Disclaimer: as they are almost universally overrated and constantly included in lists of this type instead of more deserving and technically challenging goals, this list is a dipping-volley-free zone. The best goals are the result of vision, imagination and intelligent decision-making – they do not result from hopeful crosses, poor clearances and bouncing balls that naturally dip when the striker puts his or her laces through them.
10. Hasan Şaş – Turkey vs Brazil, 2002 Group C
A nice, tight little move that begins with three midfielders seizing on a loose touch with the type of ferocity we’d later come to expect from a Jürgen Klopp side. Yıldıray Baştürk, latterly of Blackburn Rovers non-fame, takes the baton and shows admirable upper-body strength before splitting Brazil’s defence with a frankly ludicrous diagonal, leaving Hasan Şaş to power his shot in at the near post. The less said about Marcos’ goalkeeping the better.
9. Rivaldo – Brazil vs England, 2002 Quarter Final
A perfect counter-attack, capitalising on opposition uncertainty and punishing it to the maximum with ruthless aggression. Remembered in England for coming to pass because David Beckham jumped out of a tackle to protect his fragile metatarsal, the goal is really all about Ronaldinho’s intelligent drive through the middle, which covers forty yards and scares the wits out of Ashley Cole, whose obvious terror spooks covering defenders Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell. Ice cool as ever, Brazil’s number 11 releases the ball at the ideal moment and Rivaldo ruthlessly curls it into the far corner.
8. Javier Saviola – Argentina vs Ivory Coast, 2006 Group C
In which the Ivory Coast commit a cardinal sin: standing off of Juan Román Riquelme. Afforded that kind of space, Riquelme plays a typically sumptuous through-ball that takes six Ivorians out of the game and leaves Javier Saviola with a tap-in. Riquelme’s best moment in the World Cup he should have finished as both champion and the best player.
7. Alessandro Del Piero – Italy vs Germany, 2006 Semi Final
A fitting climax to what probably stands as the best World Cup match of the 21st century to date. In the dying moments of extra-time, Germany had just gone behind to a Fabio Grosso goal and subsequently threw everyone forward. Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro makes two heroic defensive contributions, first winning a header in his own box and then sprinting twenty yards out to win the second ball. This sets in motion an end-to-end counter that concludes with a perfect backheel from Alberto Gilardino and an arrowed finish from Alessandro Del Piero. It was the last kick of the game and possibly the best.
6. Thomas Müller – Germany vs England, 2010 Round of 16
A masterpiece of planning: with Frank Lampard stood over a free-kick some thirty-five yards out, Germany bring everyone back and assemble a three-man wall of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller. To England, this seems to confirm that their attack will be dangerous. If the opposition have brought everyone back, then it must be with good cause: they send everyone bar Ashley Cole forward. The Germans, however, have done their homework, and know that Lampard is very likely (almost guaranteed, in fact) to crash his shot into the wall and allow them to break. Lampard does exactly that and Schweinsteiger, Özil and Müller are away. The former carries the ball half the length of the pitch, slightly left of the centre, while the latter peels away to the far post. Özil drives through the middle, pinning the covering Lampard and Cole in place and leaving Müller free. Schweinsteiger delays the pass and finds him at just the right moment. Müller gives David James the eyes and lashes his shot into the near post. Poetry in motion.
5. Jared Borgetti – Mexico vs Italy, 2002 Group G
The best thing about this goal, apart from the insane angle that Jared Borgetti finds to place his header into the far corner, is that Italy only make one small, minor error and concede because of it. The Azzurri are quite happy to let Mexico have the ball and they assemble two banks of four behind it. The Mexicans gain yards, playing safe passes down the left flank and making intelligent runs off the ball, but the Italians are, so they believe, sitting pretty when the ball comes down to the corner flag. The Italian mistake – if you could even call it that – happens here, as everyone on the pitch assumes that a cross will follow. Instead of whipping the ball into the box, however, they ping it back out, up the flank and into the centre of the pitch, where Cuauhtémoc Blanco has found acres of space. His high ball to Borgetti leaves the forward with a lot to do – even more when you consider that he is marked by Paolo Maldini, perhaps the only defender around who could read the situation – but he produces a rabbit from the hat and scores a World Cup classic in the process.
4. Siphiwe Tshabalala – South Africa vs Mexico, 2010 Group A
Painfully described as “a goal for all of Africa!” by ITV’s cringe-master-general Peter Drury, the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup would prove to be its best. First, the South African team assembles in a very deep 6-2-2 formation, with the wide-midfielders having dropped back to act as auxiliary full-backs and deny Mexico any space out wide. Almost devoid of options, the Mexicans try to work the ball through the middle but their intentions are predictable and their move easily cut out. By contrast, South Africa are unhesitant, purposeful and ruthless. Tshabalala begins the sprint that would change his life almost as soon as the ball turns over and, after running half of the length of the pitch, controls Kagisho Dikgacoi’s perfectly-weighted through-ball with one touch and powers a shot into the postage stamp.
3. Fernando Torres – Spain vs Ukraine, 2006 Group H
For eight seconds on June 14, 2006, Carles Puyol forgot that he was Carles Puyol and somehow came to believe that he was, in fact, Diego Maradona. The results were spectacular. Pre-hammy-twang Fernando Torres gave them the finish they deserved.
2. Salif Diao – Senegal vs Denmark, 2002 Group A
Yet another counter-attack and by far the best of the lot. Having flooded their own penalty box with enough bodies to repel any Danish attack, Senegal spring out and travel the length of the pitch with four passes in fourteen seconds. Every individual element is perfect: the tackle to win the ball is as clean as a whistle, the first pass out firm and assertive, the flick-and-spin from El-Hadji Diouf perfectly executed, Diao’s low switch and lung-buster through the middle are both executed with absolute precision, and his finish is brilliantly nonchalant. It is a masterpiece of how to turn defence into attack. Understandably, José Mourinho watches this goal every night before he goes to bed.
1. Peter Crouch – England vs Trinidad & Tobago, 2006 Group B
1. Esteban Cambiasso – Argentina vs Serbia, 2006 Group C
The greatest goal in World Cup history bar none. My words cannot come close to doing it justice, so I will use someone else’s: “I swear you will never see anything like this ever again: Watch it! Drink it in!”