The World Cup is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – sporting events on the planet. Coming around every four years, it’s a festival for the nations that qualify, with fans gathering from all around the goal and soaking in the atmosphere. For some teams, taking apart is enough. Others are there to win.
However, over the years there have been loads of controversies for different things that have happened during, before and after the tournaments. There has been corruption at the highest level, shambolic meltdowns by teams, brutal tackles, insane officiating, and even assassination.
Let’s take a look then at the 30 most controversial moments in the history of this amazing tournament.
30. Battle of Nuremberg
The Battle of Nuremberg still holds the record for the dirtiest game of football played at a world cup. Portugal took on the Netherlands in a game of absolute filth in 2006. There were four red cards and sixteen yellow cards shown by the referee in of the quarterfinal game.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter later said that referee Valentin Ivanov should have shown himself a yellow card for losing control of the game. It was absolutely shambolic stuff as the game deteriorated to fouls and time-wasting.
One of the most bizarre incidents in World Cup History happened in 1982 when France was playing Kuwait. Not exactly football royalty, the Gulf nation were getting ripped to shreds by Les Bleus. It was when they scored their fourth goal that things got weird.
The Kuwaiti defenders stood stock still and claimed that they had heard a whistle coming from the stands that had tricked them. The referee Miroslav Stupor ignored them and awarded the goal. That’s when the President of the Kuwaiti FA, Prince Fahid, stormed onto the pitch and angrily demanded it be chalked off. Bizarrely it was. Stupor was later banned and Prince Fahid was fined $10,000.
Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas was banned for life – and Chile barred from the World Cup for one tournament – after a disgraceful piece of playacting in 1990. It happened in the qualifiers for Italia ’90 against Brazil. A beleaguered Chile was losing 1-0 when a firework was thrown on the pitch. Rojas went down claiming it had hit him.
Chile demanded that they be awarded automatic qualification. Scandalously video evidence would prove that Rojas had actually not been hit by the firework. He had cut himself with a razor blade concealed in his glove. Sheer insanity by the South Americans.
England did not play well against Germany in 2010. They still thought they had drawn level with their traditional rivals when Frank Lampard blazed in a shot off the crossbar that was clearly seen to cross the line on TV. Although the ball had beaten Manuel Neuer in Germany’s goal, it was not given by the referee or linesman.
This decision ignited the debate around the use of instant replay in football matches. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter said that it had even changed his mind. Germany would go on to win 4-1. It could have been different had Lampard’s goal been rightfully allowed to stand.
To this day Josip Simunic remains the only player to ever be booked three times at a world cup. Of course, that’s because you’re supposed to be sent off after receiving your second yellow. UK referee Graham Poll saw it differently though, forgetting that he had booked the Croatian more than once.
Poll was removed from the refereeing pool for the knockout stages of the 2006 world cup. He would also retire from refereeing international football matches, largely because of this mistake. It remains one of the biggest gaffes by an official in the history of football.
The 2010 World Cup was the height of American interest in soccer. Their team took points of England and staged a superb comeback against Slovenia in the group stage to draw level at 2-2. This entire game seemed to go against the US. Marko Suller should have been sent off and Robbie Finley was booked for handball despite it not even touching his arm.
Worse was to come. The US thought they had won the game when Landon Donavan’s freekick was touched in by Maurice Edu with just minutes left on the clock. Clearly, the referee was a KGB mole because he wasn’t letting the US win. For some bizarre reason, he ruled a ‘phantom foul’ had occurred. He was later accused of taking bribes.
Irish fans watching the World Cup would have felt bitterness and satisfaction watching France capitulate in South Africa. The team lost to both Mexico and South Africa after poor team morale and dubious selections saw Raymond Domenech’s men meltdown.
Nicholas Anelka’s confrontation with the manager would see the Chelsea forward sent home. Domenech’s decision not to start Thierry Henry from the beginning also confused the squad. He was known to choose players based on their star signs. It was a total embarrassment for one of the tournament’s great nations.
