World Cup quarter-final time, is it? Marvellous. Superb part of the tournament, the quarter-final days. The wheat has by this point been sorted from the chaff. Despite what Southgate-sceptics will tell you, there are no easy World Cup quarter-finals.
But they’re not always great games. Often they can be cagey, the enormity of what’s at stake creating inevitable tension. But lots of them are superb, and our unscientific gut instinct is that pound-for-pound they outperform their flashier, showier semi-final cousins.
Here’s five good ones, picked not by any definitive or scientific means but because we like them. The fact the list contains as much shithousery as it does brilliance is entirely through choice.
Uruguay 1-1 Ghana (Uruguay win 4-2 on pens), 2010
Is it possible that Maradona’s is only the second biggest shithouse handball in a World Cup quarter-final? Incredible concept, but probably true.
Ghana were bidding to become the first African side to reach the semi-finals and were giving a fine account of themselves against the more-fancied Uruguayans. Sulley Muntari put them 1-0 up on the stroke of half-time, only for Diego Forlan to equalise 10 minutes into the second half.
But really all this was nothing more than setting the scene for the final moments of extra-time. Ghana had ended normal time in the ascendancy and this continued in the added 30 minutes without the Black Stars quite managing to create the clear opportunity with which they could make history. Until…
Ghana were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box with seconds remaining. John Pantsil clipped it into the box and Kevin-Prince Boateng gave it the little eyebrows. The ball fell to Stephen Appiah whose shot was cleared off the line. Dominic Adiyiah headed the ball back towards goal and looked set to be sending Ghana through until Luis Suarez, already football’s designated villain, stuck out a hand and made a goalline save. He was sent off. Ghana had a penalty.
Asamoah Gyan missed the spot-kick, his 10th unsuccessful attempt on goal of the game, and as Suarez celebrated the success of his antics, the result of the shoot-out was inevitable. Asamoah at least managed to score in the shoot-out, but with an added twist of cruelty it was Adiyiah, having been so cruelly denied a place in football history, who produced Ghana’s second and decisive miss.
Netherlands 2-1 Argentina, 1998
Hopefully we’ll get something half as good as this one in 2022’s reprise of a classic last-eight encounter in France. It was already pretty good when it appeared to be heading for extra-time at 1-1 with time ticking away.
A high-quality encounter had been turbo-charged in its closing minutes by Ariel Ortega getting himself sent off for headbutting Edwin van der Sar – the sheer physics of which are mind-boggling – after trying and failing to con himself a penalty.
Just as everyone started to wonder how precisely Argentina were going to cope with extra-time a man light, Frank de Boer strode out of defence and was allowed to make his way towards halfway unencumbered before looking up and spotting the run of Dennis Bergkamp 70 yards in the distance. One raking pass and three touches of a genius’ right boot later, Netherlands were through and Argentina were out.
It remains one of the all-time great World Cup goals, Bergkamp first bringing the ball out of the air and under his spell with one touch, sending Roberto Ayala for a hot dog with a second and then lifting the ball over Carlos Roa and into the top corner with his third.
Bulgaria 2-1 Germany, 1994
Until Japan did it a couple of weeks ago, Bulgaria’s stunning upset win against the World Cup holders at USA 94 was the last time Germany had lost a World Cup game after taking the lead.
They did so at Giants Stadium shortly after half-time through Lothar Matthaus’ penalty after Jurgen Klinsmann was fouled. You have to remember, this was some months before he charmed the UK so thoroughly with his goal celebrations, so at the time this was still kind of a big deal.
Here they go again, thought everyone. Bloody Germans. But none of that weary resignation for Bulgaria, who instead simply roared back and scored two goals of their own in the space of four delirious minutes through first Hristo Stoichkov and Yordan Lechkov who briefly became the world’s pre-eminent bald man in the process.
Netherlands 2-3 Brazil, 1994
USA 94 was a stonkingly good World Cup (until the final at least) and it unquestionably boasts the best all-round set of quarter-finals. Bulgaria doing a number on Germany will always be the most famous, but Sweden and Romania played out a hipster’s wet dream of a 2-2 draw before the Swedes prevailed on penalties while Italy’s 2-1 win over Spain wasn’t too shabby either. And then there was this five-goal cracker between eventual champions Brazil and the perennial World Cup nearly men of the Netherlands.
After a goalless first half, the game roared spectacularly to life. Romario rifled Brazil into the lead from Bebeto’s cross before the Dutch defence parted like an Orange sea to allow Bebeto to get on the scoresheet himself and produce one of the most famous celebrations of all time.
The Dutch weren’t done, though, Bergkamp latching on to a quick throw to catch the Brazilian defence with its guard down and finish in typically unflappable manner. When Aron Winter powered a header from a corner, Netherlands were level. But with 10 minutes remaining Branco took a 15-yard run-up at a 30-yard free-kick and produced the daisycutter to end all daisycutters and send Brazil through to the last four.
Argentina 2-1 England, 1986
Couldn’t ignore it, could we?
There have been other geniuses to have played this sport. Arguably even better ones, you can all have your own favourites, it’s fine. But there can surely never have been a purer, clearer, more brilliant example of the sheer breadth of one man’s footballing skillset on the biggest stage of all in such a condensed period of time than that produced between the 51 and 55 minutes by Diego Armando Maradona at Estadio Azteca on June 22 1986.