Each one, a colossus

Drawing up a list of icons is a mighty tricky task — easy to botch and impossible to get right. So, while it may not be perfect, here is Karthik Krishnaswamy's first list of World Cup greats.

Luis Monti

The only player to feature for two countries in World Cup finals, Luis Monti was perhaps the most critical component of both the Argentina side that was runner-up in the 1930 edition and the victorious Italy side of 1934.

As centre-half in the 2-3-5 system that dominated football in the 30s, Monti brought to his role (which would correspond roughly to that of the midfield anchor in modern formations) not just rugged tackling and positional sense but also composed, unfussy distribution.

Monti's 1930 World Cup was mostly fruitful — the 29-year-old scored the only goal in Argentina's 1-0 group win over France with a 81st minute free kick, and the first goal in Argentina's 6-1 semi-finals thumping of the USA. The final, however, saw the Albiceste succumb to a 2-4 defeat to host Uruguay. Later, rumours surfaced that Monti had received death threats before the final.

Monti would get his hands on the Jules Rimet Trophy four years later in Italy, playing for Italy as one of several oriundi (immigrants of Italian ancestry) in Vittorio Pozzo's side, having qualified after playing in Serie A for Juventus.

Monti replaced the cultured Fulvio Bernardini as Italy's centre half, Pozzo preferring the former's sweeping, direct distribution to the latter's more deliberate style, which he felt slowed down the team and wasn't suited to the counterattacking system he favoured. Monti's more robust defensive qualities also played a part in the coach's decision, and proved crucial in the end, the centre-half's man-marking effectively shutting out Mattias Sindelaar (the cerebral deep-lying centre forward who was arguably the best player in the world during the era of Hugo Meisl's Austrian 'Wunderteam') in Italy's 1-0 semi-finals win over Austria.

Ferenc Puskas

From June 1950 to February 1956, Hungary lost only one match out of 50. Unfortunately for the Aranycsapat (Golden Team), that defeat was the final of the 1954 World Cup. Despite being denied the Jules Rimet Trophy, the names of Gusztáv Sebes's Magical Magyars are today far more resonant than those of the victorious Germans, for this Hungary side revolutionised the way the game was played.

Hungary's most resonant performance was undoubtedly its 6-3 win over England at Wembley in 1953, a game that blew apart the self-perpetuated myth of English football's pre-eminence. The most vivid moment in this pivotal day in football history was, of course, the first of Ferenc Puskás's two goals, a trademark left-footed thump following a casual drag-back with the sole of his foot, which left his marker Billy Wright slide-tackling thin air. “Like a fire engine going to the wrong fire,” was how sportswriter Geoffrey Green, covering the game for The Times, described Wright's desperate lunge.

Puskás was undoubtedly Hungary's biggest star. The elusive Nandor Hidegkuti may have made the Magyars tick, and Sandor Kocsis may have been a more prolific goalscorer, but the Galloping Major, a combination of power and dazzling skill in a stocky, borderline-overweight frame, enjoyed a longer reign in the eye of the West. Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Puskás moved to Spain and won three European Cups at Real Madrid, where he forged a devastating partnership with Alfredo Di Stefano.

In the 1954 World Cup, Hungary scored a remarkable 27 goals in five matches, with Kocsis netting 11 and Puskás and Hidegkuti four each. An injured Puskás missed the quarter-final and semi-final, but returned for the final against West Germany, and left an indelible, if tragic mark on the ‘Miracle of Berne'. Puskás scored the game's first goal, and following Germany's stunning comeback from 0-2 to 3-2, slid home what he and the rest of the Hungary team believed was an equaliser three minutes from the end, only for the linesman to rule the goal offside.


Of all the names that comprised the haloed squads that won Brazil three out of four World Cups between 1958 and '70, the one that best symbolised the Selecao's free-spirited samba style was Garrincha.

Born with a left leg six inches shorter than his right leg, and a left foot that curved outwards, Garrincha grew up to become arguably the greatest winger of all time, and certainly the most unfettered dribbler ever. His love for hoodwinking defenders was best captured in the goal he scored for Brazil in a warm-up game ahead of the 1958 World Cup against Italian club Fiorentina. Disdaining the open net that faced him after dribbling past four defenders and the 'keeper, Garrincha waited for another defender to approach him, beat him as well and then stroked the ball home.

Bizarrely, but not surprisingly, Garrincha was left out of the first two games of the World Cup, as punishment for his showboating. Back in the side for the must-win game against USSR, Garrincha helped Brazil to a 2-0 win and was a fixture throughout the knockout rounds, playing significant roles in the 1-0 quarter-finals win over Wales and the 5-2 humiliation of France in the semi-finals before stamping his mark all over the final, supplying low crosses from the byline for the two goals Vava scored to start Brazil's recovery from going 0-1 down against host Sweden. Brazil eventually won 5-2, with Pelé scoring twice.

