Fans around the world invest time, money, and emotion into their beloved teams. Why? Because soccer is steeped in more than a century of historic matches. Each year, new matches are written into the history books, bragging rights change ownership, and the big matches take on even more meaning.
Here, we take a look at the most significant matches in the history of soccer.
Because this is an almost impossible task, we need some criteria to level the playing field. The significance of historic matches, as we document them here, breaks down into three categories:
- History - How long has the match been in the history books? What bearing did the match have on the future of the game? How did the match impact the geographic region in which it was played (or the world as a whole)?
- Quality of Play - Which players were involved? What style of play did the manager employ? Which goals, saves, or specific moments left their mark on the game?
- Emotional Investment - How many lives were changed by this match? How many tears were shed (either euphorically or in devastation)? How did the match impact soccer fandom as a whole?
Brazil v. England | June 7, 1970 | FIFA World Cup - Group C match
“Players go into some matches with the certain knowledge that the result will stay with them, however submerged, for the rest of their lives. Defeat will deposit a small, ineradicable sediment, just as victory will leave a few tiny bubbles of pleasure that can never quite disappear. Brazil v England was that kind of match.” -Hugh McIlvanney, the Guardian.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated match in history. Brazil played the best attacking football that anyone had ever seen with the likes of Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivellino complementing Pele.
England played the best tactical football that anyone had ever seen. They were arguably stronger than the World Cup winning squad from 1966. Anything that managed to find its way through defensive cracks would surely be stopped by Gordon Banks. Bobby Charlton (1966 Ballon D’Or winner, England leading goal-scorer (until Rooney 2015), knighted by the queen in 1994 for his services to football) was playing in his fourth World Cup. He is still regarded as one of the best midfielders to play the game.
England were not just great in defense. They moved the ball very well in attack and created threatening chances. Francis Lee nearly scored on a diving header in the first half. It was Pele’s header in the first half that will always be remembered though. A cross came from the right side, Pele appeared to be flying to get up for the header. His form was perfect, heading the ball down and hard at the goal line. But Gordon Banks got down quick and pushed the ball off of the line and over the bar. In Pele’s words, “Without question the greatest save I have ever seen.”
On the sixty minute mark the number nine, Tostao, nutmegged Bobby Moore to cut into the left side of the box, he beat another english defender before sending in a cross. Hardly flexing a muscle, Pele controlled the cross and poked a perfect ball in front of Jairzinho who sent it over Banks, into the roof of the net. 1-0 Brazil.
England continued to play great soccer, creating a flurry of chances in the remaining thirty minutes, any of which could have easily turned the tide of the match. But it was Brazil’s moment in the end, and they carried that momentum to the final. On the match, the great Bobby Charlton said, “Even we were impressed...That is what the game at the top is all about. There was everything in that, all the skills and techniques, all the tactical control, the lot.” June 7, 1970 “The Final that Might Have Been”.
Italy v. West Germany | June 17, 1970 | FIFA World Cup Semi-Final
10 days later and 300 miles away, another historic match took place between Italy and West Germany in the semi-final. West Germany entered the semi-final with a 3-2 extra time win over England. Their belief going into the match was that if they could score three goals against England, they could beat any team in the world. Italy on the other hand, walked past the hosts, Mexico, 4-1 in their semi-final.
Eight minutes into the match Roberto Boninsegna combined with Luigi Riva to get behind the brick wall of German defenders and half-volley the ball into the back of the net before German goalkeeper, Sepp Maier, could move his feet. Italy, unsurprisingly, parked the bus. German captain Uwe Seeler was playing in his fourth consecutive World Cup, Franz Beckenbauer had youthful flair, and Gerd Muller had clinical goal-scoring ability. It looked like all of that might amount to nothing. In the 67th minute, Beckenbauer was thumped by Italian defender Pierluigi Cera in the box. The referee called the foul outside of the box. Beckenbauer stayed on the ground. Germany had already used their two (yes two) substitutions allowed. Beckenbauer’s shoulder was dislocated and he played the remainder of the match with his arm in a sling.
The German will to win was still somehow still alive. Grabowski found the ball on the flank and sent in a cross towards Karl Heinz Schnellinger. Schnellinger connected clinically and sent the game into extra time.
Then the match began. If there was ever a pure argument against golden goal, this match was it. Gerd Muller scored in the 4th minute of extra time to give the lead to Germany. Tarcisio Burgnich responded responded four minutes later to level and then Gigi Riva scored in the 104th minute to take the lead back. The Germans, playing with 10 and a half men (although Beckenbauer in a sling was still probably one of the best players in the world), were not prepared to concede the loss. Gerd Muller pounced on a ball in the area to find the equalizer, as well as his TENTH goal of the tournament. But it was the Italian substitute Gianni Rivera that found Italy’s critical fourth goal in the 111th minute that sent Italy to the final against Brazil.
