Football (or soccer as it is known in the United States) is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) sports in the world. With the FIFA (Federation International de Football Association) world championship occurring every four years, the number of exciting and unforgettable moments is relatively boundless. As passions tend to rise to stellar levels with football fans, debate over the most exciting moments tends to be shaded by a strong sense of national pride and identity. Here are but a few examples of the most exciting moments in World Cup history.
David slays Goliath
In the 1950 World Cup held in Brazil, England entered the tournament as one of the heavily favored teams to win. The United States fielded a team of amateurs who did not know each other prior to the flight to Brazil, and as such were expected to be thoroughly trounced by the English. A diving header by a Haitian immigrant named Joe Gaetjens produced the only goal of the game for the American team, handing England both a stunning defeat as well as elimination from the tournament. For many football fans, the humbling defeat by an outmatched and out gunned American team was a mirror for the American Revolutionary War.
Emergence of a global legend
The 1958 FIFA World Cup held in Sweden was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most prominent being the emergence of a man named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known and adored by football fans the world over as “Pele.” The then teenager started the World Cup final game against the Swedish with an injured knee and proceeded to keep pace with the Swedish team all by himself. The Brazilian team won the championship by a final score of five to two with Pele contributing two of the five goals. The then 17 year old Pele became the youngest player ever to play in the World Cup, the youngest player ever to score in a World Cup, and the youngest player to win a World Cup Winner’s Medal. All of these accomplishments came in the first World Cup to be both internationally televised as well as being won by a Non-European team at a European host site. Pele instantly rocketed into the position of being a role model and inspiration for Black people the world over, playing in a sport that had been historically dominated by white Europeans.
Winning the battle and losing the war
In the 1974 FIFA World Cup, the host country democratic West Germany played communist East Germany in a first round game. This was at a time when the cold war was at its peak, and the two nations were bitterly intense rivals. The game matched the intensity of their off-field rivalry, and ended with a 1-0 victory for the communist East Germans. Sweet revenge was had by the host West German team as they went on to win the World Cup, and East Germany was eliminated in the subsequent round.
The shot heard round the world
In 1989, having not attained a World Cup berth since the 1950’s, the United States had to travel to Port of Spain, Trinidad-Tobago to play a qualifying game to earn that coveted spot. Trinidad-Tobago had already qualified and needed only to either beat or tie the U.S. to earn that World Cup berth. The stakes were not only a world cup berth, but hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup tournament as well. As football wasn’t as popular in the U.S. as it was the rest of the world over, the concern was that without a World Cup appearance, the support for hosting a the tournament might not materialize. At the 31 minute mark of the game against Trinidad-Tobago, Paul Caligiuri of the United States fired in a goal that proved to be the only goal of the game. That goal served as the launching point for continuous growth of football (soccer) in the United States that carries on to this day. The goal caught the eye and imagination of American sports fans and any resistance to hosting the 1994 World Cup tournament evaporated. In 1996, Major League Soccer was born, and the growing popularity of football in America began to spread to Women’s football as well, with the organizers of the Women’s World Cup staging events around the U.S. in 1999.
Multicultural World Cup victory
The 1998 FIFA World Cup was won by the host country France. What made the victory significant is that the team was comprised of players from multiple nations across Europe and not just native Frenchmen. The players hailed from France, England, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Within the country of France itself, the win helped unite the country in the run-up to an election where the incumbents were under heavy fire from opponents who felt that immigrants to France were eroding the country’s values as well as weakening its economy. The victory helped quash that rhetoric and restored a sense of national French unity.