World Cup Cult Heroes: Danish dynamite, Italian fury, brutal Benjamin Massing and more

Yahoo Sport UK

From “Danish Dynamite” to a diabolical decision-maker: Adam Hurrey examines five cult figures from World Cup history, how they came to be and how their legacy lives on…

Denmark ‘86

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Area of cult expertise

Exquisitely kitted-out, freewheeling World Cup dark horses who, in 1986, burned twice as bright as they needed to for half as long as they should have done.

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Cult World Cup moment

Drawn in one of the original grupos de la muerte at Mexico ‘86 – in Group E with West Germany, Uruguay and Scotland – Sepp Piontek’s fluid, fantastic Denmark side lived up to their manager’s pre-tournament promise: “In Mexico we shall attack, like we always do.”

They played all three group games on a bobbly Nezahualcoyotl pitch at more than 7,000 feet above sea level…and won all three. Four days after edging past the Scots 1-0, they reduced a physical Uruguay side to rubble.

In amongst the gorgeous geometry and dagger-like forward runs, Preben Elkjær scored a hat-trick and Michael Laudrup cruised through the Uruguayan defence on the way to a 6-1 demolition job.

Intoxicated by that masterclass, Denmark – already assured of progressing to the second round – fielded a full-strength team against West Germany, Piontek’s homeland. A 2-0 win meant that they would face Spain next, rather than the eminently beatable Morocco, and – thanks in part to a catastrophic Jesper Olsen backpass and some tactical unravelling – they were beaten 5-1.


A preoccupation with World Cup kits, the romantic concept of having a “second team” for when your first choice is dumped out, ultimately unfulfilled group-stage statements of intent: Denmark ‘86 are probably responsible for all of that.

Bora Milutinovic

Area of cult expertise

Managing as many plucky World Cup participants as humanly possible.

Cult World Cup moment

Where to start? Mexico’s run to the quarter-finals in their hastily-arranged home World Cup of 1986? Costa Rica’s arrival on the world stage with a 1-0 win over Scotland at Italia ‘90? Turning a bunch of college footballers into a competitive host nation at USA ‘94? Over the course of three decades, the Yugoslav – whose managerial career took him from Central America to the Middle East, via China and Jamaica – was the go-to man for any World Cup outsiders hoping to at least make up the numbers.

At France ‘98, though, he was arguably in charge of his strongest side. Nigeria had far from disgraced themselves on their debut in 1994, and now had a vastly experience squad playing club football all over Europe. Milutinovic was drafted in as Nigeria’s fourth coach in the space of 20 months, and they topped their group by beating Bulgaria and Spain.

In the second round, they were thrashed 4-1 by Denmark, but Milutinovic’s job was arguably done: this was the fourth time he had taken a team into the knockout stages of a World Cup. On he went – with China, Honduras, Jamaica and Iraq – but 1998 remains his undoubted international peak.


Unlikely-looking international firefighters are now par for the World Cup course, especially for those managers for whom club football is a distant, stressful memory. Hector Cuper will take Egypt to their first finals since 1990. Juan Antonio Pizzi has been entrusted with upholding Saudi Arabia’s footballing honour in Russia while the man he replaced, Bert van Marwijk, is now with Australia.

Carlos Queiroz is in charge of Iran. Herve Renard, the impossibly suave veteran of two African Nations Cup triumphs, is ready for his debut on the world stage with Morocco. Nigeria are now managed by the well-travelled German Gernot Rohr. Somewhere, Bora Milutinovic is enjoying the incongruity of it all.

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Ramon Quiroga

Area of cult expertise

Extra-curricular goalkeeping duties, carried out way beyond the traditional confines of the penalty area.

Cult World Cup moment

It is unclear what the threshold is for earning the nickname “El Loco” in South American football, but eccentric goalkeeping is certainly a solid qualifier. In 1978, Peru topped a group featuring Holland and Scotland to progress to a formidable looking second-round pool of Brazil, hosts Argentina and Poland, who had finished third at the World Cup four years earlier.

They lost all three games in the second stage, but Quiroga’s reputation was truly enhanced in the narrow defeat to Poland, during which he increasingly became the last and only line of defence as they chased the goal they needed to remain in the tournament.

