Legends of the World Cup: Where On Earth Are They Now?
Every four years, when the FIFA World Cup finally arrives, spectators around the globe are gifted a new hero on the pitch.
Often times, it is the dominant powers who shine. Even if they are superstar footballers leading the way on a loaded squad, when they exceed expectations, we’re left stunned, mystified at how such talents find a way to rise above the rest.
Other times, it is the unsung workhorse who rises to the occasion, putting on a dazzling display that shakes the audience to its core with a once-in-a-lifetime burst of brilliance.
So what ever happened to these World Cup stars who helped make the World Cup the ultimate competition in sport?
Miroslav Klose, Germany
Fans in Germany will always have a special place in their hearts for longtime striker Miroslav Klose.
Often referred to as “Salto-Klose,” or Somersault-Klose, for his unique front-flip celebration, German fans had more than their fair share of times to watch him do it.
From 2002-14, Klose was a scoring machine in his four World Cups, with a record 16 goals in tournament play. He was far more than a prolific goal-scorer — he earned two bronze finishes (2006, 2010), a silver (2002) and won it all in his final Cup with Germany in 2014.
After concluding his international career in 2014, Klose played another two seasons for the Italian club Lazio before officially retiring from the sport.
Though Klose’s days on the pitch were over, the retired striker wasted no taking the next step in his career, accepting a role on the German national team’s coaching staff in November 2016.
In 2018, Klose took his next step in his new coaching career, as he was named Bayern Munich’s U-17 coach. The former striker, always hailed for his honesty and fair play, now has the perfect stage to impart his wisdom of the game to future generations.
Roger Milla, Cameroon
Roger Milla made his first national appearance for Cameroon in 1973, but it wasn’t until age 38 at the 1990 World Cup that the striker became a household name.
In a stranger than fiction moment, the then-retired Milla received a phone call pleading that he un-retire from international play… from President of Cameroon Paul Biya.
Solely serving as a substitute, the 38-year-old striker subbed in to score four goals to propel his team all the way to the quarterfinals, making Cameroon the first African nation to ever make it that far.
Four years later, Milla – already a hero of his nation and the sport – defied logic again at the age of 42, scoring another four goals in the group stage, becoming the oldest goal-scorer in World Cup history.
Milla’s playing days reached a close in 1996, but Milla continued to make his mark on the game, taking up a couple of coaching roles until taking over as Director of Football for Tonnerre (Cameroon) from 2011-12.
While Milla has been an advocate for Cameroon football, he has also been using his platform to bring awareness to various humanitarian causes.
He has served as an ambassador for the Roger Milla Coeur d’Afrique foundation, which fights for human rights in many forms throughout the country. He’s recently partnered up with other organizations to protect the country and continent from pollution and help develop sustainable communities and save the environment.
Just Fontaine, France
If Germany’s Mirsolav Klose was a prolific goal scorer, then France’s Just Fontaine was a World Cup enigma.
The French striker’s only World Cup appearance came in 1958, but the impact he left while helping his country to a third-place finish is everlasting.
In six total games, Fontaine scored an unfathomable 13 goals, notching at least one in every single match. Fontaine kicked off the tournament with a hat trick, and one-upped himself in the third-place match with four, single-handedly overpowering West Germany in France’s 6-3 victory.
Keep in mind, Fontaine’s 13 World Cup goals fall just three shy of Klose’s record 16 goals … totaled over four tournaments!
Fontaine’s early retirement was the unfortunate result of a broken leg that forced him to leave the game while only 28. When Fontaine finished playing in 1962, he transitioned to a managerial role for numerous clubs, finishing with the Moroccan national team.
The phenom forward may have lost out on years of raking in big bucks as a player but, fortunately, the Frenchman had a sound head on his shoulders, and reportedly invested in a number of clothing stores and sports boutiques for continued success in his post-football career.
Paolo Rossi, Italy
Italian forward Paolo Rossi is a controversial name, as his greatness will always be marred by a black mark as a result of his alleged involvement in match-fixing in Italy’s Serie A league.
Strange as it may sound, Rossi’s return from a two-year ban, just in time for redemption at the 1982 World Cup, makes his spectacular showing all the more memorable.
Rossi’s start in group play was atrocious; his two-year absence clearly having taken a toll on his conditioning. That all changed when Italy entered the second round, and after four scoreless games in a row, Rossi unleashed a hailstorm on Brazil, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 victory.
Another two goals in the semifinal and a goal in the final made Rossi the leading scorer, as Italy walked away World Cup champions.
