• First XI: World Cup blunders

The worst World Cup blunders of all time

Robin Hackett
March 17, 2010
Sven-Goran Eriksson said he was sure he "took the right players" to the 2006 World Cup © Getty Images

While many a hero has been born on football's greatest stage, a sizeable number have established themselves among football's unfortunates.

Recent years have seen their share of blunders: USA defender Jeff Agoos scored a fantastic own goal against Portugal in 2002 while, four years later, England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson took 17-year-old Theo Walcott to the finals ahead of several established goal-scorers before completely ignoring him at the tournament.

Yet while some mistakes have been amusing, others have put players' lives in danger. Here, Soccernet presents a list of the First XI.

Brazil coach's semi-final selection - Brazil vs Italy (1938 semi-finals)
As Brazil marched on towards what could have been a first World Cup title, they came up against the holders, Italy, in the semis. Incredibly, the man who had scored five goals in three games for Brazil was dropped for the match, with coach Ademar Pimenta explaining that he was "resting Leonidas for the final". Italy won the semi-final 2-1 and went on to retain the trophy. Whether it was a genuine blunder may be open to debate, though. Pimenta has since said Leonidas "did not play because he could not" due to injury, while an alternative explanation is that Italy's Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, 'applied pressure' to ensure the striker was dropped.

Ilunga Mwepu's free-kick - Zaire vs Brazil (1974 group stage)
This Zaire right back made his name when, as the referee blew his whistle for Brazil to take a free-kick, he broke from the wall and kicked the ball to the other end of the pitch. He later appeared on TV programme Fantasy Football League to recreate the moment in comic fashion ("I can't believe no one's thought of it before. I'll go down in history. This will become known as the Ilunga Mwepu manoeuvre"), but he has also said his actions came after threats of violence from the country's president if they went down to a heavy defeat. "I panicked and kicked the ball away before he had taken it," he said. "Most of the Brazil players, and the crowd, too, thought it was hilarious. They didn't understand the pressure we were under."

Johan Cruyff "forgot" to score a second goal © Getty Images

Netherlands' total cockiness - Netherlands vs West Germany (1974 final)
The Dutch, led by legendary coach Rinus Michels and star player Johan Cruyff, defined the 'total football' concept and became revered as one of the greatest teams of all time on their way to the '74 final. Unfortunately, it appeared they had become rather too confident in their own abilities. Ahead of the final, they had been set up by German newspaper Bild. The paper apparently sent a group of ladies into the team's pool before publishing a story entitled 'Cruyff, Sekt, nackte Madchen und ein kuhles Bad' ('Cruyff, Champagne, naked girls and a cool bath'), complete with pictures of the incident. The story goes that this led Cruyff to spend several hours the day before the final trying to convince his wife of his innocence. This debacle, along with a lingering resentment over the Second World War, seemingly led the over-confident Dutch to take their eye off the ball. Having scored from a penalty before the Germans had even touched the ball, Netherlands, as Franz Beckenbauer put it, "eased off" and West Germany ended up 2-1 winners. "We wanted to humiliate the Germans," winger Johnny Rep said. "It wasn't something we'd thought about, but we did it. We started knocking the ball around - and we forgot to score a second."

Ref's failure to spot near-death experience - France vs West Germany (1982 semi-final)
The incident was covered in the recent First XI World Cup battles, but it would be remiss not to include referee Charles Corver's decision to award a goal-kick after keeper Harald Schumacher knocked France substitute Patrick Battiston to within an inch of his life.

Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' was apparently down to the ref's haemorrhoid treatment © Getty Images

Ref's failure to spot divine intervention - Argentina vs England (1986 quarter-finals)
As 5'5" Diego Maradona rose above 6'1" goalkeeper Peter Shilton to give Argentina a 1-0 lead over England, seemingly only Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser failed to suspect something was awry. His team-mates had certainly spotted the discrepancy. "I was waiting for my team-mates to embrace me, and no one came," Maradona later said. "I told them, 'Come hug me, or the referee isn't going to allow it'." Nasser, apparently oblivious to the masses of players in white shirts pointing to their hands in unison and the initial lack of celebration from the Argentina camp, awarded the goal. He later claimed his haemorrhoid treatment had affected his eyesight.

