Let’s be honest, the World Cup is in a precarious place right now.
The single greatest sporting event of them all is in a more uncertain state than ever as it begins in Qatar, with the tournament facing a backlash from commentators all around the world.
Notions of sportswashing, reports of 6,500 migrant worker deaths, appalling attitudes to LGBTQ+ rights and claims of modern slavery are just some of the problems that people have been taking issue with in the run-up.
People will still be tuning in to watch the action in their millions, while still speaking up for equality and doing their bit for human rights groups too, but the tournament’s setting has put many, many people in compromised positions as fans.
This year, they’ll be hoping to see great goals, the kinds of which football fans have been enjoying since it all began back in 1930. It’s goals like the ones we have listed below which make the tournament such a force over the years, and it’s goals like this which will continue to be remembered.
They’re a reminder that there’s so much joy to be had at a World Cup, and they’re things to be celebrated and protected – not merely made a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.
These are our picks of the best ever World Cup goals from number 19 all the way up to the top spot.
One for the ‘real football man’ purists here if just for the celebration alone. In the World Cup final and already leading 1-0 the Italians spring a counterattack, slowing it down with some neat passing in the German box before the ball finds its way back out to Marco Tardelli on the edge of the box. His poor first touch actually helps him as it allows him to rifle the ball home leading to one of the most emotional celebrations you’ll ever see. He later confirmed that he was simply shouting ‘Goal! Goal! Goal!’ The stuff dreams are made of.
18. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Netherlands v Uruguay, 2010
The 2010 World Cup gets a bad rap but it’s hard to deny that there were some incredible goals, mostly thanks to the unpredictable Jabulani, and this absurd strike from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst was the pick of the bunch. The Dutch full-back picks the ball up from a preposterous distance from goal (and at a seemingly impossible angle to boot) and fires it into the opposite corner as if it was nothing. To make it even more impressive, this was in a semi-final.
“I haven't felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!” Few goals become parts of popular culture but that’s exactly what happened to this wonderful individual effort from Gemmill when it was mentioned in Trainspotting. The pint-sized midfielder skips past three Dutch players before calmly slotting home to give Scotland possibly their finest-ever moment at a World Cup.
There were few players that encapsulated the cult status that 90s football has amongst fans like Gheorge Hagi. ‘The Maradona of the Carpathians’ sees the keeper off of his line and scores an outrageous goal that only a player with his vision and talent could achieve.
Gheorghe Hagi Goal - World Cup 1994 - Group A | Colombia - Romania 1:3 | 34'www.youtube.com
15. Benjamin Pavard, France v Argentina, 2018
Despite winning the Champions League and three Bundesliga titles by the age of 26, it's fair to say that most fans will only ever remember Benjamin Pavard for this, which isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. The French defender latches on to a cross that evades everyone in the box only for him to hit a ferocious half-volley back into the top corner. The true majesty of the goal is only realised on the replays where it appears to defy the laws of physics and bends like Neo in The Matrix.
The magic of Maradona makes its second appearance on the countdown (don’t worry we’ll see him again). It's another one of his routine dribbles where he manages to avoid every defender on the pitch in the blink of an eye before sticking the ball in the back of the net. Although the goal against England rightly gets the praise it deserves this one should also get some love and it came in the match directly after the clash against the Three Lions.
We’re just gonna put this out there: Socrates is the coolest footballer ever. Not only was he a world-class player but he just dripped with rugged elegance and quiet charisma. This goal from the great Brazilian really sums up what he was all about. He sells not one but two dummies to two Soviet players before hitting a rocket into the top corner. This was the first goal scored by Brazil’s much-celebrated 1982 team and what a way to do it.
12. Esteban Cambiasso, Argentina v Serbia and Montenegro, 2006
Probably the second-greatest team goal ever scored in a World Cup. Although it was only against a fledgling Serbia and Montenegro team in the group stages you still have to sit back and admire the footballing masterclass on show. 24 passes make up this sublime goal before it is smashed home by former Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Leicester star Esteban Cambiasso.
Goal by Esteban Cambiasso. Argentina vs Serbia - Germany 2006 world cupwww.youtube.com
11. Bobby Charlton, England v Mexico, 1966
It’s a major cliche to say that modern footballers have it easy, but when you look at the type of balls that players had to kick around in the 1960s you kind of have to agree and it makes this goal from Bobby Charlton even more remarkable. The England legend picks the ball up in his own half, barrels down at the Mexicans and lashes the ball home with the type of strike that had become his trademark at the time. To make this even better, this was the first goal that England scored in at the 66 World Cup and we all know what came next.