Rossi hung up the cleats in 1987. Although he received plenty of offers, Rossi chose to turn down coaching opportunities, preferring to take some time away from the spotlight.
Rather than focus on the pitch, Rossi focused on more lucrative plots of land, running Rosa Estate Agency at Caldogno with former teammate Giancarlo Salvi.
After spending years away from the game, Rossi returned as a commentator. Most recently, Rossi signed on to serve as a pundit for Mediaset Premium. In 2018, the former forward returned to the World Cup in Russia with English scoring greats Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer to impart his wisdom in the tournament that made him a legend.
On the perpetually powerhouse national team that is Spain, Xavi stands above the rest as a talent unlike any other.
The central midfielder played in four World Cups from 2002-14, with his crowning achievement coming in 2010 when Spain defeated the Netherlands in the finals to claim the Cup.
Despite never having scored a goal in his entire World Cup career, Xavi showed his level of mastery he’d achieved as a dead-eye playmaker, successfully completing a near-flawless 91 percent of his 599 passes throughout the tournament. No one brought out the best in their teammates like Xavi.
Xavi immediately retired from international play following the 2014 World Cup, but that did not mark the conclusion of his career.
One year after his final World Cup, Xavi finished a phenomenal career with Barca in fitting fashion, winning the treble (winning the domestic league, domestic cup and European Cup in the same season) for a second time.
Xavi took his talents Qatari’s Al Sadd, signing a three-year deal with the stipulation that he would be an ambassador for the country’s 2022 World Cup hosting year. Though Xavi was expected to retire at the end of the 2017-18 season, the veteran midfielder had a change of heart, signing another two-year extension with the club.
Lothar Matthaus, West Germany/Germany
There’s a whole lot of life that happens in two decades. In the twenty-year span central midfielder Lothar Matthaus played at the World Cup, he went from representing West Germany to a unified Germany. Five World Cups would already feel like a lifetime, but that sounds more like generations.
Not only was Matthaus’ five World Cup appearances a record, his team’s success also resulted in a record 25 World Cup games played. In 1990, Matthaus captained the West Germany squad that won the championship, defeating Argentina in the final and even earning the praise of the great Maradona, who said, “Matthaus is the best rival I’ve ever had.”
When Matthaus retired from playing in 2000, he turned to a career as a manager, bouncing around to seven clubs between 2001-11. When he wasn’t coaching, Matthaus kept busy writing about the game for the German sports mag Sport Bild.
Matthaus has also remained a familiar face behind the camera, serving as a pundit on an array of television channels for the UEFA Euro and commenting on every World Cup since retiring: German channel, Arabian network, Iranian channel, Brazilian channel and British Network.
So it seems since Matthaus’ retirement, the German star has taken up just about every job related to the pitch just short of cutting the grass.
Zinedine Zidane, France
It’s a real shame that France’s Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players (and names) in World Cup history, will be remembered by many for his infamous headbutt exit from the 2006 final.
At least notching that red card tied Zidane for the most cards in Cup history with six.
Zidane’s importance to the French national team was overwhelming. In his first tournament (1998), Zidane played a huge role in securing the championship in a 3-0 victory over Brazil, scoring two of the France’s goals.
In 2002, a thigh injury kept the attacking midfielder sidelined the first two games and France suffered, unable to make it out of group play. Zidane’s third and final Cup in 2006 saw a run to the final that ended in infamy.
When Zidane hung up his World Cup cleats in 2006, he did the same with his professional playing career, ending his run with Real Madrid and turning to a new career path.
After taking a few years away from the game, Zidane returned to Real as a special adviser in 2010 and the following year was already promoted to be Real’s sporting director.
By 2013, Zidane was promoted to be Real’s assistant coach and the next year, once again, he was promoted to Real B’s (their second team) head coach. In 2016, Zidane was finally named the head coach of Real and immediately saw overwhelming success, becoming the first manager to win three consecutive Championships League titles.
Johan Cruyff, Netherlands
The Netherlands have three-time Ballon d’Or winner Johan Cruyff to thank for its rise to prominence on the world stage in association football.
Cruyff only made one World Cup appearance in 1974, leading the Netherlands to the finals, where they were eventually defeated by West Germany.
Though he only made one appearance, Cruyff’s brilliance at the Cup was undeniable. One of the greatest footballers in the world, he played a major role in helping his team qualify for the 1978 World Cup, but political fears of host Argentina’s then-dictatorship and a kidnapping attempt on he and his family the year prior in Barcelona led Cruyff to consider what’s most important first.
