For football fans in India, unless you were born in the satellite era, the 1986 World Cup was the first real taste of the sport at the highest level. Prior to that, only bits of the 1982 World Cup were televised in India, and we had the occasional Serie A and Champions League (then called the European Cup) match come our way. Somehow, all of it was very late at night — or maybe it wasn’t, but that’s what the old memory box says. A lot of the moments from the 1986 World Cup have become blurred since then, but not Manuel Negrete’s side-volley, called a scissor kick in those days, from the top of the box against Bulgaria. Or, Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland. And, above all, Diego Maradona. First, those two bits against England that still elicit shock and awe, then taking the stuffing out of Belgium, and then the final. Oh, the final. Does it qualify as the last great World Cup final? Indeed, if any player has completely dominated a World Cup in the modern era, it was Maradona in Mexico 1986.

Argentina had won before, in 1978, at home, when Mario Kempes was their standout player, scoring six goals, including two in the final. But, while Kempes was a striker, Maradona wasn’t. He was an attacking midfielder playing behind the strikers — usually Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga. That didn’t stop him from scoring five goals in 1986, three among which still feature in most lists of most memorable World Cup goals.

The story of the ‘half-angel, half-devil’, as French newspaper L’Équipe described Maradona, had started before the tournament. The charismatic manager César Luis Menotti was gone by then, and the win-at-all-costs Carlos Bilardo was in charge of Argentina. Who knows what madness prompted Bilardo to sack Daniel Passarella as captain and appoint Maradona in his place – the same Maradona who, with impetuosity of youth as an excuse, kicked an opponent in the midriff to be red carded against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. It seemed too big a risk, but Maradona responded with five goals and five assists.

Three of those assists came in a group game against South Korea. Then came the England game. First, there was the ‘hand of god’ goal. Cheat? Sure, but why couldn’t Peter Shilton out-jump his 5-foot-5-inch opponent? Four minutes later, the goal of the century: 11 taps in a run that started with a swivel in his own half, chest pushed forward, thigh muscles pumping, five defenders bigger and more powerful than him rendered impotent, and finally a step around Shilton and a slot-in.

That performance was followed by two goals in the semi-final against Belgium, one a volley with the outside of his left foot, one a left-footed finish after a weaving run past three players.

If all that wasn’t enough, there was the moment of magic in the final. No one blocks a key player like the Germans do; double marking, they called it. Two-all, till the fag end of the game, when Maradona found enough space to play the perfect through ball for Burruchaga, who scored and won the game for Argentina. Four years later, Maradona outdid that pass with the one to find Claudio Caniggia against Brazil, but that is another story. Maradona owned 1986. Never before, and never after, has an individual influenced the outcome of a single edition of the World Cup in quite the same fashion.

Unless, we count Pelé, the other half of all greatest-of-all-time debates. The 1958 World Cup, in Sweden, was the first of four editions Pelé played in. He was 17, the youngest player in a World Cup till then. The show started with an assist to Vavá in the group game against USSR. His first goal was against Wales in the quarter-final, the only one of the game. On to the semi-final against France, in which Pelé announced his arrival to the world. Brazil were leading 2-1 at half time. Bam! Bam! Bam! A second-half hat-trick. An, then, on to the final, and a goal of such individual brilliance — one of Pelé’s two in the game, which Brazil won 5-2 against Sweden — that it is considered a seminal moment in football history: a trap on the chest, a little keepie-uppie over the last defender and the volley home. Pelé had arrived. Jersey No. 10 would forever be associated with him. And, the 1958 World Cup, despite Frenchman Just Fontaine’s 13 goals in the tournament, would forever be the Pelé Cup.

Sándor Kocsis would have been able to identify with Fontaine. Thankfully for Kocsis, in the 1954 World Cup, even though his Magical Magyars didn’t win — the greatest team not to win the World Cup? — the man putting him in the shade was his countryman Ferenc Puskás.

