Football is a team game, of course, but every now and again it can seem like an individual sport. Few things stir a crowd like the sight of a player in peak form taking a match by the scruff of the neck, as proved by the likes of Ronaldo, Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldinho and Alfredo Di Stefano down the years. Each of those legendary names left such a searing imprint on at least one game during their careers that they were feted like heroes as they left the pitch, with even opposition fans springing from their seats to applaud. FIFA.com now looks back at some of football's most memorable standing ovations.
Given the sheer intensity of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, it might be difficult to believe that any one player could unite supporters on both sides of the divide. That, however, is precisely what Laurie Cunningham achieved during the 1979/80 season. The first Englishman to represent Los Merengues, Cunningham put in a stunning performance at the Camp Nou as the capital club clinched a 2-0 victory – and the locals were so moved by his display that they rose in unison as he departed the field.
It was a gesture the Santiago Bernabeu faithful have since repeated twice, first lauding an opposition talent a mere three years later. On 26 June 1983, the iconic venue was playing host to the return leg in the final of the Copa de la Liga, Spain's short-lived second knockout competition. With 57 minutes gone, Barcelona were leading 1-0 and a certain Diego Maradona was about to make things worse for the hosts, the Argentinian forward setting off on a mazy run that ended with the ball in the Madrid net. Both sets of supporters jumped up in sheer admiration – just as they did again in 2005 when Maradona's fellow South American No10, Ronaldinho, left his mark on another Clasico joust. The Brazilian danced through the right side of Madrid's defence before slotting past Iker Casillas and he bewildered the Merengues' rearguard moments later to round off a 3-0 win that even the home fans felt obliged to acclaim.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that the Santiago Bernabeu crowd are particularly quick to recognise when their heroes have been outplayed. They had already been stirred to a standing ovation in 1952, when Alfredo di Stefano showed off his skills for Colombian outfit Millonarios during a tournament to celebrate Madrid's 50th anniversary. Di Stefano helped himself to a double that day as his club triumphed 4-2, and the home fans liked what they saw. They would get to see much more of it too as the gifted forward soon signed for the Spanish giants, spending 11 trophy-laden years at the club. Dutch midfielder Gerrie Muhren never joined Madrid, in contrast, but he too brought 80,000 spectators to their feet at the Santiago Bernabeu, courtesy of a sublime display and a superb goal that propelled Ajax through to the 1973 European Champion Clubs' Cup showpiece.
Most recently, the Madrid faithful showed their appreciation for a rival player when Juventus paid a visit on 5 November 2008. The night belonged to Alessandro Del Piero, who helped himself to a pair of goals to leave the home side reeling in a UEFA Champions League group stage encounter. "Throughout my career, I have been shown many demonstrations of affection," Il Pinturicchio later explained. "But above all I remember two moments: the homage I received during my last game in Turin and the applause at the Bernabeu in 2008. To receive a standing ovation in such a temple of football is just priceless."
I remember when they substituted me in the second half, I left the field to an ovation from the fans. It was amazing
One player who could no doubt attest to that is Ronaldo, who had Old Trafford eating out of his hand in April 2003. Leading the line for Madrid, the Brazilian striker stunned Manchester United with a hat-trick that steered his side into the Champions League semi-finals, Los Blancos emerging 6-5 victors on aggregate. Despite the bitter pain of their imminent exit, the United fans duly paid their respects when the match winner was replaced by Santiago Solari on 67 minutes. "It was a magical night, just incredible," O Fenomeno told FIFA.com. "We had a great football match and the fans appreciated my performance. I remember when they substituted me in the second half, I left the field to an ovation from the fans. It was amazing."
At Arsenal, meanwhile, supporters tend to reserve their moments of praise for returning heroes – as Eduardo found in 2010. The Croatian marksman may have spent just three years with the Gunners, but he clearly left a huge number of admirers, the Emirates crowd standing as one to salute his consolation goal for Shakhtar Donetsk during a Champions League group stage win for the hosts. "I felt like I was still playing for Arsenal," he revealed afterwards, citing a sentiment that Thierry Henry must have experienced before him in the 2009/10 campaign. Returning to familiar ground for a Champions League quarter-final tie between Arsenal and Barcelona, the French striker received a rapturous welcome when he was brought on for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Sweden captain is no stranger to ovations behind enemy lines either, particularly since he packed his bags for Paris Saint-Germain. Scorer of four wonderful goals away against Anderlecht during a Champions League group stage outing in October last year, Ibrahimovic walked off the pitch to a clamour of cheers – and four weeks later in Brest he was given the same treatment. This time, he had plundered a treble in a round of 64 Coupe de France tie, and he left Brittany with the applause of the sparse home crowd ringing in his ears. "The standing ovation when I went off? It wasn't difficult because there were 500 people in the ground," he said after the game. "But I'm very happy if people are happy."
Long before Ibrahimovic started getting into the habit, Brazil legend Pele was also parading a brand of genius that even rival supporters felt inspired to praise. No less a figure than the King of Sweden fell under his spell, in fact. "It was impossible not to applaud Pele's brilliance," enthused Gustaf VI Adolf after the host nation lost the 1958 FIFA World Cup™ final to A Seleção and their teenage phenomenon. O Rei was regularly honoured by opposition fans, and not least when he hit the target against Fluminense in 1961 after dribbling the ball past six opponents – a feat that sparked such delirium it took nearly two minutes for the match to resume.
Current Brazil star Neymar cannot point to the same trophy haul as his illustrious predecessor, but the two players have more than a little in common all the same. For a start, the Barcelona forward was playing for Pele's old club Santos when he brought down the house with a hat-trick away against the Cruzeiro in 2012. "I'm so emotional that I could cry," he told reporters after the final whistle.
Players continue to be moved by the reception afforded by opposition fans, too, with Francesco Totti the latest example. On 8 March 2016, the Roma icon, 39, received a warm and unexpected ovation at the Bernabeu as he entered the field as a late substitute in his team's 2-0 UEFA Champions League defeat to Real Madrid. “It’s emotional," he admitted afterwards, "because these will be wonderful memories. This show of thanks in an extraordinary stadium means I have given something to football.”
In emotional terms, surely few moments can rival the closing stages of the Catalan derby between Espanyol and Barcelona on 12 December 2010, however. With 86 minutes gone, Barça coach Pep Guardiola opted to make one final substitution and brought off Andres Iniesta, the midfielder leaving the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat turf to a stirring reception from all four corners of the ground. A few months earlier, the Blaugrana stalwart had dedicated his winning goal in the World Cup final to Dani Jarque, the former Espanyol defender who had died so suddenly in 2009. 'Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros' ('Dani Jarque, always with us') read the message on Iniesta's T-shirt following his decisive strike against the Netherlands – proof if any were needed that football is not such an individual sport after all.