Irish football fans have suffered a lot down the years, but this is the pinnacle of it all. They had lost the home leg of their play-off final against France and went to the Stade de France in 2010 with nobody expecting anything from them. They put on the performance of a lifetime, bringing the ties level on aggregate.
Despite Ireland having the chance to take the lead, the two teams stayed level into extra time with penalty shootouts looking likely. Then all of a sudden the ball was in the Irish box and Thierry Henry deflected the ball into the path of William Gallas with his hand. Irish hearts were broken and France went on to disgrace themselves in the tournament.
England played Portugal in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. This English side was being seen as a golden generation with the chance of going all the way to the final. That was until Wayne Rooney’s foot made contact with Ricardo Carvalho’s groin.
The English forward correctly saw red and offered the referee a piece of his mind. But the most memorable moment of this is when his Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo winked back at the Portuguese bench. Bizarrely, Ronaldo got more abuse for his lack of respect than Rooney did for trying to end Carvalho’s hopes of being a father.
South Korea and Japan were the first two co-hosts of a world cup in 2002. The former side did better than the latter, managing to get as far as the semi-finals. But was it all above board? Many people have questioned some of the refereeing decisions that went their way, with suggestions of corruption.
Ranked 40th in the world, they beat Portugal (5), Italy (6) and Spain (8) on their way to the semis. Every close decision went their way, with fans accusing FIFA of favouring the host nation to keep local fans interested. One of the referees was allegedly given a car by the South Korean former Vice-President of FIFA Chung Mong-Joon.
An on-going controversy, eyebrows were raised when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup. The oil-rich Gulf state had never qualified for a World Cup before and with just 5 million people did not have the existing infrastructure to host the biggest sporting event on the planet. The general consensus is that a lot of FIFA officials accepted extra cash to vote for Qatar over the US.
Since the vote, Muhammad Bin Hamad, a former candidate for FIFA President and main orchestrator of Qatar’s bid have been permanently banned by FIFA. There has also been a lot of outrage about the treatment of migrant workers in the extreme heat of Qatar.
The decision to allow Chile to host a World Cup in 1962 after the Valdivia earthquake – the strongest in the history of humanity – was described as insanity. But it did go ahead and a toxic rivalry with Italy had already started after comments made by Italian media about Chile being proud to be backwards. So when they played, tensions were guaranteed.
The first foul happened after 12 seconds. Then Ferrino fouled Landa and was sent off. Police had to drag him off the pitch when he refused to leave. Things escalated. Mario David tried to kick Leonel Sanchez in the head and saw red too. Police had to intervene three more times as scuffles and spitting happened. One Chilean had his nose broken with a left hook. No red card. Chile won 2-0.
France won the 1998 World Cup, but one of the biggest stories and massive mysteries was what happened to Brazil’s Ronaldo the night before the game? The young forward was on his way to being a superstar. The most exciting forward on the planet, he allegedly suffered a seizure the night before the final.
Ronaldo started the final despite being described as convulsing and foaming at the mouth by teammates. France would beat Brazil 3-0 and Ronaldo was totally anonymous in the match. Many have questioned why he was even allowed to play, with some suggesting that his sponsors Nike had forced him to play the final.
Maradona came into the 1994 World Cup in the US overweight but was still a major component of Argentina’s plans. That was until he tested positive for ephedrine and got sent home by the national team. His failed drug test saw the end of an international career that lasted for 17 years, with one World Cup win, and one runner’s up medal.
He initially blamed the test failure on the energy drink Rip Fuel. He claimed that the Argentinian version doesn’t contain ephedrine, but his personal trainer gave him the US version unknowingly. His personal trainer should have been sacked before then because he clearly wasn’t doing his job properly.
To this day the Irish people are divided over Roy Keane walking out on the Ireland squad in Saipan. He stormed out of the camp, never to return after a major fall-out with manager Mick McCarthy and the alleged lack of professionalism by the FAI. Keane was furious with preparations including food for the players and the expectations for the squad.