Cruyff’s professional career spanned far past his lone Cup appearance, playing until 1984. A spectacular playing career turned into an equally magnificent coaching career, as his brilliance managing from the sideline shined as much as it did as a complete footballer dictating the game on the pitch.
The impact Cruyff has made on the beautiful game has taken different paths, such as his writing a weekly blog and publishing a number of books in both Dutch and Spanish.
While Cruyff no longer serves a managerial or administrative role in any football activities, he still serves as an ambassador for Netherlands football in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup.
Bobby Charlton, England
Midfielder Bobby Charlton … pardon, Sir Bobby Charlton … is an English football legend. Beloved by Manchester United for nearly two decades of outstanding play, all of England can agree on the greatness Charlton brought to the pitch in his four World Cup appearances from 1958-70.
By 1966, Charlton’s skill-set was seen to be less of a conventional forward role and more fit for that of an attacking mid. Charlton excelled in this position as did his teammates, as they finally pulled off the ultimate feat of winning the World Cup in a 4-2 victory over West Germany.
Incredibly, the long club career Charlton enjoyed from 1956-80 very well could have been cut short after two years, as he was one of the 23 survivors in the Munich air disaster of 1958. Instead, Charlton’s career turned out so memorable.
Charlton built up something of a business empire in his retirement, dipping his hand into all sorts of international endeavors, covering everything from soccer academies to jewelry.
Charlton’s retirement didn’t mark the end of his involvement in soccer. In 1984, he joined the board of directors of his former team, Manchester United, and still holds the position today.
Gerd Muller, West Germany
Gerd Muller had two tournaments in 1970 and 1974 to cement his legacy as one of the greatest goal-scorers of all time while representing West Germany. For the first time in World Cup history, fans around the globe were able to view matches in color, making Muller’s tournament record 10 goals all the more thrilling.
A third-place finish in 1970 was followed up by an opportunity for Muller to play in front of his countrymen, as West Germany hosted the 1974 World Cup. Muller seized the opportunity, scoring the only goal of the semifinal match against Poland to advance to the final, then out-dueling the Netherlands’ prolific Johan Cruyff to score two goals in the final and win the championship.
A memorable club career reached an end in 1981, with Muller playing the final three years of professional soccer in the United States with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Life away from the game was not as glorious, as Muller suffered from bouts of alcoholism.
Muller found good friends in his former Bayern Munich teammates who convinced him to seek help. Once rehabilitated, Muller scored a role with Bayern Munich II in 1992, working his way through different roles and responsibilities until earning an assistant manager spot.
Sadly, the year after his retirement in 2014, it was announced that Muller is living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Dino Zoff, Italy
Over four World Cups from 1970-82, Italy rostered goalkeeper Dino Zoff. Though he served as a backup in his first tournament appearance, when Italy finished runner-up to Brazil, he took the reins for the remaining three, the last of which made him an Italian hero.
Zoff concluded his World Cup career in storybook fashion, as he played the tournament of his life at the ripe age of 40. In the semifinal, Zoff shut out Poland to advance to the last stage. Zoff became the oldest goalie to reach a World Cup Final, which he would celebrate by hoisting the trophy in victory after defeating West Germany.
The World Cup leader in minutes played (2,217) retired from his club career the following year, playing his last game with Juventus in 1983. Five years later, Zoff returned to his former team as a goalkeeping coach and saw success in his three stints with the team.
The former goalkeeper saw success coaching the Italian national team from 1998-00, earning World Soccer Manager of the Year before resigning the same year. After retiring from coaching in 2005, Zoff largely stepped away from the limelight before releasing his acclaimed autobiography, Dura Sora un Attimo la Gloria (Glory Only Lasts a Moment), in 2014.
Paolo Maldini, Italy
Italian defenseman Paolo Maldini won just about every award and accolade while playing the entirety of his club career with AC Milan. In his four World Cup appearances from 1990-02, winning the Cup is about the only honor that remained out of reach.
Although Il Capitano never won the ultimate prize, helping Italy to a third-place finish in 1990 and second-place run while captaining the team in 1994 was enough to leave a lasting impression for Italy’s great leader on the pitch.
Maldini’s run with the Italian national team may have ended in 2002, but the legendary defender played on with Milan all the way until 2009, when he finally retired at the remarkable age of 41. Maldini had made clear while still playing that he had no intentions of coaching after and, though it looked like he may have a change of heart when presented an opportunity with Chelsea, stayed true to his word.