His foul on Grzegorz Lato – an absolute gem of taking-one-for-the-team cynicism – laid bare the high-stakes peril of sweeper-keeping. 60 yards from goal, clearly unwilling and unable to compete in the imminent footrace, Quiroga launched himself at Lato and managed to get hold of two fistfuls of tight late-70s football shirt.

Out came the quite understandable yellow card – from English referee Pat Partridge, and what a name that is – Peru’s fate was duly sealed, and Argentina then put six highly convenient goals past the Argentine-born Quiroga to make it to the final at Brazil’s expense.


From Rene Higuita’s trial-and-error tribute act at Italia ‘90, to Manuel Neuer’s nerveless advances in 2014, Quiroga’s memory lives on.

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Benjamin Massing

Area of cult expertise

Brutal – but ultimately lovable – acts of World Cup foul play.

Cult World Cup moment

Befitting its role as a month-long showcase of Where Football Is At Right Now, the World Cup always finds some room for noteworthy on-pitch violence, no matter how many clampdowns, edicts and directives FIFA lay down before each tournament.

The farcical scenes of the Battle of Santiago between Chile and Italy in 1962, Claudio Gentile’s 23-foul interrogation of Diego Maradona in 1982, Brazil’s Leonardo shattering Tab Ramos’s cheekbone at USA ‘94, Schumacher on Battiston, De Jong on Alonso: these are all memorable acts of World Cup over-aggression, but none of them quite manage to straddle the line between comedy and violence quite so emphatically as Benjamin Massing in 1990.

In truth, Massing’s decisive intervention was merely the wardrobe-sized climax to a triptych of attempts to halt an 89th-minute Argentine counter-attack in the opening game of Italia ‘90. First, Emmanuel Kundé thought better than to try and stop Claudio Caniggia in full flow. Then Victor N’Dip, already booked for nearly killing Diego Maradona, lunges in, only to be hurdled. Finally, with Caniggia barely managing to stay on his feet, in came Massing.

“Massing” should now be a verb – semi-detached from its original context in the same way as “Doing a Leeds” has been – for any such moment of honest, clumsy, rag-dolling of a stringy opposition forward.


Massing passed away last December and, rather predictably, the headlines were obliged to focus on that sending off against Argentina, rather than the heroic 1-0 win for Cameroon and their thrilling run to the quarter-finals, where they should have sent England home.

Four years after Cameroon gatecrashed the Italia ‘90 party on the very first day, they returned to the World Cup at USA ‘94. Massing was no longer part of the squad, but they now had a 17-year-old prodigy by the name of Rigobert Song.

A 17-year-old Rigobert Song picks up in 1994 where Benjamin Massing left off four years previously
A 17-year-old Rigobert Song picks up in 1994 where Benjamin Massing left off four years previously

For Argentina, read Brazil. For Caniggia, read Bebeto. For Massing, read Song. It was a commendable homage.

Byron Moreno

Area of cult expertise

Incompetent – and/or probably even borderline corrupt – World Cup refereeing, and master of the deadpan Please Stop Arguing With That Terrible Decision facial expression.

Cult World Cup moment

If ever there was a man deserving of the record-scratch-freeze-frame-yup-that’s-me-etc treatment, it is the man whose Wikipedia page opens with “Byron Moreno is an Ecuadorian former football referee and convicted drug smuggler.”

If you are indeed wondering how Byron Moreno ended up in that situation, the only place to start is Daejeon on June 18th, 2002.

“The referee was a disgrace, absolutely scandalous,” spat Franco Frattini, Italy’s minister for public offices afterwards. “I’ve never seen a game like it. It seemed as if they just sat around a table and decided to throw us out.”

A dubious penalty, a dubious red card and a dubiously disallowed goal were just the headline acts of suspicious activity during that game, even if – as the BBC’s Barry Davies famously declared – Italy still had a hand in their own fate because “they just will not learn”.

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As for Moreno, he returned to the sanctuary of Ecuadorian domestic football, only to produce his masterpiece: allowing 13 inexplicable minutes of injury time in a league match, during which Liga de Quito scored twice to win 4-3. Moreno was banned for 20 matches and investigated by FIFA.

In 2010, he was caught trying to smuggle 6kg of heroin into the US in his underpants. We are still waiting for the Netflix series.

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