Goals galore for game's greats
© EFE

“I was 20 at the time and I still hadn’t made a name for myself. Then I scored my first hat-trick between the 19th and 34th minutes of the first half, then hit another three in the first 20 minutes after the break,” said iconic Scottish striker Denis Law of a memorable goalscoring display for Manchester City in a FA Cup encounter versus Luton Town in 1961.

“Shortly afterwards the heavens opened and the referee called off the game. ‘Bad luck’, said the ref, ‘your goals will be just the stuff of legend now’. We ended up having to replay the game and lost 3-1.”

One man whose six-goal burst did count was Manchester United’s wizard of dribble George Best, who coincidentally had Law as a team-mate when firing six past Northampton in 1970, also in the FA Cup. And, as FIFA.com discovered, Law and Best are certainly not the only players to hit such heights of individual brilliance.

Filling their boots
A fitting place to start is Australian forward Archie Thompson, scorer of no fewer than 13 goals in the Socceroos’ 31-0 demolition of American Samoa on 11 June 2001, in a qualifier for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Similarly at USA 1994, Russia’s Oleg Salenko cut loose in his side’s 6-1 group win over Cameroon, showing the form that had just earned him a switch from Logroño to Valencia by helping himself to five goals. Added to his earlier strike in the Russians’ 3-1 defeat by Sweden, it meant Salenko finished joint top of the competition’s scorers’ charts alongside Hristo Stoichkov, despite his team falling at the first hurdle.

Before the game I told him he needed to play in the final 20 metres: the last 16 are the penalty box and that gave him four metres to lose his marker. He didn’t agree but he followed my advice.
Spain's Michel on the advice he gave Butragueno before he scored four at Mexico 1986

Another player to bag five goals in an elite competition was well-travelled Argentinian striker Alfredo Moreno, currently at Mexican outfit San Luis after a career that has also taken in spells in his homeland, China and Russia. While at first club Boca Juniors, Moreno plundered his tally against Bolivian side Blooming in the 2000 edition of the Copa Libertadores, thus playing his part in Los Xeneizes lifting the trophy that year.

Lethal ex-Germany star Jurgen Klinsmann, for his part, hit five for Stuttgart in a 7-0 away trouncing of Fortuna Dusseldorf on 15 March 1986. And his international predecessor Gerd Muller, widely rated among the finest finishers of all time, grabbed a five-goal haul on no fewer than four separate occasions. Another German by the name of Muller went one better on 17 August 1977, Dieter Muller netting six times in Cologne’s 7-2 thrashing of Werder Bremen.

Pantheon of greats
Turn to those who have struck four times in a single encounter and the list is longer, yet by no means less prestigious. Indeed, for a recent example look no further than FIFA World Player 2009 Lionel Messi, who struck four fine goals in his side’s resounding quarter-final second leg victory over Arsenal in this season’s UEFA Champions League. ‘La Pulga’ (The Flea) thus joined a club already featuring the likes of Marco van Basten, Ferenc Puskas, Andriy Shevchenko, Ruud van Nistelrooij, Filippo Inzaghi and Dado Prso, all of whom have hit four in one game in Europe’s premier club competition.

The last player to leave the field after a four-goal haul on the FIFA World Cup stage was Spain’s Emilio Butragueno. At Mexico 1986, the then up-and-coming Real Madrid star put a gifted Denmark side featuring Michael Laudrup and Jesper Olsen to the sword in a 5-1 Round-of-16 success.

“The day Butragueno scored four times against Denmark was my first step to becoming a coach,” recalled current Getafe boss Michel, a former team-mate of ‘El Buitre’ with club and country. “Before the game I told him he needed to play in the final 20 metres: the last 16 are the penalty box and that gave him four metres to lose his marker. He didn’t agree but he followed my advice. At the end of the game I said to him, ‘you’ll thank me for that advice, right?’”

Four just not enough
Equally well-advised, judging by their own four-goal games at FIFA World Cups, were Portugal’s Eusebio, France’s Just Fontaine, Sandor Kocsis of Hungary, Brazil’s Ademir and Ernest Willimowski of Poland. The latter, however, must have been left wondering how his team still managed to lose 6-5 in a first-round thriller against Brazil at France 1938.

Former Atletico de Madrid hitman Milinko Pantic would surely sympathise, having found the net four times away to Barcelona in 1997 in a Copa Del Rey encounter. His efforts were undone, however, as Los Colchoneros were sunk 5-4 thanks to a Ronaldo hat-trick and further goals from Luis Figo and Juan Antonio Pizzi. A year later the same fate befell another Atletico striker, Italian powerhouse Christian Vieri, whose four goals away to Salamanca were still not enough to avoid another 5-4 reverse.

Finally, the award for stealing the limelight in most emphatic fashion must go to former Aston Villa defender Chris Nicholl, who on 20 March 1976 scored twice at both ends in a 2-2 draw against Leicester City. After such a display one can only wonder: did he get to keep the matchball?