of-16 loss against Germany, not to mention France's player mutiny: The French football federation sent Nicolas Anelka home after a row with manager Raymond Domenech, the entire team refused to practice, Patrice Evra was stripped of the captaincy and France fell to South Africa. (Switzerland also pulled a memorable upset of Spain in the group stage, though it obviously didn't end the Spanish run.)
[vuvuzelas become completely overwhelming]
The final itself had major promise, but Netherlands instead tried to turn it into an American football game. They committed 28 fouls and were dealt eight yellow cards; somehow Nigel de Jong was not sent off for what amounted to a karate kick to Xabi Alonso's gut in the first half. Spain finally broke through when Johnny Heitinga was sent off in the 109th minute and Andres Iniesta scored in the 116th. -- BC.
Final: Brazil 5-2 Sweden
Top goal scorer: Just Fontaine, France
Why did we not rate this World Cup higher? This was the first one to feature Pele! You had Garrincha, his tricky counterpart in Brazil's attack, and Vava, who I'm mentioning mostly so I can point out his nickname ("Peito de Aco," or "Steel Chest.") It was Brazil's long-awaited first World Cup title, too, and they swept to victory as the absolute best team in Sweden that summer, mixing the aforementioned young stars with the likes of the 31-year-old Nilton Santos (one of the sharpest defenders of his generation). The Selecao also hinted at the correlation between professional, forensic pre-planning and on-pitch results: Coach Vicente Feola insisted on bringing a huge staff to Stockholm, including a dentist and sports psychologist. The team doctor was responsible for choosing the team's base during the World Cup, picking a location within optimal travel from the host cities and best training facilities.
There were a ton of elite players on show that summer -- in addition to Pele and Garrincha, you had the Soviet Union's Lev Yashin, the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or; England's Bobby Charlton (a Man United legend who survived the Munich air disaster); France's Raymond Kopa (1958's Ballon d'Or recipient); and the anchor of Hungary's "Golden Team," Nandor Hidegkuti. And yet no team was a match for Brazil, who won all three group games without conceding a goal -- Austria, England and the Soviet Union -- before putting five past both France in the semifinals and Sweden in a rather one-sided final.
Not even the joy of France's Just Fontaine -- who set the single-tournament scoring mark (13 goals in five games) that still stands in 2022 -- nor the shenanigans over in-tournament tie-breakers that were still being debated during the World Cup could offset a tournament known for one nation's dominance. -- JT.
Final: West Germany 3-2 Hungary
Top goal scorer: Sandor Kocsis, Hungary
After the 1942 and 1946 editions were cancelled due to World War II and quite a few important teams either sat out the 1950 tournament or were banned, 1954 was the deepest World Cup to date. Brazil were inching toward their massive breakthrough, defending champions Uruguay were still awesome, the European teams were loaded with talent and Hungary were possibly the best national team produced to date. Future Real Madrid stars Ferenc Puskas (Hungary) and Raymond Kopa (France) were nearing their respective peaks, and Brazilian stars Didi and Nilton Santos made their World Cup debuts. Between the talent and the overwhelming goal totals -- 5.4 per match on average, easily the most ever (Hungary averaged 5.4 by themselves, too) -- this was an impressive tournament even before you factor in one of the greatest upsets in the sport's history: West Germany's upset in the final, a.k.a. "The Miracle of Bern."
Hungary had beaten West Germany 8-3 in the group stage and surged to a 2-0 lead within eight minutes thanks to goals from Puskas and Zoltan Czibor. But the Germans had tied the game by the 18th minute, then got the winner from Helmut Rahn in the 84th. Puskas nearly tied the game moments later but was controversially ruled offside.
More controversy: Angry Hungarian officials accused Germans of doping because they were in so much better shape late in the match; and before "The Miracle of Bern" came "The Battle of Bern," a 4-2 Hungary quarterfinal win over Brazil that ended with angry Brazilian players invading the Hungarian dressing room to continue an on-field tussle. -- BC.
Final: Germany 1-0 Argentina (after extra time)
Top goal scorer: James Rodriguez, Colombia
This tournament had something memorable for everybody.
Great goals: Brazil 2014 gave you Robin van Persie's leaping header for Netherlands vs. Spain; James Rodriguez's breakout vs. Uruguay for Colombia and a technically perfect tournament winner from Germany's Mario Gotze in the final.
