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World Cup: 10 of the tournament’s most controversial moments

World Cup moments
Charles Perrin - Author

Betting expert

English betting expert and writer. Huge Tottenham supporter, and aside from being an avid soccer fan, has a keen interest in golf and tennis. Produces betting tips, reviews and sports articles.

Like any other major tournament, the World Cup hasn’t been immune to controversy, and it has often provoked serious talking points over the years. Of course, there will be continued debate about whether the 2022 World Cup should have been awarded to Qatar. Former FIFA chief Sepp Blatter even admitted he was regretful of what happened, and labeled it as a mistake. Nevertheless, there are always a few standout moments from a World Cup that will incur the wrath of and even amuse fans in equal measure.

We have delved into the archives, and we have unlocked the vault on 10 of the most controversial moments to have cast a pall over the World Cup. These are in no particular order, but they warrant being included in our carefully curated list.

Hand of God (1986)

When you think of the Hand of God, of course a certain Diego Maradona springs to mind. The mercurial Argentine was a talisman for his country, but at times, trouble seemed to follow him. Whether you love or loathe him, Maradona lit up the 1986 World Cup. And against England in the quarter-finals, Maradona leaped into the air to challenge England goalkeeper Peter Shilton for a high ball. Maradona proceeded to flap his left hand and punch the ball into the net. The referee was seemingly oblivious to the incident, and the goal amazingly stood. This coined the term ‘Hand of God’, and at a recent auction, the infamous ball sold for $2.4 million.

Battle of Santiago (1962)

Full-bloodied challenges are part and parcel of the beautiful game, and while there have been suggestions that tackling is a dying art, Italy v Chile’s group match was incredibly intense. Well, the first 12 seconds of the game set the tone that it was going to be a long afternoon. And just eight minutes later, Italian midfielder Giorgio Ferrini was sent off, with police escorting him off the pitch. Punches and verbal exchanges continued to be thrown about, with police being repeatedly called upon to take action. Italy may have won the game 2-0, but this was a match that was more like full on warfare.

Harald Schumacher flies out of control (1982)

Goalkeepers have often been notorious figures at World Cups, and nobody will have forgotten Harald Schumacher in a hurry! During a semi-final tie for Germany against France, Schumacher came haring out of his goal and clattered into Patrick Battiston. It could only be described as a horror challenge, but remarkably it wasn’t deemed a foul and Germany reached the final after victory in a penalty shoot-out.

Unfortunately for Battiston, he was left grimacing. He received oxygen on the pitch, lost two teeth, cracked three ribs, and damaged his vertebrae.

Ronaldo mystery (1998)

The 1998 World Cup was when Ronaldo came alive. Widely viewed as one of the best strikers on the planet at the time, this was supposed to be his crowning moment. But just a few hours before the Final against France, Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit. He was taken to the hospital and dropped from the team before he was reinstated. However, Ronaldo looked like a pale shadow of his normal self, and Brazil lost 3-0 in the Stade de France.

Frank Lampard ‘ghost goal’ (2010)

There was a time before goal-line technology and VAR, but things would often get missed. Trailing 2-1 to Germany in a Round of 16 encounter at the 2010 World Cup, Frank Lampard thought he had grabbed the equalizer when his long-range effort rocketed past Manuel Neuer, clipped the underside of the bar, and crossed the line.

But much to everyone’s bafflement, the referees deemed that the whole ball hadn’t crossed the line, and the goal was chalked off. After that moment, the confidence seemed to sap from England, and they were left to rue what could have been.

Luis Suarez handball (2010)

He may be described as a pesky character, and Luis Suarez is no stranger to controversy. Things were finely poised at 2-2 in the World Cup quarter-final between Ghana and Uruguay when Suarez intervened. Suarez blocked Dominic Adiyiah’s header on the line, and he was sent off, but Asamoah Gyan blasted his spot kick over the bar. Suarez seemed to be gloating when he was dismissed, and he has that win-at- all-costs mentality. However, Suarez had the last laugh as Uruguay prevailed in the shoot-out to reach the last four.

Frank Rijkaard spitting storm (1990)

Spitting is frowned upon in soccer, but frankly, there’s been little done to curb this disgusting habit. But spitting at fellow players is a step too far. And in the Round of 16 clash between Germany and the Netherlands, there was certainly a bit of underlying tension in the air. And the game was overshadowed when Frank Rijkaard spat not once, but twice at Rudi Voller, and the pair were sent off. It was a rather unsavory moment, and that game will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Zinedine Zidane headbutt (2006)

A master of his craft during his playing days, Zinedine Zidane played with panache and flair, and he was one of the best midfielders of his generation.

But things unraveled in spectacular fashion against Italy in the World Cup Final in 2006. After putting France ahead from the penalty spot in extra time, Zidane went from hero to villain when he inexplicably headbutted Marco Materazzi in the chest, and he was promptly sent off. Zidane disappeared down the tunnel, and Italy ended up hoisting the World Cup. It was to be Zidane’s last international game for France, and it was hardly the way he would have liked to have bowed out.

Rivaldo dive (2002)

Diving is a shameful aspect of the game, and Rivaldo tried to hoodwink the referee with his theatrics for Brazil against Turkey in a World Cup group game. With Rivaldo later preparing to take a corner, Turkey’s Hakan Unsal fired the ball in his direction. Despite striking him in the knee, Rivaldo collapsed in a heap and he was clutching his face. However, Rivaldo got his revenge as Unsal was dismissed, and the Brazilian legend struck home the winning penalty with three minutes left on the clock. 

Graham Poll yellow card confusion (2006)

Anyone who knows a thing or two about soccer will be fully aware that two yellow cards will result in a red. Someone probably ought to explain that to Graham Poll. At the time, Poll was on top of his game and one of the most respected officials. But he was ridiculed in a 2006 World Cup group game between Croatia and Australia.

Josip Simunic was booked for a foul in the 61st minute on Harry Kewell., and then in the 90th minute, he got a second yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Kewell again. But it was only when Simunic was cautioned for the third time in the 93rd minute that Poll brandished the red card. There was to be no reprieve for Poll as he was removed from the referee pool for the rest of the tournament before he announced his retirement.