After a scorching interview with two Irish newspapers, Keane was confronted by his manager. He responded by saying: “Mick, you’re a liar … you’re a f**king w*nker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a f**king w*nker and you can stick your World Cup up your ar*e.”
Peter Bonetti was forced to replace the best goalkeeper in the world on an hour’s notice after Gordon Banks was laid up ill. Where’s the controversy you’re wondering? Well, a couple of nights before, the England squad had had a few beers at an exclusive country club in Guadalajara. After drinking one, Banks fell ill and that’s where conspiracy theories start.
England had brought all their own food to Mexico, but beer was seen as safe. However, as soon as Banks opened that bottle, that was the end for England. They would lose 3-2 to West Germany, with Bonetti having a nightmare game. Banks said after: “I can’t remember if the bottle I was served was opened in my presence or not, but I do know that half an hour after that beer I felt very ill indeed.”
One of the most shocking results in modern World Cup history, it really wasn’t supposed to end this way for hosts Brazil. The Samba side was super reliant on their captain and talisman Neymar. So when he got injured, things looked a lot more difficult for the hosts against semi-final opponents Germany.
Nobody could have predicted the capitulation that went down in Belo Horizonte. Germany destroyed Brazil 7-1, with the match felt in the home nation to be a national humiliation. To rub salt into their wounds, Miroslav Klose broke Ronaldo’s World Cup goals record on the night, with his 16th career goal. They would go on to beat Argentina in the final.
1938 was the height of the rise of Fascism, which was also becoming less popular in other parts of the world. France were hosts of the world cup and was playing Italy in the quarterfinals. As both sides traditionally wear blue, Italy was obliged to change their kit. However, instead of their usual alternate white strip, Italy instead came out wearing all-black.
Black was the colour of the feared Italian Fascist paramilitary forces. Thousands of French and Italian anti-Fascists jeered and booed the blackshirt team, who stood with their arms extended in a Fascist salute. Mussolini himself got involved, instructing the team to keep the salute until the crowd got tired.
How did Nigel De Jong not get sent off? The Netherlands were playing Spain in the final of the 2014 World Cup in South Africa. Spain’s tika-taka went against an ageing Dutch side’s more agricultural style. There were 14 yellow cards and one red, with Johnny Heitinga getting sent off for the Netherlands.
Everybody agrees that De Jong should have joined him when he launched a karate kick-style tackle into Xabi Alonso’s torso, sending the Spaniard to the floor in agony. We’ve seen high boots, but this was a high kick that Bruce Lee would have been proud. Referee Howard Webb said his view was obstructed and agreed that it should have been red.
Both West Germany and Austria were accused of match-fixing after this game in 1978, but nothing was ever proven. The two sides met knowing that a win by one or two goals for West Germany would see both sides qualify for the knockout stages ahead of Algeria, who had played Chile the day before.
West Germany scored in the first ten minutes and then nothing else really happened for the remainder of the game. Both sides were happy to let it play out so that they would both get through. Austria didn’t try to draw level. One Spanish newspaper put the match report in its crime section, while several commentators refused to continue and told viewers to turn the match off.
Our next entry comes from 1978 when Peru played Argentina. The latter nation needed to win by four clear goals to reach the second round ahead of Brazil. Peru duly obliged by losing 6-0 to the continental giants. It’s alleged that Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla wanted to win the World Cup to clear up Argentina’s negative world image. former
Peruvian Senator Genaro Ledesma has confirmed the shock result was agreed before the match by the dictatorships of the two countries. There were numerous other allegations, including that Peru’s Argentinian born goalkeeper was bribed. We don’t know, but there were definitely dirty tricks. Peru had only conceded 6 in their previous five games.
Hakan Unsal became the second Turkish player sent off in their match against Brazil in 2002 when Rivaldo basically conned the referee. All throughout the tournament, the triple-axis of Rivaldo, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho was sensational but this time the former really let himself down.
Unsal did kick the ball at the Brazilian in frustration, but replays showed that the ball clipped Rivaldo’s shin. He went down clutching his face as though he’d been shot and rolled around like a snake with epilepsy. Definitely one of the worst dives of all time.
