You walk out in your country’s colours to thunderous applause and line up alongside your teammates before belting out the national anthem. From the moment the whistle blows to kick off the match, the fans inside the heaving stadium are pushing you to give everything you have.
You’ve worked all your life for this moment. With adrenaline coursing through your veins and the other team doing everything in its power to throw you off your game, suddenly, the red mist appears. In one moment, everything is over. The tournament you’ve dreamt of playing from the time you were a kid has ended, you’ve let your teammates down and they’re left with no choice but to carry on without you.
It’s one of the most devastating moments a player can face in their career, and yet, somehow, the World Cup has a deep history of it happening over and over. From hero to villain, here are five players who know this moment better than anyone.
5a. Luis Suarez. Uruguay vs. Ghana (2010)
In one of the matches of the tournament, Ghana – the lone African nation remaining in the World Cup held in South Africa – was deadlocked at 1-1 with Uruguay nearing the end of extra time of their quarterfinal. With a penalty shootout seeming all but a certainty, the Black Stars earned themselves a free kick on the right wing for one of the last kicks of the match.
John Paintsil delivered a perfect cross which created two point-blank opportunities for the Ghanaians to score, but both were blocked on the line by Uruguay striker Luis Suarez. The second, however, was correctly deemed to be a goalie-like save with his hands, and the referee swiftly awarded a penalty to Ghana and a red card to Suarez.
As one of Uruguay’s key players left the pitch in tears, Asamoah Gyan crashed his penalty against the post to send the game to a shootout. Suarez’s handball was worth it, as Ghana lost on penalties to send Uruguay through to the semifinal.
Suarez emerged a hero to his country, but a villain to the entire continent of Africa.
5b. Luis Suarez. Uruguay vs. Italy (2014)
Yeah, he found a way to make this list twice. But first, a quick history lesson:
After Suarez was suspended for the 2010 World Cup semifinal against the Netherlands (which they lost), he was suspended later in 2010 for seven matches in the Dutch league for biting PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. In 2011, after signing with Liverpool, he was then charged with racial abuse by the English Football Association and suspended for eight matches for comments directed towards then Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. If that wasn’t enough, in 2013, he was suspended for 10 matches for biting Branislav Ivanovic on the arm.
OK, you’re filled in, to 2014 we go. Uruguay faced the Azzurri in their final group game with the winner set to advance. Goalless with just over 10 minutes to play, Suarez inexplicably did it again. In the 79th minute, the mercurial star tried to chip the ball into the Italian box for a teammate, but Giorgio Chiellini cleared the ball. Suarez then ran straight into the box to tussle with the Italian defender, before… yes, you guessed it… biting him on the shoulder.
Since we were still in the days of no video review, Suarez went unpunished as referee Marco Rodriguez failed to recognize what happened despite Chiellini going over to him and showing the bite marks. Uruguay added insult to injury by scoring a couple of minutes later to advance to the Round of 16 ahead of Italy.
He can’t do it again this summer, can he?
4. Wayne Rooney. England vs. Portugal (2006)
Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene with Everton, got off to an explosive start at Euro 2004 before getting injured, and signed at Manchester United to make him England’s brightest star.
He suffered a foot injury in April leading into the World Cup, but made it back in time for the second group game. The wonder boy was back, and that was supposed to be the difference. It was, just not in the way that he might have hoped.
Squaring up against his club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the quarterfinal, Rooney went from hope of the nation to public enemy No. 1 when he stamped Ricardo Carvalho’s private parts as the two tussled for the ball. Should referee Horacia Elizondo have called a foul on Carvalho sooner? Did Ronaldo use the intel he had on Rooney to tell his national teammates they should do everything they can to rile him up? Ronaldo’s infamous wink he gave after the deed was done seemed to suggest so.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that England’s favourite son saw red in a crucial encounter…
3. Jonas Thern. Sweden vs. Brazil (1994)
It was a Cinderella run for Sweden in 1994. On the backs of Tomas Brolin, Kennet Andersson, Martin Dahlin, a young Henrik Larsson and captain Jonas Thern, they won their European qualifying group which featured France to arrive in the United States with plenty of confidence.
