7th – 2010 | Hosts: South Africa. Winners: Spain. Teams: 32. Goals per game: 2.27.
Although a vibrant World Cup off the pitch, thanks to the constant hum of vuvuzelas and a joyful host, the football was routinely laborious. Many matches became slogs, as evidenced by second lowest goals per game ever after Italia 90, amid few memorable moments. Champions Spain won every knockout game 1-0 and Germany were the only quality exciting team, trashing Argentina and England in the latter stages. Ghana, Japan, memorably routing Denmark 3-1, and Uruguay added some fun but, other than Italy’s early exit via a riveting loss to Slovakia (3-2), there was little else to enjoy compared to other editions on the pitch.
6th – 2006 | Hosts: Germany. Winners: Italy. Teams: 32. Goals per game: 2.3.
A tournament of two halves. The group stages produced a variety of fun matches, although they were rarely classics or especially close – the opening game between Germany and Costa Rica (4-2) being typical. The knockout stages, however, saw a widespread retreat indicative of club football’s important games between heavyweights at the time, one defined by Jose Mourinho-esque pragmatism. Mexico’s thrilling early second round loss to Argentina, famous for a Maxi Rodriguez’s outrageous volley, was the tipping point, save from the dramatic semi-final between Germany and Italy and Zinedine Zidane’s final headbutt on Marco Matterazzi.
5th – 2018 | Hosts: Russia. Winners: France. Teams: 32. Goals per game: 2.64.
The fact a tournament as good as this can be so low down this list shows the quality of World Cups, but 2018 was let down by it’s era. Although quality was, on average, higher than ever and the modern game’s intensity and precision meant close ties between leading teams were breathless affairs, such as Belgium’s thrilling quarter-final win over Brazil, 2018 badly lacked romance. Kylian Mbappé’s emergence and a memorable final might change that in the years to come but, outside Germany’s capitulation, this edition was light on captivating narratives.
4th – 1994 | Hosts: USA. Winners: Brazil. Teams: 24. Goals per game: 2.71.
Bookended by two iconic penalty misses, as Diana Ross’ skewed effort in the opening ceremony was (only just) superseded for significance by Roberto Baggio, head bowed, in the final. Somewhere, his shot is still rising. That was one of many iconic moments in an underrated tournament. Diego Maradona’s wide-eyed celebration, Oleg Salenko’s four-goal haul, Saeed Al-Owairan’s pitch-long gallop, Ireland beating Italy and Roger Milla scoring at 42 for Cameroon all stand out. Most of the groups were tight while surprise semi-finalists Bulgaria and Sweden, plus cameos from Romania and Saudi Arabia on, at the time, football’s final frontier, added spice. Also – the kits.
3rd – 2002 | Hosts: South Korea and Japan. Winners: Brazil. Teams: 32. Goals per game: 2.52.
Much like Japanese domestic football, this first jointly hosted tournament carried a giddy sense of fun. Despite a usual suspects final, it was cupsets galore to that point. From Senegal’s opening defeat of holders France to South Korea’s ludicrous run to the semis to the USA and Turkey going deep as Portugal and Argentina (with Gabriel Batistuta in tears on the bench) were dramatically dispensed with in the first round. Nearly every knockout game was memorable, as long as it didn’t involve Germany, before redemption for Ronaldo.
2nd – 1998 | Hosts: France. Winners: France. Teams: 32. Goals per game: 2.67.
Disentangling the nostalgia from reality is tricky but the turn of the century was argubely modern football’s golden age. Burgeoning yet widespread tactical nuance was mixed with old fashioned flare and character from players and coaches. A riotous affair throughout, especially in the knockouts, this tournament epitomised the period with just three 0-0s in 64 games. It was the last time Brazil were really Brazil, the drama of France’s run snowballed exponentially while Croatia, Denmark and Nigeria all produced memorable showings.
1st – 2014 | Hosts: Brazil. Winners: Germany. Teams: 32. Goals per game: 2.67.
This tournament was what the phrase ‘football coming home’ should’ve been used for as the sport ascended to near-religious significance in the tournament’s most successful, and passionate, nation. Germany’s semi-final obliteration of Brazil is arguably World football history’s most sensational moment while the whole month was engulfed in a feverish intensity, partly provided by our nervous hosts. Neymar sinking to his knees in tears after scoring the winning penalty to beat Chile in the last 16 underlined the pressure his team were under. The same player’s horrible quarter-final injury, Spain’s humiliating group stage exit and England and Italy following suit leant this World Cup operatic levels drama.