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May 20, 2010

Golden oldies and thrilling comebacks

By Mark Lomas
(Archive)

Each time the World Cup rolls around, enduring football memories are created on the biggest stage of them all and the tournament's history books rewritten. Here, Soccernet tells the stories of those players, coaches and teams who can already claim to hold a place in the record books.

Oldest player and goalscorer at finals: 42 years and 39 days - Roger Milla
(Cameroon vs Russia, USA 1994)

Roger Milla and Oleg Salenko World Cup
GettyImagesRoger Milla and Oleg Salenko celebrate their record-breaking achievements after Russia's 6-1 victory over Cameroon at USA 94

When fans sat down with a beer in one hand and a foam finger on the other to watch Cameroon and Russia do battle in their final group game of the 1994 World Cup, few could have predicted that they would see no less than three finals records broken before their eyes at the Stanford Stadium in California.

Okay, so some fans may have had a flutter on Roger Milla to break his own record of being the oldest player to play in the finals - after all, he had come on against Brazil four days earlier to write Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings out of the record books.

At the 1986 World Cup, Jennings played in a 3-0 defeat to Brazil on his 41st birthday to ensure that legendary stopper Lev Yashin (40 years, 7 months, 23 days) would no longer hold the oldest player record. But Milla, aged 42 years and 35 days, smashed that record, coincidentally also in a 3-0 defeat to Brazil, when he replaced David Embe on June 24, 1994.

And four days later, Milla - whose star shined brightest at the 1990 World Cup as the Indomitable Lions' super-sub - came on again to secure his place in the history books. To put his achievement in perspective, he is one of only three outfield players to appear in the top ten of oldest finals players - with positions two to eight below him all occupied by goalkeepers. But Milla was not content with just one record, and just a minute after coming on for Louis Mfede against Russia, the veteran striker did what he did best, slotting home a tidy finish after outmuscling defender Dmitri Khlestov in the box. Now Milla was both the oldest player and oldest goalscorer in World Cup history.

One thing yet to be mentioned about this game (so as not to take the gloss off Milla's remarkable record), is that his contribution to the game was somewhat futile. When he came on, Cameroon were losing 3-0 and the score would eventually finish 6-1, but it was a match of incredible feats and Russia played their part too, with striker Oleg Salenko also claiming a record - becoming the only player to net five goals in a single World Cup match.

Highest scoring game: Austria 7-5 Switzerland (1954 World Cup quarter-final, Switzerland)

There have been some memorable fightbacks in World Cup history - Nigeria's 3-2 victory over Spain in 1998, Belgium's 4-3 win against the Soviet Union in 1986 and West Germany's 3-2 defeat of England in 1970 to name but a few. But there are only two occasions in finals history when a team has really defied the odds and clawed back a three-goal deficit to emerge victorious.

Sepp Hugi Switzerland 1954 World Cup
GettyImagesSwitzerland striker Sepp Hugi (r) nets one of his three goals against Austria, but it was not to be enough for his side

Portugal's incredible, Eusebio-inspired 5-3 victory over North Korea in 1966, when the Black Pearl netted four goals to complete a remarkable comeback, is one of those. But the first time it happened was at the 1954 finals in Switzerland; the highest scoring match the World Cup has ever seen.

Switzerland had emerged from a tricky group containing Italy, England and Belgium, mainly thanks to the scoring exploits of Sepp Hugi and Robert Ballaman, while the host nation's quarter-final opponents Austria could boast their own super striker in Erich Probst, who had scored four goals in two games to help his side progress.

Switzerland were coached by Austrian Karl Rappan and he looked to have engineered a superb result for his adopted nation agaisnt his motherland, as the Schweizer Nati raced into a three-goal lead. The goals all came within a hectic four-minute period, courtesy of Ballaman's 16th minute opener - his third of the finals - and two strikes from Hugi, his fourth and fifth of the tournament. But despite facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge against an impressive team and a partisan home support, Austria produced a sensational fightback.