The Swedes went undefeated in the group stage despite being placed with Brazil, cruised past Saudi Arabia in the second round, before narrowly escaping in a shootout victory over Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania in the quarterfinals.
As fate would have it, they would meet the South Americans once again in the semifinals. Brazil was dominant, Romario and Bebeto at the peak of their powers making their presence felt, but some wasteful finishing from the former keeping things deadlocked past the hour mark. With the game somewhat meandering in the middle of the pitch and Brazil maintaining possession, Thern had enough.
The Swedish captain — already on a yellow card — stamped Dunga’s left foot on a very late challenge, and was given a straight red. Some say the decision was harsh, and perhaps it was considering the times. Thern was so unimpressed with Dunga’s theatrics to make the most of the foul, he walked over to shake his hands as if to say job well done.
Sweden was forced to play behind the ball even more and eventually broke, Romario heading in the winner in the 80th minute to take Brazil to the final, and eventually the World Cup trophy over Italy in the final. Sweden was left to ponder what might have been as it settled for third place with a 4-0 win over Bulgaria.
2. David Beckham. England vs. Argentina (1998)
David Beckham made his England debut in September of 1996 after breaking through at Manchester United. After some stellar moments that included a spectacular goal from behind the halfway line for his club side and playing in all his country’s qualifying games, the world was set to be at his feet at the ’98 World Cup in France.
However, manager Glenn Hoddle refused to buy into the hype and didn’t start him in the first two group games. Beckham received his chance in the third match against Colombia, and made the most of it with a sublime 30-yard free kick to help England to a 2-0 victory. They would finish second in the group, so Argentina beckoned in the next round.
In one of the great games in World Cup history, Beckham made the pass that led to a brilliant individual goal from 18-year-old Michael Owen. But with the score at 2-2 early in the second half, Manchester United’s young star lost the plot. After a hard shove from behind by Diego Simeone that felled him, Beckham kicked at the Argentina captain from the ground with the referee just a few feet away. Red card. England went down to 10 men for the rest of the match, one they lost on penalties.
Though Beckham would go on to have a terrific career and even captain England to some great moments (including scoring the winning penalty against Argentina at the next World Cup), the immediate aftermath was a nightmare for him. There were death threats, a constant following from the media over his family and abuse from supporters across the country whenever he played away from Old Trafford.
1. Zinedine Zidane. France vs. Italy (2006)
One of the all-time greats was having a tournament for the ages. Spain, Brazil and Portugal all tried to corral arguably the best player of his generation in the knockout stages, but they were all left in their dust as Zinedine Zidane stepped over, danced, and pirouetted around them. It all led to what looked set to be the perfect crowning moment to cap a majestic career: a final against Italy that would give him his second World Cup title.
Zidane gave France the lead in just the seventh minute with a Panenka penalty past legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, but Marco Materazzi leveled the score for Italy in the 19th minute. Chances went both ways the rest of the match, including a Zidane header that needed an extraordinary save in extra time, before the moment that defined the 2006 World Cup.
In the 110th minute, with the ball all the way across in the opposite half, Zidane appeared to be jogging away from Materazzi, before something the Italian said caught his attention. After sizing up his opponent, Zidane nailed Materazzi in the chest with a spear-like headbutt, knocking him down and, frankly, leaving everyone confused – no one had a clue about what happened since it happened behind the play.
It wasn’t until television replays were shown that the incident was revealed, after which referee Horacio Elizondo was left with no choice but to give Zidane a red card. France lost on penalties, but this was probably the one rare instance where the man red carded was still considered a hero after the fact. Materazzi later revealed that he did indeed insult Zidane’s sister, so make of it what you will how the French superstar responded.