50. “The match of the century”
Italy 4-3 West Germany, Azteca Stadium
World Cup semi-final, 17 June 1970
The moment As the clock ticked into the 90th minute of Italy’s 1970 World Cup semi-final against West Germany, the Azzurri had only conceded one goal in their five tournament matches so far. And, given that the run was coming back off the back of their Euro 68 win and the Milanese clubs’ dominance of the previous decade of continental football, it could be argued that this was the culmination of Catenaccio. Roberto Boninsegna’s eight-minute goal was surely about to put them into a second consecutive final in the most constrained of manners.
Until, that was, the philosophy was undone by one of its own.
For the previous five years, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger had been a key competent of the Milan team that won the 1969 European Cup. In that time, the left-back had not once scored for the club and never scored for his country.
So he picked quite a moment to make amends. Arriving in the middle of the Italian area at pace, Schnellinger threw himself into the air and diverted a cross past Enrico Arbetosi.
And the goal didn’t just bring the score level. It brought the infamous Italian resistance and concentration crashing down.
The nature of the next few goals illustrated just how alarmingly open the game had suddenly become, while its extremities were exemplified by Franz Beckenbauer’s decision to play on with a sling despite a dislocated shoulder.
Within four minutes of extra-time starting, Gerd Muller struck from just two yards after an awful mess between Albertosi and Fabrizio Poletti. Four minutes later, right-back Tarcisio Burgnich shockingly got forward to hit what was one of only eight goals in his entire career.
And, although Luigi Riva seemed to then seal the victory, Italy were pierced again as Gerd Muller was allowed a free header from inside the six-yard box. Notoriously, Gianni Rivera – the player surprisingly ordered to take the back post – failed to clear.
Throughout the period, Italian manager Ferruccio Valcareggi had refused to compromise the Catenaccio system and play both playmakers, Sandro Mazzola and Rivera, in the same team. So this wasn’t the first time the Milan forward had been caught up in controversy.
Only brought on after 45 minutes as part of the infamous stafetta system, Rivera at least settled this debate on his terms.
He immediately hit the winner to put Italy into the final.
“Schnellinger! Of all people!” German commentator Ernst Huberty
“You’ll never return to Italy.” An unnamed Italian player to Schnellinger immediately after the first equalizer
“The whole of Italy had played football and her champions that night were able to represent the entire country.” Left-wing politician and football writer Nando Dalla Chiesa
What it meant according to a commemorative plaque at the Azteca Stadium, all of that action made it the “Game of the Century”.
Whatever the truth of that, it played a part in the creation of the team of the century. There’s little doubt that the demands of the match in such searing heat sapped Italy for their eventual final against Brazil.
On a social level, the game was also seen as one of the few events before 1982 that properly unified the left and right of Italy.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Spain 4-3 Yugoslavia, Euro 2000; Holland 2-3 Czech Republic Euro 2004
49. El Beatle arrives
Benfica 1-5 Manchester United, Stadium of Light
European Cup quarter-final second leg, 9 March 1966
The moment Just eight years after the Munich air disaster, Manchester United were taking their first uncertain steps back in the European Cup and Benfica were the first ‘real’ team they were drawn against. Well, not just ‘real’. One of the continent’s most renowned. The Portuguese champions had won the tournament in 1961 and 1962 as well as reaching the final in 1963 and 1965. And, although United claimed a hard-fought 3-2 win at Old Trafford in the first leg, so wary was Matt Busby of Benfica’s attacking prowess that he ordered his team to “keep it as tight as possible”.
When you consider the evidence, the tactics would have been fully justified. Benfica, after all, had never been beaten at home in the European Cup. In their last 17 games there, they had scored an average of 4.3 a match. And they even surpassed that against the mighty Real Madrid, winning 5-1.
The new reality, however, was that Busby never got to use those tactics. George Best absolutely blew that approach away as well as Benfica’s records.
Within six minutes, he roared into the box and rose to head in the first. Within 13, he had ripped through three Benfica defenders to score the second and properly announce his abundant qualities to the continent.
