Winning the World Cup is a matter of pride for many, but the individual glory is arguably the next best thing when heading out to the finals, and the Golden Boot award, given to the finals’ top scorer, has its own history on the grandest stage, shaping legends at home and abroad.
Twenty editions of the World Cup have seen 26 men claim the honour as the World Cup’s top scorer – a lopsided homage to FIFA’s inability to separate those on the same tally through some basic statistics for so long. The 1962 edition in Chile saw six players tied on four goals, while the 1994 edition in the US had Oleg Shatov and Hristo Stoichkov level on six each. FIFA’s introduction of tie-breakers following that edition streamlined the process and made certain that there was one certain Golden Boot winner in future.
Argentina’s Guillermo Stábile won the first award with three of his eight goals in 1930 coming in the form of a hat-trick against Mexico. Incredibly, the Huracán legend entered the tournament as a likely sub; it was an injury to a teammate that integrated him into the side. He would add to his hat-trick against Mexico with a brace against Chile and would repeat the feat in the semi-finals against the USA. Argentina would fall to South American rivals Uruguay in the final, but that game wouldn’t end without another Stábile goal to crown him as the outright top scorer of the first World Cup.
Over the following editions, 19 players have gone on to finish as the Golden Boot winners in their debut tournaments, including the two most recent holders – James Rodríguez and Thomas Müller – as well as four of the six joint top scorers in 1962 and the two joint top scorers in 1994. The list also includes the likes of the great Just Fontaine and Eusébio, giving hope to players who’ll be taking to the grandest stage for the first time this summer and perhaps emboldening the dreams of Kylian Mbappé and Harry Kane.
To be the leading marksman at the World Cup is one thing but to score in multiple tournaments is another. Every World Cup’s top scorer has a chance of finishing amongst the higher stratum of the all-time top scorers, but only a few ever make that list after a solitary World Cup outing. Sándor Kocsis’ 11-goal haul in 1954 represented the only strikes he netted at the finals. He was emulated by Just Fontaine in 1958 with 13, and eight years later by Eusébio, who scored nine in Portugal’s famous run to third place in England.
Read | Sándor Kocsis: the quiet Hungarian who was as clinical as Puskás
The likes of Ronaldo and Miroslav Klose are the antithesis to those one-tournament wonders. O Fenômeno is one of the World Cup’s most consistent players in history and his eight goals in 2002 are sandwiched by four in 1998 and three in 2006 to make him the competition’s second highest goal-getter. The man who eclipses him is Germany’s Klose, who across four tournaments between 2002 and 2014 has 16 goals, including a Golden Boot success when Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006 and announced their return to prominence on the international scene.
James Rodríguez is a prominent name in the next category as his incredible run in 2014 was ended by hosts Brazil in the quarter-finals, and not since 1994 has the top scorer at the World Cup not gone beyond the last eight stage. Although the ’94 tournament had joint Golden Boot winners in Shatov and Stoichkov, the former left the US at the group stages as Russia crashed out having scored seven and conceded six, winning just once – the last game against Cameroon – by a mammoth score of six goals to one.
Prior to 1994, you would have to head back to 1986, and even further back to 1962, to see the Golden Boot depart the tournament before the semi-finals. In 1986, Gary Lineker saw his England crash out to Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the quarters. In 1962, also exiting at the quarter-final stage, were Hungary and the Soviet Union, who had Flórián Albert and Valentin Ivanov finish amongst the leading marksmen.
Again on the topic of James Rodríguez, it could be argued that he had the most aesthetically pleasing run to finishing as the top marksman at the World Cup finals, especially in the modern era. In his debut World Cup and Colombia’s return after 16 years, Rodríguez made himself a national hero with a litany of chipped, powered and placed strikes, cementing his place as one of the world’s best players and earning a £63m move to Real Madrid.
His six goals accounted for 50 percent of Colombia’s total at the finals, highlighting their reliance on him, but there have been others in history who have placed even greater faith in their forwards to spur them on. Gerd Müller scored 58.8 percent of West Germany’s 17 goals in 1970, while Toto Schillaci’s six strikes in 1990 accounted for 60 percent of Italy’s goals on their way to third place at their home tournament. Flórián Albert scored 75 percent of Hungary’s goals in 1962, but the record is jointly shared by Lineker and Shatov, who each scored 85.71 percent of their country’s goals in 1986 and 1994 respectively.
Read | Salvatore Schillaci: the unlikely hero of Italia 90
The reliance on a particular player doesn’t seem to have a correlation. Not since Davor Šuker in Croatia’s run to third in 1998 has a player scored over 50 percent of one team’s goals. Football, it seems, has changed. Football was all about attack in the 1930s and 50s when teams would often score over 20 goals per tournament. France scored 23 in 1958, with Fontaine bagging 13, while four years prior to that, Kocsis contributed 11 of Hungary’s 27. The goals-per-team and goals-per-tournament ratios have declined drastically since and it’s now difficult to break the 15-goal mark.
Had the term ‘stat-padding’ come to prominence a lot sooner, Kocsis’ legacy may have taken on a different meaning. The Guardian produced an interactive table of ‘impact goals’ following the 2014 World Cup, defining the phrase as a game-tying or go-ahead goal that significantly impacted the team’s results. Out of Kocsis’ 11 in 1954, only 18 percent had an influence on his team’s result, proving that his run would’ve been butchered in the stat-padding category. Luckily for him and his talents, the term has only been coined recently and his record at club level backs up his brilliance for the Magyars.
