“Lionel Messi finally notched his first goal in a World Cup knockout game on Saturday,” writes Andy Bailey. “This made me wonder: who has scored the most in knockout matches?”
This isn’t the easiest question to answer because of the different ways the World Cup has been structured over the years. In 1934 and 1938, there were nothing but knockout games (albeit with only 16 teams). In 1950, and then from 1974-82, there was a second group stage which replaced some of the knockout rounds. For example, in 1982, Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick in Italy’s legendary 3-2 win over Brazil – a de facto quarter-final, but not technically a knockout game.
For the purposes of this question we’ve only included matches that were knockout fixtures in name and nature. That also means excluding the third-placed playoff, as it’s usually a glorified friendly.
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The list is dominated – who knew – by Brazilians, with the original Ronaldo top of the pops. He scored 15 goals at the World Cup, second only to Germany’s Miroslav Klose, and more than half of them were in knockout games. In 1998 he hit two against Chile in the last 16 and then put Brazil ahead in their thrilling semi-final against the Netherlands.
Four years later, in one of the great comeback stories, he helped see off Belgium in the last 16, then scored the only goal against Turkey in the semi-final and the only goals against Germany in the final. His last knockout punch came in Germany in 2006, when he beat the Ghana keeper Richard Kingson with a delicious stepover.
That goal puts Ronaldo one ahead of two other Brazilians, Pelé and Vavá – who both scored three of their seven knockout goals in World Cup finals – as well as the Czech forward Oldrich Nejedly. Nejedly played nothing but knockout games at the World Cup, six of them in total. He scored five times in 1934, including a hat-trick to beat Germany in the semi-final, and two in 1938.
Ronaldo might soon be overtaken by Kylian Mbappé, whose pair of screamers against Poland were his fourth and fifth at the business end of the competition.
Here’s the full list of those with at least five goals in World Cup knockout ties:
8 goals: Ronaldo (Brazil, 1998-2006).
7: Oldrich Nejedly (Czechoslovakia, 1934-38), Pelé (Brazil, 1958-70), Vavá (Brazil, 1958-62).
6: Leônidas (Brazil, 1934-38; +2 in third-place playoff), Gary Lineker (England, 1986-90), Gyorgy Sarosi (Hungary, 1934-38).
5: Roberto Baggio (Italy, 1990-98; +1 in third-place playoff), Eusébio (Portugal, 1966; +1 in third-place playoff), Miroslav Klose (Germany, 2002-14), Kylian Mbappé (France, 2018-22), Silvio Piola (Italy, 1938), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands, 2006-14), Zinedine Zidane (France, 1998-2006), Gyula Zsengeller (Hungary, 1938).
NB: had we included goals in the second group stage, and we’re still umming and ahhing over it, four other players would have made the list: Paolo Rossi (Italy, 1978-82) with 7 and Ademir (Brazil, 1950), Mario Kempes (Argentina, 1974-82) and Gerd Müller (West Germany, 1970-74) all with 6.
4: Garrincha (Brazil, 1958-66), Geoff Hurst (England, 1966-70), Diego Maradona (Argentina, 1982-94), Gerd Müller (West Germany, 1970-74; +2 in second group stage).
3: Franz Beckenbauer (West Germany, 1966-74), Just Fontaine (France, 1958; +4 in third-place playoff), Michel Platini (France, 1978-86), Paolo Rossi (Italy, 1978-82; +4 in second group stage).
2: Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina, 1994-2002), Bobby Charlton (England, 1962-70), Harry Kane (England, 2018-22), Mario Kempes (Argentina, 1974-82; +4 in second group stage), Romário (Brazil, 1990-94).
1: Thierry Henry (France, 1998-2010), Lionel Messi (Argentina, 2006-22), Ferenc Puskás (Hungary, 1954, Spain, 1962).
0: Johan Cruyff (Netherlands, 1974; +3 in second group stage), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, 2006-22), Marco van Basten (Netherlands, 1990).
Big wins, little reward
“Spain almost failed to qualify for the knockout rounds despite beating Costa Rica 7-0,” notes Emily Bartram. “Has any team had such a big victory in their opening game yet failed to get out of the group?”