Kocsis scored 11 goals in the 1954 tournament, including two hat-tricks, as Hungary won 9-0 against South Korea, 8-3 against West Germany, 4-2 against Brazil and 4-2 against Uruguay. When they met West Germany again, in the final, though, Kocsis couldn’t score. Hungary lost 3-2. But, the man making most of the headlines for Hungary, not just during the World Cup but during that entire period, was Puskás. He scored just four goals, including one in the final, which he played despite a hairline fracture in his right ankle, but he exhibited such control of the midfield and such immense presence that most don’t even remember the eventual winners of the tournament, forget Kocsis.

Many years later, in 2002, Oliver Kahn had a moment that would have made him feel a kinship of sorts with Messrs Kocsis and Fontaine. Kahn, in a rare feat for a goalkeeper, was the biggest star in Germany’s march to the final, to be played in Yokohama, Japan, against Brazil. So big and imposing was the truck-like Kahn that he seemed to cover more of the goal than his 6-foot-2-inch frame ought to have. Till, that is, he came up against Ronaldo in the final. With Ronaldo bearing down on him, Kahn spilled a low, tame shot from Rivaldo, allowing Ronaldo to slot home the rebound. Was it the pressure of the occasion or Ronaldo’s reputation that caused Kahn to flounder for the first time? It did not matter. Ronaldo had already scored six times in the competition and he made it seven and eight in the final. The Golden Ball still went to Kahn, but there was no doubt who owned the World Cup. It was Ronaldo all the way, running through defenders all tournament and finding the back of the net with the precision of a hard-nosed hitman.

In 1970, in Mexico, Brazil were the winners and had Pelé, Jairzinho and Roberto Rivelino in their squad. But, it was West Germany’s Gerd Müller, with ten goals, who hogged the headlines. In several World Cups, there have been two or more players who have lit the tournament up. France’s Michel Platini and Roberto Baggio, Italy’s ‘divine ponytail’, could well have been remembered as the men who owned the 1982 and 1994 World Cups respectively. But, whatever they did, Paolo Rossi and Romario did slightly better. Strikers both, Rossi and Romário struck when the time was right, taking their teams to the title.

Rossi’s story is remarkable. In 1980, he was suspended for two years for his involvement in the Totonero betting scandal. He returned for the 1982 World Cup, played in Spain, but sleepwalked through the first three games Italy played, looking nothing like the star striker he once was. Everything changed in the second round-robin stage. Rossi announced himself with a hat-trick against Brazil, the pre-tournament favourites, then scored two more goals against Poland in the semi-final before opening the scoring in the big final, against West Germany. A legend was born.

Another World Cup in which more than one player put in a strong bid to become synonymous with the tournament was the 1966 edition, in which Portugal’s Eusébio and England’s Geoff Hurst both performed incredible goal-scoring feats. Does it make sense to say, “The World Cup belonged to Eusebio, but the World Cup belonged to Hurst,” making a distinction between the tournament and the actual trophy? Well, that’s what happened.

If Eusébio’s goal — a volley from nowhere — against Brazil in the group stages was stunning, what he achieved against North Korea in the quarter-final was even more fantastic. In 25 minutes, North Korea had taken a 3-0 lead. That’s when Eusebio woke up. In the next 35 minutes – 20 minutes of the first half and 15 of the second — he had four goals to his name. Grainy old videos will show you that if he had not been brought down in the penalty box — he converted the resultant spot kick — at the end of a long, weaving run from within his own half, Maradona’s goal of the century would have had serious competition.

Eusébio scored nine goals in 1966, but Portugal couldn’t make the final, going down to the hosts, England, and their star player, Bobby Charlton, in the semi-final. The final was a Hurst show. He was not even England’s main striker before the tournament began and sat out the group matches as Jimmy Greaves and Roger Hunt started for England. It was only when Greaves injured himself that Hurst got his chance, and he made an impact straight away, scoring the winning goal against Argentina in the quarter-final. The semi-final belonged to Charlton, but the final was all Hurst’s. He scored three times in England’s 4-2 win over Germany and contributed to the other goal — a Hurst pile-driver got a deflection and fell in front of Martin Peters, who converted. Whatever your opinion on whether or not his second goal crossed the line, Hurst’s remains the only official hat-trick in a World Cup final.