“Given the situation and the circumstances and enormity of the match, it has to be one of my favourite ever goals.” Best on his rip-roaring second
“You obviously weren’t listening.” Busby to Best at half-time
“It was like George either hadn’t heard or completely ignored Matt Busby’s instruction to keep it tight. We were in this packed stadium… and George just went out and did his own thing, playing them on his own.” Bill Foulkes
“A hurricane passed through the Luz that night, and his name was George Best.” Benfica winger Antonio Simoes
“On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods… it was surreal stuff.” Best
What it meant thanks to the manner Best completely opened up the game – and Benfica – United would end up winning 5-1. They would still have to wait another two years to lift the trophy itself but, in that time, Best would eclipse Eusebio as the continent’s most celebrated player. And largely thanks to performances like that at the Stadium of Light.
Famously, when United touched back down in Manchester, Best was sporting an oversized sombrero. The Portuguese press immediately proclaimed him ‘El Beatle’.
But there was more to the comparison than superficial commonalities like the hair and swagger. Because, just as the Beatles were about to make a quantum leap with their music, Best was seemingly about to make a quantum leap with his game. And, just as the Liverpudlians were about to become the world’s first super-group, Best was about to become football’s first real superstar… with all the trappings.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Wayne Rooney scores against Arsenal, 2002; Messi’s goal against Getafe, 2005
48. Athletic and Sociedad make a joint stand
Real Sociedad 5-0 Athletic Bilbao, Anoeta
Spanish league, 5 September 1976
The moment General Franco was dead a year but Spain was still coming to terms with the idea of – let alone introducing – democratic freedom. Indeed, it was still illegal to speak Basque and Catalan or even fly the region’s flags. The figurehead may have been gone but, to a significant degree, Spain still felt under fascist control.
So, remarkably – and perhaps fittingly given the histories of the teams in terms of local cultural representation – it was Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao who started to strip down the old constraints.
Before their first meeting of the 1976-77 season, Real Sociedad player Josean de la Hoz Uranga convinced both teams that – as representatives of the Basque country – they should make a stand. As they entered the field, captains Inaxio Kortabarria and Jose Angel Iribar were jointly carrying the Ikurrina – the outlawed flag of the Basque country. It was an act that may have still been illegal but it was also hugely emotional: the Anoeta crowd went wild.
“A lot of people cried when we came out with the flag.” Josean de la Hoz Uranga, the Real Sociedad player who came up with the idea
“We were all Basques who had come through the youth system, both teams. We felt we had to do something.” Uranga
What it meant Politically, a huge amount. The simple, single act is credited with quickening Spain’s transition to democracy as well as the autonomy and self-expression of the regions. But the act would also foreshadow a shift in football terms too. By 1980, the clubs would begin a period in which they shared four league titles between them, with both winning consecutive titles. It represented the longest time Real Madrid had gone without a league since 1953.
47. Giggs goes alone
Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal, Villa Park
FA Cup semi-final replay, 14 April 1999
The moment In a match that had almost everything, Ryan Giggs tried to beat almost everyone. But, clearly, such extremes were going to be needed in order to settle a game like this.
At the peak of a pulsating rivalry between the two clubs, neither side had lost since Christmas. And, only emphasising the unyielding wills involved, both admirably recovered from significant reversals here. First, Dennis Bergkamp equalled David Beckham’s opener. Then, United rallied after Roy Keane’s red card. In the 92nd minute, Peter Schmeichel saved a Bergkamp penalty… but Arsenal still went on to dominate extra-time. It seemed only a matter of time until United ceded.
Which was where Giggs stepped in.
Pouncing on an atrociously misplaced Patrick Vieira pass in his own half, the substitute then beat five Arsenal players – including Vieira as well as Lee Dixon twice – on a coruscating run. Initially, it looked like he had taken the ball a touch too far… only to then rifle the ball into the roof of David Seaman’s net.
“Words fail me.” Andy Gray on Sky
“He went through one of the best defences in the history of the English game and smashed it past England’s number one. The FA Cup’s greatest moment, surely.” Gary Neville
What it meant That the last ever FA Cup semi-final replay would receive a fitting finale.
But the goal also meant that United’s incredible season would too. As well as setting them up for the first leg of an unprecedented English treble by putting them in the FA Cup final, it arguably set up the rest of the treble too.
At that point, both United and Arsenal were level on points at the top of the table with just five games left. A win for Arsene Wenger’s side might well have altered the momentum of the season’s climax.