Underdog runs: Costa Rica won a group that featured Italy, England and Uruguay, then nearly upset Netherlands in the quarterfinals before falling on penalties.
Crashing favorites: Spain, winners of three straight major tournaments, went out in the group stage after losses of 5-1 to Netherlands and 2-0 to Chile.
Controversy and intensity: The Brazil-Colombia quarterfinal overflowed with it, as star player Neymar ended up suffering a fractured vertebrae from a barge in the back from Colombia's Camilo Zuniga and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
All-time shocker: Germany 7-1 Brazil in the semifinal.
It wasn't a perfect tournament -- the final itself was close but terribly cautious, featuring just 20 shot attempts in 120 minutes despite an otherworldly collection of attacking talent (Messi, plus a Germany attack) -- and there was controversy of the wrong kind with Brazil's treatment of construction workers and the relocation of thousands of people during stadium construction. But on the pitch itself, it was more memorable than most. -- BC
Host: South Korea & Japan
Final: Brazil 2-0 Germany
Top goal scorer: Ronaldo, Brazil
This is a tough World Cup to adjudicate using our formula because it had one of the highest concentrations of amazing players -- Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Maldini, Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Xavi and more -- but we didn't get to see much from them because a string of upsets (both legitimate and controversial) meant that a lot of the pre-tournament favorites ended up going home early. In the case of Zidane, his World Cup more or less ended before it started, as a quadriceps injury picked up in a pre-tournament friendly against South Korea meant he played just the third group game.
The difficult time zone difference for U.S. fans (+14 hours for those on the East Coast) meant that you'd end up needing to stay up all night to watch the action, much of which had that sleepy haze you'd associate with a dream-like state. Senegal set the tone by stunning defending champs France, who couldn't overcome Zidane's bad leg or the absence of Robert Pires en route to a group stage exit. The Republic of Ireland overcame all odds to reach the round of 16, weathering the pre-tournament exit of captain Roy Keane, who had a major fight with the Irish FA and told manager Mick McCarthy to "stick the World Cup up your a--" before being sent home.
There would be other shocks, too: Co-hosts South Korea made it all the way to the semifinals, the first nation from outside of Europe and the Americas to do so, though with plenty of help from the officials. First, Byron Moreno sent off Italy's Francesco Totti and denied a fairly conclusive goal as South Korea won 2-1 in extra time -- a situation so messy that even then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter spoke out, asking the Azzurri to "display some dignity" in their exit while admitting FIFA would reform their referee selection process for future World Cups -- and then beating Spain on penalties thanks to two big disallowed goals in their favor.
However, in the end, Brazil beat Germany. For all the fireworks during the tournament, the finale was disappointingly reasonable.
Final: Uruguay 1-0 Brazil (Note: This technically wasn't a final, but the deciding match of a second group stage.)
Top goal scorer: Ademir, Brazil
The World Cup was back after a 12-year absence due to World War II, but it was not star-laden. The Axis powers of Germany and Japan were banned. Three of 16 teams withdrew before the competition (including Argentina); Eastern Europe mostly refused to participate; Italy's national team was still suffering from the devastating Superga plane crash the year before, which had killed the entire Torino team.
The tournament did feature two of the most shocking results in the sport's history, however. First, a patched-together and seemingly overmatched United States team beat tournament favorites England, 1-0, with a 38th-minute goal from Joe Gaetjens. The upset inspired both a book and a terrible movie entitled "The Game of Their Lives" and drove a group stage exit for England.
But the final saw an even bigger upset. Brazil had outscored their first five opponents by a combined 21-4 and needed only a draw against Uruguay to clinch the title. In front of a patently absurd 173,850 crowd at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, they took the lead early in the second half but goals from Pepe Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia in the final 25 minutes gave Uruguay a stunning victory. It is remembered in Brazil as "The Tragedy of Maracana" and goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa was blamed for his part in the goal for decades after. -- BC.
Host: West Germany
Final: West Germany 2-1 Netherlands
Top goal scorer: Grzegorz Lato, Poland
No Pele, no problem? While this tournament may have lacked the drama of other editions, it more than made up for notable absences -- England, Spain and Mexico didn't qualify -- with the magnificent Netherlands team, their heartbreaking defeat in the final and, more broadly, the advent of "Total Football." We also got a brand new trophy and the one we associate with the World Cup these days, as Brazil's three titles (capped in 1970) led to FIFA permanently awarding them that cup.
