The Fifa World Cup. A global playground for the very finest talents the game of football has to offer. An international summit that comes around every four years, offering us a chance to see the greats of our beloved sport match wits, will and skill for a month-long soccer feast.
But the World Cup does not exist merely to make ‘GOATs’ out of the illustrious stars we watch week in week out in the Premier League, Champions League and beyond. It also serves as a theatre of the unexpected. Players emerge from obscurity into our hearts. Footballers we had written off enter the lexicon thanks to moments of jubilation or exasperation. These are the players we are here to honour.
For every Golden Boot winner there is a cult hero. A player who might not be the best on the planet, or even in their squad. But they are players who came to define a tournament, their influence lasting well beyond the sweeping up of the celebratory confetti. These are the cult heroes.
The Sportsman has decided to make a starting eleven based on these mercurial, fascinating specimens. Some players made our team due to spectacular moments. Others due to moments of rage or stupidity that would follow them around for the rest of their career. Some are here for style, some for their celebrations. There is no scientific way of determining a cult hero. You just know it when you see it. Here are eleven players and a manager who we feel define the term.
GK: Tim Krul
The gloves were hotly-contested when it came to picking this team. Scorpion king Rene Higuaita and ageless wonder Guillermo Ochoa were considered. But at a World Cup, penalties are always a possibility. Who ya gonna call? Tim Krul.
At World Cup 2014, the current Norwich City custodian became the first keeper introduced as a substitute purely for a penalty shootout. He went on to save two of Costa Rica’s spot kicks to take Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands into the semi finals.
In Brazil, even the defenders are capable of the spectacular. An entire generation was weaned on left back Roberto Carlos scoring absolute bangers, particularly from dead ball situations. But the former Real Madrid man is too celebrated for a spot in a cult XI. Enter: Josimar.
Voted the best right back in the world by Fifa back in the day, Josimar’s influence has waned with the modern fan. But his absolute humdinger of a strike against Northern Ireland at Mexico 86 tells you all you need to know about this most attack-minded of full backs.
DC: Benjamin Massing
They don’t make them like they used to. Argentina’s Claudio Cannigia had evaded two Cameroon tackles on a mazy run at Italia 90. He would barely survive the third. Benjamin Massing came flying in at hip-height, two feet off the ground and with such ferocity his own boot flew off in the process.
Nowadays, a player would show contrition, maybe make a praying hand signal to the referee. Massing apologised by trying to kick the protesting Argentina players. A red card, a place in World Cup history and a treasured slot in our Cult Hero XI followed.
DC: Paul McGrath
The crown jewel of Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side. McGrath’s performance against Italy at USA 94 is still held up as perhaps the greatest an Irish player has ever produced at a major tournament. At the age of 34, with knee injuries taking their toll to the point he couldn’t train, McGrath simply shouldn’t have been able to do what he did.
McGrath’s Stateside pinnacle arrived against an Italy side boasting Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio. But they could have had 13 players on the pitch and they still wouldn’t have gotten near the former Manchester United and Aston Villa man. Covering every inch of grass and putting Baggio deep in his pocket, McGrath’s dogged display meant Ray Houghton’s 11th minute strike would prove the winning goal.
DL: Fabio Grosso
When Italy won the 2006 World Cup, the headlines went to the glitziest names. Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon and Francesco Totti sealed their legacies as some of the greatest players of all time. But Fabio Grosso was arguably the most vital cog in that finely-engineered Italian machine.
Winning a penalty in the round of 16 against Australia, bending a superb goal past Jens Lehman in the semis, scoring the winning penalty against France in the shootout. For all the illustrious talent he was surrounded with, Grosso was the vital thread running through Italy’s triumph.
RM: James Rodriguez
The Colombia superstar took the 2014 tournament by storm. Golden Boot? Check. Goal of the Tournament? Check. He made the All-Star Team and the Dream Team and would later pick up the Puskas Award for his sizzling volley against Uruguay.
But propping up his cult credentials was the moment he created the strangest, most enduring tableau in World Cup history. After he scored against Brazil, a giant insect landed on Rodriguez’s arm. Was it a grasshopper? A moth? A B-movie hybrid of the two? Nobody quite knows, but it’s almost impossible to picture Rodriguez in that blue Colombia away kit without his oversized insect pal in tow.
CM: Roy Keane
The World Cup saw plenty of Roy Keane in 1994, where he played in every one of Ireland’s games. But in 2002, all it saw was the back of him. The combustible manner of that exit makes him more than worthy of inclusion here.
Leaving the Republic of Ireland camp over frustrations with the facilities, Keane unleashed the greatest, most physically-impossible insult ever heard. Manager Mick McCarthy was told to “stick it up your b*llocks” by the Manchester United captain. By the time McCarthy had worked out what that actually meant, ‘Keano’ was at home taking his dog for a walk.
CM: Carlos Valderrama
The man. The myth. The hair. Colombia’s midfield barnet combined elegant playmaking and Leo Sayer’s haircut to become the ultimate in World Cup indulgences. You only saw him every four years, but whether you were watching his passing or his barnet, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Captaining his country at three World Cups, Valderrama was the definitive Colombian footballer for an entire generation. Faustino Asprilla had the Premier League pedigree while the aforementioned Rodriguez would do it for the YouTube generation. But for those who grew up in the 90s, Valderrama will always be the player they remember when they see the famous yellow shirt. Even if he could barely get his hair through the collar.
LM: Keisuke Honda
Like the automobile that shares his name, Keisuke Honda was also a fine piece of Japanese engineering. The only Japan player to score at three consecutive World Cups, Honda was a name every fan was conditioned to look out for at four-year intervals.
His winner against Cameroon in South Africa in 2010 gave Japan their first victory on foreign soil at a World Cup. Their previous victories had some when they hosted the competition in 2002.
ST: Roger Milla
Most strikers have retired by the age of 38, or are at least plying their trade out of the spotlight. But Cameroon’s Roger Milla had his breakout moment at the World Cup in 1990 when he was in his football dotage.
Milla took the Italy-based tournament by storm with four goals and his iconic goal celebration, where he would bust out his signature dance at the corner flag. His efforts took Cameroon to the last 16 in one of the great underdog runs. Four years later, he broke his own record as the competition’s oldest scorer by netting against Russia at USA 94.
If this were a World Cup Greatest XI, it’s fair to say a few of Bebeto’s teammates would be in the running. Because let’s face it, being a forward in a team that boasted Ronaldo and Romario was not easy.
The fact he stood out even in that sort of company is why Bebeto is one of the great modern Brazilian icons. Playing in three World Cups, he was amongst the best players at USA 94. Scoring three goals and two assists, it was his celebration that saw him become an enduring legend. With a third child on the way, Bebeto and teammates Romario and Mazinho cradled imaginary babies to the delight of fans around the world.
Manager: Herve Renard
Cult managers are hard to quantify. The likes of Louis van Gaal are eminently quotable, but too conventionally successful for that status. We need a manager that combines style, eccentricity and a bit of underdog charm. We need Herve Renard.
Looking like he’s just walked out of a fragrance advert, Henard has carved a reputation by winning two African Cup of Nations. But his exploits at that tournament with Zambia and Cote D’Ivoire are not why he’s here. He has landed on this list for securing the shock of the 2022 World Cup so far, steering Saudi Arabia to victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Welcome aboard, boss.
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