With impact goals in consideration, all six of Schillaci’s at Italia 90 influenced Italy’s results. A relative unknown before the tournament having only started one game for the Azzurri prior to it, he made an early impact by coming on against Austria in the opening game and scoring the winner. The Palermo native followed that up with the opening goal against Czechoslovakia in the final group game before going on a rampage in the knockout rounds. Schillaci scored the opener against Uruguay in the round of 16, the winner against Ireland in the quarter-finals, and the first goal in a loss to Argentina in the semis.
Schillaci’s 100 percent record is closely followed by Leônidas’ 86 percent scoring record – six from seven – in 1938, while Paolo Rossi’s 83 percent is the highest amongst eventual winners as his five out of six impact goals took Italy to the crown in 1982. Following the trend of eventual winners, after Rossi comes Mario Kempes’ 67 percent for Argentina in 1978. There’s a significant gap after him, with Garrincha and Ronaldo scoring 50 percent of Brazil’s goals on their way to glory in 1962 and 2002. Vavá, another Brazilian, falls lowest on the list for champions with his one out of four registering as impact goals, giving him just 25 percent.
Read | Ronaldo: in touching distance of being the greatest
Kempes holds the unique honour of being the last player to be recognised as the best player and top scorer of the World Cup without FIFA’s official recognition of the award. Four years after the 1978 edition, FIFA partnered with perennial World Cup sponsors Adidas and France Football to make the Golden Ball and Golden Boot official awards.
Kempes’ cameo at the 1978 edition was more than a little special. He failed to score in the first round of games but bagged braces against Poland and Peru in the second round of fixtures and added to that with a famous brace against Ernst Happel’s Netherlands in the final in Buenos Aires.
Unsurprisingly, the leading scorer is not regarded as the World Cup’s best player as only five players in history have simultaneously won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards – two prior two Kempes’ 1978 run and two after it. That list includes Leônidas in 1938, Garrincha in 1962, Rossi in 1982 and Schillaci in 1990. Famously, Ronaldo’s incredible eight-goal rampage in 2002, which took Brazil to the pinnacle of world football, was controversially disregarded for Oliver Kahn – the only goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball.
Ronaldo’s famous 2002 run, where he put the demons of 1998 to bed, made him one of only five players in history to finish as top scorer and go all the way. That list includes the joint top-scorers form 1962, Garrincha and Vavá, Kempes in 1978 and Rossi for Italy four years later, proving that playing more matches does not result in individual success. Players such as Fontaine, Kocsis and Müller would’ve been disheartened by the fact that their magnificent records didn’t result in the ultimate glory.
Looking at the World Cup’s all-time top scorer, Miroslav Klose, who spread his 16 goals across four tournaments, is a case study in consistency. A prolific striker on the international stage, his five goals at home in 2006 won him that year’s Golden Boot. The Poland-born striker scored braces in group games against Costa Rica and Ecuador and added to that with a quarter-final strike against Argentina to add to his five from 2002. He then scored four more in 2010 and two in 2014 to cement his name in the history books. At this stage, only Thomas Müller, who has 10 goals and a couple more World Cups in him, looks likely to break Klose’s record.
Order | World Cup X
Just like Klose, there have been several players that have spread their goals across several editions of the World Cup, often without reward. The list includes Gabriel Batistuta whose 10 goals in 12 matches between 1994 and 2002 makes him the joint seventh-highest goalscorer. He is level with Peru’s greatest Teófilo Cubillas, who recorded 10 in 13 between 1970 and 1982, despite failing to play in 1974 and failing to score in 1982.
Jürgen Klinsmann amassed 11 goals in 17 games and was a part of the famous 1990 World Cup-winning team. His 0.65 goals-to-game ratio highlights how exceptional the rest of his team was, proving the Germans weren’t wholly reliant on him.
One player who’s surprisingly never finished as top-scorer at a single World Cup is the tournament’s fifth-highest scorer – Brazil’s goalscoring supremo, Pelé. His 12 goals in 14 matches between 1958 and 1970 led the Seleção to three of their five titles.
Perhaps more difficult than predicting the World Cup winners itself is forecasting who will finish as top scorer. The number of goals per tournament shows no correlation to the highest number of goals by an individual, making it difficult to predict. When club form also shows no correlation, the task becomes even harder. Take, for example, the 1994 tournament, which had Salenko and Stoickov score six each, but saw the overall competition scoring an average of 2.71 per game. Four years later, Šuker scored six but the tournament average fell to 2.67, while in 2002, Ronaldo’s eight didn’t have a hand in the competition average falling to 2.52.
Most predictions fall by the wayside when it comes to the World cup, such is the unpredictable nature of the tournament even in an era when we seemingly know all we possibly can about the world’s best players, but Ronaldo’s redemption in 2002 was forecast by many. In one of the greatest individual showings in finals history, O Fenômeno, supported by Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, cemented his place in legend, putting serious injury and mental fragilities behind him to become the face of great goalscoring in the modern era of the World Cup.
With all that in mind, it’s probably impossible to tell who’ll go on and score the most goals this summer. The usual suspects – Lionel Messi, Thomas Müller, Neymar, Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo – will inevitably be up there, but if the last two World Cups are anything to go by, it could equally be a relative unknown stepping up to the plate.
Perhaps Timo Werner or Gabriel Jesus will lift that famous golden trophy. Maybe Messi or Ronaldo, possibly in the last World Cup of their prime years, are looking to add the one individual honour that eludes them, or maybe, just like in previous years, it’s time to look deeper down the pitch for a new holder. Only time will tell, and judging by previous editions, we’ll all get it wrong.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26