However, this tournament was all about the Dutch, perhaps more so because they didn't win. The way Rinus Michels' side played -- a positionless blur of interplay and free association anchored by the insouciant Johan Cruyff -- was truly revolutionary, and you can see the impact through Barcelona and the overwhelming Man City sides of Pep Guardiola in the modern era. Netherlands were a chaotic, effervescent alternative to the more structured excellence of hosts West Germany, who rode the miserable weather and shrugged off finishing second in their group to East Germany to win a tidy second World Cup title. (The East's 1-0 win was perhaps the result of the tournament.)
Paced by Franz Beckenbauer's metronomic play and the attacking prowess of Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller, West Germany were impressive in neutralizing the Dutch, who very much replaced Brazil as global fan favorites and more than lived up to that tag. However, their reputation preceded them as German media reported on a "pool party" days before the final in which the Oranje's stars cavorted with young women -- hardly the kind of tournament prep you'd see in the modern era. The reports were never confirmed, but the distraction helped pull focus from their style of play as Germany walked away winners. -- JT.
Final: England 4-2 West Germany (after extra time)
Top goal scorer: Eusebio, Portugal
Football's biggest prize went to the country in which the modern sport was invented. England drew with Uruguay in their opening match but won five in a row from there, knocking off an outstanding Portugal in the semifinals, then outlasting West Germany in a delightful back-and-forth final. The Germans took an early lead, then evened the match late after falling behind 2-1, but a hat trick from Geoff Hurst -- playing only because of an injury to original starter Jimmy Greaves -- won it for the hosts in extra time.
The tournament had been outstanding even before the final. Portugal's Eusebio, one of history's greats, made the most of his lone World Cup by scoring nine goals in six matches. England greats Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore were at their best, too, while 20-year old West Germany star Franz Beckenbauer was one of the competition's most outstanding players in his tournament debut.
After winning their opening match against Bulgaria, two-time defending champions Brazil shockingly crashed out of the tournament with losses to Hungary and Portugal, who then overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat North Korea 5-3 in a quarterfinal classic. We even had a dose of controversy, too, both with a classic "goal-that-maybe-shouldn't-have-been" -- Hurst's go-ahead goal in extra time of the final, which may not have completely crossed the line -- and a strange whodunit that saw the Jules Rimet Trophy disappear from an exhibit in March before being discovered in a bush by a dog named Pickles. -- BC.
Host: United States
Final: Brazil 0-0 Italy (3-2 in penalties)
Top goal scorers: Oleg Salenko, Russia; Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria
Andres Escobar, lying prone on his back after scoring an own goal in Colombia's second group match against the United States that eventually saw them eliminated. Roberto Baggio after skying his penalty in the final shootout. Pop star Diana Ross missing a point-blank penalty during the tournament's opening ceremony. The world's biggest match (the World Cup final) in one of the world's most beautiful sporting venues (the Rose Bowl.)
In terms of pure imagery, it will be difficult to ever top 1994. Turmoil levels were high, too, in the form of the legendary Maradona's failed drug test for the banned substance ephedrine and, of course, Escobar's tragic murder upon his return home to Colombia.
This competition was all about tension; every knockout match was decided by one goal or penalties. Brazil's 3-2 quarterfinal win over Netherlands featured five goals in 28 minutes and Bulgaria's Stoichkov became one of the biggest stars in the game with a trio of goals in the knockout rounds alone, as he helped his side on a shock run to the semifinals.
Brazil had countless opportunities to seize control in the final -- Italy attempted only one shot in the first 64 minutes and seven for the match (Brazil: 24 shots) -- but this tournament was destined to be decided by composure and Baggio lost his briefly. For Americans getting into the sport for the first time, they quickly came to learn about the anxiety it can produce. -- BC.
