World Cup cult heroes Gaetjens Bebeto Schillaci Milla

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The World Cup will always belong to the sport’s top stars like Pele, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but it’s a tournament that also makes kings of the unlikeliest players, adding them to football immortality following one glorious summer. James Horncastle picks out some of the best cult heroes defined by their World Cup heroics.

Obdulio Varela, 1950 World Cup

In 1948 Uruguay’s captain, Obdulio Varela, led a strike demanding more rights for the country’s footballers. It lasted more than a year. Attempts were made to persuade Varela to break off the strike. The powers that be tried to lead him into temptation. A gas fired stove was offered as a sweetener. But Varela refused. Two years later, he captained Uruguay to glory in the Maracanazo.

Legend has it he got the squad to urinate on editions of O Mundo after the paper prematurely declared Brazil world champions. Varela showed no fear in front of a crowd estimated to be 200k strong. “Boys, they may as well be made of wood,” he said. “Let the show begin.” Rather than stay in and celebrate at the team hotel on the Copacabana, Varela hit the town with the team masseur. Recognised while out in Rio, he consoled crying Brazilians. The victory ended up being worth double to Varela: Uruguay were world champions and the rights he championed eventually were granted too.

Joe Gaetjens, 1950 World Cup

Generoso Dattilo had a problem. The pocket book that referees used to note down fouls, cards and breaks of play didn’t have enough space to record all the goals England were expected to score against the U.S. in Belo Horizonte. Informed there would likely be 14 or 15, the Italian was recommended to write them on the back of the pad. In the end Dattilo jotted down only one, but it wasn’t for England.

Gaetjens went from washing dishes and waiting tables at a Harlem restaurant to serving up defeat to an England team that considered itself the best on the planet. The English could blame it on the Germans. Gaetjens’ great grandfather was from Bremen. Sent to Haiti by the King of Prussia to look into some business opportunities, he liked it so much he never returned. A couple of generations down the line, Gaetjens was heading a ball past Bert Williams, entering history on the shoulders of the locals who invaded the pitch.

Theo Whitmore, 1998 World Cup

Jamaica is known the world over for its sprinters and its bobsleigh team. In football terms, though, they are synonymous with the less-heralded Theo Whitmore and Ian Goodison, the Reggae Boyz who turned out for Hull City, then in England’s fourth tier, just a year after the “once in a lifetime achievement” of playing at France ’98.

Jamaica qualified for the World Cup under the well-travelled Rene Simoes, a Brazilian probably best known for coaching Marta and the Brazil women’s team to the final of the Olympics in Athens. The final group game against Japan in Lyon represented Jamaica’s last chance to leave a mark on the competition before heading back to the Caribbean.

“Everyone wanted to go down in history,” said Whitmore. The night before the game, his focus was simple: Whitmore wanted to get a goal. “I know my defenders,” he explained. “Once I give them something to defend they will defend it. So once we score, there’s no way of losing.” Whitmore’s confidence was admirable. Five days earlier Jamaica had lost 5-0 to Argentina, with Gabriel Batistuta putting a hat-trick past them. But against Japan the rearguard held, Whitmore scored a brace and Jamaica returned home heroes.

Marco Tardelli, 1982 World Cup

“I remember everything perfectly until I struck the ball. From then on…” Marco Tardelli stares blankly into space. It’s all a blur. His goal celebration in the World Cup final remains iconic: it is the rawest show of emotion. A primal scream the crowd can’t hear, but somehow still feels. A release of the tension built up in the Italy camp amid some of the wild reporting that had led the team to declare a press silence and take on a siege mentality.

Tardelli squared up to a journalist earlier in the tournament in what was no ordinary one-on-one interview. It was more mano e mano. Although Tardelli’s goal arrived from a counter-attack, it demonstrates what a skilful and adventurous side Italy were in 1982. Moments before Tardelli slid and shot, Italy’s centre-backs Beppe Bergomi and Gaetano Scirea were nonchalantly exchanging passes in West Germany’s penalty area. Scirea started the move, marching out from defence and later, as play developed, spotting Tardelli on the edge of the D. Little did Tardelli know but the ecstasy captured in his face at the Bernabeu that night became the enduring image of what World Cups are all about.

Bebeto, 1994 World Cup

Bebeto, centre, showing his fatherly joy during the 1994 World Cup was one of the tournament's most striking moments.
Bebeto, centre, showing his fatherly joy during the 1994 World Cup was one of the tournament’s most striking moments.