Pelé missed the bulk of the 1962 World Cup with an injury, leaving Brazil with a potential goal-scoring void. Garrincha stepped up spectacularly, supplementing his usual assist count with four goals, two against England in the quarter-finals and two against host Chile in the semi-finals. He surprised everyone with his range of scoring, popping up with a headed goal each against both opponents.


It takes genius to become top dog at 17 in a team containing Didi, Vava and Garrincha, and then, twelve years later, stay top dog amidst names like Gerson, Jairzinho and Tostao. The argument between Pelé's ability to rise above great contemporaries and Diego Maradona's relative one-man act in less gifted company will never be resolved.

It's almost terrifying to think that none of Pelé's glittering World Cup deeds may have come to occur had Vicente Feola, Brazil's coach in 1958, heeded the advice of Joao Carvalhaes, the psychologist who travelled with the team to Sweden.

“Pelé is obviously infantile,” Carvalhaes wrote in his assessment. “He lacks the necessary fighting spirit. He is too young to feel the aggression and respond with the proper force to make a good forward.”

After the 17-year-old Pelé sat out Brazil's first two games with an injured knee, Feola unleashed him against USSR, disregarding Carvalhaes's words.

“You may be right,” Feola said to Carvalhaes. “The thing is, you don't know anything about football. If Pelé's knee is ready, he plays.”

And how he played. Pelé contributed six goals, all in the knock-out stage — the only goal against Wales, three swept past France and two cracking efforts in the final: controlling the ball on his chest, lobbing it over a defender and smashing in the first on the volley before looping a header into the top corner.

Injury restricted Pelé to just a game and a half each in the 1962 and '66 World Cups, with the violent hacking of group opponent Portugal in '66 leading to his exit from the tournament on a stretcher, vowing never to play in a World Cup again.

Thankfully, he relented in time for Mexico '70, and lit up television screens worldwide, resplendent in yellow in the first World Cup telecast in colour. Brazil came to the tournament with possibly its greatest ever line-up, and romped unbeaten to its third title. Along the way, Pelé found the net four times, and memorably laid on the final pass in the bewitching move that ended with Carlos Alberto's sweeping finish to the final goal of the tournament. Even more memorably, Pelé put his name to three of the greatest misses of all time: the lob from his own half against Czechoslovakia, the header that elicited the 'save of the century' from England goalkeeper Gordon Banks and the dummy-cum-run-around that hoodwinked Uruguay 'keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz in the semi-finals, only for the great man's shot to roll past the wrong side of the post.

Sir Bobby Charlton

There have been few attacking players as versatile as Bobby Charlton. Starting out on the left wing, Charlton moved to an inside-forward position and then spent his greatest years in the centre of midfield, going deeper in tune with his thinning hair.

A survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight of his Manchester United teammates, Charlton was picked in the England squad for the World Cup that year in Sweden, but didn't play a single game, with coach Walter Winterbottom later contending that the 20-year-old was still struggling to recuperate from the disaster.

In Chile four years later, Charlton played in all of England's games in a campaign that ended with a quarter-final defeat to Brazil, and scored in the crucial 3-1 group win over Argentina.

Charlton was at the peak of his powers during the 1966 World Cup, and England coach Alf Ramsey settled on a system that best suited his style of play, assembling a team that came to be known as the ‘Wingless Wonders'. With club-mate Nobby Stiles anchoring the midfield behind him, and two energetic box-to-box players in Alan Ball and Martin Peters on either side, Charlton was free to bomb forward in support of strikers Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt.

In this role he galvanised the host after a disappointing goalless draw against Uruguay, opening England's account in the tournament with a 30-yard howitzer against Mexico in the second group game.

After scraping past Argentina with an ill-tempered 1-0 quarter-finals win, England faced high-flying Portugal. This game produced Charlton's best performance of the tournament, with two clinical finishes in a 2-1 win, the first more or less passed into the bottom corner after intercepting a poor clearance, the second a clean, first-time strike from a difficult angle following Geoff Hurst's pullback.

In the final against Germany, a young Franz Beckenbauer stayed glued to Charlton for the duration of the game, performing a more sophisticated version of the man-marking job Stiles played against Eusebio in the semi-finals. England eventually won 4-2, a deceptive scoreline considering the impetus provided by Geoff Hurst's extra-time goal that may or may not have crossed the line.

Beckenbauer summed up succinctly: “England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me.”