Final: Brazil 4-1 Italy
Top goal scorer: Gerd Muller, West Germany
The first World Cup broadcast in color -- and the first use of the most iconic ball of all time, the Adidas Telstar -- set the table for a tournament that was as vibrant and soaked in sunshine as the images themselves that were beamed around the world. It was a captivating competition too, capturing the triumphant tail-end of the Pele/Charlton/Yashin era, while a new one was beginning thanks to West Germany, who would get a lot more from Muller and Franz Beckenbauer over the years to come.
It was the first World Cup to come with an iconic sticker album, as Panini inked a deal with FIFA earlier that year, and the stunning Selecao -- led by Pele, Tostao, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto and silky holding midfielder Clodoaldo -- swept all comers. Not only did Brazil win every game in qualifying, but went a perfect six-for-six in Mexico, with 19 goals scored and just seven conceded en route to thrashing a perfectly good Italy side 4-1 in the final.
There was little drama -- the only controversy involved England captain Bobby Moore being accused of theft during a pre-tournament trip to Colombia that almost led to him missing the World Cup -- but plenty of good games. From Peru's impressive run to the knockouts led by Teofilo Cubillas, to the literal "Game of the Century" (no seriously, FIFA called it that) that saw Italy beat West Germany 4-3 in extra time in the semifinals after a 1-1 game over 90 minutes, the joy and delight shone through.
Final: France 3-0 Brazil
Top goal scorer: Davor Suker, Croatia
This was the sixth tournament -- and the most recent -- won by the hosts, but France had to fight hard to emerge with their first-ever World Cup win.
In another memorable example of geopolitics converging with sport, the World Cup went ahead on schedule despite the foiling of a terrorist plot to attack the England vs. Tunisia match in Marseille, kidnap the U.S. men's national team at their hotel and crash a plane into a nuclear facility outside Paris. Over 100 people were arrested for their role in the plot, which was bankrolled by Osama Bin Laden.
This was the first World Cup with 32 teams, too, which meant debuts for Croatia (who have become a huge part of this competition in the modern era), Japan, Jamaica and South Africa. Croatia in particular impressed, making the most of Davor Suker's six goals to finish third, beating Germany 3-0 in the quarterfinal and then besting Dennis Bergkamp and Netherlands in the third-place game.
You had amazing stars all over the tournament, too, from a 17-year-old Michael Owen scoring for England to Nigeria's golden generation with Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Kanu and Celestine Babayaro pacing the Super Eagles past Spain and finishing top of Group D before getting thumped by Denmark in the round of 16. There was Roberto Baggio's swansong for Italy, though there would be no redemption arc following his horrifying shootout miss in the 1994 final: he made his penalty against France in the quarterfinals, but the Azzurri would still go home early.
As for drama, who can forget England vs. Argentina in the round of 16? Owen scoring the goal of the tournament, weaving through the defence before firing an unstoppable shot beyond Carlos Roa. Then came David Beckham's heel turn -- literally -- as he kicked out at Diego Simeone right in front of the referee, got sent off and the English lost on penalties as they often do. Beckham became the villain of a nation, but he soon won hearts all over again. It is Becks, after all.
How about Bergkamp's goal to eliminate Argentina in the quarterfinal, casually controlling a 50-yard pass by Frank de Boer, sliding inside his marker and slicing a shot into the roof of the net in second-half injury time? What about the goalkeeping excellence of Fabien Barthez and Jose Luis Chilavert (don't forget the latter also took set pieces for Paraguay, coming close with one free kick)?
The final also lived up to expectations, both for what happened on the pitch -- France running out cool 3-0 winners in a stunningly one-sided affair -- and for what happened prior. Ronaldo, the talisman up front for Brazil, was mysteriously absent from the first team sheet submitted before the game, prompting widespread confusion. He later admitted he was rushed to hospital the day of the game after suffering convulsions in his room and briefly losing consciousness; the situation understandably cast a shadow over the Selecao's preparations.
Ronaldo would be on the team sheet roughly 30 minutes later, but it was clear all game long that something wasn't right, as he meandered around the pitch with no impact on the game. Zinedine Zidane exploited shoddy defending to score twice from set pieces as Brazil simply didn't show up.
It is something of a shame that Zidane is remembered purely for his headbutt in the 2006 final because his virtuosic performance against Brazil deserves equal merit. As the anchor of a French side that rode intense national pride to victory, it was as much Zidane's World Cup as it was France's. -- JT.