Instead, United gained an important psychological edge over Arsenal while also signalling – and building – the kind of character and courage that could overcome any setback. In that, it was the type of enthralling, engaging match that defined a scarcely believable season.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Roy Keane v Juventus, 1999; Steven Gerrard v Olympiakos, 2004-05
46. Last few minutes of the Bundesliga 1991-92
Bayer Leverkusen 1-2 Stuttgart, BayArena
Bundesliga, 16 May 1992
The moment Just four minutes of the Bundesliga season were left. And three teams were still very much in it.
Before the game, Eintracht Frankfurt had led both Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart on mere goal difference. But, by the 86th minute, they were only drawing away to Hansa Rostock. By contrast, Borussia Dortmund – who almost went out of business six years previously – were 1-0 up at Duisburg. As it stood, with Stuttgart also drawing at Bayer Leverkusen, Dortmund would win a first title since 1963. Except for the fact that almost 29 years worth of action was being crammed into 70 at the BayArena. After a cautious opening 20, Leverkusen were awarded a controversial penalty that Martin Kree converted. Stuttgart, however, couldn’t exactly lament bad luck. Over the next few minutes, a scramble was somehow kept out of their net before Stuttgart were awarded a spot-kick of their own – for a foul that took place outside the box. Fritz Walter – named after the German legend – converted.
It finally gave Stuttgart the impetus they required. Over the course of the second half, they absolutely pummelled the Leverkusen goal. Goalkeeper Rudiger Vollborn was having the game of his life. Markus Von Ahlen made a goalline clearance before getting up to block a certain goal. At the same time, at Rostock, Frankfurt were denied a second stone-wall penalty in successive weeks. Something was definitely stirring.
Not least Matthias Sammer. In his last game for Stuttgart, he let the emotion of the occasion. The midfielder angrily debated a yellow card to the point of being given a second.
Stuttgart were down to 10 men. And looked down and out.
Until, four minutes from time, Leverkusen failed to clear a corner. Kogl collected, ran to the by-line and clipped over a hopefully cross.
There waiting – in every sense – was Guido Buchwald. The defender was the only survivor of Stuttgart’s sole previous Bundesliga. And he settled their second with a decisive header.
Stuttgart may have led the table for a total of only two weeks over the entire season. But they led it at the most important point.
“A climax that not even the entertainment pros at the new private TV stations would have dared to script.” Uli Hesse
What it meant The Bundesliga’s Michael Thomas moment, not least because of the fact it fittingly finished the first season in which supporters could watch live league matches regularly. Indeed, the nature of the climax was almost cinematic.
And it was also one of the most influential. For a start, Stuttgart’s second title would signal one of the most open decades in German football, with both Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern going on to win the title over the next few years and Bayern Munich finishing in 10th that season.
Because, moreover, such a lowly finish for Bayern would mean they were initially denied the huge bonuses all of the new TV prize money would bring.
Dortmund, by contrast, would greatly benefit. Indeed, finishing second was arguably a blessing in disguise. It meant that they entered the Uefa Cup the following season, eventually reaching the final. And, with every other German club going out of Europe oddly early that season, Dortmund reaped even more from TV money and got to greatly replenish their side.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the 1991-92 season was arguably the most influential factor in their eventual 1997 Champions League win after manager Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Patrick Andersson wins the 2001 Bundesliga for Bayern in the last minute; helicopter Sunday in Scotland, 2003
45. Pele’s halfway measures
Brazil 4-1 Czechoslovakia, Estadio Jalisco
World Cup group stage, 3 June 1970
The moment With the score at 1-1 in the two countries’ first game of the 1970 World Cup, Brazil were beginning to assert their dominance. But, more importantly, Pele began to assert their excellence. When the ball broke just inside the centre-circle in his own half, inspiration suddenly struck. Spotting Czechoslovakian goalkeeper Ivo Viktor off his line, the number-10 – with his first touch – ran up to the rolling ball and smacked it just wide of the post with a supreme effort.
