For a glorious, sun-soaked month every couple of summers, international football is transformed from the irritating sideshow which punctuates the early months of league action to the beautiful game’s epicentre.
From the dozens that start the tournament, only two can make it to the last game, guided there by their nation’s most exciting talent. However, in the same way that most major finals often fail to produce electric contests, those players that have lit up tournaments can go missing in the showpiece match.
In what is likely to be the biggest game of their career, somewhat succumbing to the pressure of the circumstances is understandable. These superb players didn’t necessarily play badly in the final – and some even ended up on the winning side – but they represent the occasions when their brightest moments in the festival of football emphatically came before the tournament’s conclusion.
Matthias Sammer – Euro 1996
The ginger-haired sweeper was magisterial in the 1996 European Championships, as both the last line of defence and first wave of attack. With the side built around him, Sammer was duly voted Euro 1996’s player of the tournament as Germany defeated Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the final.
However, after getting the winner in the quarter-final and standing firm against England in the last four, Sammer gave away the penalty which put the Czechs 1-0 up. It took two goals – one of which was golden – from substitute Oliver Bierhoff to rescue Sammer.
Yet the final proved to be nothing more than a blip as the opinionated sweeper claimed the Ballon d’Or that same year before adding the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund in 1997.
Ronaldo – 1998 World Cup
The circumstances surrounding Ronaldo prior to the 1998 World Cup final have descended into legend. Had he been drugged? Did he have an epileptic fit? Was he forced to play by Nike?
But amid the fallout from the final – which included Ronaldo giving testimony before Brazil’s national congress – and his understandably woeful showing, the 21-year-old’s electric performances earlier in the tournament can go forgotten.
Ronaldo scored four goals in the competition; three in the knockout rounds, including the opener against the Netherlands in the semi-final. In the past two seasons of club football, he’d scored more than 80 goals for Barcelona and Inter before he suffered the knee injury which would blight the rest of his career.
Zinedine Zidane – Euro 2000
Zidane was at his enigmatic best in Euro 2000. A sentiment echoed by his teammate Christophe Dugarry, who said: “Sometime you want to stop playing just to watch him.”
Yet, after a masterclass in the semi-final against Portugal, Zidane was oddly quiet in the final against Italy, dropping deep and leaving France disconnected.
However, this didn’t stop Silvio Berlusconi lambasting Italy’s manager Dino Zoff for not man-marking Zidane, despite the fact that the Frenchman had been effectively nullified. To add another layer to this bizarre aftermath, Zoff was so offended by the comments that he resigned, explaining: “I feel hurt as a man, and that is the reason I have gone.”
Oliver Kahn – 2002 World Cup
?? World Cup iconic moments:
? 30 June, 2002
?️ International Stadium, Yokohama
Four years after a mysterious illness shattered his and Brazil’s dreams, @Ronaldo scores two goals to help the Seleção win their fifth World Cup. pic.twitter.com/xtqzr1H2Xs
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 1, 2018
Kahn remains the only goalkeeper in World Cup history to win the Golden Ball, awarded to the tournament’s best player. Going into the final, Germany – and Kahn – had conceded just one goal but after 90 minutes, that tally had been tripled thanks to two strikes from Ronaldo.
The second was hardly Kahn’s fault but the opener was particularly poor from Germany’s captain who let Rivaldo’s shot squirm out of his hands to the feet of Ronaldo, perhaps the last player in world football you would’ve wanted to present with a golden goalscoring opportunity.
Andrea Pirlo – Euro 2012
One of the defining moments of Pirlo’s illustrious career came in the form of a delicate, chipped penalty in the Euro 2012 quarter-final against England and throughout the tournament – of course, up to the final – he had been superb.
As the Italian claims in his autobiography: “Before the final against Spain, the guys at UEFA had blabbed to me that ‘you’re the best, but we’ll only give you the award if Italy win’.” Italy were emphatically beaten in the final and the deep-lying playmaker, along with his entire team, was comprehensively outplayed.
It wasn’t as though Pirlo was particularly bad – although he was robbed of the ball for Spain’s third – but he failed to assert himself in the match. His influence in the game can be summed up by the fact that just one sentence in his autobiography is dedicated to the occasion: “Needless to say we lost 4-0.”
Lionel Messi – 2014 World Cup
Argentina battled their way to the final, thanks in no small part to the heroics of Messi. The Barcelona star was man of the match in Argentina’s first four games of the World Cup but, foreshadowing what was to come for the final, he struggled to replicate those performances in the last four defeat of the Netherlands on penalties.
In the showpiece match, possibly other than Javier Mascherano, Messi was Argentina’s best player but that isn’t particularly high praise given the performances of his teammates on the night. Germany’s opponents didn’t manage a single shot on target, even though Messi took four pops at goal.
Yet while Messi dropped below his stratospheric levels, Germany’s match winner Mario Götze was brought on with explicit instructions to outshine the Argentinian. Manager Joachim Löw recalls telling his substitute: “OK, show the world you are better than Messi and can decide the World Cup.”
In the 113th minute Götze did just that, scoring the only goal of the game to deny Messi the sport’s greatest prize.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Euro 2016
Amid on-pitch tantrums, bitter post-match interviews and jettisoned microphones, Cristiano Ronaldo finally replicated some of the startling talent taken for granted in club football on the international stage.
His third goal of Euro 2020 opened the scoring in the semi-final with a typical towering header against Wales but the final was where the script for Ronaldo’s second documentary was swiftly ripped up..
Seven minutes into the match, Dimitri Payet clattered into the Portugal captain’s knee and, despite hobbling on for a quarter of an hour, he was eventually stretchered off in tears, accompanied by concerned teammates and giant moths.
However, this didn’t stop him returning to the touchline, seemingly bellowing more instructions than the team’s manager Fernando Santos as Eder sent a skidding shot past Hugo Lloris to claim Portugal’s first ever international trophy.