They have indeed. Hungary started the 1982 World Cup by famously trouncing El Salvador 10-1, but the next two matches were an uncomfortable step up in class. They were thrashed 4-1 by Argentina and then, in a game they had to win to make their goal difference count, drew 1-1 with Belgium. Hungary finished on three points (two for a win in those days), one behind Argentina and two behind Belgium.
In the same tournament, Scotland started with a 5-2 win over New Zealand before losing 4-1 to Brazil and drawing 2-2 with the Soviet Union. That’s the second-biggest victory in the opening game by a team that was eliminated in the group stages.
Ecuador, Belgium and Saudi Arabia were all eliminated despite winning their opening games in Qatar. But the last example of a team starting with a handsome victory – let’s say by three goals or more – and still failing to go through was in 2006. The Czech Republic looked the part in dismantling the USA 3-0, but they were well beaten by Ghana and Italy in their subsequent matches.
At the 1970 tournament, Belgium beat El Salvador 3-0 in their first match, but then lost to the Soviet Union and the hosts Mexico.
In total, seven sides have gone out after taking four points (or three when it was two for a win) from their first two matches.
1974 Italy, Scotland
2002 Cameroon, Costa Rica
2006 South Korea
This being a tale of group-stage misery, Scotland probably have the best yarn. In 1974 they beat Zaire 2-0 before drawing 0-0 with the champions Brazil. But their relatively modest win over Zaire (who lost 9-0 to Yugoslavia and 3-0 to Brazil) meant they had to win their final game against Yugoslavia to avoid going out on goal difference. Scotland drew 1-1 and had the irritating distinction of being the only unbeaten team in the entire tournament.
A couple of teams, Chile in 1930 and Yugoslavia in 1950, were eliminated in the first group stage despite winning their first two games, though that’s not as unlikely as it sounds: on both occasions only the top team went through. A more famous example came later in the 1950 tournament, which was decided by a second four-team group. The hosts Brazil looked irresistible in beating Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1, only to lose 2-1 to Uruguay in one of the most dramatic games in football history.
Last, but at least …
“Japan have won Group E, despite losing to Costa Rica, who finished bottom of group E. Has this happened before in a four-team World Cup group?” asks Mark Holt.
It actually occurred 24 hours earlier, when Argentina won Group C and Saudi Arabia finished bottom. In the era of four-team groups it has been pretty rare for the winners to lose to anyone, never mind the team finishing bottom, but it has happened on a few other occasions. Four, to be precise, with Cameroon’s dead rubber (for them) defeat to the Soviet Union in 1990 the most eye-catching. They are:
1990 Cameroon 0-4 Soviet Union (Group B)
1994 Mexico 0-1 Norway (Group E)
2010 Germany 0-1 Serbia (Group D)
2018 Sweden 1-2 Germany (Group F)
“When was the last time that neither team from a World Cup opening match qualified for the following round?” asks Matt Reilly.
Somewhere in the distant past, Qatar lost 2-0 to Ecuador in the first game of the 2022 tournament, and neither team was able to get out of Group A. To find the last time this happened, you have to go back to the day of simultaneous opening matches. The 1962 World Cup began with four games, one in each group. Two of them (Uruguay 2-1 Colombia and Argentina 1-0 Bulgaria) were played by teams who would fail to reach the knockout rounds.
“Is it true that one of the goalscorers in the inaugural World Cup final between Uruguay and Argentina had only one arm?” asked Trevor Miller in 2006.
Indeed he did, Trevor. Uruguayan striker Héctor Castro was that man, having lost the lower part of his left limb in an unfortunate carpentry accident at the age of 13. Not that this swayed him from his dream, mind, as he went on to represent his country and even score the last-minute clinching goal in the 4-2 win over Argentina in 1930.
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“During France’s match with Tunisia, there were 15 French-born players on the field at kick-off,” observes Chai in Atalanta. “France had nine (everyone apart from Mandanda and Camavinga) and Tunisia had six (Ghandri, Talbi, Kechrida, Skhiri, Laidouni, Khazri). Is this a record for the number of players born in the same country for an international match?”
“As I write, we are 20 games into the League Two season and only four different players have scored an EFL goal for Gillingham,” mails Chris Matterface. “What’s the lowest number of players to have scored for a team in a complete season?”