To score at a World Cup is the zenith of any footballer’s career. Even the most inconsequential goals – consolation strikes in the 90th minute, for instance – are celebrated with the kind of emotion which is rarely seen anywhere other than football. Perhaps the archetypal example of this presented itself on 27 June 2018, as South Korea beat Germany 2-0 with two goals in added time in the World Cup group stage. The Asian side knew they could not qualify for the knockout rounds even before kick-off, but they celebrated their two goals with tears and unbridled jubilation. It was a truly beautiful scene.
Goals matter even more if they’re scored at a more crucial juncture on the biggest stage of all. Those lucky enough to play at a World Cup will usually only play a handful of games. Lothar Matthaus has more appearances than anyone else in World Cup history. He made 25 appearances, a positively minuscule number in relation to a footballer’s entire career. To achieve a goal tally in the double figures is, therefore, an extraordinary feat and one only achieved by 13 extraordinary players.
FIFA World Cup top goalscorers
Grzegorz Lato – Poland (20 appearances – 10 goals)
With ten goals in 20 games, Grzegorz Lato is the first of the 13 names on the list by virtue of his having the worst goals-per-game ratio of the six players to have scored exactly ten goals. One in two is not exactly a bad hit-rate, just going to show the calibre of the players who make up this list.
Lato represented Poland at three world cups in succession between 1974 and 1982. Seven of his goals came in the 1974 Worlds Cup when Poland reached the semi-finals and Lato was crowned top scorer ahead of some of the finest names in football history.
He is Poland’s 3rd greatest ever goalscorer, behind Włodzimierz Lubański and the incomparable Robert Lewandowski. Lato left such an impression in his home country that he was elected senator of one of the country’s largest cities in 2001.
He scored two further goals in 1978, one against Brazil. And in 1982 he scored his final world cup goal at the age of 32.
Thomas Müller – Germany (16 appearances – 10 goals)
Of all the players with ten or more goals at World Cup finals, only one is still active. And, at the relatively young age of 30, you wouldn’t bet against Thomas Muller being a few places further up this list come the end of his career – perhaps even out on his own at the top of the pile.
The Bayern Munich forward has scored at two of the three World Cups he has played in. He netted five times in Germany’s run to the semi-final in 2010, including two goals against England. When Germany were triumphant in Brazil in 2014, Muller again scored five goals, including a hat trick against Portugal and the opener in Germany’s 7-1 demolition of the hosts.
He failed to get on the scoresheet as Germany misfired in Russia and when Joachim Low told him he had no future in the German national team in 2019, fans might have thought they had seen the last of Muller at the World Cup. But with Muller in such fine form at club level, it seems unlikely that he won’t be recalled to the national team at some point –whether that be under Low or a different manager.
Teófilo Cubillas – Peru (13 appearances – 10 goals)
Another player with ten goals under his belt on the World Cup stage is Teófilo Cubillas, the Peruvian forward who played at three World Cups in 1970, 1978 and 1982.
In 1970 Cubillas scored five goals as Peru reached the quarter-final where they were knocked out by eventual champions Brazil, the team often described as the best of all time.
In 1978, when the World Cup was reformatted to include two group stages and no knockout games before the final, Peru reached the second group stage but did not score a goal in a group which contained Brazil and Argentina.
Prior to that, however, Cubillas had been in electric form, scoring a deuce against Scotland in Peru’s opening match and following that up with a hat trick against Iran.
At club level, Cubillas represented Basel and Porto in Europe but played most of his football in his homeland and in North America. When the World Cup in Spain came around, Cubilas was past his prime.
In 1982, Cubillas did not get on the scoresheet as the South American underdogs failed to advance from the group stages. It would be Cubillas last major tournament as a footballer. For many years, Cubillas was Peru’s all-time top scorer, though he has since been overtaken by Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan in the 2000s.
Gabriel Batistuta – Argentina (12 appearances – 10 goals)
Argentina have had nothing in the way of success in the World Cup since 1986. And while they have come close on a number of occasions – reaching the finals in 1990 and 2014 – their modern World Cup history is nothing but heartbreak.
But they have had some magnificent individual performers. Perhaps chief among them is Gabriel Batistuta, the Fiorentina, Roma and Inter Milan striker who scored 54 goals in 77 international appearances between 1991 and 2004.
He started as he meant to go on, scoring a hat-trick against Greece on his World Cup debut in 2004. He also netted in the first knockout round, scoring an equaliser for La Albiceleste against Romania, though they would eventually lose to the Europeans 3-2.
He scored another hat-trick at the 1998 World Cup, this time against Jamaica in the group stages. Prior to this he had scored on Argentina’s opening night against Japan. The striker then bagged another in the first knockout round against England. Unlike in 1994, however, Argentina advanced to the next round.
Gary Lineker – England (12 appearances – 10 goals)
The only Englishman to reach double figures at a World Cup, Gary Lineker is arguably the Three Lions’ finest performer on the biggest stage since the winning team in 1966.