“He must have a brain like a knife-edge.” David Coleman mixes a few metaphors
What it meant At the time, scoring from inside your own half in football was seen as something akin to a hole-in-one, a four-minute mile or a perfect 10 in figure-skating. And, here, Pele showed how close he was to becoming a perfect number 10 in football. The fact he just about failed seemed to only add to the feat. Unlike so many of the time, Pele had the sheer audacity – and ability – to try it. And that heralded a truth about this Brazil team as a whole. Throughout that tournament, they would seemingly test the boundaries of football at will. In that game alone, Rivelino would apparently patent the bending free-kick. So Pele’s shot was some introduction.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Pele’s dummy against Uruguay; Beckham’s goal against Wimbledon 1996-97
44. Suarez’s sleight of hand
Uruguay 1-1 Ghana, Soccer City
World Cup quarter-final, 2 July 2010
The moment There’s a minute left in extra-time of a deadlocked World Cup quarter-final and Ghana are suddenly a metre from the Uruguayan goal. It looks like long periods of pressure are going to finally pay off. Finally, Dominic Adiyiah launches a header towards goal that looks too well-struck and too well-placed for a Uruguayan to deal with… at least by any fair means. Diving backwards, Luis Suarez throws up his hand and palms the ball away.
He is immediately red-card and Asamoah Gyan – one of the players of the tournament at that point – is given the chance to win it with the last kick. If he does so, Ghana will be the first African team to reach the semi-finals. And, given that this is also the first African World Cup, it will have symbolically raised the bar.
Instead, Gyan hits it.
Worse, Suarez is seen on the line abrasively celebrating. Uruguay go onto win the shoot-out.
“The hand of God now belongs to me.” Suarez shows little remorse
“Everyone was sad and crying. The mood was down, no one was happy about what happened. We were so close to making it. We know we were doing it for all of Africa as well.” John Pantsil
“I made the save of the tournament… so it was worth it.” Suarez
“Saying we cheated Ghana is too harsh a word to use. We also abide by what the referee did. It could have been a mistake. Yes, he stuck his hand out, but it’s not cheating. What else do you want? Is Suárez also to blame for Ghana missing the penalty? We try to be dignified, and if we lose a match, we look for the reasons for it. You shouldn’t look to third parties.” Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez
“In the same situation, there is no chance the Ghana players would have used our hands.” Pantsil
“There was no alternative but for me to do that, and when they missed the penalty, I thought: it is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament.” Suarez offers his rationale
What it meant that an African team still haven’t reached a World Cup semi-final but also that Uruguay reached their first in 40 years.
Moreover, coming just months after Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland to actually get France to that World Cup, the incident sparked a huge debate about morality in football.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Thierry Henry v Ireland, 2009
43. Red Star take a stunning minute to win it
Red Star Belgrade 2-2 Bayern Munich (4-3 agg), Marakana
European Cup semi-final second leg, 24 April 1991
The moment Red Star Belgrade were in a state of shock.
Because they should, really, have already secured their first ever European Cup final place.
In the first leg of the semi-final away to Bayern Munich, they had won the game 2-1 thanks to an initial equaliser that showed all the best qualities of Yugoslavian football: a breakaway goal that, as Jonathan Wilson wrote, “is as close to perfection as any goal can be”. And, 25 minutes into the second leg, they appeared to have made the tie safe with a deflected Sinisa Mihaijlovic free-kick.
It was then, though, that they showed all the worst of Yugoslavian football. Betraying a stereotypical psychological fickleness that had afflicted its teams for years, Red Star caved. First, Stevan Stojanovic allowed a Klaus Augenthaler effort to slip under him. Then, within five minutes, Manfred Bender equalised. And, for the last 20, it was all Bayern. In a frantic final minute, they even hit the post.
In extra-time, they would surely hit the spot.
Except Red Star had one last attack. Not that they could even do that right at that point. As Mihaijlovic attempted to sweep in a Robert Prosinecki pass with Darko Pancev and Dragisa Binic waiting, he badly miskicked. It should have been an easy clearance. Instead, Augenthaler’s effort improbably looped back and over Raimond Aumann to give Red Star a farcical – but fantastic victory.
“We were very tense because the momentum had turned against us… if it had gone to extra-time we probably would have lost.” Binic
“Luck is very important in football. And at that moment it shone on us.” Stojanovic
What it meant That Red Star would go into win the former Yugoslavia’s only European Cup and just Eastern Europe’s second after Steaua Bucharest. The final, however, would have none of the effervescent football or drama that defined that semi-final or the team as a whole. Red Star would hold on 0-0 to eventually beat Marseille on penalties.
That looked like it would be the beginning of something special for a genuinely star-studded, spectacular team. Instead, it proved a premature climax before the break-up of both the former Yugoslavia and the Red Star side itself.
