The 10 most controversial World Cup games in history

Carlo Garganese
Carlo Garganese Updated: 15 Nov 2022 10:12 GMT 11 min read

Every World Cup guarantees thrilling games, brilliant goals and the presence of the best players on the planet.

But also, unfortunately, some huge controversies.

Throughout history, there have been some shocking refereeing decisions that have played a major role in deciding landmark World Cup matches and even finals.

FootballTransfers runs down the 10 most controversial World Cup games in history, based purely on refereeing calls.

10. Italy vs Australia 2006: Fabio Grosso’s ‘dive’

Fabio Grosso is still a national hate-figure in Australia.

The former Italy left-back – an unlikely hero in the Azzurri’s 2006 World Cup success – won a controversial penalty in injury time in the last-16 against Australia.

At that time the scores were level at 0-0, with Italy down to 10 men and having used all three of their substitutes.

Grosso pounced on a loose ball, cut into the area before going down under the challenge of Lucas Neill.

The referee awarded a penalty, which Francesco Totti dispatched into the top corner to put Italy through.

The penalty incident sparked fury in Australia. In truth, there was some contact from Neill, who was stupid to go to ground. But whether there was enough to give a penalty is another question. Earlier in the game, though, Marco Materazzi had been given s straight red card for a foul which wasn’t worthy of more than a yellow so Italy fans argue they were also hard done by.

9. Spain vs Yugoslavia 1982: Host favouritism

Favouritism towards the hosts has been a common theme at World Cups over the years, with Spain in 1982 one excellent example.

A drab Spain team, who were humiliated by Northern Ireland in the groups, only qualified for the last-16 courtesy of a scandalous 2-1 win over Yugoslavia.

Trailing 1-0, the referee awarded Spain a penalty for a foul that occurred two yards outside the area. Roberto Ufarte put the penalty wide, but the referee astonishingly ordered a retake which he scored. Spain went on to win 2-1 while the furious Yugoslavians went out.

8. USSR vs Belgium 1986: Two offsides

Belgium beat the USSR 4-3 after extra time in the last-16 at Mexico ’86 in one of the great World Cup knockout ties.

It was filled with some stunning goals, but also huge controversy.

The USSR led twice in normal time, but were pegged back by two offside Belgium goals. The second equaliser from Jan Ceulemans was almost five yards offside!

Belgium ended up making the semis, where they lost to Argentina.

7. West Germany vs Austria 1982: The Shame of Gijón

West Germany and Austria – historic neighbours – went into the final group game at the 1982 World Cup knowing that a one-goal or two-goal win would be enough to take both teams through to the next round at the expense of Algeria.

What played out was the most blatantly contrived plan ever. West Germany took a 10th minute lead through Horst Hrubesch before the two teams passed the ball from side to side for the following 80 minutes with virtually no attempt to attack.

The watching Spanish crowd in Gijon were ashamed and chanted "Fuera, fuera" ("Out, out"), while Algerian fans waved banknotes and white handkerchiefs.

As a result of this ‘fix’, FIFA and UEFA changed their rules so the last games of international tournaments always had to be played at the same time to avoid teams knowing in advance what they needed to qualify.

6. West Germany vs Argentina 1990: Rudi Voller’s dive

Argentina were the big villains of the 1990 World Cup, defending and kicking their way to the final after two penalty shootout wins.

They finally received ‘justice’ for their anti-football in the final in Rome as the referee awarded a non-existent penalty to West Germany with just five minutes to go.

Rudi Voller had clearly dived, as Andreas Brehme stroked the ball home to win the Germans the cup.

Argentina cried foul and had many reasons to complain, as the referee also sent off two Argentines. This included Pedro Monzon, who was red carded after a clear dive by Jurgen Klinsmann.

It was all too much for Diego Maradona, who burst out crying at full time.

5. West Germany vs Uruguay 1966: Superman Schnellinger

The Germans thrashed Uruguay 4-0 in this World Cup quarter-final in England in 1966, but there is much more to this game than that.

Uruguay dominated much of the first half and looked to have taken the lead off a corner, only for Germany defender Karl Heinz Schnellinger to do a Superman impression by flying to save the ball with two hands.

Astonishingly, English referee Jim Finney waved play on.