Uwe Seeler expressed perhaps the most gracious acceptance of defeat in soccer history; “If we had to play in the final against Brazil after our extra-time games against England and Italy, we would lose by five. This way, we get to go home as the happy heroes in defeat.” Seeler was right. Italy lost to Brazil 4-1 in the final. June 17, 1970 “The Greatest Game of the Century”.
Liverpool v. AC Milan | May 25, 2005 | Champions League Final
AC Milan were favored to win the final. The squad was an international dream team; Cafu, Hernan Crespo, Shevchenko, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, and Kaka, with Carlo Ancelotti as manager. Liverpool also had a heavy international influence from Jerzy Dudek, Sami Hyypia, Luis Garci, and Xabi Alonso. They were anchored by English legends Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Rafa Benitez was at the helm.
30 seconds into the match Kaka won a free kick on the right side. Andrea Pirlo dropped a peach of a ball on Paolo Maldini’s right foot and 52 seconds into the game, Maldini side volleyed the ball into the far corner. 1-0 Milan. Steven Gerrard and Liverpool were sending ballsinto dangerous areas and towards the end of the first half Luis Garcia appeared to win a penalty but the referee waved the hand ball off as incidental. One minute later, Hernan Crespo made it 2-0. Four minutes later, in the 45th minute, Kaka played an inch-perfect 50 yard through ball to split the Liverpool defenders, and Hernan Crespo lifted the ball over Jerzey Dudek with one touch. 3-0 Milan.
But Liverpool were the more determined team in the second half. Gerrard placed a header into the side netting in the 54th minute. 3-1 Milan. Two minutes later, Vladimir Smicer hammered a shot from range into the bottom left corner. 3-2 Milan. Four minutes after that, Baros laid a ball off to Steven Gerrard inside the box, but Gattuso pulled Stevie G down from behind. Penalty. Xabi Alonso stepped up to take. Alonso hit it hard, low, to the left. Dida made the save but Alonso followed up the shot and saw the ball into the roof of the net. 3-3.
The match could have ended 5-5. And the two periods of extra time could have made it 6-6. Jerzey Dudek saved an Andriy Shevchenko shot from 3 yards out. Inspired attack on both sides of the ball was met by desperate defending and brilliant goal-keeping. Penalties. Serginho steps up for Milan and sends his shot over the bar. Dietmar Hamann scores. 1-0 Liverpool. Andrea Pirlo’s shot is saved by Dudek. Djibril Cisse scores. 2-0 Liverpool. Tomasson scores for Milan. Riise goes low to the left and Dida uses every inch of his wingspan to make the save. 2-1 Liverpool. Kaka scores. Smicer scores. 3-2 Liverpool. The illustrious striker, Shevchenko must score. He takes a hard shot down the middle of the goal. Dudek dives right but his left hand darts back to deflect the ball away, making the critical save. Liverpool win the Champions League Trophy. “The Istanbul Miracle”
USA v. China | July 10, 1999 | Women’s FIFA World Cup Final
The 1999 Women’s World Cup is not just a historic event in soccer history, it is a historic event, full stop. The world, and especially the United States, stopped to watch nations compete on the biggest stage in the world. Matches were played in the largest stadiums around the country, and the stadiums were filled. Total attendance for all tournament matches exceeded 1.1 million fans from around the world. The event was the most-watched and most attended women’s sporting event in history. The 90,185 fans that filled the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California made up the largest crowd for any women’s sporting event. But the ‘99 World Cup was defined by the fact that it was an international event of epic proportions that brought the world together for one month.
In May of 1999, the United States bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in the course of a NATO mission titled Operation Allied Force. It was claimed to be an accident, but there were questions whether the Chinese would boycott the World Cup as a result. Rather than backing out, the Chinese women entered the tournament with political motivation; representing the power and advancement of their country on the international stage, on American grass.
On July 10, 1999 the Chinese and U.S. Women’s National Teams stepped onto the pitch in Pasadena, California in front of nearly 100,000 fans to compete for the World Cup. The match was a hard-fought test of nerves, with neither side creating any significant threats during regulation. In the 100th minute though, it looked like China would take the match. Fan Yunji fired a header over Brianna Scurry. Kristine Lilly headed the ball off of the goal line; one of the most heroic displays of defending in the history of the game. The match displayed incredible work rate though. In 1994 Michelle Akers received what for most would have been a career-ending diagnosis; Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. At the ‘96 Olympic Games, she needed intravenous fluids after each match. Medications that would have helped were banned by FIFA. So she managed her diet, and worked even harder. After 120 minutes of play, she needed assistance to walk off the field. She was the ultimate testament of the team’s work ethic and every player thrived off of her. In 2002 she shared the honor of “Player of the Century” with China’s Sun Wen.