42. Di Stefano passes the torch to Eusebio
Benfica 5-3 Real Madrid, Olympic Stadium
European Cup final, 2 May 1962
The moment In 1962, it was difficult to escape the feeling that the nascent European Cup was at a crossroads. In the previous season, Benfica had become the first team to win the trophy other than Real Madrid. But, now that the Spanish champions were back in the final after no more than a one-year absence, they had the opportunity to prove that was simply an aberration and that the trophy was their rightful property.
Certainly, that was the way it looked in the first half. With Alfredo Di Stefano dominating and Ferenc Puskas finishing, Real roared into a 2-0 and then 3-2 lead.
But it was at that point Eusebio stepped up to show that there had been a continental shift. First he created the space for Mario Coluna’s equaliser. Then, playing in his first European Cup final, the striker picked the ball up in his own half and rampaged into the Real box. There was no other option but to bring him down. And there was no other outcome than Eusebio finishing the penalty. Three minutes later, then, came the coup de grace. Illustrating his renowned shooting ability, Eusebio lashed a free-kick home.
And, in a metaphorical passing of the torch after the game, Di Stefano passed his shirt to the young Portuguese.
“Di Stefano’s shirt is still the most prized possession I have from football. I held onto it tight! When the fans lifted me into the air, I had one hand waving at everyone and the other was squeezing the shirt very tight. In my innocence, the most important thing for me was to have my idol’s shirt.” Eusebio
What it meant By winning a second successive trophy, hat Benfica had definitively taken Real Madrid’s mantle. And that Eusebio had definitively taken Di Stefano’s. Ferenc Puskas, meanwhile, became the only player to score a hat-trick in the final and lose.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Cesc Fabregas bossing Patrick Vieira in the 2005-06 Champions League
41. Sampdoria smash Inter and grab the title
Inter 0-2 Sampdoria, San Siro
Serie A, 5 May 1991
The moment Quite possibly the most pulsating title showdown of all time.
As if this game didn’t have enough in it, on the line was Sampdoria’s first ever Scudetto. As they took to the San Siro pitch they were three points ahead of Inter with four games remaining. And, since it was only two points for a win, they effectively only needed the draw.
On the balance of play though, they should have been hammered by about 10 goals.
As Rob Smyth has expertly surmised, Inter had 24 shots to Sampdoria’s six. Inter keeper Walter Zenga didn’t make a single save; Gianluca Pagliuca made 14 including, unthinkably, a penalty from Lothar Matthaus.
And, still, that was only the beginning of the drama. Just before half-time, after relentless, impassioned Inter attacking, Jurgen Klinsmann had a superb goal wrongly disallowed for offside. Moments later, Giuseppe Bergomi and Roberto Mancini were sent off for a scuffle. And, although the game scarcely needed it, that only opened up the game even before.
After half-time, despite more Inter pressure, Sampdoria broke for Beppe Dossena to smash home the opener. And potential clincher. Except, with Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter still imbued with such belief, the game remained in the balance. Even after Matthaus had his penalty saved. The San Siro almost erupted out of sheer anxiety when Attilio Lombardo hit the post and then Gianluca Vialli had a follow-up cleared off the line.
Until, finally, Vialli secured victory.
“In years to come people will be saying ‘I was here. I was at that game!’ Grown men, hardened football-watchers, are scarcely able to turn their eyes to this.” A screaming Martin Tyler in the Sky commentary box
“The success was built on an unbreakable squad unity.” John Foot, Italian football historian
What it meant That Sampdoria won their first ever title and that Giovanni Trapattoni would leave Inter to return to Juventus. The departure was a factor in a title drought that would last 16 years for the Milanese giants.
Perhaps more than anything, though, the nature of the match – as well as the fact that Sampdoria would reach the Champions League final the following season – emphasised the sheer quality of Serie A at the time.
Ostensibly, this was a title showdown between a typically defensive Trapattoni team and a characteristically attacking Vujadin Boskov side. But you wouldn’t have thought it looking at the game. And, as much as the circumstances and desperation involved, that was largely down to the quality of players and tactics. With the very best of both, it’s arguable that no European league has ever reached the heights of Serie A in that period.
Similar moments that didn’t make it Eric Cantona scores against Newcastle, 1995-96