The first player to really leave his stamp on a World Cup was Giuseppe Meazza, the Inter Milan legend. Those who saw him play — from 1927 to 1947 — have stitched together quite a mythology around him. Apparently, when Meazza ran with the ball, it never left his feet. What we know as fact is that Meazza won two World Cups with Italy, in 1934 and 1938. It’s no myth either that before the 1938 edition, in France, when Meazza was captain, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sent him a telegram that said, “Win or die”. Meazza took the sensible option. It is said that during the semi-final against Brazil, as Meazza stepped up to take a penalty, his shorts, which had been ripped earlier, slipped down. Calm as they come, Meazza caught his shorts with one hand and slotted home as the goalkeeper was busy laughing.

In 1962, it was Garrincha, the Little Bird, a five-and-a-half-foot centre forward with a bent leg, who rose to the occasion for Brazil in Pelé’s absence. Anjo de Pernas Tortas, angel with bent legs, they called him. He was like a ferret, weaving through defences, always an inch or two from the nearest tackle. He was at his best in the quarter-final against England and the semi-final against hosts Chile, scoring twice in each game. The highlight was the 20-yarder he scored against Chile in the semi-final. At the end of the World Cup, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who the Player of the Tournament was.

Johann Cruyff did not just play great football, he helped revolutionise the game. He scored 33 goals in 48 games for the Netherlands, and when he scored, the Netherlands never lost. In the 1974 World Cup, in Germany, it wasn’t just about the goals he scored or the games he led his side to victory in, but about Total Football, a free-flowing system of playing the Dutch had invented. In the final, against West Germany, Cruyff kicked off, and the ball was passed 13 times before returning to him near the opposition penalty box. Cruyff went past one defender before being brought down. The resultant penalty was converted by Johan Neeskens. West Germany had not yet touched the ball. The precursor to tiki-taka? Somewhat. Despite Germany’s eventual win and Franz Beckenbauer’s performances in defence, what we remember about the 1974 edition is Total Football.

Now, how can a collection of names such as this one not include Zinedine Zidane? In 1998, he dismantled Brazil in the final, scoring two headed goals and controlling the game to help hosts France upset the favourites. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zidane was the undisputed No. 1 footballer in the world, the greatest of the galácticos at Real Madrid and better than any attacking midfielder in the world. And, who knows what would have happened in 2006 if it hadn’t been for that head butt? Maybe another World Cup would have become synonymous with him?

Before wrapping up, there must be a mention of a man who never won the World Cup, or even made a semi-final. A man who isn’t in anyone’s all-time great XI or any such thing, but whose goal celebration was the iconic image of the 1990 World Cup: Roger Milla. In 1990, in Italy, Germany won, Maradona dragged Argentina to the final almost single-handedly and Roberto Baggio made his entry, but it was Milla, a 38-year-old Cameroonian, who was the star, He snatched balls from defenders, and from a goalkeeper, Colombia’s René Higuita, to score four goals. And, each time, he did his now famous dance. Milla’s goals helped Cameroon become the first African team to make it to the quarter-finals of a World Cup, the story of the tournament.

From the ancient Meazza to the more familiar Ronaldo, from the 17-year-old Pele to the 38-year-old Milla, from men who scored goals by the truckload to men who saved them, the World Cup has seen a variety of players make their mark on it. Football is a team game, but games and tournaments can often be decided by exceptional players. And, they have not come much better than these men at the greatest show on earth.

Shamya Dasgupta is senior editor of Wisden India and author of recently-published book Cricket Changed my Life