The tightly contested final was decided by the ultimate test of nerves; penalties. Xie Huilin netted the first penalty for China. 1-0 China. Carla Overbeck matched. 1-1. Qiu Haiyan scored for China and Joy Fawcett for the U.S. 2-2. Liu Ying stepped up for China, facing a determined Scurry. Scurry controversially took three quick steps off of her line before Ying connected with the ball. Ying shot right, and Scurry made a clean save. Her double fist-pumping celebration still inspires chills. Kristine Lilly scored. 3-2 U.S.A. Zhang Ouying, Mia Hamm, and Sun wen each Converted. The score was 4-4 as the ambidextrous Brandi Chastain stepped up to take the fifth and final penalty for the U.S. Two knee surgeries kept Chastain out of the national team for several years. After playing striker her whole life, she accepted the position of left-back if it meant she could play with the national team again. She had hit a right-footed penalty into the crossbar in a friendly against China a few months prior. Dicicco asked Chastain to take the fifth penalty, and to take it with her left foot. She hit a perfect, untouchable penalty into the right side-netting. The stadium erupted. Chastain ripped off her jersey in one of the most iconic goal celebrations ever. Few people will ever know the feeling of hitting a World Cup winning penalty. The celebration was not a premeditated act. It was the ultimate celebration of a team and a nation that put everything on the line, and won it all.
The U.S. team that won the World Cup in 1999 might still be the best collection of female players to play the game. Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Brianna Scurry, Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, and Julie Fowdy. Individually, they were each tremendous talents. But it was the group and their chemistry, their grit, their energy and their character that fans around the nation latched on to. Since the ‘99 World Cup, female participation in youth soccer has increased over 500%.
If you look at the individual accolades of the ‘99 World Cup, the U.S. does not dominate. Sun Wen of China and Sissi of Brazil tied for Golden Boot with 7 goals each. The highest goal-scorer for the U.S. was Tiffeny Milbrett (tied with eight other women for third at the tournament) with 3 goals in the six matches played. Even more astonishing, The United States had five players with two goals and four players with one goal. Ten goal scorers in six matches. Furthermore, the U.S. did not have the most valuable, or even second-most valuable player of the tournament. Those accolades went to Sun Wen (Golden Ball) and Sissi (Silver Ball). Michelle Akers won the Bronze Ball, for third-best player in the tournament.
France v. Portugal | June 28, 2000 | UEFA EURO 2000 semi-final
France continues to produce some of the most technical players in the world. It’s hard to imagine though, that there will ever be a French side as talented, lethal, and purely great as the squad that won World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000.
This semi-final was one of the best displays of technical ability, team football, and goalkeeping. This match gets forgotten behind the great match that was the France v. Italy final, but this Portugal side, built around the likes of Luis Figo and Nuno Gomes, forced France to produce magic in this match.
Nuno Gomes produced an astounding off-balance volley in the 19th minute to beat Fabian Barthez from 25 yards out. The French were unphased. They played with incredible composure and immaculate timing. Zidane was impossible to stop, and Patrick Viera defined the role of a holding midfielder. After several sequences of precision passing Thierry Henry received the ball at the penalty spot with his back to goal, turned and fired a low shot through the legs of Fernando Couto to find the far corner and the equalizer. In the closing moments, Figo delivered an immaculate free kick that Xavier redirected with power onto goal. Somehow Barthez pushed it over the crossbar to send the game into extra time.
France continued to knock at Portugal’s door in extra time and a Xavier handball, that might have prevented a goal, gave France the decisive penalty. up and delivered a decisive penalty into the left roof of the net.
France beat Italy 2-1 in another golden goal match to become the first team to hold both the World Cup and the UEFA Euro Cup at the same time. June 28, 2000 “Zidane strikes Gold for France”.
Santos v. Nigeria | January 26, 1969
For 48 hours the Nigerian civil war came to a halt to watch Pele and “Os Santásticos” play against a selection of the top Nigerian footballers. This Santos F.C. side won a total of 25 titles between 1959 and 1974. Due to the white jerseys and the most fluid soccer that anyone had ever seen, the team became known in Brazilian Portuguese as “O Balé Branco” (the white ballet). Five other members of the 1962 World Cup champion squad played alongside Pele at Santos. They were affectionately referred to as “Pele’s friends.”
The Nigerian National team were a formidable force in world soccer at the time. At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, Nigeria played Brazil to a 3-3 draw. In this rematch of sorts, the Nigerians once again held the Brazilians to a draw; this time 2-2.
Important historic side note: Nigeria looked strong leading up to the 1966 World Cup. Unfortunately, all of the African nations boycotted that World Cup because FIFA only allowed one qualification spot out of Africa, Asia, and Oceania. By 1970, there was one qualification spot guaranteed for the continent of Africa. In other news, FIFA recently disbanded their coalition against racism in football because it’s “no longer an issue.
What do you think?
These matches have stood the test of time. They are remembered for the impact that they had on fans, on their hometowns, on their nations. Which matches did we leave out? Which ones will be remembered in the history books of the game?
Author: Nick Barron