Rene Higuita's funny turn - Columbia vs Cameroon (1990 second round)
While also widely remembered for his 'scorpion kick' save, 'El Loco' is perhaps better known for sending his country out of the 1990 World Cup. With Columbia 1-0 down in extra time, Higuita - forward-thinking in respect of the 'total football' concept - positioned himself as an auxiliary defender, 35 yards away from his goal. He played the ball to Luis Carlos Perea, who returned it to him, and Higuita then attempted an ill-advised variant of the Cruyff turn. Roger Milla was only too happy to take advantage, scoring his second goal in three minutes to secure an eventual 2-1 win.

Andres Escobar's own goal proved to be a fatal mistake © Getty Images

Andres Escobar's tragic own goal - Columbia vs USA (1994 group stage)
While Higuita escaped unharmed after his error - he is considered something of a trailblazer, appeared on a reality TV show in 2005 and only hung up his boots for good in January this year - Escobar was to pay for his mistake with his life. Sliding to meet a cross, he succeeding only in diverting the ball into his own net, providing USA with an equaliser in a game they went on to win 2-1. Escobar was shot 12 times outside El Indio restaurant in Medellin less than a fortnight later. Team-mate Faustino Asprilla later revealed that Escobar had warned him on the plane home from the tournament not to go out on the streets - "Something could happen to you, they could kill you" - but failed to take his own advice.

Roberto Baggio's ballooned penalty - Italy vs Brazil (1994 final)
A true great in Italian football, the 1993 FIFA World Player of the Year was the heart and soul of Italy's surge to the '94 final. However, when he stepped up to take his country's final penalty in the shoot-out against Brazil, he made Diana Ross look like a German, scooping the ball well over the bar and ending Italy's dream.

Refs' failures to allow South Korea to concede - South Korea vs Italy (2002 second round) and South Korea vs Spain (2002 quarter-finals)
If ever there was justification for the notion that host countries sometimes get favourable decisions, the 2002 tournament was it. Ref Byron Moreno first helped the co-hosts through after disallowing a legitimate Italy goal for offside, rejecting a penalty shout and controversially sending Francesco Totti off for diving. In the next round, Spain suffered at the hands of a different ref, Gamal Al-Ghandour, who harshly disallowed a goal for pushing and then another as the linesman erroneously said that Joaquin had taken the ball out for a goal-kick prior to the cross. In the penalty shoot-out, Joaquin's match-deciding miss came as South Korea goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae stepped off his line. FIFA dismissed the ensuing conspiracy theories as "pathetic", but Argentinean paper La Nacion summed up the mood of injustice: "This World Cup should be declared null and void."

Oliver Kahn's final fling - Germany vs Brazil (2002 final)
A true goalkeeping great and the winner of the 2002 World Cup's Golden Ball award, it was unfortunate for Kahn that he conceded only his fourth goal of the tournament when he failed to hold onto a tame shot from Rivaldo in the 67th minute, pushing the ball into Ronaldo's path for the opening goal. Brazil went on to win the match 2-0.

One of three bookings for Croatia's Josip Simunic © Getty Images

Graham Poll's three-card trick - Croatia vs Australia (2006 group stage)
Having missed two strong penalty shouts, Poll truly made his mark on the international game with his third sending off of the match. Dario Simic picked up his second yellow in the 85th minute and Brett Emerton went off two minutes later but, when Josip Simunic collected his second booking in the 90th minute, Poll had apparently lost count and failed to send him off. In the 93rd minute, Simunic picked up his third yellow card and a very slightly early bath. "I've had three major championships, Euro 2000, World Cup 2002 and World Cup 2006, and not one has gone right for me for various reasons," Poll said when announcing his international retirement. "They say in life that if one thing goes wrong then that's unlucky, two things go wrong then maybe you are really unlucky and three then you say something isn't quite right there."

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