Frank Rijkaard was responsible for a stunning moment from the 1990 World Cup when he gobbed all over Rudi Voller. The Netherlands were playing West Germany in a last-16 grudge match. He cut down Voller with a bad tackle that saw him booked. Infuriated by the fact that he would miss the quarter-final if the Netherlands progressed, he saw red.
Rijkaard spat at the back of Voller’s head as he passed him by. Ironically, Voller was booked for protesting to the referee and both men were sent off. He was given the nickname ‘The Llama’ after the game and would eventually make it up with Voller.
One of the most brutal incidents ever seen at a world cup, France were playing Germany in 1982 when this happened. Battiston was coming through on goal when Germany’s goalkeeper Harold Schumacher came flying out. He leapt into the air and collided with the forward, his hip smashing the Frenchman in the face.
Michel Platini would later say he thought Battiston was dead. He went into a coma but thankfully recovered. He suffered broken teeth and damaged vertebrae. Schumacher was later voted as worse than Hitler by French citizens. He was remorseless and said ‘if that’s all that happened I’ll pay for the crowns.”
The first of two Luis Suarez entries on this list, this one just goes to show how far the Uruguayan will go to win. It happened in a quarter-final 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Ghana was the last African side left in the first African World Cup. In the last minute of extra time, Suarez saved a ball off the line with his hands.
He was shown a red card and Asamoah Gyan would then go on to miss the penalty. Uruguay then defeated the Black Stars in the resulting penalty shootout. An unrepenting Suarez said: “I made the best save of the tournament.”
Does any footballer in the world today live on the edge like Luis Suarez? The Uruguayan has bitten three people in his career. Truly it is bizarre. How is biting your instinctive reaction when you want to channel your aggression? But for Suarez, it clearly seems to be his thing. Petr Cech played with a helmet. Suarez should play with a muzzle.
Suarez was banned for four months after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in their final 2014 group game. Video footage shows how outraged and bemused Chiellini was, pulling down his shirt to show the referee the teeth marks in his shoulder. You can’t blame him. Suarez is probably lucky he has teeth after that.
Over fifty years later people argue about whether or not Geoff Hurst’s goal crossed the line. This controversial moment came in extra time. Hurst smashed a shot off the underside of the crossbar. It bounced off the line and was cleared by the defender. But then the linesman awarded the goal.
Even today there are still arguments about it. Not even modern technology has been able to provide a definitive answer. In today’s matches, the footballs actually have chips that detect whether or not they have fully crossed the line. Problem solved.
One of the most notorious and iconic moments of World Cup history, English fans are still crying about this. Maradona enshrined his name in World Cup history after this game. His famous handball came in the 51st minute. Jorge Valdano miscued a cross and Peter Shilton came out to punch. He mistimed, and Maradona – 8 inches shorter – used his hand to send the ball into the net.
The Tunisian referee didn’t see it happen properly and allowed the goal to stand. Maradona would then go on to score one of the greatest goals ever, beating five men on the way to slotting past Shilton. After the match, he said the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”
One of France’s greatest ever players, it’s too bad Zidane is always going to be remembered for his headbutt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi in extra-time in the 2006 World Cup Final. Zizou was sent off for the blatant offence and France would go on to lose the final after a penalty shootout.
French fans were incensed because the referee was far away from the incident when it happened. Zidane alleges that Materazzi insulted his mother. Of course, that doesn’t mean you get to headbutt someone. He deserved the red card, but the big question is whether or not Materazzi did as well.
The single most tragic entry on this list, it’s not actually the own goal that’s controversial but what happened after. Escobar was playing for Colombia against the USA in 1994 when he scored an own goal. The US would go on to win the game 2-1 and Colombia were knocked out.
Instead of going to Las Vegas with friends as originally planned, Escobar instead went to Medellin, Colombia. He was confronted by three men outside a bar named El Indio and shot six times. One of the men shouted ‘Gol, Gol, Gol,’ three times, the same amount as the commentator in the Spanish language broadcast.