The World Cup is always a great place for the game’s emerging players to show their best form, and there have been a host of superstars born over the course of the tournament’s 92-year history.
From the greatness of Pele to the youthful genius of Michael Owen, the World Cup has allowed many to lay the foundations for a successful career in the game.
Here are 10 breakout stars throughout the course of the World Cup.
10. Oleg Salenko – 1994
Oleg Salenko had played just five games for Russia before going to the World Cup in 1994, having made his debut for them just a year prior.
There wasn’t much expected of him at the tournament, but perhaps that was a good thing. That summer in the United States was bizarre for him, and he ended up winning the Golden Boot despite not playing much in that tournament.
He scored five goals, the same as Hristo Stoichkov, and he missed the opening group stage match as well as not playing a single game in the knockout rounds. All five of his goals came in a dead rubber match against Cameroon, which got him the prestigious honour of being the tournament’s top scorer.
His international career after that summer wasn’t that special either: he never played another match for Russia.
9. Michael Owen – 1998
Expectation is always high around England going into a major tournament and such was the case around them heading into the tournament in France in 1998. Leading the line for them would be Michael Owen, who had made a huge name for himself with Liverpool in the years prior.
Many wanted to see Owen go to the World Cup, and they got their wish when Glenn Hoddle picked him ahead of the tournament, breaking the trusted pairing of Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer.
He became England’s youngest player at a World Cup when he played against Tunisia, and he scored an equalizer as a substitute against Romania in the second game. Later on, he started against Argentina in the Round of 16, winning a penalty early on, before scoring a wonderful solo goal.
England, however, exited in that round, but Owen made a big impact at the age of 18, and he was set for a big career ahead.
8. James Rodriguez – 2014
The World Cup of 2014 was a spectacle: the colour and grandeur in Brazil, the home of the greatest nation in World Cup history added to it, and one of the tournament’s stars was James Rodriguez. The Colombian had a good reputation, having done well at Porto and Monaco, but he showed his best form in the summer that year, spurring Colombia to a historic tournament.
Wearing the number 10, he started the tournament with two assists and a goal against Greece, before another goal and assist against Ivory Coast. Then came two assists and a wonderful solo goal against Japan in the final group game.
In the Round of 16, a stunning volley from outside the box against Uruguay earned him the Goal of the Tournament award, but his side’s run ended in the quarter-final against Brazil. Later on, he earned a move to Real Madrid – a deserved recognition for his talents.
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7. Thomas Muller – 2010
Germany went into the World Cup of 2010 as one of the favourites, and with a young group combining with a fair amount of experience, they had the right to believe they were among the best.
Part of the team was the emerging Thomas Muller, who had made his debut for Bayern Munich in 2008 and had grown under Louis van Gaal. Now, he was set for a role under Joachim Low with Germany, and he made a big impact.
He had rarely played for Germany before, but started the World Cup opener, scoring against Australia, before adding to that later in the Round of 16, where he scored twice and assisted once against England.
Then, he scored once in the quarter-final against Argentina but had to miss the semi-final. His fifth goal sealed the Golden Boot for him as he scored against Uruguay in the third-place match, capping off a brilliant summer and the start of a wonderful career for the German.
6. Teofilo Cubillas – 1970
The 1970 World Cup was one for Brazil’s stars as the likes of Pele and Jairzinho stole the show in Mexico to spur the Selecao to success. However, another South American was on top form, and that was Teofilo Cubillas of Peru, who was just 20 at that tournament and made a huge name for himself, as he scored five goals across all four of Peru’s matches that year.
It started with a winner against Bulgaria with his side having been 2-0 down at one point, before adding two more against Morocco and once against West Germany.
He then scored once in his team’s loss to Brazil, and while Peru’s run ended there, he finished the third highest goalscorer and showed why he was dubbed the “Pele of Peru”. He did, however, win the Young Player of the Tournament Award.
5. Jose Leandro Andrade – 1930
Jose Leandro Andrade isn’t a name always mentioned amongst the game’s greats, but he had a big role in the first-ever World Cup back in 1930. The midfielder was past his peak when the tournament rolled around, having previously starred in Olympic Games’ successes in 1924 and 1928. The World Cup came around with Andrade blind in one eye, either through colliding with a goalpost or contracting syphilis.
At the World Cup, though, he was magnificent, performing in midfield as Uruguay went all the way in the tournament they hosted. He was named in the all-star team at the end of the tournament – a testament to his quality, and the final against Argentina was his final game ever for Uruguay, calling time on a wonderful career for his country.
4. Toto Schillaci – 1990
This is one of the World Cup’s great individual stories. Salvatore Schillaci wasn’t a highly-regarded name in the Italy squad heading into their home tournament, but by the end of it, everyone knew who he was. He didn’t expect to be in the squad, but when he played, he was always effective. It started off with the winner against Austria off the bench, before scoring against Czechoslovakia again later on.
He would score four more goals that summer: the openers in the Round of 16 and quarter-final against Uruguay and Republic of Ireland, before strikes in a losing semi-final against Argentina and third-place match against England.
Amazingly, all six of his goals that summer were impact goals: either to go ahead, win the match or level scores. His Italy career after that wasn’t too spectacular, but he’ll always have the World Cup of 1990.
3. Just Fontaine – 1958
Just Fontaine scored 13 goals in the World Cup of 1958 – a record that still stands for a single tournament and it’s unlikely to be broken anytime soon.
However, going into that summer, he wasn’t considered a starter, given that Rene Bliard was ahead of him in the pecking order for the French, but Fontaine took his chance with both hands.
He scored six goals in the group stage, including three in the opening group match against Paraguay then added to it with a brace in the quarter-final, and one against Brazil in the semi-final, before four more in the third-place play-off against West Germany in a 6-3 win.
The summer was great for Fontaine, and he’s confident his record will never be topped, saying: “Let me repeat it: 13 goals is an enormous total. Beating my record? I don’t think it can ever be done.”
2. Geoff Hurst – 1966
There’s a common belief that Geoff Hurst had a starring role throughout England’s successful tournament in 1966, but he hadn’t started a game until the quarter-finals, and that only came about after Jimmy Greaves cut his leg.
Alf Ramsay trusted Hurst, and he took the opportunity well. He had little international experience, only making his debut a few months prior, but at the World Cup, he shone for the Three Lions.
He scored the winner against Argentina in the last eight, then had a big role in the semi-final against Portugal. At the final, his impact is well-known: a hat-trick against West Germany sent England into overjoy and Hurst into the history books.
1. Pele – 1958
The World Cup’s biggest star had a great first tournament in 1958, and he was just 17-years-old, doing things that teenagers his age can only dream of. He nearly didn’t make the tournament, struggling with a knee injury before a ball was kicked that summer, but his team-mates demanded his inclusion.
You could see why: Pele scored the winner in the quarter-final against Wales, a hat-trick in the semi-final against France and then a double in the final against Sweden, who were the hosts.
The boy was a star, and such was his emotions at winning that he passed out after the final whistle in the final. The World Cup that year was the start of the story of one of football’s all-time greats.
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