With the 2018 FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament looming large on the sports radar screen, we thought to have a close look at some of the significant accomplishments by individual players over the history of the finals, which got its start in 1930 and has been played every four years, with the exception of 1942 and 1946, when larger historical events took precedence.
Given the difficulty of scoring a goal in the most popular game in the world, the topic we have selected is the players who have scored the most goals in World Cup competition.
Only seven players have scored more than 10 goals over the course of their World Cup participation. Three are from Germany; two came from Brazil and one each from France and Hungary.
Klose leads the list with 16 goals scored. He played in four World Cup competitions over the course of 16 years, so his scoring proficiency works out to one per year, but given that the tournament is not played every year, his average works out to four per tournament. It helped his cause that Germany is such a power in the game, as the country’s 106 World Cup games is tops. You win, you continue to play. You lose, you go home.
In the true spirit of the old sports axiom that records were made to be broken, Klose was playing as recently as 2016. His last World Cup appearance was in 2014. Germany won the top prize that year and Klose kicked two goals in World Cup competition in 2014. The first goal came in a 2-2 draw with Ghana, tying him with Brazil’s Ronaldo. He kicked the second in Germany’s 7-1 win during the semifinals against Brazil.
Klose also earned a record by becoming the first player to make it to four consecutive World Cup semifinals, but given his character, he would have attributed that one to his teammates and coaches.
In the fashion of many of the greats of the game of soccer, Ronaldo needed just the one name, which is good, because his proper name, Ronaldo Luis Nazário de Lima is a mouthful in any language.
He scored 15 World Cup goals in World Cup tournaments in 1998, 2002 and 2006, which gives him an edge over Klose in terms of goals per tournament or goals per year.
His country of Brazil has played 104 World Cup games, just two behind Germany. Brazil won with Ronaldo on the side in 2002, his second appearance in the FIFA World Cup. That year marked his return from severe knee injuries that cost him nearly three years out of his career.
Ronaldo was on the Brazilian National Team at the age of 17 in 1994, but he did not see action in that competition. Brazil did win that year and they were the runners-up in 1994.
He scored four times in 1998, eight times in 2002 and three goals in 2006.
His two goals against Germany in the 2002 finals would have to be considered as one of his top achievements.
Müller’s 14 FIFA World Cup Goals puts him in third place, meaning that German players occupy two of the top three spots.
Müller began his senior career in 1963 and made his final appearance in 1981, finishing up with the Fort Lauderdale Strikes of the old North American Soccer League.
His top year in FIFA World Cup play was 1970, when he kicked nine goals in six appearances in the qualifying rounds, and then poured in 10 for Germany in the tournament. Given that prodigious level of scoring, it would seem almost patently obvious that Germany would win the 1970 World Cup, but that was not the case. Germany actually finished third that year, which in a way makes Müller’s feat even more compelling.
Given the way Müller is described by those who saw him play, he was absolutely deserving of Germany’s triumph in 1974, the second time they hosted the FIFA World Cup tournament and even though he scored “only” four goals, it was an entirely fitting way to conclude his FIFA World Cup play.
France’s Just Fontaine has 14 FIFA World Cup goals to his credit.
He played for the French national team for seven years between 1953 and 1960. If we can be forgiven for borrowing from a certain rock song, he could have been known as the “Marrakech Express,” as he was born in that city in French Morocco.
He holds the singular distinction of having the record for the most goals scored in a single edition of the FIFA World Cup. He scored 13 of his 14 goals in six matches in 1958.
“Justo” as he was known, was more than “just” a soccer player, his statistics would make one think.
Despite his efforts, however, Brazil was the ultimate winner in that edition of the World Cup and by that time, the semi-tradition of the host country winning the top prize was starting to show a strong trend in that direction, although Sweden was the host country for that edition of the World Cup.
France finished third in the 1958 and Fontaine would doubtless have sacrificed some of his 13 goals in exchange for the top prize.
No less a soccer luminary than the immortal Pelé declare Fontaine one of the 125 greatest living footballers in March of 2004.
Fontaine will be 85 in August of 2018, so he can remain on Pelé’s list, hopefully for some time to come.
Which brings us to…
If you asked the most dedicated hermit in the most far-flung place in the world to name one soccer player, chances are strong that that hermit would say, “Pelé.” The name is simply synonymous with soccer.
His 12 FIFA World Cup goals scored put him at number five on the list.
Like Ronaldo, Pelé is from Brazil. Also like Ronaldo, Pelé’s given name of Edson Arantes do Nascimento would have been a nightmare for radio and television commentators.
Many regard him as the greatest footballer of all time. He was voted the World Player of the Century in 1999 and if he had played in the 19th century, he would have taken the award for that 100-year period.
He played for the Brazilian national team from 1957 to 1971, playing FIFA World Cup football in 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970. Brazil was the big winner on two of those three occasions, 1962 and 1970, accounting for two of Brazil’s world leading FIFA World Cup titles.
When he first appeared in World Cup play in 1962 at 22 years of age, he was already rated as the best player in the world. He had one assist and one goal in the tournament, but was injured on a long-range shot against Czechoslovakia that prevented him from playing beyond the first game of the tournament, even though his side won the World Cup.
Brazil fared poorly that year, playing in only three matches.
In his final year of World Cup play, Pelé was reluctant to take a spot on the team, perhaps thinking that he was not equal to the task, but he wound up being named the player of the tournament, for which he received the Golden Ball.
While he scored 12 goals in World Cup play, he was unselfish and provided brilliant assists for his teammates.
Jürgen Klinsmann and Sándor Kocsis
Jürgen Klinsmann played for Germany, making appearances for West Germany from 1987 to 1990 and then unified Germany from 1990 to 1998. He kicked three goals in 1990, five in 1994 and three in 1998 for his 11 total FIFA World Cup goals. He was the first player to score three or more goals in three consecutive World Cups. His German side won the World Cup tournament in 1990.
Sándor Kocsis played for Hungary. That country has never won the World Cup tournament.
Kocsis scored all 11 of his goals in the 1954 World Cup and was the first player to record two hat tricks. He is one of only two players in class-A FIFA competition, the other being Gerd Müller, to average above one goal per game encompassing more than 43 international games.
During his eight years with the Hungarian national team, he recorded seven hat tricks. Only Müller scored more goals in World Cup tournament play during a single tournament.
These seven men serve as an example and a target for modern players, but their teammates to a man would all describe the seven as willing to bypass individual glory for the good of the team.