He appeared at two World Cups, Mexico 86 and Italia 90, helping English reach the quarter-finals and the semi-finals of each tournament respectively.
In his tournament debut, Lineker scored a hat trick as England beat Poland 3-0 in the group stage, before netting another two against Paraguay in the first knockout round. England were then knocked out thanks to two goals – iconic for entirely different reasons – from Maradona. But not before Gary Lineker had scored his sixth of the tournament.
Four years later, Lineker had another blistering tournament – this time helping England go one step further. He scored against rivals the Republic of Ireland before netting two more against a brilliant Cameroon side in one of the classic World Cup matches. In the semi-final, Lineker registered another goal as England drew 1-1 with Germany before bowing out on penalties.
Helmut Rahn – West Germany (10 appearances – 10 goals)
One of six Germans in the top 13 World Cup scorers, Helmut Rahn helped Germany win the World Cup in Switzerland and give the nation its first major honour.
He scored a single goal in the group stages as West Germany astonishingly lost 8-3 to an impossibly good Hungary side. There was no shame in this scoreline; in the previous fixture, Hungary had put nine past South Korea without reply.
West Germany advanced to the knout stages nonetheless and Rahn would score the second goal in West Germany’s 2-0 win over Yugoslavia. He didn’t find the net in the semi-final, but his most important contribution came in the final where he scored twice to give West Germany a 3-2 victory over Hungary after being 2-0 down after ten minutes. It was a result made all the more remarkable by the battering Hungary had administered to the Germans in the group stage.
In 1958, West Germany reached the semi-final, but Rahn himself had a more productive tournament in terms of his goal contribution. He scored two in his side’s opening game against Argentina, one in their second against Czechoslovakia and another in their final group stage game against Northern Ireland.
In the knockout rounds, history repeated itself as Rahn again found the net against Yugoslavia. Germany lost in the semi-finals to hosts Sweden, but Rahn got one more goal in the 3rd place play-off. It would be his last at a World Cup.
Jurgen Klinsmann – West Germany & Germany (17 appearances – 11 goals)
One of two players to have scored 11 goals at World Cup finals, Jurgen Klinsmann played for West Germany before reunification in late 1990.
In Italy, when Germany won the World Cup, Klinsmann scored three goals against Yugoslavia, United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands respectively. In the final, West Germany beat Argentina to win their last trophy before uniting with East Germany.
Four years later, after the disappointment of losing to Denmark in the final of Euro 93, Germany mounted another assault on the World Cup in the United States. Klinsmann was even more prolific this time around, scoring five goals against Bolivia, Spain, South Korea and Belgium before Germany were knocked out by the excellent Bulgaria side in the quarter-finals. Had Germany continued, there is every chance Klinsmann would have overtaken Stoichkov to become the tournament’s top scorer.
1998 would prove to be Klinsmann’s last World Cup. Once again, Germany could only reach the quarters where they were knocked out by Croatia. But prior to this Klinsmann had scored two goals in the group stage and one in the first knockout round against Mexico – the latter proving to be his last goal for Germany.
Sandor Kocsis – Hungary (5 appearances – 11 goals)
The player with the best goals per game ratio in history, Sandor Kocsis scored all of his 11 World Cup goals in one World Cup.
The Hungarian team of the 1950s are widely regarded as one of the finest ever to take the field. The only silverware they ever claimed, however, was Olympic gold in 1948. Had the remained resolute in the 1954 World Cup final, they would have had a star above their crest and perhaps be more remembered in the mainstream in the same way that 1970s Brazil or 2010s Spain are.
Kocsis – who would later turn out for Barcelona after leaving Budapest Honved alongside Ferenc Puskas – scored a hat trick in Hungary’s opening game in 1954 and then another four as they beat West Germany 8-3 in their second game.
The only game in which he wouldn’t score was the final itself as Hungary lost 3-2 to the same West Germany side that they hammered in the group stages. In the quarter-final, he added another two and then two more in the semi-final. He finished with a goals-per-game ratio of better than two in one. A quite magical achievement from the man who lead the line for the Magical Magyars.
Pele – Brazil (14 appearances – 12 goals)
Spearheading three World Cup triumphs, there is surely no doubt that Pele is the greatest player in World Cup history.
He was just 17 in 1958 as Brazil triumphed in Sweden. Pele scored his first World Cup goal against Wales in the quarter-finals before netting an unforgettable hat-trick against France in the semis. In the final, Pele scored two of Brazil’s five goals as they blew away the hosts Sweden.
Four years later, he scored one goal in the 1962 World Cup group stage. It was a figure he would repeat at the World Cup four years later. In 1970, Pele, now a veteran was an integral part of the great Brazil team that eventually demolished Italy 4-1 in the final at Estadio Azteca. In the 1970 group stage, he scored three goals – meaning his overall tally at his final World Cup was taken to four.