Watching this classic goal back, it’s hard to believe just how deep Roberto Baggio is when he picks up the ball. He was almost in his own half, hugging the left touchline when he was given the ball, and from there, there was no stopping him. There’s so much poise to his elegant run, which saw him drift past the defenders with subtle shoulder drops and perfect close control. It’s also frozen in time with the perfect piece of commentary: “Baggio… Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes!”
This is like something from a video game, rather than a last-16 match from a World Cup. There’s a trick shot quality to the Manuel Negrete finish, which saw him fly through the air with a bicycle kick after the ball had pinged around the front line like a pinball machine. The interplay is mesmerising, the finish is scandalously good and it’s only right that this goal gets more attention and the love it deserves.
Manuel Negrete Mexico vs Bulgaria 1-0 1/8 Finals World Cup 1986 Dutch commentarywww.youtube.com
8. Pele, Brazil v Sweden, 1958
A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, as the cliche goes; Pele had it all, and scored this cheeky effort when he was just 17 and in the World Cup final as well. He flicks the ball audaciously over the head of a Swedish defender before making no mistake with the volley, drilling it low into the back of the net. It was right at the start of his career and while the numbers kept coming and coming, with an incredible 77 international goals over the course of his career, this remains his best-ever effort for Brazil.
James Rodriguez might be the ultimate World Cup footballer. He was unstoppable back in 2014 when he popped up with this, one of the greatest volleys ever scored in the history of the tournament. The touch off the chest, the swivel and the rocket of a left boot onto the bar and down make for one of the most aesthetically pleasing goals ever scored in the tournament.
A big move to Real Madrid followed, but his career hasn’t lived up to the promise this goal suggested. Then again, not many careers would have done.
The goal that announced Michael Owen on the world stage. A stunning touch takes the ball from behind him, latching on to a ball forward from David Beckham and striking fear into the back line. Back then, Owen was pretty much the complete package as a player, and he showed his pace and dribbling prowess before floating the ball into the net. The only strange thing about this goal is the positioning of the centre back, who decided to stand bolt upright 30 yards behind his partner on the edge of the box.
Maxi Rodriguez is another enigmatic South American who had an unbelievable time at World Cups, but never quite translated it at club level. He never quite did it for Liverpool after signing four years after, but if you do something like this, you’ll be enshrined in World Cup folklore forever. The technique on display here is incredible, and this just pips the James Rodriguez volley on account of it being from a tighter angle. Both are well worth their place in the top 10.
Maxi Rodriguez vs Mexico - World Cup 2006 #Greatestworldcupgoalswww.youtube.com
4. Robin Van Persie, Netherlands v Spain, 2014
Not only our favourite headed goal in World Cups, but probably the single greatest header ever scored. This is a truly special effort from the most in-form striker in the world at the time. Robin Van Persie is parallel to the ground by the time he connects with a beautiful long ball from Daley Blind, guiding it past Iker Casillas and making the most elegant of goals look painfully easy.
The best goal scored by perhaps the best international football team of all time. This one was scored on the way to Brazil’s romping 4-1 victory against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico, and it was a stunning way for them to wrap things up.
It’s absolutely made by the nonchalant pass from Pele, who just knows Alberto will be there without having to look. The fact the Brazilian captain doesn’t have to break his stride before hammering the ball home makes it all the more satisfying, and the feel of the goal just summed up the strutting confidence of the side absolutely in their pomp at the 1970 tournament. Remarkably this was the only World Cup that Alberto ever played in as knee injuries prevented him from participating in any future tournaments.
He loved scoring worldies, and this Dennis Bergkamp effort is the kind of football that would make any fan weak at the knees. It’s a great long ball put forward, but Bergkamp still has a huge amount to do when he brings the ball down deftly out of the sky. He shows imagination and skill in equal measure to chop back inside the defender instantly, before controlling a beautiful finish into the far corner.
There is still a little debate around one of his other great goals – the inspired flick around Newcastle’s Nikos Dabizaz that he scored for Arsenal, which some still claim he fluked – but there is absolutely no doubting the intention and supreme skill on display with this one.
As close to the perfect solo goal you’ll ever see, and it came during one of the most infamous England games ever, too. Maradona, a mercurial talent in a league of his own, was at the absolute peak of his powers in the 1986 tournament. He shows a bit of everything in there; explosive pace, close control on a pitch that looked more like a cow field than a World Cup, as well as skill and composure even when hurtling toward goal. He ghosted past the likes of Peter Reid in midfield, before taking it around Peter Shilton and finishing off the most impressive run in the history of the tournament.
It was so flawless, in fact, that even the England players wanted to go and congratulate him. “I felt like going [applauds],” Gary Lineker told BBC Sport recently, describing how in awe he was of the Argentine even when playing against him. “How can you do that on this pitch, in these conditions in the quarter-final of a World Cup against England?"