Geoff Hurst, Paolo Rossi, Romario, Ronaldo and Roger Milla. The mere mention of these footballing legends is enough to trigger a flood of memories of their brilliant careers, the highlights of which are their FIFA World Cup™ achievements. Each and every one of them has a deservedly prominent place in the history of the tournament.
Though it might seem hard to believe, all five of these stars of world football were far from certainties to appear in the tournaments in which they either made their names or cemented their reputations. Last-minute inclusions in their respective national team squads for a host of different reasons, this illustrious quintet are just some of the players who have gone on to excel in tournaments in which they seemed destined at one stage not to appear.
It is interesting to think what might have happened had they not made the trip. Would an Italy side shorn of Rossi been able to stop a Brazil team featuring Zico, Socrates et al in their tracks at Spain 1982? Had Romario not appeared at USA 1994, would Italy have made it world title number three?
These are just some of the hypothetical questions thrown up by the FIFA World Cup’s illustrious late call-ups, which in many cases, and as FIFA.com reveals, changed the course of footballing history.
Brazil have been famed for their centre-forwards over the years, a fame acquired in the main thanks to the prowess of penalty-box predators Romario and Ronaldo.
Take a look at the record books and they will show you that O Baixinho was one of the top goalscorers at USA 1994 and the winner of the adidas Golden Ball, awarded to the player of the tournament. What they do not reveal, however, is that he came very close to not making the tournament at all.
After making clear his irritation at being consigned to the bench for a friendly against Germany, the striker was left out of the Brazil side for more than 18 months, missing virtually the entire qualifying competition and only returning in September 1993 for the final game against Uruguay, with Brazil at serious risk of having to play Australia in the intercontinental play-off.
With a crowd of more than 100,000 packed into the Maracana for the visit of La Celeste, the pressure was well and truly on the Brazilians. Belatedly drafted into the side by Carlos Alberto Parreira, Romario responded by scoring two goals, one of them a legendary strike, guaranteeing himself a place not just in the squad for the world finals but the starting line-up too.
“I always seem to be that bit more relaxed whenever I play a big game, and that’s why I always seem to do well in them,” said Romario with his customary self-confidence. “In the week leading up to the game I said we’d win it and that we’d go on to bring the World Cup back home.”
Eight years later, Ronaldo found himself on the sidelines, albeit for a different reason, having a endured a series of knee injuries and operations that left a major question mark hanging over his career, let alone his participation at Korea/Japan 2002.
Absent from the entire qualifying campaign, in which Brazil struggled to secure their place in the Far East, Ronaldo would be indebted to coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s decision to delay naming his side until the last possible moment.
“He’s had his problems in getting fit again but as long as he works at it, he’ll make it,” said Scolari. O Fenômeno did more than just make the finals, he top-scored in them with eight goals as Brazil secured world title number five.
Six of the best
Brazil are not the only country to have had striker selection dramas over the years, as an Italy fan will tell you. Back in April 1982, just weeks before Spain hosted the World Cup, Paolo Rossi made his return from a two-year suspension and was promptly included in the Azzurra squad by Enzo Bearzot. The wily coach then stuck by his man after a sluggish start to the tournament, in which Italy drew all three of their group games and came in for fierce criticism at home.
Rossi was a player transformed in the second round, however. After putting Tele Santana’s fabled Brazil side to the sword with a famous hat-trick, the prodigal son struck twice in the semi-final against Poland and got on the scoresheet again in the Final against Germany.
“Rossi was the only penalty-box finisher I had,” Bearzot explained. “He was very good in there, very quick, and he was always ready to pounce on a mistake.”
Staying with the art of poaching Italian style, few front men have ever done it better on the big stage than Salvatore Toto Schillaci, who emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the stars of Italy 1990. Having spent virtually his entire career in Italy’s lower divisions with Messina, the centre-forward earned a move to Juventus in 1989 doing enough over the course of the next season to break into the Nazionale squad for the world finals, having never previously been called up.
He started the tournament on the bench, but within three minutes of coming on for Andrea Carnevale in the host’s group opener against Austria the Sicilian knocked in the winner, the first of six goals that would land him the adidas Golden Boot and the adidas Golden Ball.
“Not even a madman could ever have imagined what happened to me,” said Schillaci, who scored just one more goal for his country before his last cap in September 1991. “When you’re a football player there are times when everything just goes for you. All you have to do is breathe and the ball goes in. I was just in a state of grace. It was as if someone up there decided that Toto Schillaci would be the hero of Italy.”
