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How The Final World Cup Went For Eight Of Football's Greatest

How The Final World Cup Went For Eight Of Football's Greatest
By Eoin Harrington
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For Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, 2022 marks the final opportunity to add a World Cup to their respective glittering trophy cabinets.

They have both had standout moments on football's biggest stage over the years - Ronaldo's hat trick against Spain in 2018, and Messi's heroics in dragging Argentina to the 2014 final come to mind instantly.

But the trophy is missing. We went back through the history books to explore how eight of football's greatest ever players fared on their final World Cup outing. The results are varied and suggest that, even if neither Messi nor Ronaldo can add that most coveted of trophies to their list of honours, they can still hope to go down in the competition's history.

How the greats fared on their final World Cup appearances

Diego Maradona: Sent home in disgrace (USA '94)

Having led Argentina to their second World Cup in 1986, Diego Maradona made a sensational comeback to the national team ahead of the 1994 finals in the USA. Bookending that '86 win and the run to the final in 1990 are a red card at Spain 1982, and a shameful exit on his final World Cup appearance.


In the opening game of the tournament against Greece, Maradona finished with aplomb in a 4-0 win, before producing an eye-catching celebration, as he wildly ran towards a pitchside camera with eyes popping and screamed down the lens.

Mere days later, he would be sent home in disgrace after failing a drugs test, and that opener against Greece would ultimately go down as his final ever World Cup goal. Without Maradona, Argentina were eliminated by Romania in the last 16.

Zinedine Zidane: Sent off in the final as Golden Ball winner (Germany 2006)

Zinedine Zidane departs the pitch after being sent off in the 2006 World Cup final (Photo: Shutterstock)

The 2006 World Cup was not merely Zinedine Zidane's final appearance at the tournament - it would draw the curtain once and for all on his career, with the Frenchman announcing his retirement was imminent ahead of the tournament in Germany.

He was in blistering form once again at the finals, playing an influential role in the French last 16 and quarter final victories over Spain and Brazil. After scoring the only goal of the semi-final win over Portugal, Zidane was named the player of the tournament, as he prepared to captain France in the final against Italy.


He opened the scoring and, even after Materazzi equalised, the game was still finely balanced. Until...well, you know the rest. A remarkable headbutt on Materazzi drew a red card for Zidane, and he trundled off the pitch in the final game of his career - and, arguably, the biggest, in disgrace. Italy would win the shootout, and FIFA changed their policy, so that the player of the tournament was now to be named after the final game. Probably a wise call.

READ HERE: Five Teenagers Who Will Be Household Names After This Year's World Cup

Ronaldo Nazario: Quarter-final disappointment despite records broken (Germany 2006)

Ronaldo celebrates scoring against Ghana at the 2002 World Cup (Photo: Shutterstock)

For the original Ronaldo, the 2006 World Cup was a bittersweet experience. After the 1998 final incident, and the 2002 redemption, "R9" came into the 2006 tournament with a chance of claiming the accolade of being the tournament's all time top goalscorer.

He sealed the deal with his last 16 goal against Ghana, overtaking German legend Gerd Muller with his 15th World Cup finals goal. That would proceed quarter-final heartbreak, however, as Brazil's modern trend of collapsing against European nations in the knockout stages began with a last eight defeat to France. It would be Ronaldo's last World Cup game.


Miroslav Klose: Winner, and all-time top goalscorer (Brazil 2014)

Miroslav Klose celebrates after scoring Germany's second goal of the 2014 World Cup semi-final (Photo: Shutterstock)

Ronaldo's record would be taken just eight years later, with German Miroslav Klose having a much happier ending to his World Cup career than the Brazilian.


Ironically, it was a humiliating defeat for Ronaldo's native Brazil in which R9's record vanished, with Klose scoring the second goal in Germany's 7-1 semi-final win in Belo Horizonte.

He would then start the final, which Germany won 1-0 against Messi's Argentina, ensuring that Klose retired as both the World Cup's leading goal scorer, and a winner of football's most famous competition.


READ HERE: The Irish Reason To Support Every Team At The 2022 World Cup

Andres Iniesta: Penalty shootout disaster against the hosts (Russia 2018)

Gerard Piqué consoles Andres Iniesta after Spain's last 16 defeat to Russia in 2018 (Photo: Shutterstock)

Scorer of the winning goal in the 2010 final, it was all downhill from there for the great Andres Iniesta when it came to World Cups.

The 2014 edition saw Spain eliminated at the group stages with a single win to their name, while they would experience heartbreak on Iniesta's final World Cup outing in 2018.

Drawn against hosts Russia in the last 16, Spain were taken to penalties - Iniesta would score the opening spot-kick for the Spaniards, before misses from Koke and Aspas saw them eliminated 5-3 - a far cry from the glory of the 2010 final in Johannesburg.

Johan Cruyff: Heartbreak on his sole World Cup appearance (West Germany 1974)

It is remarkable, given his legacy, that Johan Cruyff only played in one World Cup.

He certainly made his mark at that 1974 tournament, as a central figure of the great Netherlands team which reached the final against hosts West Germany. Playing a style branded as "total football", the Dutch side were renowned for the vibrancy of their play, and were the people's favourites ahead of the final.

Despite taking the lead without the Germans even touching the ball, it wasn't to be for Cruyff and co., with West Germany ultimately winning 2-1. The Dutch legend remains the only name on this list who never won football's biggest prize, and it is a great shame, especially given he was the star player of the 1974 tournament.

READ HERE: 9 Of The Worst Signings Made On The Back Of A World Cup

Franz Beckenbauer: Goes out on top on home soil (West Germany 1974)

One of only three men to win the World Cup both as captain and manager, Franz Beckenbauer went out in style on home soil in 1974.

As captain of a West German side that had lost the 1966 final, and reached the 1970 semi-finals, 1974 felt like the year to finally get over the line for this side.

Against Cruyff's Netherlands in the final, the Germans did just that, showing great resolve to fight back from 1-0 down and win the World Cup for a second time. Beckenbauer would then go on to win the 1990 tournament as West German manager.

Pele: Cements legacy as part of one of the all-time great teams (Mexico 1970)

Perhaps the greatest final chapter of all of the above, Pele arguably saved his best World Cup until last, as part of the iconic 1970 Brazilian team.

Having been targeted by rough defensive tactics at the 1966 tournament, Pele returned with a bang in 1970, scoring four goals, including one in the final, as Brazil romped to a third World Cup win in just 12 years.

It is a mark of how good Pele was at the tournament that, despite scoring four, it is three misses that have nearly become more memorable - his near miss from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia, his sensational dummy against Uruguay before shooting just wide, and the remarkable save by Gordon Banks from his downward header against England.

Nonetheless, this was one of the great World Cup performances, and cemented Pele's legacy. He remains the only player ever to have won the World Cup three times.

SEE ALSO: World Cup Warm-Up: Paul Howard On Saipan, Spain 1982, And Messi

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