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An Iconic XI: The World Cup Cult Heroes From Tournaments Past

With just two days left until the start of the World Cup, this week’s best XI features some of the competitions most well-loved cult heroes.


Goalkeeper: Rene Higuita

The quintessential cult hero, Rene Higuita is a seminal figure in the world of football. “El Loco” as he was nicknamed, played for Columbia at the 1990 World Cup where his error in the last 16 cost his country the chance to reach the quarter-finals.

Higuita received the ball about 30 yards from his goal and tried to dribble past Cameroon striker Roger Milla but was ultimately dispossessed leading to Milla running the ball into an empty net.

Best known for his infamous scorpion kick, Higuita only appeared at one World Cup but received 68 caps for his country and his penchant for set pieces led to him scoring 3 goals in the yellow of Columbia.


Right Back: Josimar

Uncapped when he was selected for the Brazilian squad in 1986, Josimar would hardly have expected to become such an icon following the World Cup in Argentina.

A complete unknown outside of Brazil and only a reserve right back when he came into the squad,  Josimar made his debut in a group game against Northern Ireland.

The debutant went onto score one of the greatest goals ever seen at a World Cup as he beat keeper Pat Jennings with a fierce drive from the right-hand side to etch himself into World Cup folklore.


Centre Back: Benjamin Massing

A name not known to many, Benjamin Massing was a central defender who played for Cameroon in the World Cup in 1990.

Although Massing is not a household name he is instantly recognisable for what he did during Cameroon’s opening game of the tournament.

Yes, Benjamin Massey was responsible for THAT tackle on Claudio Caniggia, which has become an iconic moment in World Cup history.

Massing made his return in the quarter-final defeat against England where his recklessness did not relent, as he conceded a penalty and was booked.

The owner of the “worst tackle in world cup history” sadly passed away last December at the age of 55.


Centre Back: Paul McGrath

An Irish inclusion was key to this team and at the heart of it simply had to be one of the country’s greatest ever players, Paul McGrath.

McGrath appeared at two World Cups for Ireland, in 1990 and in 1994, but it was his performance against Italy in Giants Stadium that warrants his place on this list.

Battling through knee pain that plagued him all his career, McGrath put in one of the finest defensive displays ever seen in a green shirt as Ireland picked up a historic victory against the much fancied Italians.


Left Back: Fabio Grosso

The unlikely hero of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, left-back Fabio Grosso was a key part of the Italian’s rise to the title.

Not only did the ex-Juventus full-back score the winning penalty in the final shootout against France, he also grabbed a sumptuous winner in the semi-final against Germany, curling home a strike from the edge of the box in the 119th minute to give Italy the victory.

Grosso was so widely loved in Italy following his World Cup heroics that he was awarded The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, which is the highest accolade the Republic gives out.


Centre Midfield: Carlos Valderrama

Another Columbian, Carlos Valderrama captained his country during 3 World Cups in 1990, 1994 and 1998.

A creative playmaker, Valderrama was a god-like figure in Columbian football leading his team to the last 16 of the 1994 tournament.

Instantly recognisable for his mop of curly blonde hair and 1980s moustache, Valderrama’s style of play and swagger on the ball earned him plenty of fans as well as a cult-like status amongst many in the footballing world.


Centre Midfield: Marco Tardelli

The man with the most iconic celebration in World Cup history, Marco Tardelli captured the heart of the world when he scored for Italy against Germany in the 1982 final.

“The Tardelli cry” as it’s affectionately known, came about after the striker’s left-footed strike from outside the area. Tardelli, with tears in his eyes, raced towards the Italian bench shaking his head wildly, oozing sheer joy as he let the emotion of the moment take him away.

Tardelli spoke fondly of the goal saying, “After I scored, my whole life passed before me – the same feeling they say you have when you are about to die, the joy of scoring in a World Cup final was immense, something I dreamed about as a kid, and my celebration was a release after realising that dream. I was born with that scream inside me, that was just the moment it came out.”

A goal and a celebration that made him a hero.


Centre Midfield: Gheorghe Hagi 

Perhaps the finest player in this starting XI, Gheorghe Hagi was considered by many to be one of the best attacking midfielders of his generation.

The former Barcelona man appeared at three World Cups but gained notoriety during USA 94′ when he led his Romanian team to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.

Hagi scored three times in the States including a 40-yard lob against Columbia, on his way to making the team of the tournament.


Striker: Roger Milla

A trailblazer for African football, Roger Milla used the spotlight that the World Cup provided him, to become one of the most lovable figures the competition has ever seen.

Competing at the 1994 World Cup aged 38, Milla scored four goals for Cameroon bringing them all the way to the quarter finals of the tournament- the furthest any African team had ever gone.

Milla’s celebration also became iconic, as he danced around the corner flag following every goal he scored.

The Cameroonian even competed in France four years later at the ripe old age of 42, becoming the World Cup’s oldest ever goalscorer when he grabbed one against Russia.


Striker: Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci

A name all too familiar to Irish fans, Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci’s Italia 90 will be remembered for far more than just THAT goal in Rome in late June.

Schillaci came into the tournament as simply a squad player for the Italians but came off the bench to score in his opening two games of the competition, before starting and scoring in four more games as Italy finished third on home soil.

The diminutive striker finished the tournament as the top scorer with six goals, but he’ll likely never be forgiven for ending Irish dreams of a World Cup semi-final


Striker: Ahn Jung Hwan

The man with the unique accolade of being both the hero and the villain of the 2002 World Cup, Ahn Jung Hwan’s story is one of the competition’s strangest.

The South Korean striker was playing his club football at Italian side Perugia when the two country’s met in the last 16 of the competition. In a game awash with controversy Hwan missed a penalty as it finished 1-1 in normal time, meaning Golden Goal was required to separate the teams.

Ahn Jung Hwan became the hero, sending South Korea into the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history. The only problem was, he knocked the Italians out.

The next day Hwan had his contract cancelled by Perugia owner Luciano Gaucci who was quoted as saying, “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”

A cruel end to a fantastic tournament.


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Author: Oisin McQueirns

Oisin McQueirns is a digital journalist at Pundit Arena. Massive fan of Leeds United, Ric Flair and Trusting The Process. Contact him here [email protected]