Sunday 08 July 2018, 00:41

The 'late heroes' of the World Cup

  • ​The competition has a history of players 'coming to life' late in the event

  • Some of them have emerged as iconic figures of the tournament

  • There are candidates for this role in 2018 among the semi-finalists

The FIFA World Cup™ has a long history of players, who made few waves in the opening rounds, yet became heroes as the competition reached its crescendo. As this year's world finals reaches the last four, we look at some of these 'late heroes' of past World Cups, and some names that might be added to the list at Russia 2018.

Pele of Brazil takes on a Sweden defender in the 1958 FIFA World Cup Final

1958 – Pele

The 1958 tournament in Sweden is often remembered as Pele’s World Cup, but few people now remember that he took no part in the opening two games: an injury in a warm-up game had sidelined the 17-year-old, and instead, it was the future Italy forward Jose Altafini, who started up front for A Seleção. Pele was restored to the team for the final group game against the Soviet Union, but made little impact.

It was in the knockout rounds that O Rei exploded into life: a tense quarter-final against surprise package Wales was decided in the 73rd minute when Pele, with his back to goal, beat his man with a deft flick and twisted around to drive the ball past Jack Kelsey in the Welsh goal. That was all the extravagantly talented teenager needed: a second-half hat-trick from Pele helped Brazil to a 5-2 win over France in the semi-finals, and then came the unforgettable Final against the host nation. His two goals in that match, a brilliant chapeu and volley followed by a towering header in the last minute, heralded the arrival of a new football superstar.

Geoff Hurst scores England's third goal against West Germany in the World Cup final at Wembley

1966 – Sir Geoff Hurst

West Ham United striker Geoff Hurst, later knighted, was not the forward who was 'supposed' to lead the 1966 England team to World Cup triumph on home turf. It was Jimmy Greaves, the Tottenham Hotspur hero, who was expected to provide the goals for the Three Lions. But Greaves failed to find the net in the opening round, and an injury kept him out of the quarter-final clash against Argentina. That tempestuous match was instead decided by Greaves’s 'understudy' Hurst, whose clever angled header provided the only goal.

Hurst remained in the team for the semi-finals, and England coach Sir Alf Ramsey made the difficult decision to pick the same team for the Final, despite Greaves’s return to fitness. It proved an inspired decision, as Hurst bagged a famous hat-trick in the Wembley finale to secure England’s only World Cup crown.

1982 – Paolo Rossi

Perhaps the most stunning and unexpected 'late hero' of all was the Italian penalty-box predator Paolo Rossi. Rossi had been one of the stars of Italy’s 1978 World Cup team, but in 1982, he had only just returned to the professional game after a period of suspension, due to his involvement in a betting scandal. As Gli Azzurri laboured unconvincingly through the opening round, Rossi looked sadly out of form, and the newspapers were taking turns writing the sporting epitaph of a once great forward.

When Italy faced a dazzling Brazil in the tournament’s second phase, few gave them a prayer. The Brazilian goalkeeper Valdir Peres stated his only real worry prior to the game: that Rossi might come back to life. So it proved, with a Rossi hat-trick securing a 3-2 win for the Italians in one of the World Cup’s most memorable games. Rossi carried on with a brace against Poland in the semi-finals, and contributed one more in the Final against West Germany to end as the tournament’s leading scorer, and undoubted star.

Fabio Grosso of Italy in action

2006 – Fabio Grosso

24 years later, another Italian team lifted the trophy, and it was full of renowned players: Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and others. By contrast, Fabio Grosso, a journeyman left-back from the Palermo club, seemed like an interloper. Starting two of Italy’s first-round games without making much of an impression, he was hardly a name on everyone’s lips, as the knockout stage began.

In Gli Azzurri’s Round of 16 match against Australia, they had been reduced to ten men and looked in danger of elimination, when a surging run down the left from Grosso won the Italians a crucial penalty, which Totti duly dispatched. Grosso remained in the side and grew in confidence, and was on hand again to score a fine goal to break the deadlock against the hosts Germany in the semi-finals. The Final against France went to penalties after a 1-1 extra-time draw, and by putting away all five of their spot-kicks in the shoot-out, Italy claimed a fourth World Cup title. And who scored the fifth penalty for the Italians, to spark the celebrations? None other than Fabio Grosso.

2018 - ???

So who could join these greats of the past at Russia 2018? Here are some candidates from among the semi-finalists:

Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)

Playing in a deeper role than usual, the Manchester City maestro was somewhat subdued during the opening round. But with Dries Mertens absent against Brazil, De Bruyne moved further forward and revelled in the role of orchestrator, scoring a crucial goal and getting himself involved in all of Belgium’s attacks and counter-attacks. Is this the start of a storming run to the finish line?

Raphael Varane (France)

There had been question marks over the form of the Real Madrid centre-back leading into the knockout phase, but a fine glancing header to give Les Bleus the lead against Uruguay, and several crucial clearances towards the end of that quarter-final encounter, may indicate that France’s star defender is approaching his best form.

Harry Maguire (England)

Can the Leicester City defender become England’s Fabio Grosso? Another player who has risen to the top of the professional game the hard way, Maguire has been one of the most impressive figures in the Three Lions’ run to the last four. In the quarter-final clash against Sweden, he made a tangible contribution, with a powerful header to put England into the lead.

Andrej Kramaric (Croatia)

Vatreni fans had been hoping for more from the Hoffenheim forward, who has been in and out of the starting XI since Croatia’s opening game against Nigeria. Will the quick-reaction header that handed the Balkan side their equaliser against Russia in the quarter-finals convince coach Zlatko Dalic to keep Kramaric in his starting line-up, in the hopes of more such goals?