*Disclaimer – this is from World Cups 1998 – 2010 only*
There is a sense that Cannavaro’s overall reputation amongst the greats is over-enhanced by his Ballon d’Or prompting 2006 World Cup. That’s perfect here however. After some solid displays in 1998 especially 2006 was his undoubted career highlight. It was a Desailly rivalling campaign but elevated even more by Cannavaro marshalling a defence with Materazzi and the relative novice Grosso in it rather than having support like Blanc, Thuram, Lizarazu and Deschamps. Nesta’s World Cup curse struck for the third tournament in a row in the final group game at which point Cannavaro’s performances as if by necessity raised even more. The only time Italy would concede again was in the final as Materazzi was harshly adjudged to have felled Malouda. Cannvaro’s best performance came either in that final or the semi-final. It doesn’t really matter which it is, he was right at the top of his game when Italy needed him most. For spells in each match it was like deliveries were being sucked towards him given how correctly placed he always seemed to be in order to repel everything. He was awarded the Silver Ball to go with the important trophy. As with Pirlo this felt like one shade of metallic too low though, you can’t help but feel he was pipped by a more romantic narrative as much as actual performances.
4 – Zinedine Zidane
The man who pipped Cannavaro to that Golden Ball in 2006 was of course the great Frenchman. So much of that tournament and 1998 seemed deceptive, yet at the same time a placing at least this high appears a no-brainer. Neither tournament was a patch on his continually magnificent Euro 2000 yet in each there were enough of those Euro 2000 moments to make him a World Cup legend. Three goals in finals alone which should have been added to by multiple assists in 1998 but for a lack of finishing touches by Guivarc’h and Dugarry. His man of the match display in that 98 final had rescued an otherwise unremarkable tournament that threatened to be remembered more for a stamp than anything positive. In 2006 some nostalgic moments of genius against Brazil were the true highlight of a knock-out stages run which looks remarkable on paper. A great goal against Spain in the last 16, then set up the winner in the quarter-final, then scored the winner in the semi-final, then scored again in the final. Scratch deeper though and those three goals were a last minute goal against a vacant Spain midfield and Sergio Ramos as they desperately chased an equaliser and two penalties. It’s a massive shame he was so injured in 2002 as he was at a peak age at that point and at least individually a Euro 2000 repeat was on the cards. Despite all these if and buts it speaks volumes about the player that top five still seems so obvious.
3 – Rivaldo
Luiz Felipe Scolari said this following Brazil’s triumph in 2002, “I always put the squad first. But the success of a squad is only possible if great players help it. That was the case with Rivaldo who, for me, was the best player in the World Cup.” It seems a safe enough guess that Rivaldo’s individual honours only stretched as far as a place in the All-star team due to that shameful playacting against Turkey (a bit like Zidane above not winning the 2000 Ballon d’Or after this sickening red card). Playacting is unsavoury of course but unlike racism for example I still view goals as being more important, and Rivaldo had an amazing record for someone who wasn’t an out-and-out striker. In just two World Cups he returned eight goals, four assists and a moral assist for a magnificent dummy which helped kill off the 2002 final. A quiet game in the 1998 final was a disappointing blot on an otherwise clutch performer in World Cups. He has a glorious winning goal in a last sixteen match with Belgium, demonstrating his famous chest control. He has three goals in quarter-finals of which two were equalisers and one was a trademark winner. The trademark winner to see off the Laudrup inspired Danes was a drill so devastating it almost required a BP apology. Next are semi-finals where he has an assist which took out several Dutch legends in one perfectly arced choice. In finals he has the aforementioned dummy (my favourite skill in football due to what it can achieve with literally no touches) to create Ronaldo’s second, which followed his first goal which came from Kahn parrying Rivaldo’s fizzing shot. He was an incredible player and fortunately – as many great players don’t – he has a golden World Cup legacy to add to everything else.
2 – Ronaldo
I’m trying desperately hard here to ignore the beautiful contextual glory of Ronaldo’s 2002 as technically it’s not relevant. Regardless though the man scored eight in seven matches including their final three of the tournament, the Turkey semi-final goal being especially brilliant. In the final as mentioned before Ronaldo’s second half goals more than rescued some previously below par finishing for his unrivalled standards. His making amends was even more literal as he initially robs Hamann of possession for the opening goal. Whilst he may not have been the obvious best player it was certainly his World Cup given what happened in the 1998 final and how ravaged his career was in between. He was the spearhead of the team who set a World Cup record by winning all seven matches. In 1998 he came into the tournament only about 75% fit yet in no time at all he was up to star attraction pace. In 2006 without barely needing to run he found a way to add the extra three goals needed to set the World Cup record. In total his record shows as 15 goals and 4 assists in 19 games. It’s terrifying to think how much further ahead he’d be without the knee injuries.
1 – Lilian Thuram
Like Lahm Thuram managed the rare feat of making two different All-star teams in two different playing positions. His feat is arguably even more impressive – or at least more complete – as it comprises differing defensive roles as opposed to mirroring ones. Not just the runaway right-back in the 98 tournament Thuram was awarded the Bronze Ball as the third best player full stop, something which may have turned silver or gold if it was awarded after the final rather than before. In terms of going beyond the norm can anyone compete with Thuram in that Croatia semi-final? The two goals were made even more remarkable in hindsight as they would be the only two in a 142 cap career. After feeling he was culpable for the Šuker goal by playing Goran Vlaović onside, Thuram then went into a trance-like state which has meant his finest moment now remains little more than a blur to the man himself. This is Fight Club levels of gripping plot-twist which helps explain eyes which look almost glazed over in replays. It was one of the most incredible responses I’ve ever seen in sport and a winger would have been proud of both goals. This doesn’t over-elevate above a winger doing the same though, the difference is this came on top of excelling as a right-back in his more orthodox tasks. Also as mentioned with Lizarazu he had a lot of work to do with France so often having a narrow midfield. In 2006 he then gave Cannavaro a run for his money as the best centre-back in the tournament, which in itself is remarkable.
Bring both those campaigns together and Thuram is not just the defensive player here but the top man overall too. The tie-breaker in the end between him and the Brazilian duo is that Thuram’s two finals were more impressive. Ronaldo has a brilliant excuse in 1998 but ultimately it doesn’t change what actually happened. Materazzi was Vieira’s man for the only goal in 120 minutes in 2006, Thuram was busy tussling with Luca Toni. Pirlo was awarded man of the match despite Italy only scoring from a corner because Thuram was there snuffing out the attacking players Pirlo was feeding so well. In 1998 Rivaldo, Denilson and Roberto Carlos were barely given a sniff. He almost capped it off with a sixty yard assist but for an excellent Taffarel save. France got a corner from that chance which brought the team forward to immediately win the corner which Zidane scored his second from. The first Zidane goal had come from a corner won by Thuram and Karembeu completely hounding Roberto Carlos out of play from a Brazilian attack! If World Cup finals are the biggest matches in football then it’s Thuram two, Ronaldo one, Rivaldo one.