The World Cup delivers iconic moments time and time again on the biggest stage, but for every winner, there are millions of losers.
Players have been humanised with their shows of emotion when representing their countries, while others have shamed their nations by writing dark passages in the history of FIFA’s flagship event.
Here are some of the saddest moments in the World Cup’s long and storied history.
*Note – these entries are not ranked.
James Rodriguez had torn up the 2014 World Cup with Colombia, playing at an incredibly high level that he couldn’t quite replicate throughout the rest of his career.
The former Real Madrid attacker had scored a truly wonderful Puskas Award strike against Uruguay and then netted a penalty in his side’s eventual exit to Brazil. The emotion overcame Rodriguez, who was comforted by Brazilians David Luiz and Dani Alves having been the leading goalscorer at that World Cup with six efforts.
A nation that worships the World Cup whenever it comes around, hopes were high in Brazil for their semi final with Germany on home soil in 2014.
But with no Thiago Silva or Neymar, the Selecao looked a shadow of the side that had dominated earlier in the tournament and were carved open time and time again as the likes of Thomas Muller, Miroslav Klose and Toni Kroos ran riot in a 7-1 thrashing.
Germany would go on to win the tournament, but that did little to soften the blow for Brazil and their fans after the humiliating defeat.
FIFA’s decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 brought with it a litany of human rights issues. Among these problems has been the treatment of migrant workers.
By early 2021, more than ten years after the tournament was given to the Middle East nation, over 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar. The nation has been developing new football stadiums and its own infrastructure in order to host the World Cup.
Lionel Messi and World Cups have never quite got on. He was named the best player in 2014, but it wasn’t vintage Messi even if Argentina reached the final.
The legendary attacker had chances during the final to put his side ahead but they were left heartbroken when Mario Gotze popped up with the winner.
Messi was then snapped looking suitably forlorn walking past the World Cup trophy on his way to receive a runners-up medal. He’ll be hoping 2022 is his year.
Andres Escobar made 51 international appearances for Colombia and is held in high regard for his contributions by national team fans.
At the 1994 World Cup, he scored an own goal in a 2-1 defeat to the United States. Ten days later on his return to Colombia, Escobar was shot and later died in hospital in an attack in apparent retaliation for his own goal.
The defender was only 27 at the time and his death tarnished Colombia’s reputation and image internationally.
Ghana’s journey to the last eight was the feel-good story of the 2010 World Cup. But it could have been so much better.
The Black Stars were on the verge of becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semi final when they were awarded a penalty as Luis Suarez used his hands to prevent a goal-bound shot.
Suarez was sent off but stuck around to watch Asamoah Gyan’s penalty. It soared over the bar, Suarez celebrated and Uruguay ended up progressing.
Ask any England fan who was around in the 1990s and they’ll tell you Paul Gascoigne was a one-of-a-kind player.
He was incredible at Italia 90, but a yellow card against West Germany saw the former Newcastle and Tottenham midfielder banned for the final if the Three Lions could make it there.
He was seen welling up but somehow performed even better after realising he would miss the final. While a sad image, it remains an iconic moment in World Cup history.
It’s a sad moment for everyone when a cheater prospers, and the Irish still aren’t that keen on France legend Thierry Henry for what he did in a 2009 play-off.
With the aggregate score tied up at 1-1 and into extra time, former Arsenal striker Henry handled the ball en route to setting up William Gallas, who scored the winner from close range to take Les Bleus to the World Cup.
Henry admitted to the offence and the referee and officials in question received significant backlash and criticism for failing to spot it.
England’s World Cup journeys have often ended in penalty shootout heartache, and that was the case in 1998 when they were defeated by Argentina in the last 16.
The South American side were given a major helping hand when David Beckham’s petulant but extremely soft reaction to a Diego Simeone challenge saw the Manchester United midfielder sent off.
Beckham was vilified by the press and the public back in England for a slight flick of the right leg and the exaggerations of an opposition player.
Ronaldo was the best player in the world and Brazil’s talisman during the late 1990s and early 2000s but his participation in the 1998 World Cup final was put in doubt when he suffered convulsions and lost consciousness.
