The World Cup’s most Shocking Incidents

We’re counting down the days to the greatest football tournament on earth and at the same time we wonder who will provide the competition’s most memorable moments. We recall those great teams of the past – Brazil in 1970, The Netherlands in 74 and 78 – while individual players have also made their mark on World Cups in days gone by.

Some of these moments haven’t exactly been in keeping with the spirit of the game however and here are a few of the most shocking incidents from previous tournaments.

1. Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi – 2006

Italy were battling it out with 1998 Champions France in the 2006 World Cup final and the teams were deadlocked at 0-0 with the match drifting into an inevitable penalty shoot out. This tie was supposed to be a grand farewell for Zinedine Zidane – the hero of 1998 whose two goals had helped his team lift the trophy on home soil two years previously.

Instead the midfielder’s glorious career ended in ignominy as he was sent off for an extraordinary head butt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi. For months, nobody knew what had been said until the Italian finally confessed.

“I was tugging his shirt, he said to me ‘if you want my shirt so much I’ll give it to you afterwards,’ I answered that I’d prefer his sister,” Materazzi said.
The event was shocking enough but it’s a testament to the game that it is remembered solely for this incident. Italy lifted the cup after penalties took over from an otherwise forgettable 120 minutes.

2. Nigel de Jong assaults Xabi Alonso 2010

The 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands was a bad tempered affair and it culminated in the sending off of Dutch defender Johnny Heitinga. However, the most outrageous act of the game came in the first half when Ajax’s Nigel de Jong launched into a chest high tackle on Xabi Alonso but incredibly, he escaped with just a booking.

“Yes, I was concerned it might be worse than a yellow,” De Jong said. “It looked worse, although to be honest I didn’t see the opponent coming in from the side.”

The referee was lenient to say the least and although De Jong protested his innocence, the challenge looked sickening. The Netherlands received the highest number of yellow cards in the 2010 World Cup – a fact not in keeping with our view of a side reliant on silky skills and fair play – and perhaps justice was finally served when Spain took the game by a goal to nil.

3. Maradona’s hand of God – 1986

England had recovered from a slow start to the 1986 World Cup and had made it all the way to the quarter finals but standing in their way was an Argentinian side with Diego Maradona in the form of his life. It was always going to be a tough task for Bobby Robson’s men but when their star player resorted to a blatant act of cheating, that task became impossible.

Argentina had enjoyed the best of the early play but England’s defence held firm and at half time, the game was goalless. In the 51st minute however, the infamous moment came as Maradona chased on to a through ball and beat the oncoming Peter Shilton to literally ‘put’ the ball into the net.

For those watching on TV and at normal speed, it was difficult to ascertain what had happened but immediately, England’s players swarmed around the referee demanding handball. Slow motion backed up their claims as Maradona clearly punched the ball over the keeper and into the net.

Four minutes later, the game was effectively over as a brilliant, and above all, legal goal from the same player made it 2-0. Gary Lineker pulled one back for Robson’s team but the game had gone and the opening strike would forever be known as the Hand of God goal.

4. Zaire’s free kick farce – 1974


This incident isn’t exactly shocking but we can certainly file it away as one of the more comical moments in World Cup history.

Zaire were unlikely qualifiers for the 1974 finals in West Germany and were placed in a tough group alongside Brazil, Scotland and Yugoslavia. The men from East Africa weren’t exactly disgraced in a 2-0 defeat to the Scots but everything went wrong in a comprehensive, 9-0 loss to Yugoslavia.

Zaire’s tournament was over but in their final match against Brazil, they left an indelible mark on the tournament. As Brazil lined up to take a free kick, Mwepu Ilunga inexplicably ran out of the wall and hoofed the ball up field – receiving a yellow card in the process.

It was seen as a moment of high comedy but Ilunga later claimed that his act was a form of protest and that he had hoped to be sent off as a result.

“I did that deliberately,” he said.

“I was aware of football regulations. I did not have a reason to continue getting injured while those who will benefit financially were sitting on the terraces watching.”

Zaire went down by three goals to nil and while they have failed to appear in the finals ever since, we will always remember them.

5. The Battle of Santiago – 1962


The 1962 tournament in Chile was a very brutal affair, punctuated by controversy and some of the worst tackling ever seen on the football field. At the centre of the drama was a game between the host nation and Italy in an encounter that would later be dubbed the ‘Battle of Santiago’.

The tie was set against a backdrop of hostility after a number of Italian journalists questioned Chile’s ability to host the tournament in the first place.

Chilean Nationals naturally took exception to this slur, particularly as the country’s preparations had been disturbed by the 1960 Valdivia earthquake which at the time was the most powerful ever recorded. As a result, when the sides took to the field, there was an underlying atmosphere of resentment both in the crowd and on the pitch which led to a flurry of brutal tackles from the very first whistle.

