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The 5 greatest World Cups ever

They're all great, but which is the greatest?

The 5 greatest World Cups ever
21 November 2022

Every World Cup is a special event but, like your children, there’s always one that you secretly love a little bit more than the others.

Which is why we present the definitive ranking of the five best World Cup Finals tournaments ever.

There may be some England bias, for which we make no apology. Sit back and reminisce.

Main image credit: FIFA

5. South Korea/Japan '02

Best team: Led by the real Ronaldo, who won the golden boot with 8 goals, Brazil were the winners, striding through a tournament where many other fancied teams fell, comprehensively beating Germany 2-0 in the final.

Biggest shock: Where to start? The 2002 World Cup was great precisely because it was so unpredictable, starting with the very first match, when holders France lost 1-0 to Senegal; they would go out after finishing bottom of the group and not scoring a single goal. Hugely questionable refereeing saw South Korea stun Italy in the second round, before overcoming Spain to secure an astonishing semi-final place. Meanwhile the United States shocked Portugal in the first round to send them home, before being edged out by eventual finalists Germany in the second round. As if that wasn't enough, Turkey took advantage of an unexpectedly favourable draw to reach the semi-finals for the first time.

Memorable moments: David Beckham's Argentinian penalty revenge was an incredible moment for him and England fans everywhere, but a less welcome memory was undoubtedly Ronaldinho's floated 42-yard winner in the quarter-final - was it a fluke or genius? As time has progressed, we're edging towards the latter.

And another thing: The third place game between South Korea and Turkey saw the fastest-ever finals goal; Hakan Şükür netting after just 11 seconds. Meanwhile, Germany destroyed Saudi Arabia 8-0 in one of the most one-sided finals games ever.

4. England '66

Best team: Well, of course, that would be England, as Alf Ramsay's wingless wonders started slowly, with a 0-0 draw against Uruguay, before winning every subsequent game, conceding just one goal prior to the final, where an epic 4-2 win in extra-time saw the first and only World Cup Final hat-trick, from Geoff Hurst.

Biggest shock:North Korea stunned Italy with a 1-0 win at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park and qualified for the next round above them - the first time that a side from outside Europe or the Americas had made it out of the first round.

Memorable moments: You can't mention the '66 World Cup without referring to England's third goal in the final. Was it over the line or not? Only one thing matters, the Azerbaijani linesman Tofiq Bahramov thought it was in. The tournament also saw a series of incredible performances from the legendary Portuguese striker Eusebio; notable among them inspiring a comeback from 3-0 down against North Korea, to triumph 5-3.

And one more thing: There was panic in the build-up to the tournament as the Jules Rimet trophy was stolen from an exhibition but, luckily, a furry friend came to the rescue, as a dog named Pickles discovered it, wrapped in paper, underneath some bushes in London. A new hero was found.

3. Mexico '86

Best team:Argentina were worthy winners, inspired by the genius/devil (delete as applicable England fans) that was Diego Armando Maradona. They exhibited flair and style the whole way through the tournament, culminating in a pulsating 3-2 win against West Germany in the final.

Biggest shock:Morocco were the surprise package of the finals, topping a group containing England, Poland and Portugal before narrowly losing out to the West Germans in the second round.

Memorable moments: As well as Maradona's 'Hand of God' and his 'Goal of the Century', he also scored another, almost forgotten, belter against Belgium in the semi-final. Mexico '86 also saw one of the all-time great matches: an epic quarter-final between Brazil and France which eventually ended with Platini's men progressing on penalties.

And if that wasn’t enough: The 1986 tournament saw the invention of the Mexican wave, so bored spectators at sporting events would never again have to just sit there and suffer in silence. England’s Gary Lineker took home the golden boot with 6 goals, so that gets our vote.

2. Italia '90

Best team: Old faithful West Germany may have won it, beating a dour Argentinian side who had struggled to the final via two penalty-shoot out wins, but the stars of the show were the indomitable lions of Cameroon, led by the 40-year-old-but-probably-older Roger Milla. They attacked with flair and gave England a massive fright in the quarter-finals; more than that, they brought African football well and truly onto the world stage.

Biggest shock: The very first game of the tournament saw Cameroon shock the world champions Argentina with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win, which featured one of the greatest tackles of all time.

Memorable moments: Gazza's tears won the hearts of a nation, Waddle's penalty is still in orbit, Costa Rica humiliated Scotland, Ireland achieved a glorious quarter-final performance and Italy's Toto Schillachi came from nowhere to win the golden boot.

Why it's number 2: Italia '90 had the best mascot, the best theme tune in Nessun Dorma and the best on-screen graphics. The final World Cup before the advent of the Premier and Champions League, it was the last to take place before the dominance of money and where it really was the pinnacle of a player's career.

1. Mexico '70

Best team: Won by the team of the tournament, and one of the finest teams to ever play the game, the Brazil side was packed full of legends and pure flair: Carlos Alberto, Pelé, Gérson, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Tostão were all present and correct: they won every single qualifying game and all six games at the finals.

Biggest shock: With 22 minutes of their quarter-final left, an England team improved from the '66 version were crusing 2-0 against their former final opponents West Germany. Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters were substituted to save them for the semis - and West Germany roared back to win 3-2 and stun Alf Ramsay's lions.

Memorable moments: Brazil's triumph was beautiful and complete, playing the perfect final, destroying Italy 4-1 and scoring the perfect goal - Carlos Alberto's 4th. Earlier on, the tournament saw the perfect tackle by Bobby Moore and the perfect save by Gordon Banks - in the same match, a 1-0 win for Brazil against the reigning champions England.

Why it’s number 1: It had the highest goals-per-game ratio of any World Cup Finals, it was the first tournament to be broadcast in colour and Mexico proved a flamboyant and welcoming host.