Final: Italy 1-1 France (5-3 in penalties)
Top goal scorer: Miroslav Klose, Germany
The upset quotient was low, but otherwise this was another World Cup that gave us a little bit of everything.
We got some old-school corruption, with major allegations of bribery, involving some very big names, during the bidding process.
We got a delightful semi-underdog run from the hosts -- Jurgen Klinsmann's young Germany team beat Argentina in penalties on the way to a third-place finish (even if Germany are only ever going to be so much of an underdog).
We got stars doing star things -- France's Thierry Henry scoring a game-winner to beat Brazil in the quarterfinals, Ronaldo scoring his 15th career World Cup goal, Zinedine Zidane scoring in the final in his final international tournament, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo making their World Cup debuts and each scoring once.
We got another final shootout, this time decided by David Trezeguet's miss (his shot hit the crossbar and the goal line) and Fabio Grosso's winner. For that matter we got a great final, period, with momentum shifts and both teams having a shot to win before penalties.
Most of all, we got Zidane's headbutt on Italy's Marco Materazzi in the final (and, eventually, its statue). -- BC.
Final: Argentina 3-2 West Germany
Top goal scorer: Gary Lineker, England
It was the Diego Maradona World Cup; need we say more?
Mexico took over as hosts from Colombia, who were awarded the tournament by FIFA only to withdraw in the winter of 1982. In his announcement of the news, citing an economic crisis at home, President Belisario Betancur said: ''We have a lot of things to do here, and there is not enough time to attend to the extravagances of FIFA and its members.''
Canada, Denmark and Iraq made their World Cup debuts and the tournament's format was adjusted in light of the scandal involving Austria and West Germany in the previous World Cup (more on that shortly). As a result, the final games of the group stage were, mercifully, played at the same time to prevent any further opportunities for collusion.
But whatever your ancillary memories from this edition -- many of them including luminaries like Zico, Preben Elkjaer, Michael Laudrup and Michel Platini -- this was the Maradona World Cup. In much the same way as he strapped Napoli to his back to win two Serie A titles, he carried his country to the promised land with a string of defiant, decadent, brilliant performances and unforgettable goals as they went on to win it all. Though he didn't score against the always dangerous West Germans in the final in front of 114,000 fans at the fabled Estadio Azteca, his influence was the predominant theme of the tournament. Any other player would have peaked with the two goals -- the "Hand of God" and his virtuosic solo run through virtually the entire England team -- scored in the quarterfinals, but Maradona still had enough in the tank to have the game-winning assist in the final, flicking through for Jorge Burruchaga to score the crucial third goal.
Final: Italy 3-1 West Germany
Top goal scorer: Paolo Rossi, Italy
There just hasn't been a World Cup with more of everything than this one. The star power was off the charts -- Socrates, Zico and Falcao starring for Brazil, Diego Maradona marking his debut with two goals and a red card, Italy's Paolo Rossi dominating, Michel Platini leading France to the semifinals -- and a number of great teams captured the imagination.
Brazil scored 15 goals in five matches but fell 3-2 to Italy, via Rossi's hat trick, in a classic in the second group stage. Italy were at their most defensive and physical (as Maradona could have attested) for most of the tournament. West Germany and France played an all-time classic in the semis, won by the Germans in penalties after overcoming a two-goal deficit in extra time. Heavyweights played like heavyweights throughout.
It didn't stop there. Five teams made their World Cup debuts (Algeria, Cameroon, Honduras, Kuwait and New Zealand), and one of them was involved in a famous group-stage upset -- Algeria's 2-1 win over West Germany. Northern Ireland beat Spain to top their group, and we got a double dose of German controversy to boot. First, there was "The shame of Gijon," in which it sure seemed like Austria and West Germany agreed to play at half-speed in their final group stage match to secure a result that assured both would advance and eliminate Algeria. Then, in the semis, German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher not only knocked France's Patrick Battiston unconscious (with cracked ribs, damaged vertebrae and two fewer teeth) on a breakaway but also was not penalised for it. He then made two saves in the ensuing penalty shootout victory for his side.
In the end, the drama was spent before the final. Italy missed a penalty in a scoreless first half, but Rossi put them ahead in the 57th minute, and they were quickly up 3-0 thereafter. But this was a perfect tournament until the final 30 minutes. -- JT.