His legacy as his homeland’s ultimate legend is near enough unsurpassable, but there is one man who managed to find the net more times at the World Cup for Brazil…
Just Fontaine – France (6 appearances – 13 goals)
With a remarkable tally of 13 goals in just six games, Just Fontaine will almost certainly feel aggrieved to not have the best goals to games ratio in World Cup history – Kocsis wins that award, although only narrowly.
All 13 of Fontaine’s goals came in the 1958 tournament in Sweden, making him the highest scorer in a single World Cup in the competition’s history. What makes this achievement even more astounding is that Fontaine didn’t even reach the final with France as they were knocked out by Brazil at the penultimate hurdle.
Fontaine scored a hat trick in France’s opening game against Paraguay, then a further two against Yugoslavia and one more against Scotland. In the knockout rounds, Fontaine found the net twice as France sailed past Northern Ireland before setting up a semi-final clash with Brazil. The South Americans won 5-2, the same scoreline by which they would triumph over Sweden in the final, but Fontaine again found the back of the net, levelling the scores at 1-1 with barely ten minutes on the clock.
Fontaine’s goal tally was bolstered significantly in the 3rd place play-off where he scored four as France beat their European rivals Germany 6-3. It meant that Fontaine was the top scorer by some distance with 13 goals. His overall international record is staggering: 30 goals in just 21 appearances.
Gerd Müller – West Germany (13 appearances – 14 goals)
A champion in 1974, Germany legend Gerd Müller is the only player to achieve a goal per game ratio of greater than one over two World Cups
Regarded as one of the finest marksmen not only of his generation but of all time, Müller scored over 650 goals in his club career. It was therefore always to be expected that he would replicate his form on the international stage. He remains Germany’s all-time leading goalscorer.
He also holds the unique title of having scored two hat tricks at a single World Cup. He scored three goals against Bulgaria in West Germany’s second group game and then repeated the feat against Peru just three days later. He scored one more time in the quarter-final. It was the extra-time winner against England which extracted a measure of revenge for the Three Lions World Cup final defeat of four years earlier.
In 1974, he scored in the first group stage knockout game against Australia and then scored two more in the second group stage fixtures against Yugoslavia and Poland. This meant West Germany reached the final against the brilliant Netherlands team of Johan Cruyff. Müller scored the decisive goal in a 2-1 win – it was his last international goal for the country.
Ronaldo – Brazil (19 appearances – 15 goals)
Had it not been for injuries, Ronaldo would surely have been a constant fixture in the conversation surrounding the greatest players of all time. But at the World Cup at least, his legacy is secure.
Up until 2014, Ronaldo was out on his own as the player with the most goals at World Cup finals. He travelled to four World Cups – a rare achievement in itself – although he did not make an appearance when Brazil became champions in 1994.
In 2002, however, he played a crucial role in Brazil’s success, scoring eight goals throughout the tournament. Two of these came in the final against Germany and proved to be the only goals in the game. It was retribution for Brazil’s failure four years earlier in France when Ronaldo had appeared in the final but was clearly not himself after a bizarre build-up to the match which saw his name disappear and reappear on the Brazil team sheet many times. A seizure the night before has been the subject of endless conspiracy theories.
He equalled Gerd Muller’s record with his second goal against Japan in 2006 and then moved ahead with a goal in a 3-0 defeat of Ghana five days later. It was his last goal for Brazil, leaving him on 63 goals in total from 98 caps.
Miroslav Klose – Germany (24 appearances – 16 goals)
Standing at the very top of the table is Miroslav Klose with 16 goals in 24 games. His total number of games leaves him just one match behind his fellow countryman Lothar Matthäus in terms of the most appearances at World Cup finals.
Compared to some of the names on this list – especially towards the top end – Miroslav Klose’s is not the most illustrious. He was a good striker, but never considered one of Europe’s finest; only once in his career did he score more than 15 goals in a season. And yet he was a mainstay of the German national team for nearly 14 years.
He scored his first three World Cup goals in his first World Cup game – a hat trick against Saudi Arabia in the 2002 group stage. Two more strikes followed against the Republic of Ireland and Cameroon respectively as Germany reached the final.
Four years later, he scored two deuces against Costa Rica and Ecuador before netting against Argentina in the quarter-finals. Germany were ultimately knocked out by Italy in the semi-finals in extra time.
It wasn’t to be for Germany and Klose in 2010 either. Klose got on the scoresheet four times, including goals against England and Argentina, but a young Germany side were knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual champions Spain.
When victory came in 2014, it was all the sweeter because of the wait. Klose was the most senior player in Germany’s squad by this point. He equalled Ronaldo’s record against the same team that the Brazilian had broken Muller’s, Ghana. When he scored the second of seven against Brazil in the semi-final, it was official:
Miroslav Klose was the World Cup’s all-time top scorer. Germany were victorious against Argentina in the final, and the circle was complete for Klose in his final match for his country. Astonishingly, he finished his career knowing that Germany had never lost a match in which he had scored a goal.