Predicting the top scorer of a World Cup is no easy feat. You’d be forgiven for thinking the best players on the planet just turn up on the biggest stage, bang in a few goals and take home the Golden Boot, as Cristiano Ronaldo tends to do in the Champions League. But you’d be wrong.
The winner of Golden Boot – first called the Golden Shoe, making it sound more like something from Cinderella, in 1982 – goes down in tournament legend, but they aren’t always well known before the competition gets under way.
Many fans would choose football icons Pele, Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Romario, Ferenc Puskas or Alan Shearer in their all-time dream teams, but none have ever top-scored at a World Cup.
It’s not always their fault, though. Pele, Maradona, Baggio and Puskas all suffered injuries in World Cup years. Considering that and looking to this summer, the likes of Neymar, Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah should be approached with caution if you’re trying to predict the chief goal-getter in Russia.
Despite his incredible season with Liverpool, some may write off Egypt international Salah as a potential Golden Boot winner because he plays for an unfancied nation. It’s an easy excuse for putting a line through a player’s chances, but former Russia forward Oleg Salenko would have something to say about that.
The then-24-year-old wrote himself into World Cup folklore when he hit five goals in a group game against Cameroon at USA ’94 – and he still holds the record for the most goals scored in one match at the tournament.
Adding to his strike against Sweden in the previous game, Salenko’s six goals were enough for him to be named joint-top scorer alongside Bulgaria legend Hristo Stoichkov, despite the fact the Russian frontman only made three appearances as his country failed to progress to the knockout rounds.
Salenko’s five-star success no doubt came as a surprise to many – but not the man himself. He said afterwards he had dreamed he was “going to score a lot of goals”, and later admitted he “only fully realised” he held a World Cup record when he retired.
Incredibly, Salenko’s record-breaking haul came in his last ever appearance for Russia. Despite playing for Valencia and Rangers afterwards, he was not considered for selection by new head coach Oleg Romantsev. A victim of his own success, perhaps.
“The team’s new manager Oleg Romantsev didn’t like the fact that I had a bigger reputation than him,” Salenko told FourFourTwo. “He preferred players that he knew, so he gradually started to drop me.”
Surprisingly, the Russian hot-shot remains one of the few players to have maximised his chances of landing the Golden Boot by netting multiple times in the group stage.
“With the exception of Salenko in 1994, nobody in recent years has fully taken advantage of the cannon fodder on offer, potentially preferring to save themselves for stiffer challenges ahead,” says Rob Fielder, author of The Complete History of the World Cup.
“A straightforward group gives an opportunity to make a strong start, but expect the top scorer to come from one of the semi-finalists.”
Salenko isn’t the only Golden Boot winner to have won few caps for his country, which is something worth considering when making your choice this time around.
Argentina striker Guillermo Stábile top-scored at the first ever World Cup in 1930, despite only making his international debut at the tournament. Stábile – a big hitter for 1928 Argentine title winners Huracán – squeezed into the squad for the inaugural contest in Uruguay, although he wasn’t expected to start. Yet when star man Roberto Cherro was ruled out of action due to an anxiety attack, Stábile came into the team for Argentina’s second match against Mexico.
He didn’t look back. Stábile hit a hat-trick in a 6-3 triumph, then added five more to claim the Golden Boot with eight goals in four games, a tally bettered just four times since.
Amazingly, he didn’t get chance to add to his World Cup tally at future tournaments. He later signed for Genoa, effectively ending his international career due to a lack of cross-country scouting at the time. Nowadays, an Argentine striker bursting onto the scene and top scoring at a World Cup would be snapped up for an astronomical fee by a Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester City.
Like Stábile, France’s Just Fontaine wasn’t a household name for his national team before his exploits at the 1958 World Cup, although he did go into the tournament in brilliant form.
Fontaine still holds the record for scoring the most goals in a World Cup finals with 13 in six games, seven more than joint-runners-up Pele, and Germany’s Hellmut Rahn managed in Sweden. Prior to the spectacle, he had notched 39 goals in 32 league and cup outings to help French club Stade Reims land the double.
Fontaine scored a hat-trick on his debut for the national side in 1953 in an 8-0 win over Luxembourg, but only played another two times for France – one game apiece in 1956 and 1957 – before his World Cup glory. Despite scoring 20 times in 28 Ligue 1 games in the 1954-55 season, he was completely overlooked by France in 1954 and 1955.
