England’s Top 5 World Cup Performances

Football, 1990 World Cup Second Round, Bologna, Italy, 26th June 1990, England 1 v Belgium 0 aet, England's David Platt celebrates after scoring the winning goal
Unlucky: David Platt loses out with the ‘one moment per World Cup’ rule

There are few things more arbitrary in football than a good performance. What makes one ‘good’? Does the performance need to end in a good result? Does it need goals? Does it even need to last the full ninety minutes? Well, for the purposes of this article, let’s say the answers to those questions are, more-or-less, yes.

England has not got the rich football history that, say, Germany or Brazil has. But like every typical World Cup team, The Three Lions have their fair shares of famous triumphs through the decades. Here are my five best ever England World Cup performances. To maximise interest, no single tournament will be included twice.

lin poland

5 – England 3-0 Poland [1986 Group Stage Match 3/3]

England entered the 1986 World Cup in modest form. They had won four and drawn four of their eight qualifiers. In 1986 however, The Three Lions won all six of their pre-tournament friendlies, before Englishly losing their next match – their World Cup opener against Portugal. Having been held to a 0-0 draw by Morocco after this, England desperately needed victory against Poland in their final group game. Gary Lineker had England ahead inside ten minutes and had completed a hat-trick by half-time. The Everton man had converted three delightful crosses to put England into an unassailable lead. England have never won a World Cup match by more than three goals. This is as comprehensive a victory as England has ever produced at The Greatest Show of Earth.

gazza germany

4 – England 1-1 West Germany {3-4 PSO} [1990 Semi-Final]

The Belgium and Cameroon games could have easily made it in, but it was England’s only semi-final match on foreign soil which pips them to the post. Paul Parker’s attempt to block Andreas Brehme’s freekick couldn’t have gone worse, as the ball looped up and dropped down beyond the desperately retreating Peter Shilton. What a true legend that man was. Parker atoned for his earlier error as his ball into the box caused havoc for the two German defenders there. The ball fell kindly for Gary Lineker, who volleyed it low into the far corner. The now-Tottenham man looked so surprised that he had found the net, but he had. The tears of Gazza followed. Paul Gascoigne took a deep breath and played as well as he could in what he knew to be his final appearance of the tournament. Penalties. And they kept going in… until Stuart Pearce could only find goalkeeper Bodo Illgner’s legs. Germany scored, and so Chris Waddle needed to. Booting the ball over the bar, England’s most emotional World Cup to date ended at the semi-final stage. The Three Lions had outplayed West Germany for large parts of the game. They went on to lose to Italy in the match for third place and tournament failure resumed.

beck argen

3 – England 1-0 Argentina [2002 Group Stage Match 2/3]

Four years after the death threats and bullets sent to David Beckham after his Argentina red card, England had the chance for redemption. Tensions had always been high over these too. The ill-disciplined tactics in 1966. The Falklands War. The Hand of God. The red that should have been yellow. Under Sven-Göran Eriksson, England hit the woodwork early through Michael Owen. As half-time neared, high intensity pressing from England saw Owen earn a penalty from a clumsy challenge. The man that felled him was a certain Mauricio Pochettino. He’s having much more luck in England these days. David Beckham earned immediate revenge for the events of four years prior, thrashing the ball low into the centre of the net. This was a truly excellent performance from England. They were strong, offensive, and, when required to be, defensively sound. The Three Lions had knocked Argentina out of the World Cup.

Soccer - World Cup Spain 82 - Group Four - England v France

2 – England 3-1 France [1982 Group Stage Match 1/3]

In 1982, England began a World Cup in the sort of flying fashion that Three Lions fans dream about these days. England’s last victory in a tournament opener came twelve years ago, at Germany 2006. Here though, The Three Lions were ahead after an astonishing twenty-seven seconds. Bryan Robson was on hand to volley home emphatically from a knocked-on throw-in. What a start. France’s Gerard Soler scored a spectacular equaliser to level things up in Bilbao, though. Bryan Robson headed England back into the lead after the break, before Paul Mariner was on hand to capitalise from a defensive lapse from France. Mariner had scored in his last four internationals, and made it six in five, here. England went on to beat Czechoslovakia and Kuwait, before a bizarre twist took them to a second-round group-stage. 0-0 draws with West Germany and Spain ensured England went the entire tournament unbeaten, but still went out nonetheless.


1 – England 4-2 West Germany [1966 Final]

I won’t apologise for making this the most obvious number one in worldwide ‘top 5’s history. England entered a World Cup final for the first time, facing a former winner, West Germany. It was the biggest match in their already-ninety-four-year history. Geoff Hurst was handed a surprise start at Wembley, where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance, amongst other famous figures. After a thrilling ninety minutes of high quality football, England were taken to extra-time. Geoff Hurst then scored without actually putting the ball over the line – a truly rare and incredible achievement. With fans on the pitch, thinking it was “all over”, Geoff Hurst began one final foray forward, before booting the ball in the net for one final time, cementing England their first ever major trophy. Hurst had become the first, and to date only, player to have scored a World Cup final hat-trick. Bobby Moore was lauded a legend, aged just 25, and England unknowingly entered ‘thirty years of hurt’. England fans soon realised that they needed to rename it ‘forty years of hurt’, then fifty, and now it’s fifty-two. The dark ages have arguably made the final of 1966 all the more legendary, monumental and unforgettable.

The negatives to take from this are that England haven’t really produced too many memorable performances in the World Cup. Brazil or Holland wouldn’t need to include a 3-0 victory over Poland or a semi-final defeat in their lists. On the plus side though, England have won a World Cup; they’re less than a week from playing in another; and the following month presents a chance for Gareth Southgate’s England to really give Three Lions fans something to be proud, impressed and emotional about. This is probably the worst group of players ever to travel to a World Cup as ‘England’, but there seems to be real feeling that these twenty-three men could turn over a new leaf this summer. Touch wood: the England team may just be on the up.


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