Age is no impediment
Schillaci was not the only sensation of Italy 1990. Also making a splash was 38-year-old front man Roger Milla, who had earlier announced that he would never play for Cameroon again. Had it not been for the imploring appeals of the team’s fans, the inimitable Milla would never have returned to score four goals in his second world finals, eight years after jousting with Rossi in the group phase in Spain.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that it was the people of Cameroon who encouraged me to make my comeback,” Milla later said in an interview with FIFA.com, recalling the Indomitable Lions’ scintillating run to the quarter-finals. “When I went back to the national side, I got a really nice welcome from the youngsters and not such a good one from the older players, who’d ganged up against me. Everything was back to normal as soon as I started scoring, though.”
The evergreen Cameroonian did not stop there, returning to the World Cup in 1994 and becoming the competition’s oldest ever goalscorer at the grand old age of 42, the last act in a memorable career, and all on the most fitting of stages.
Geoffrey Charles Hurst was a good deal younger than Milla when he made his England debut in a friendly against Germany FR in February 1966. The untried 24-year-old impressed in that game and others as England warmed up for the finals they were to host later that year, though a couple of less impressive performances immediately before the tournament saw him relegated to the bench.
It was Jimmy Greaves and Roger Hunt who led the line for Alf Ramsey’s side in the three group games, though Greaves suffered a nasty gash in his leg against France, an injury that needed several stitches and would keep him out of the quarter-final against Argentina.
His replacement was the young Hurst, who scored the only goal of that game and stayed in the team right through to the Final, where he became the only player to this day to score a hat-trick in the tournament showpiece, all because Ramsey resisted calls to restore Greaves, ordinarily his first-choice striker, to the side.
“If you look at England’s win in 1966, Martin Peters didn’t play for the national team until two months before the tournament and I only made my debut in February 1966, and we both scored in the Final,” Hurst told FIFA.com. “So when people say it’s too early, I always say that history tells you otherwise.”
There are more names on our list than just goalscorers, however. One man who became an unexpected hero at the other end of the pitch was Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, who came face to face with the in-form Schillaci in the semi-finals at Italy 1990.
An understudy to Nery Pumpido at River Plate, Goycochea was called upon to perform the same role for the national side after Luis Islas turned down a place on the bench. And when Pumpido picked up an injury in Argentina’s second group match against Soviet Union, Goycochea suddenly found himself between the posts.
He seized his opportunity with both hands, starring in successive penalty shootout wins over Yugoslavia and Italy as La Albiceleste sneaked into the Final, where they went down to Germany FR.
Argentina had been involved in another curious selection story four years earlier in Mexico, where they won their second world title. After picking up a serious knee injury two years before the tournament, central defender Jose Tata Brown found himself struggling to regain full fitness.
He returned from Colombia, where he had been playing for Atletico Nacional, to sign for the unfashionable Deportivo Espanol. His knee was still causing him problems, however, and after playing a few games for his new club he was back on the sidelines, not that it stopped national team boss Carlos Bilardo from naming him in his provisional squad for the finals.
Brown duly trained with his team-mates and made Bilardo’s final shortlist, though not without criticism in the media. The defender could scarcely believe what was happening. He had an even bigger surprise in store ahead of Argentina’s opening game, when Bilardo got round to informing him that first-choice centre-half Daniel Passarella was unavailable.
“Nobody had told me anything,” he said in an interview with the newspaper El Gráfico. “I went to have my morning coffee and I bumped into Carlos. ‘Hey, Bron. Everything OK?’, he asked me. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘The big day’s finally arrived’. He walked away, before turning round and shouting at me: ‘Oh Bron, you’re playing, eh?’”
The centre-back shook off his injury worries to play in every match at Mexico 1986, and even got up to score a thumping header to put his side ahead against Germany in the Final. Describing the goal, he said he used Diego Maradona as support as he rose into the air, before running off to celebrate without even seeing the ball cross the line.
At the final whistle Brown cried tears of joy, just as he had done when he received a telegram from his family before the start of the tournament: “They knew how much I’d suffered to get there, fighting with my knee for two whole years.”
With less than a week to go before the ball starts rolling at Brazil 2014, another 736 players are preparing to do their very best at the FIFA World Cup, each with their own story to tell.
Many have long been certainties to make their respective squads, while others are still getting acquainted with their coaches after late call-ups, dreaming no doubt of emulating the heroes who have lit the tournament up after earning their places at the last gasp.