Confusion reigned as Ronaldo was first out and then back in Brazil’s starting XI to face France in Paris. He did end up playing the game after convincing manager Mario Zagallo he was fit, but it mattered little as Les Bleus won 3-0.
Legions of young Ireland fans enjoyed the brilliant run the Republic enjoyed in 2002.
They went through the group stage unbeaten against Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia to finish second and set up a last 16 tie with Spain.
Fernando Morientes put La Roja ahead before Ian Harte missed a penalty. Robbie Keane dramatically levelled things up in stoppage time and the Boys in Green had subsequent chances to win the game in extra time.
However, their famous run came to an end as Matthew Holland, David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane all missed their efforts in the penalty shootout defeat.
The ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ is one of the more controversial moments in World Cup history.
Ahead of their final group game, West Germany and Austria already knew the result they each needed to qualify for the knockout stages at the expense of Algeria.
West Germany scored early on and the teams played out the rest of the game knowing they’d both go through if the result remained the same. They were accused of fixing the outcome, but FIFA ruled that neither set of players had done anything wrong and later changed the scheduling so the final group stage matches are played concurrently.
Zinedine Zidane was firmly one of the world’s best in 2006 but was approaching the end of his glittering career.
The final game of that career was the 2006 World Cup final as France faced Italy in Berlin. Zizou stuck Les Bleus ahead with a Panenka penalty before Marco Materazzi equalised for the Azzurri.
The two goalscorers then conversed in extra time, resulting in Zidane laying out Materazzi with a headbutt. He was dismissed and France lost on penalties.
Make no mistake about, England were not a good side at the 2010 World Cup, but that didn’t stop the nation feeling aggrieved about their last 16 exit to Germany.
Trailing 2-1, Frank Lampard sent a dipping effort over Manuel Neuer, clipping the bar and travelling over the line by at least a foot. The goal wasn’t given and the Three Lions ended up collapsing as Thomas Muller scored twice in the second half.
FIFA soon introduced goal-line technology, but it was too late for Fabio Capello and England.
Hungary and Brazil squared off in the quarter finals in 1954 in what is recognised as one of the most infamous games in World Cup history.
Violent conduct throughout the match saw the referee dismiss three players – Jozsef Bozsik, Nilton Santos and Humberto – and the emotions continued to run high at full time as the Brazilian players entered the Hungarian dressing room.
42 free kicks and two penalties were given, coupled with four cautions to add to the three red cards.
On home soil, Germany enjoyed a memorable run to the semi finals at the 2006 World Cup.
Emotions were already running high as Fabio Grosso celebrated his 119th-minute strike in iconic fashion, though cameras soon switched to the glum and wobbling faces of the German supporters.
Alessandro Del Piero wrapped the result up a minute later to stop Germany making an appearance in the final in Berlin. They would at least win the tournament eight years later.
Diego Maradona and Napoli were a match made in heaven. The Naples people loved the Argentine for his world-class talent and flair, but they were on separate sides at the 1990 World Cup.
Argentina would play hosts Italy at Stadio San Paolo, where fans held up banners reading: “Diego in our hearts, Italy in our chants” and “Maradona: Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland.”
Argentina would win on penalties as Maradona, with the dilemma of supporting the world’s best player or their beloved homeland proving too much for some Italians.
Playing at the World Cup is the pinnacle of any player’s career, so to have the dream of winning it ruined by some controversial refereeing decisions must be incredibly tough to take.
La Roja would have two legitimate goals chalked off in their quarter final defeat to joint hosts South Korea, eventually losing 5-3 on penalties.
South Korea had previously seen off Portugal and Italy with some similarly dodgy officiating, though they were eventually vanquished from the tournament themselves by Germany.
Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic has played with a shirt featuring a picture of late teammate Hrvoje Custic under his jersey for years.
Custic, who played for Zadar and NK Zagreb at club level, was fatally injured aged 24 in 2008 when he fell into a concrete wall and Subasic’s heroics with Croatia in 2018 – particularly his display against Denmark in the last 16 – were dedicated to his compatriot and friend.
Subasic broke down in a press conference when asked about the tribute.
When a football match requires police intervention on four separate occasions, it’s fair to say the referee has lost control – even if they aren’t to blame for the poor conduct of players.
