10 World Cup wildcard picks who shocked the world and shone
Some of the below made their international debuts during the World Cup. Others went in as fringe players unsure of their places but came out the other end as bona fide stars.
Two came in from the cold, one returned from a ban and another from retirement. Three lifted the trophy; all reached at least the quarter-finals. Starting with...
Geoff Hurst (1966)
Ah, yes – him. Life could have turned out rather differently for Hurst, but events conspired to go his way in the summer of 1966.
Competition for places up front in Alf Ramsey’s England squad was fierce, and the West Ham striker only made his debut for the national team in February 1966 – just over four months before the World Cup was set to begin on home soil.
Twenty-eight players were called to pre-tournament training in May, but six were left out of the final 22-man squad (one, Brian Labone, through injury). Hurst saw off competition from Bobby Tambling and team-mate John Byrne to make the final cut.
He started out as back-up to the preferred partnership of Jimmy Greaves and Norman Hunt, but injury to Greaves in the last group game paved the way for Hurst’s decisive contributions. He got the winner against Argentina in the quarter-final, and his hat-trick in the final (despite Greaves being fit by that point) has iconic status in English football.
Jan Jongbloed (1974)
Goalkeepers tend to know their place in the pecking order. While players in other positions might fade in and out of favor as form and fitness dictate, most teams have a clear No.1 who, barring disaster, they’re determined to stick with.
In 1974, Jan Jongbloed was not that man for the Netherlands. A stalwart figure over 17 years at FC Amsterdam, he’d made his debut for the national team way back in 1962 and had only picked up one more cap before the World Cup started in West Germany. Although he was older (33) than both of his rivals for the goalkeeper’s position – Piet Schrijvers (27) and Eddy Treijtel (28) – Jongbloed had played fewer times for the Netherlands than either of them. Interestingly, none of them had more than five caps pre-tournament.
Both were taller and more conventional shot-stoppers, but the recalled Jongbloed was preferred by Rinus Michels for his ability to sweep up behind the defence. He started all seven games in the tournament, conceding just once en route to the final. Unfortunately for the Dutch, hosts and bitter rivals West Germany fought back from Johan Neeskens’ early penalty to win 2-1 in the final.
Antonio Cabrini (1978)
It’s rare that players come from nowhere to suddenly claim a place in a World Cup squad – rarer still when they’re defenders who have yet to make their international debut. That was the situation Antonio Cabrini found himself in when he was called up by Italy manager Enzo Bearzot in the summer of 1978.
The 20-year-old Juventus left-back made his bow in the Italians’ opening group game against France. They won 2-1 and Cabrini kept his place all the way through the tournament in Argentina. Italy finished fourth overall, losing to Brazil in the third-place play-off.
Cabrini made an excellent impression and won the tournament’s award for best young player. But he was no flash in the pan, becoming an Azzurri mainstay for almost a decade and winning the World Cup in 1982.
Paolo Rossi (1982)
The striker was Cabrini’s close friend and room-mate on international duty, with salacious rumors about the nature of their relationship creating issues between Bearzot’s squad and the Italian press during the 1982 World Cup. It brought the team closer together and Italy went on to lift the trophy, with both players key to the success.
Rossi was a contentious selection, having recently returned from a two-year ban for his part in an alleged betting scandal. He made his comeback in the final few games of the 1981/82 season and went to the World Cup despite concerns that he was out of form and in poor physical condition.
The Italian team, and Rossi in particular, labored their way through the first group phase but came alive thereafter. Bearzot resisted calls to drop Rossi and he repaid his manager’s faith with a hat-trick against Brazil, both goals in the 2-0 semi-final win over Poland and opening the scoring in the final as Italy beat West Germany 3-1. Those six goals earned Rossi the Golden Boot.
Roger Milla (1990)
The 38-year-old striker had retired from professional football, seemingly content to settle for a quiet life on the island of Reunion, when the phone call came. It was the Cameroonian president Paul Biya, insisting that his country’s leading goalscorer should make a dramatic return to action at Italia '90.
The coach and some of his team-mates weren’t keen on the idea at first, but Milla soon proved his worth on a remarkable run to the World Cup quarter-finals. Coming off the bench, he scored twice to beat Romania in the Indomitable Lions' second group game and secure their place in the knockout rounds.
Milla grabbed another brace to see off Colombia during extra time of their second-round tie and also won a penalty in a dramatic 3-2 loss to England. He was one of the stars of the tournament and his dance at the corner flag after each goal became a famous and widely replicated celebration.