Here’s a trivia question… How many players have played for Manchester United and been in a winning World Cup squad? And how many of them actually started in the final itself?
Well the answer is maybe less than you’d think. Here is a story of each of their triumphs.
Bobby Charlton (England, 1966)
Bobby Charlton was an integral member of England’s 1966 winning side. The 28 year old, playing alongside his brother Jack, made his debut just two months after the Munich air disaster. He was selected for the 1958 finals but did not make an appearance. By the time he scored his first World Cup goal (against Argentina in 1962), Charlton had scored 25 in only 38 caps.
England’s flat goalless draw against Uruguay in the opening match of the tournament hardly set pulses racing but Charlton got his nation’s competition kick-started in the next game against Mexico. He began the scoring with a stunning strike. Picking the ball up from the half-way line, Charlton ran unopposed until he was twenty-five yards from the goal. Then he struck the ball venomously into the net. England won 2-0 and then replicated the score in the next match against France.
A bad-tempered quarter final against Argentina followed. Despite the early sending-off of Argentine captain Antonio Rattin, England scraped through with a solitary Geoff Hurst winner. Charlton’s most significant input was in the semis against Eusebio’s Portugal. He scored both to seal a 2-1 win. His first was cooly taken, side-footing in past three defenders when the ball rebounded off goalkeeper Jose Pereira. His second was smashed home when teed up by Hurst. Charlton wasn’t as central in the famous final victory against West Germany but was a key reason for England’s sole victory.
Nobby Stiles (England, 1966)
Like Charlton, Stiles played in every England game during the tournament. The tough tackling midfielder was known for his aggressive playing style rather than creativity. He acted as a buffer that could be between the defence and the attack.
With Charlton the only guaranteed midfielder in Alf Ramsey’s plans, Stiles had to use the matches leading up to the tournament as an audition for his place. Between April 1965 and the opening game against Uruguay, Stiles had played eight of the nine internationals so had cemented his spot by his 15th cap against the South Americans.
The perfect example of Stiles as a player who would inhibit the effectiveness of an opposition attack was his man-marking of Eusebio in the semi-finals. By concentrating on Portugal’s star man, Charlton could focus on creating; a tactic that would be replicated two years later in the European cup final. He is famed for carrying the Jules Rimet in one hand, fake teeth in another, whilst dancing a jig.
John Connelly (England, 1966)
Connelly could be considered an unlucky footballer having missed out on a medal in both the World Cup and European Cup. He was a winger who could play on either flank. He was signed from Burnley in 1964 after Connelly had lost his place on the flank to Willie Morgan, who would later on make the same move. He had already won the league with Burnley and won it again with United in 1965. Though he made his debut in 1959, his only World Cup appearance was against Uruguay. The stalemate had caused Ramsey to rethink his tactics and ditch his wingers. The ‘wingless wonders’ won the cup and Connelly missed out on a medal (until presented with one by Gordon Brown in 2009). This would be his last international appearance.
After moving to the other East Lancashire club, Blackburn Rovers, after the competition, Connelly would miss out on another United league title and their subsequent European success.
Fabian Barthez (France, 1998)
Barthez had already forged a successful career after spells with Marseille and Monaco until signing for United after Euro 2000. After inheriting the French number one spot after Euro 96, Barthez only conceded two goals when he won the World Cup in 1998. He also won the Yashin Award as goalkeeper of the tournament.
Much maligned now, especially after comparisons with the calm and safe Edwin van der Sar, Barthez was an initial success for United. He won two league medals and was certainly very entertaining. However, this entertainment was not necessarily needed for a goalkeeper and too often he was caught out, most notably by gifting compatriot Thierry Henry two goals against Arsenal in the 2001-02 season.
Laurent Blanc (France, 1998)
Barthez’s famous superstition was having his bald head kissed by centre-half Laurent Blanc. Blanc was far too old at 35 when he was signed to replace Jaap Stam in 2001, a move that added insult to the injury of getting rid of our best defender. However, the one thing he did possess was a stellar CV, especially on the international stage.
Blanc had taken some slack for the failure of the team to qualify for USA 94 but had formed a solid partnership with Marcel Desailly in Euro 96, and this duo would be replicated two years later. In the last 16, Blanc made history by scoring the golden goal that eliminated Paraguay. He then scored the winning penalty in a shootout after a goalless quarter against Italy. He missed the final victory against Brazil in very harsh circumstances. In the semi-final defeat of Croatia, Blanc received the only red card of his career when he was alleged to have elbowed Slaven Bilic. Replays showed that Bilic had feigned injury but despite public outcry, Blanc’s suspension was not uplifted.
Kleberson (Brazil, 2002)
Blanc was a United flop because he was a good player bought at the wrong time. Kleberson is one of United’s all time flops due to the fact that he was bought in 2003 as a key member of Brazil’s World Cup winning midfield and only 24 years of age yet catastrophically failed. Many clubs would have liked to have signed him a year earlier, straight after Brazil’s victory, but Kleberson refused to leave his home nation until he could marry his 16 year old girlfriend. With only twenty appearances and two goals for United, he wasn’t worth the wait.
Kleberson is the epitome of a flash in the pan as he only made his Brazil debut against Bolivia in January 2002. He scored in his debut and again against Iceland. He did not feature in any of Brazil’s group games in Japan and Korea. He made his tournament debut against England in the quarter final as coach Luiz Filipe Scolari hoped that Kleberson’s high-energy could counter England’s work rate. His good performance in their 2-1 win guaranteed his place in both the semi against Turkey and the final against Germany.
Gerard Pique (Spain, 2010)
Centre-back Pique came from Barcelona’s youth set-up to United in 2004 and stayed for 12 appearances in four years before returning to Barca. He scored two goals in European dead-rubber group games against Dynamo Kyiv and Roma. Alex Ferguson might have regretted letting Pique go in favour of Jonny Evans but there could easily be a case of horses for courses. For example, Pique played poorly in a January defeat to Bolton, and did not look comfortable in the Premier League.
He has been a great success for Barcelona and his national team. He started all seven matches in Spain’s successful 2010 World Cup campaign, partnering his club teammate Carlos Puyol. They conceded only two in the entire competition, proving that despite the tiki-taka, Spain owed as much to their defence as they did to their attack.
Juan Mata (Spain, 2010)
Recently signed Mata is clearly a brilliant, skilful player but one who may struggle from competition in his position. His signing was not as necessary as the need for a tackler in midfield. He has to share a position with Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj. It’s even harder for him in the Spain national team.
It took Mata a while to make his debut. Though he was included in a squad for a friendly against Chile in 2008, he did not make the pitch until his debut in a 2009 World Cup qualifier against Turkey. He only played twenty-minutes in the entire tournament in 2010, replacing Fernando Torres against Honduras in the group stage. Maybe Mata would be more influential in Spain’s World Cup defence this year.