The first foul occurred after just ten seconds and then, on 12 minutes, Italy’s Giorgio Ferrini became the first man to be sent off after a horrendous tackle on Chile’s Honorino Landa. The police were called on after Ferrini refused to leave the pitch and that wouldn’t be the first time that the local constabulary would have to intervene.

English referee Ken Aston would also send off Italy’s Mario David before half time but further unsavoury incidents went unpunished. Players continued to go over the top but the game disintegrated when Chile’s Leonel Sanchez broke Humberto Maschio’s nose with a punch. Sanchez went unpunished and after spitting and further fighting, the police had to break up the players once again.

It’s incredible to think that the game, which was eventually won by Chile by two goals to nil, was even able to finish. As an ironic footnote to the whole affair, Ken Aston later went on to invent red and yellow cards to help spectators recognise which players had been booked and sent off.

6. Ronaldo’s cheeky wink – 2006

Over the years, many high profile players have been caught out when feigning injury or diving to win a free kick and to get an opponent into trouble. David Luiz was captured grinning to Chelsea fans a few seasons back but perhaps the most infamous occurrence came at the World Cup of 2006 in Germany.

England and Portugal were two closely matched teams that took their quarter final to penalties but it could have been a simpler task for the Portuguese if they had been able to take advantage when England went down to ten men.

Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney became involved in a tangle of legs with opposing defender Ricardo Carvalho and appeared to stamp on the Portuguese man. Rooney claimed it was a complete accident but it looked bad and the England man received a red card but that doesn’t quite explain the controversial element of this story.

Cristiano Ronaldo was a club team mate of Rooney’s at Manchester United at the time and in the aftermath of the incident, he approached the referee waving imaginary cards suggesting that his opponent should be sent off. The official in question needed no encouragement but as Rooney made his way down the tunnel, Ronaldo winked at the Portuguese bench as if to signify his pleasure at his role in the dismissal.

The act looked unsportsmanlike at best but years later when Wayne Rooney’s autobiography was published, he said he didn’t blame his club team mate for his actions and the striker even suggested that it took the attention away from England’s World Cup exit while deflecting the blame from Rooney himself.

“I didn’t really get any stick,” said Rooney in 2009.” Ronaldo took a lot of it and I was pleased about that.”

7. Cameroon take on Argentina – 1990

The fact that Cameroon beat the reigning World Champions at the very start of Italia 90 is one of the most shocking World Cup surprise results ever but while African sides have since become renowned for playing the game with a touch of flair, there was a distinctly brutal nature to the team that overcame Argentina.

The Argentines travelled to Italy having taken the trophy in Mexico four years previously and while there were a few new names in the squad, the World Champions still had Maradona at the heart of their team and they were widely expected to win this opening encounter.

The Miami Herald described Cameroon as ‘a humble team with an insignificant past’ but the underdogs showed from the first whistle that they weren’t going to be overawed on the biggest occasion of their lives.

François Omam-Biyik headed the winning goal in the second half but the shocking elements of the game saw their opponents pick up two red cards. André Kana-Biyik was sent off first before Benjamin Massing saw red for a tackle on Claudio Caniggia that was more of an assault.

Later, the great Maradona claimed that,
“I got a kick from a guy against Cameroon that nearly took my head off.”

The outsiders held on with nine men to win the game 1-0 and suddenly, that humble team became known as the ‘Indomitable Lions’.

8. David Beckham become a public hate figure – 1998

These days, former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham is seen as one of English football’s favourite sons but there was a time when people were burning his effigies in the streets.

At France 1998, England were unconvincing in the Group Phase as they came through in second place behind the Romanians. That earned Glenn Hoddle’s team a knockout tie against old rivals Argentina and naturally, talk began of seeking revenge for Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal.

The game was an incredible one to watch with one of the all time World Cup top scorers Gabriel Batistuta converting a sixth minute penalty for the Argentines before Alan Shearer levelled from the spot shortly afterwards. On 14 minutes, the highlight from a footballing point of view came when 18 year old Michael Owen embarked on a solo run and scored a brilliant individual goal to put his side ahead.

The lead couldn’t last however and a well worked free kick from Argentina saw Javier Zanetti score to send the sides in level at half time.

Shortly after the break, the game turned when Beckham was fouled by Diegio Simeone but instead of getting on with the game, the Manchester United midfielder aimed a petulant kick at his opponent and was rightly sent off by the referee. England bravely played on and had chances to win it but ultimately, Hoddle’s men went down in the dreaded penalty shoot out and the country’s supporters were in no doubt as to where the blame should lie.

As the nation aimed its vitriol at Beckham, the player later turned on his manager, blaming Glenn Hoddle for stirring up the fury.

“He didn’t blame me, exactly, but he made it clear that he thought that my mistake cost England the game. He showed his anger and irritation with me. It definitely fed the frenzy,” Beckham revealed.

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