A Group 2 clash between Chile and Italy was so violent it led the official on the day – Ken Aston – to invent yellow and red cards.
Tensions were already high after two Italian journalists had mocked the city Santiago, stating its population was prone to “malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism and poverty”.
There are some tough ways to be eliminated from the World Cup, but being the first side to go out because of a poor disciplinary record is a horrible one to take.
That’s what happened to Senegal in 2018 as a tiebreaker saw Japan take second place with the two sides tied on points, goals for and goals against.
“We haven’t qualified because of fair play. We have fewer points in fair play and Senegal doesn’t qualify because we don’t deserve it,” Cisse said at the time. A very measured response to a heartbreaking exit for the African nation.
Switzerland don’t have a particularly strong record at World Cups, having not reached a quarter final since 1954. And while there was nothing illegal about their exit to Ukraine in the last 16, it still felt undeserved for a team that didn’t concede a single goal.
Pascal Zuberbuhler kept four clean sheets in the Swiss’ four games, but they couldn’t break down the Ukrainians in the knockout stage and some misses from the penalty spot saw them leave the tournament.
A controversial moment during a 1982 World Cup group game came when Kuwait conceded to France as players stopped after hearing a whistle from the crowd and thinking it was the referee’s.
The goal was initially given, causing Kuwait to walk off, before the decision was reversed, causing France to protest. The lengthy delay also saw Kuwaiti FA president Prince Fahid get involved before the match was eventually restarted, ending in a 4-1 France win.
Kuwait have not qualified for a World Cup since.
Son Heung-min has always been a footballer who plays with his heart on his sleeve and that was evident at the 2018 World Cup.
After defeat to Mexico left their qualification hopes in tatters, Son cried on the pitch before regaining his composure to meet his country’s president, Jae-in Moon.
However, he broke down again when he saw the president consoling his teammates. South Korea would at least sign off with victory over then-champions Germany, where he would score his side’s second late on.
Goalkeepers are often on a hiding to nothing, and when the gap in quality between two sides is too big, their afternoons get a lot busier.
And while Luis Guevara Mora was occupied during El Salvador’s 1982 meeting with Hungary, he earned a rather undesirable record.
Hungary won 10-1, the biggest scoreline in men’s World Cup finals history and the most goals conceded by one goalkeeper in a match.
El Salvador haven’t appeared at a World Cup since, with their last impression hardly impressing the wider football world.
Club friendships were cast aside at the 2006 World Cup when England met Portugal in the quarter finals.
Wayne Rooney had just stamped on Ricardo Carvalho and was soon to receive a red card, but Cristiano Ronaldo – his Manchester United teammate at the time – arrived on the scene to further demonstrate the damage that had been done.
Ronaldo later winked to the Portugal bench, which the English press picked up and vilified him for. The pair would quickly reconcile at Old Trafford.
If there’s a player most synonymous with the World Cup, it’s Brazilian great Pele.
His iconic tears of joy in 1958 were captured after Brazil won their first world title and he would sign off 12 years later with another success, this time in the final against Italy.
However, the striker would call time on his illustrious Selecao career after the 1970 tournament, bringing his era of greatness on the international stage to an end. He is still revered around the world to this day.
The Netherlands side of the 1970s is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever assembled. But shockingly, despite being led by the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep, they were not rewarded with a World Cup during that time.
The Oranje reached the final in both 1974 and 1978 but were undone by West Germany and Argentina respectively. They are still yet to win a world title, coming closest in 2010 when they were beaten by Spain in South Africa.
South Korea qualified for the 1954 World Cup for the first time in its history, but it’s fair to say the games did not go to plan for goalkeeper Hong Deok-young.
In just two matches, the stopper shipped 16 goals in heavy defeats to Hungary and Turkey, the most conceded by a goalkeeper in one tournament. Nevertheless, that team still blazed the trail for other Asian sides to follow and South Korea are now regulars at World Cups in the modern age.
With a squad packed with quality yet lucky to be there following some controversy in their play-off with the Republic of Ireland, hopes were high for France at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Les Bleus boasted attacking quality like Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery in their squad, but discontent in the squad managed by Raymond Domenech caused them to massively underperform.