It’s not uncommon to hear football fans lament the modern game, with many feeling that an over-emphasis on club football has led to international tournaments shrinking in stature.
However, the excitement that surrounds the FIFA World Cup can never be matched by a club game because the tournament has witnessed some of the greatest performers ever write their name in history.
Arguably the first such example is Brazil legend Pele, who was an unknown 17-year old when he played his first tournament at Sweden in 1958.
He found himself on the score-sheet in both the semi-finals and the finals, where he scored a hat-trick and brace, respectively, as Brazil lifted their maiden World Cup.
He only played one game in 1962 and in 1966 Brazil failed to make it out of the group stages, thanks in no small part to Pele getting the worst of some excessive fouling from the opposition.
The 1966 campaign left a bitter taste in his mouth and he vowed never to play another World Cup thereafter. However, he was back four years later as Brazil won the tournament for the third time.
Maradona at his best
Diego Maradona is another who, like Pele, is remembered as one of the greatest of all time largely due to his World Cup performances.
His first bow in 1982 ended in disappointment but all that was forgotten four years later. The 1986 tournament saw him score five goals and notch five assists en route to Argentina’s second World Cup win.
But it was in the quarter-final vs. England that he cemented his legacy, scoring the controversial ‘Hand of God’ as well as a solo goal so beautiful it was voted ‘Goal of the Century’ in 2002.
His World Cup career ended on a sour note in 1994 with a failed drugs test, but not even that could paper over his achievements.
The Messi-Ronaldo dilemma
Easily the biggest debate in modern football is whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can stake a claim to being the best of all time.
Shattering records has become a norm for both these players at club level, to the point where most don’t even feel surprised when they add to their list of achievements.
However, there are many who believe that neither can truly call themselves the greatest without winning a World Cup.
Whether or not this school of thought is correct, it highlights the importance fans give and will continue to give the FIFA World Cup.
THERE ARE STARS, AND THEN THEM
Like every edition, this World Cup too will throw up a few stars. But there are some we know are designed to thrill. Hindustan Times takes a look at five superstars, the finest of their creed who are likeliest to steal the show in Russia
LIONEL MESSIMATCHES: 124 | GOALS: 64Closest to Diego Maradona in terms of playmaking and scoring acumen, Messi has won it all at club level but the World Cup. Defeats in the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Copa America final forced him to call it quits but he came back eventually. This may be a team game but trust Argentina to again depend on their favourite one-man army.
CRISTIANO RONALDOMATCHES: 149 | GOALS: 81Like Messi, Ronaldo wasn’t able to replicate club-level glory at international level till Portugal became European champions in 2016. The World Cup would literally be the last feather in the cap of the five-time Ballon D’Or winner who is fresh off winning his fifth Champions League title.
NEYMARMATCHES: 83 | GOALS: 53Right now, the most expensive player in the world is working hard to regain his fitness after an ankle surgery. Neymar will be keen to make up for the disappointment of 2014 when Brazil tanked in the semi-finals where Germany whipped them 7-1. In fine form for Paris Saint-Germain this season, Neymar will be keen to replicate that form at this World Cup.
ANTOINE GRIEZMANNMATCHES: 52 | GOALS: 19Griezmann took his game to another level after joining Atletico Madrid in 2014. Thereafter, he never scored less than 25 goals in a season. That form helped him become a regular starter for France. This summer, he will be the focal point of an extremely talented and robust French side looking to claim their second World Cup title.
HARRY KANEMATCHES: 23 | GOALS: 12To lead England in a World Cup is a massive job but Kane has taken huge strides over the past few years and was easily the best choice. The Tottenham striker has seen his stock rise considerably thanks to consistent goal-scoring and a developed overall game. England’s Euro 2016 campaign was forgettable but they have a young squad for the first time in years. With someone as prolific as Kane leading the line, teams would do well not to take Gareth Southgate’s men lightly.
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