Soccer is the world’s game, and the World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport. A four-yearly celebration of the world’s best players, in which every soccer nation on Earth has the chance to compete for the famous golden trophy and soccer immortality.
The World Cup draws enormous audiences, with billions of fans worldwide watching the games, online sportsbooks, or even traveling thousands of miles to be there in person.
This means that when something shocking occurs at a World Cup, the whole world witnesses it. And ever since the first tournament in 1930, the World Cup has produced more than its share of controversy and shocking moments.
Luis Suarez’s Bite (Brazil 2014)
The most shocking World Cup moment occurred in 2014. As one of the world’s most exciting strikers, Luis Suarez has also had his share of controversy.
Perhaps the peak of his infamy came during the 2014 World Cup, in Uruguay’s final Group game against Italy.
After a scuffle in the penalty area, veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini fell to the ground, and it soon became apparent that Suarez had bitten the Italian central defender’s shoulder.
The match officials missed the incident. While Italy was still protesting, Uruguay scored the game’s only goal, sending them into the knockout stages and the Italians home.
Remarkably, this was the third time in his career that Luis Suarez had tried to take a bite out of an opponent, and FIFA threw the book at him.
The Uruguayan was banned for nine international matches and four months and fined over $92,000.
USA Shocking England (Brazil 1950)
The English FA had ignored the FIFA World Cups of 1930, 1934, and 1938, and when they finally deigned to send a team to the competition, they probably wished they hadn’t.
It was widely assumed in the parochial world of English sport that their team of stars featuring Tom Finney, Billy Wright, and Stan Mortensen would easily overcome any foreign opposition.
They duly won their opening World Cup game against Chile, 2-0, and were the firm favorites to beat a USA team made up mainly of amateurs.
But, to the astonishment of the football world, the USA prevailed 1-0, their goal scored by Joe Gaetjens.
The goal scorer was an immigrant from Haiti working at a New York restaurant while studying at Columbia University. England subsequently lost their final Group game to Spain and sailed home in disgrace.
Gentleman’s Agreement (Spain 1982)
The 1982 World Cup produced plenty of drama, and West Germany was involved in much of it. In their final Group game, they were up against neighbors Austria.
However, the Group’s unusual results, including West Germany’s 2-1 defeat to Algeria, meant that a one or two-goal victory for West Germany in this game would take both teams through to the second phase.
Horst Hrubesch got the first and only goal of the game for West Germany after 11 minutes.
Although the game didn’t deteriorate into an open farce in the first half, that was certainly the case in the last 20 minutes of the second, when the two teams were reduced to hitting the ball sideways to the jeers and whistles of the Gijon crowd.
This most shocking World Cup moment incited FIFA so much that all four teams in a Group are required to play their final games simultaneously at every World Cup since then.
Battle of Santiago (Chile 1962)
The World Cup has not been a stranger to on-field violence.
Italy and Spain played out two brutal games in the 1934 edition, while the 1966 tournament, in particular, featured some fierce encounters between Bulgaria and Brazil and England and Argentina.
Arguably the most famous of the World Cup battles, however, took place four years earlier in Santiago, Chile.
This game, between Italy and host nation Chile, took place at a time when there were no yellow cards in international soccer, though had the booking existed, there would indeed have been a record-breaking tally.
In a bad-tempered tournament, there were specific tensions between the two teams, stemming from insulting reports about Santiago by two Italian journalist.
The first foul came just 12 seconds into the game and the first red card after 12 minutes, when Giorgio Ferrini was sent off, though he initially refused to leave.
Chilean winger Leonel Sanchez got away with punching Italian full-back Mario David, who was subsequently sent off for retaliating.
Another Italian player came off with a broken nose, and amid the spitting and general scuffles, the police intervened three times.
Finally, Chile won 2-0, but the soccer world was shocked.
Battle of Nuremberg (Germany 2006)
An increasing intolerance for foul play meant that by the 1990s, bad-tempered affairs, like those in 1962 and 1966, seemed to belong to a bygone era.
But in 2006, the Netherlands and Portugal showed that the World Cup battle was not entirely forgotten.
The first booking came in the second minute, but much of the hatred stemmed from an early foul on Cristiano Ronaldo, which forced him from the soccer field.
By the time the game finished, there had been four red cards and 16 yellow: a record for a World Cup game.
Diego Maradona (Mexico 1986)
When you think of the most shocking World Cup moments, the Argentinian center-forward name is never far away.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest players to play the game, Diego Maradona was unstoppable at the 1986 World Cup.
His most controversial contribution came in the quarter-final against England. With the score at 0-0, Maradona went up for a challenge with England goalie Peter Shilton.
He wouldn’t usually expect to win this contest against a much taller goalkeeper, but to everyone’s surprise, the ball ended up in the back of the net.
Replays confirmed that Maradona had punched the ball into the net, but the referee didn’t spot it.
English tempers were not soothed when Diego Maradona later referred to the incident as the ‘Hand of God.’
Harald Schumacher Foul on Patrick Battiston (Spain 1982)
It was 1982 when this most shocking World Cup moment occurred. This was one of World Cup history’s worst examples of foul play.
With the scores tied at 1-1 in the semi-final between Germany and France, Michel Platini played a perfect pass to Patrick Battiston, putting him on goal.
German keeper Harald Schumacher raced out of his box to tackle him but seemed to show little interest in the ball.
As Battiston lifted it over his head, Schumacher smashed into the French player. Battiston was knocked out cold, lost two teeth, and had a broken vertebra.
Incredibly, Schumacher escaped without any punishment.
Zinedine Zidane’s Headbutt (Germany 2006)
Some players choose to bow out of international football gracefully.
In 2006, Zinedine Zidane took a different approach, getting himself sent off in the World Cup final.
When Marco Materazzi indulged in trash talk during a quiet stretch of the final, Zidane took exception. Then, to the astonishment of a global audience, headbutted the defender.
Zidane was sent off, and France eventually lost on penalties.
We hope you enjoyed our list of the most shocking World Cup moments. Let us know if you’d like us to add more incidents to this article.
Rhett is an Australian-born, globe trotter who is a UEFA ‘A’ Licence Soccer Coach. With his family, he has traveled and coached soccer in more than 30 countries, while attending World Cups, European Championships, and some of the biggest local derbies in the world!