Before his record-breaking World Cup scoring feat, Fontaine had notched just once for Les Bleus in four years following his debut hat-trick – proving you don’t need to already have a prolific record for your country to do the business at an international tournament.
Germany’s Thomas Muller was also inexperienced before scooping the Golden Boot in 2010. After being named in the provisional Germany squad for the tournament in South Africa, he nearly put himself out of the competition just days beforehand after falling off his bike in a freak accident. Fortunately for both him and his team, he avoided serious injury.
Muller only made his Germany debut in a friendly against Argentina three months before the tournament, then won his second cap as a substitute in their final warm-up match against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bayern Munich man had clearly done enough to impress boss Joachim Löw, who started him in the first group game, a 4-0 rout of Australia.
Muller scored the third goal of the match and went on to win the Golden Boot with four more strikes and three assists – which proved crucial given he had tied with David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan on five goals each. Muller claimed after the tournament that he had “got lucky”, but his 19 goals for Bayern in 2009-10 showed he had the ability to score goals.
Muller’s namesake, legendary Germany striker Gerd – who won the Golden Boot at Mexico 1970 with 10 goals – tipped Thomas to go onto greatness after the tournament.
In Brazil 2014, Muller was runner-up to top scorer James Rodriguez with another five goals, but he still isn’t classed as one of the all-time greats in the bracket of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And despite the fact he’s only scored 13 goals in his last two league campaigns for Bayern, the German forward is among the favourites to win the Golden Boot in Russia.
“Don’t rule out a shock winner this time either,” adds Fielder, who is also author of The Complete History of the European Championship.
“Winning the Golden Boot very much involves hitting form at just the right time, as we’ve seen with relatively surprising winners like Rodriguez, Muller and, most notably, Toto Schillaci at Italia 90.”
It’s also worth bearing in mind that no player has ever top-scored at a World Cup twice. Germany forwards Miroslav Klose – the World Cup’s all-time top scorer with 16 goals – and Thomas Muller have come closest with one win and one runners-up spot apiece.
What’s more, of the 20 World Cups that have taken place so far, the Golden Boot winner has played for the winning country on only four occasions. Brazil had the highest scorers in a trophy-winning year twice, thanks to Garrincha and Vavá’s efforts in 1962, while Ronaldo netted eight times as the Selecao won their fifth world title in 2002.
Mario Kempes fired Argentina to glory in 1978 in his home nation – making them the only country to have ever won the World Cup on home soil with the top scorer in their team – followed by Italy’s Paolo Rossi claiming the inaugural Golden Shoe four years later.
So, if you fancy favourites Brazil to be crowned tournament winners in Russia this summer, it might be worth overlooking the likes of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus to win the Golden Boot. History is not on their side, and if the Samba stars fail they will at least be in good company.
Pele still has more World Cup winner’s medals than anyone else after tasting success in 1958, 1962, and 1970. He announced himself on the international stage at the tender age of 17, becoming the youngest player to ever net in a World Cup final in 1958. The Golden Boot, though, eluded him throughout his World Cup career.
Messi and Ronaldo are widely regarded as the best players in the world in the current climate, yet neither have won the World Cup or even top-scored at the tournament.
Speaking about the Argentine great in 2012, Pele said: “People always ask me, ‘When is the new Pele going to be born?’ Never. My father and mother have closed the factory. When Messi’s scored 1,283 goals like me, when he’s won three World Cups, we’ll talk about it.”
Messi did, however, win the Golden Ball – awarded to the tournament’s best player – in Pele’s homeland in 2014. It’s a trophy that the players widely considered icons of the game are more likely to win than the Golden Boot; Pele, Romario, Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Puskás have all been named the competition’s best player at some stage.
“I think there is a slight sense that certain players have a VIP pass to be under consideration for these lists, in that we are anticipating watching them the most so everything good they do becomes whipped up into a storm,” says Football365 deputy editor Daniel Storey, who is also author of Gazza in Italy and Portrait of an Icon.
“But I don’t think that’s any issue really. The ‘big names’ tend to be the most talented players who tend to play the best, which just sounds logical really.”