West Germany went on to take the lead but the game remained in the balance until Finney sent off two Uruguayans controversially. The Germans then scored three more times late on.

In South America, everyone was certain there had been a conspiracy. The referee in this game was English, while the ref in the equally controversial Argentina versus England quarter-final was German.

4. Argentina vs England 1966: Antonio Rattin’s ‘Violence of the tongue’

Indeed, German referee Rudolf Kreitlein caused outrage in Argentina after he sent off captain Antonio Rattin in the 35th minute of this quarter-final against the hosts.

Rattin was sent off for “violence of the tongue”, even though the German referee didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Rattin refused to leave the field for a long time and insulted the Queen when he finally did walk. England went on to win 1-0.

England manager Sir Alf Ramsey said of Argentina after the game: “We have still to produce our best, and this is not possible until we meet the right sort of opponents, and that is a team that comes out to play football and not act as animals.”

In truth, Argentina made only 19 fouls in the game, to England’s 33.

It was also later claimed in South America that when the representatives of Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, Portugal and the Soviet Union turned up on time for the quarter-final draw at a London hotel, they learned that the draw had already been made.

The only witnesses had been FIFA's English president Stanley Rous, a German representative, and a couple of African delegates. This further fuelled the aforementioned conspiracy theory that England and West Germany had conspired to ensure their teams qualified for the semis.

3. South Korea 2002: Italy and Spain cry conspiracy

The 2002 World Cup is remembered as the most controversial World Cup in history, with Italy and Spain understandably feeling as if they were robbed by co-hosts South Korea.

Italy had already had four valid goals disallowed in their final two group games, but there was worse to come in the last-16 against Korea.

The Azzurri again had a valid goal disallowed, a Damiano Tommasi golden goal which would have put them through. Francesco Totti was sent off for diving in a rather innocuous incident, Korea were awarded a penalty while Guus Hiddink’s men committed a slew of dangerous tackles which went unpunished.

Korea went on to win 2-1 with a Golden Goal of their own, as Italy cried conspiracy against referee Byron Moreno. The Ecuadorian official would a few years later go to jail for smuggling heroin into JFK airport.

In Korea’s next game, Spain were eliminated on penalties in equally dubious circumstances. The Spaniards had two perfectly valid goals disallowed, one of them when a cross was deemed to have gone over the byline. It was not even close.

At the end of the match, Spain defender Ivan Helguera had to be held back by colleagues as he attempted to attack the referee.

Then FIFA president Sepp Blatter was forced to deny publicly that the World Cup had been fixed to favour South Korea.

2. Geoff Hurst vs West Germany 1966: Was it over the line?

Messi vs Ronaldo? Maradona vs Pele? Was it over the line? These are three of football’s most eternal questions.

And they probably will never be answered definitively.

In the final of the 1966 World Cup at Wembley, the scores were tied at 2-2 in the eighth minute of extra time.

England striker Geoff Hurst spun his man and unleashed a rocket that crashed off the underside of the bar and bounced down on - or just over? - the line.

Both sets of players appealed that it was or wasn’t a goal before Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst was convinced by USSR linesman Tofik Bakhramov to give the goal.

Hurst would later complete his hat-trick and England won their first World Cup.

Recent advancements in technology claim that the ball did not cross the line, but the incident remains a part of World Cup folklore. Soviet linesman Bakhramov was asked on his deathbed why he gave the goal and is alleged to have simply replied, “Stalingrad”.

1. Diego Maradona vs England 1986 - ‘Hand of God’

The most famous and infamous goals in World Cup history were both scored by the same player in the same game during Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarter-final win over England.

The most infamous occurred with the scores tied at 0-0 six minutes into the second half. Diego Maradona ran onto a miss-hit clearance by Steve Hodge, before jumping and flicking the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton with his left fist.

Incredibly, the referee and linesman allowed the goal to stand as England players and staff watched on in disbelief.

Maradona would say after the game that this goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God” – remarking that it was revenge for his Argentine brothers for the Falklands War earlier that decade. In England, Maradona would be branded a cheat, with many never forgiving him – including Shilton.

Soon after that handball goal, Maradona would score the greatest goal in World Cup history as he dribbled past multiple England players from his own half before slotting in.

Maradona would go on to lead Argentina to World Cup success but the controversy and legend from this match will live on forever.