Switzerland's three goals in four minutes were outdone as Walter Nausch's side netted three in three, with a goal from Robert Koerner and a brace from Theodor Wagner bringing them level in the 27th minute, amazingly just eight minutes after they had been staring defeat in the face. Further goals from Ernst Ocwirk and Koerner gave Austria a 5-3 lead in the 34th minute before Ballaman's second for Switzerland sent the teams into half-time with the score at 5-4.

After a half that could surely stake a claim to being the most memorable in football history, the second period was somewhat of a disappointment, with just three goals scored. Wagner completed his hat-trick in the 52nd minute to give Austria a two-goal lead but Swiss striker Hugi replied soon after with a hat-trick goal of his own. The match was poised at 6-5 for a total of 18 minutes - the longest period in the game without a goal - before Probst, who incredibly had not yet got on the scoresheet despite being Austria's top scorer, popped up to put the final nail in the Swiss coffin with 14 minutes remaining.

The monumental effort required to knock out the host nation clearly took its toll on Austria, as they crashed to an embarrassing 6-1 defeat at the hands of neighbours and eventual champions West Germany in the semi-finals, though they did finish third after beating reigning champions Uruguay in the play-off.

Most cards at finals: Zinedine Zidane - 4 yellows and 2 reds from 12 matches
(1998 - 2006)

Firstly, it is necessary to state that Zinedine Zidane is undoubtedly one of the greatest players to have kicked a football. A player of mesmeric skill and guile, he captivated audiences at stadiums and in living rooms across the globe throughout a glittering career. He headed in two goals in the 1998 World Cup final as France triumphed for the first time in the competition, and almost single-handedly inspired Les Bleus' passage to the 2006 final, scoring a penalty of both unbelievable class and cheek in the biggest match in the sport. But let's face it - he was a bit of a dirty player.

Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt
GettyImages / JohnMacDougallZinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt

Zidane may have appeared to exude calmness with his magnetic touch and ability to pick out the perfect pass under pressure, but he was a footballer who very much played on the edge throughout his career. Generally, he did well to suppress his questionable temperament, but on the greatest stage of all, in 2006, he let his anger erupt in a moment of Marco Materazzi-induced madness - headbutting the Italy defender in the chest and receiving a red card that dealt a fatal blow to France's hopes of winning the World Cup again. This was the last time he lost his rag but was by no means a finals' first.

Zidane's first World Cup appearance, in France's opening game of the 1998 finals against South Africa, also brought his first World Cup booking. And in the very next game against Saudi Arabia, he suffered the first, and slightly less high-profile, of his two World Cup red cards. In a game where he had been majestic and which France were comfortably winning, Zidane lost his rag and stamped on Fuad Amin - causing him to miss the next two games. He returned for the quarter-final victory over Italy and there were to be no further indiscretions from Zizou in 1998.

A thigh-injury ruled Zidane out of France's opening two games of the 2002 World Cup and by the time he returned, the defending champions were staring an exit in the face. A half-fit Zidane couldn't save them as Les Bleus lost their final group game and went crashing out of the tournament. Having retired from international football in 2004, Zidane returned to the fold for the 2006 World Cup as captain but the role did not appear to improve his discipline.

Yellow cards in each of France's opening two matches against Switzerland and South Korea followed, and were symbolic of the side's frustration as they drew the opening two matches. Zidane's booking for a petulant shove on Kim Young-Chul in the second game meant a suspension and could have acrimoniously brought the curtain down on his career. But France beat Togo in the final game and Zidane returned to face Spain in the second round, where a fourth and final World Cup yellow card was overshadowed by a fantastic last-minute solo goal that secured France's place in the quarter-finals.

His sending off in the final was a tragic way to end such an astonishing career, and it also ensured that while Zidane had written his name alongside Pele, Vava and Paul Breitner as the only players to have scored in two World Cup finals, he had also cemented his status as the most ill-disciplined player to grace the tournament. Zizou's only hope of redemption appears to lie with Cameroon's Rigobert Song - currently with a record on three yellow cards and two reds - who could break the record at this summer's finals.