Maldini did find another route back to the pitch halfway around the world in the United States. In 2015, it was announced that Maldini and Italian media entrepreneur Riccardo Silva would be the co-owners of Miami FC of the North American Soccer League.
Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany
To understand how dominant and transcendent Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany was in his playing days, simply refer to his nickname, “Der Kaiser.”
Beckenbauer played in three World Cups (1966, 1970, 1974) placing second, third and first, respectively, in each tournament.
The 1970 World Cup may have been Wester Germany’s “worst” finish (not bad saying bronze was as bad as it got), it was one of the most unbelievable and inspiring moments in his Cup career. In the semifinal loss to Italy, Beckenbauer dislocated his shoulder on a foul. Rather than sub out, West Germany’s hard-nosed captain put his arm in a sling and played the remainder of the game.
After Beckenbauer played his last game with Bayern in 1977, he split time between the New York Cosmos and Hamburger SV before retiring from the game in 1983. In 1984, Der Kaiser took over as West Germany’s manager, leading the national team to continued success through 1990.
As West Germany’s manager, Beckenbauer placed runner-up in 1986 and won it all again in 1990. The success didn’t stop when he took over as Bayern’s manager, winning the Bundesliga in 1994 and UEFA Cup in 1996. He continued as Bayern’s president from 1996-09 ebfore stepping down.
Today, Beckenbauer serves as a pundit for Sky Germany and writes columns for Bild.
Right up there in discussion as the greatest footballer in the world is Brazil’s Ronaldo.
The celebrated Brazilian striker struck fear into the eyes of defenders sharing the pitch with the light-footed assassin in his four World Cup appearances from 1994-06.
Ronaldo kicked his first appearance off the right way, winning the 1994 World Cup.
The 1998 Cup resulted in a second-place finish, though it’s hard to argue with Ronaldo’s reasoning that it was a personal victory, as he suffered an epileptic seizure after winning the semis (and really never should’ve been allowed to play the final match).
The Phenomenon followed that up with, go figure, another World Cup championship.
Over time, injuries accrued, and the Brazilian sensation eventually returned to his home country to play for Sao Paolo’s Corinthians until calling it a career in 2011.
Since his retirement, Ronaldo has maintained his position as a goodwill ambassador with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Ronaldo makes occasional appearances on the pitch, playing in charity events with other greats of the game like in the UNDP’s Match Against Poverty. Ronaldo also served as an ambassador in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and was included in the Russia’s opening ceremony for the 2018 World Cup.
Anyone who musters up even a halfway compelling argument against Pele being the greatest World Cup legend has a bright future as a lobbyist.
The Brazilian forward’s mystique is strong as ever, as his three World Cup wins remains unmatched.
The only World Cup in which Brazil fared poorly with Pele playing from 1958-70 came in 1966, when an onslaught of hard fouls forced the unguardable forward to be sidelined in the team’s second game and left helpless in the third game, hobbling around the pitch much of the match, unable to sub off.
Of course, that only ended up adding to his legend when he claimed he wouldn’t return to another World Cup … only to win it the next time around.
Pele spent nearly the entirety of his club career playing in Brazil with Santos FC until 1974 before heading north to play for the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League for three more seasons.
Since retiring from the sport, Pele has utilized his ultra-celebrity status to be the ultimate ambassador of the game, traveling the world on a seemingly constant basis.
The constant demand for all things Pele has made for quite a lucrative second career for the prolific forward. Pele has kept busy releasing multiple autobiographies, been the subject of countless documentaries and has even appeared in a hodgepodge of films and television series.
Diego Maradona, Argentina
Standing at just 5-foot-5, when out on the pitch, Diego Maradona of Argentina has the swagger of a giant.
Part of the Argentinian national team for four World Cups from 1982-94, his third time around resulted in a second-place finish, but it was his second go at it in Mexico that will never be forgotten.
It’s reasonable to say that defeating West Germany to win the 1986 World Cup was his crowning achievement, but it was the quarterfinal against England when Maradona transcended the game.
Maradona hung up his cleats in 1997, but had already garnered some experience managing a pair of Argentine clubs in the final years of his playing days. The fan-favorite returned to his managerial role in 2008, this time to coach his national team until he was let go in 2010.
Dating back to his playing days in the 1980s, Maradona struggled with a cocaine addiction and drinking problem up through the 2000s.
After two stints managing two United States Emirates teams – Al Wasl FC (2011-12) and Fujairah SC (2017-18) – Maradona signed a three-year contract as Chairman of the Club of Belarusian club Dynamo Brest.