The five players mentioned above would no doubt been lauded as the GOAT (greatest of all time) had social media been around in their heyday, but many online fans were outraged when Messi was handed the 2014 Golden Ball. Even his compatriot Maradona gave him some grief.
“Messi? I would give him heaven if possible,” the 1986 World Cup winner said on his TV show on teleSUR. “But it’s not right when someone wins something that he shouldn’t have won just because of some marketing plan.”
Colombia’s Rodriguez was among the favourites to land the coveted prize after overcoming odds of 100/1 to finish as top scorer with six goals. But he narrowly missed out on becoming just the fourth person to win the Golden Boot and Ball double, as Rossi, Kempes and Brazil’s Leônidas all previously have. That’s something which may put you off if you’re planning to back the same player for Boot and Ball success in Russia.
Rodriguez top-scored at the World Cup despite having notched just five international goals in the previous three years, which goes to show you don’t need to have netted bucket loads for your country to be in with a chance of claiming the prize. That’s also true in the European Championship and Copa America.
Colombia’s Víctor Aristizábal hit 15 goals in 66 international games – an unspectacular record. Yet six of those strikes came at the 2001 Copa America, which fired Los Cafeteros to glory and the striker to the top of the scoring charts.
At Eurp 1964, meanwhile, Hungarian defender Dezső Novák struck twice, which was enough for him to be named joint-top scorer at the tournament alongside his countryman Ferenc Bene and Spain’s Jesús María Pereda. He only ever scored three times for Hungary in nine appearances.
Granted, there were only four participants in what was only the second edition of the European Championship; as the number of teams increased, so too did the goal tallies required to win the Golden Boot. Only on two occasions, though, have more than five strikes been required: Michel Platini hit nine in 1984, while countryman Antoine Griezmann scored six two years ago.
Those two Frenchman were undoubtedly among the world’s best even before their tournament exploits, but the same cannot be said for former QPR loanee Eduardo Vargas. The Chilean knows more than most that you don’t necessarily have to play for an elite club team to top score at an international tournament, or even be in great goalscoring form prior to the competition.
Vargas top-scored with six goals at the 2016 Copa America, having previously netted just twice in 24 games for Hoffenheim. And that wasn’t a fluke: Vargas was joint-top scorer at the 2015 Copa America with four goals, following a miserable campaign in which he hit four goals in 22 games for QPR.
He shared the 2015 accolade with Peru legend Paolo Guerrero, but after the tournament the 31-year-old striker only scored four times in 18 games for new club Flamengo. He and the likes of Roger Milla have proved that age is often just a number when it comes to international tournaments.
Milla was 38 when he came out of retirement to play for Cameroon at Italia ’90, following a phone call from president Paul Biya pleading with him to get on the plane. The veteran found the net four times – a tally bettered by only two players – and propelled corner flags into the limelight with his famous Makossa goal celebration.
“It was totally spontaneous,” he said afterwards. “I’d never done it before, not even in training.”
Much to the delight of American corner flags, Milla returned to the big stage for the 1994 World Cup, where he became the oldest goalscorer in the competition’s history at the age of 42 years, one month and eight days. He netted the consolation goal in the Indomitable Lions’ 6-1 loss to Russia, taking some of the headlines away from Salenko and his five-goal master class.
“I can’t imagine his record will be beaten,” says Storey. “Even in the last 20 to 30 years, the depth of talent as you go lower in the FIFA world rankings has increased enormously, largely thanks – as much as it pains me to say it – to the work of Sepp Blatter, who remains incredibly popular in parts of Africa and Asia.
“Milla’s seniority is what became his lasting legacy, but the story itself is superb. This is a guy who effectively retired from football in 1989, moved to Reunion near Mauritius and played a bit of amateur football while very much enjoying life.
“He then agreed to come out of retirement for the World Cup at the age of 38, scored four goals and then scored again four years later – that would be impossible now. Add in a wonderful goal celebration and you have most of the ingredients needed to become an iconic figure in and outside of Cameroon.”
Perhaps the individual awards this summer will be won by a player with Milla’s experience, or maybe an international novice like Just Fontaine will emerge from nowhere. There’s also the prospect of Messi going one step further to make Pele eat his words, or Ronaldo to transfer his domestic goalscoring feats to the international stage. In the space of seven games, just about anyone can write themselves into the history books.