While on the subject of World Cup goal celebrations, it would be remiss not to mention the Brazil striker Bebeto. After beating the offside trap and going around Ed de Goey in the Holland goal, he instantly started rocking his arms as if cradling a baby. Teammates Romario and Mazinho rushed over to join in, smiling as they synchronised.

Two days earlier, Bebeto had become a father. Today that baby is all grown up and playing professional football. Last year, Mattheus Oliveira, now 23, moved to Europe and joined Sporting, spending this season running around midfield on loan at Vitoria Guimaraes.

Of the celebrating trio in Dallas, though, it’s fair to say Mazinho’s offspring have gone on to have the more illustrious playing careers. Rafinha is at Inter and missed out on following in his Dad’s footsteps. Half a season of encouraging football at San Siro wasn’t enough to persuade Brazil to take him to the World Cup, but Thiago will be in Russia pulling the strings for Spain.

Pickles, 1966 World Cup

One of the stranger artifacts on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester is a red leather dog collar. It belonged to Pickles, the black and white collie who succeeded where Scotland Yard failed in cracking the case of the stolen Jules Rimet trophy.

Pickles found it wrapped in newspaper at the bottom of a garden hedge in south London three months before the start of the 1966 World Cup. He became a national hero overnight. A £5000 reward came through the post and Pickles was given enough free dog food to last a year. His celebrity didn’t end with finding the Rimet, either, as film directors were eager to cast him in flicks like The Spy with the Cold Nose. Pickles stole the show from the Bulldog who had a more prominent role in the screenplay but he never got a sniff of an Oscar.

Roger Milla, 1990 World Cup

Milla's iconic shuffle after his goals at Italia '90, at the ripe old age of 38, was unforgettable as Cameroon stunned their way to the quarterfinals.
Milla’s iconic shuffle after his goals at Italia ’90, at the ripe old age of 38, was unforgettable as Cameroon stunned their way to the quarterfinals.

Roger Milla was on the island of Reunion when he got the call. He’d retired from the game and was on holiday. The most competitive form of football he’d been playing was on the beach with his mates but the guy on end of the line wasn’t just anyone though. It was the president of Cameroon, Paul Biya.

“You have to come back,” said Biya. At first Milla wasn’t sure. “I don’t know the president… What does the coach say?” Biya was incredulous. “The coach… The coach works for me!” he said.

Milla was 38 at the time but age is nothing but a number. Anytime is “Milla-time.” Rather than interrupt his vacation, Italia ’90 seemed like an extension of it. It looked so much fun. Stepping on the pitch in Bari and Naples appeared no different than the pick-up games he was playing by the Indian Ocean. The wily old striker kept rising from the bench, scoring big goals — always with a hint of mischief — and dancing in front of corner flags. He made Pele believe an African team might win the World Cup one day soon.

Milla broke the record he set in 1990 as the tournament’s oldest-ever goalscorer when he came back and found the net again age 42 in 1994. You wouldn’t bet against him finding a way to get his name up in lights again this summer; it’s just a shame Cameroon didn’t qualify.

Toto Schillaci, 1990 World Cup

A year before Italia ’90, Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci was still playing second division football. He was the top scorer in Serie B with Messina and impressed Juventus enough to sign him. But no one anticipated he’d play regularly, let alone make such an unforgettable impact at the World Cup.

Schillaci jokes that he was the last player Azeglio Vicini called to be on the squad and that the competition was so fierce, it would have been a miracle just to make the bench. Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Andrea Carnevale were all ahead of him in the pecking order. But when he came on and scored the winner in Italy’s opening game against Austria, the Magic Nights truly began. It was as if Schillaci had been graced by God. Everything he touched turned to goal.

Watch the one he scored against Argentina in the semifinal. Giuseppe Giannini lifts the ball over a defender and heads it over to Vialli, who hits a stinging volley. Sergio Goycochea parries it away and there’s Schillaci. The ball is moving so fast he hasn’t got any time to think about what to do next but that’s OK because it careens off his shin and goes in. Italy lost on penalties and were eliminated but fittingly, Schillaci’s streak didn’t end there. There was a third place play-off to play against England, which he won four minutes from time with a penalty. Roberto Baggio graciously allowed him to take it and Schillaci won the Golden Boot.

Schillaci’s career had never hit such heights before and never would again: the definition of a shooting star. Oddly, 18 years later he looks more like a footballer now than he did then.

James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.