Outrageously, there was no award for bulging the onion bag until the 1982 tournament in Spain. That means no prize for the likes of Eusebio, Gerd Muller or Mario Kempes. The 13-goal mega effort of Frenchman Just Fontaine at Sweden 1958 also wasn’t deemed worthy of anything more than a firm handshake and possibly a flat-pack bedside table.
A Brazilian bloke called Pele came second in the charts that year, joining an illustrious catalogue of runners-up including Diego Maradona, Johan Neeskens and his countryman Jairzinho – who also went on to endure a somewhat less glorious reign as coach of Gabon.
Official recognition was introduced in 1982 and we’ve seen a catalogue of redemption, national pride and outright class among the winners. Here’s the hall of fame for the fleet of foot:
Brazil 2014 – James Rodriguez
No sooner had the clutch of English-speaking commentators finished arguing over whether it was pronounced James or ‘Hamez’, the Colombian wonderkid set to work.
Six goals was enough to seal the gong, with James managing the feat despite his side falling to hosts Brazil at the quarter-final stage.
He scored both in the 2-0 last 16 success over South American rivals Uruguay, with his opening volley one of the goals of the tournament. A megabucks move from Monaco to Real Madrid followed in time for the new domestic season.
South Africa 2010 – Thomas Müller
Technically tied on five goals with twin Soccer City finalists David Villa (Spain) and Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands), the German won by virtue of having also contributed three assists to the cause.
This was all the more impressive given that the Bayern Munich stalwart was banned for Germany’s semi-final exit to Spain after picking up his second yellow card of the competition in the quarters.
He finished as the second top scorer in 2014 as Die Mannschaft lifted the trophy and is a key cog in the Germans’ title defence this time around.
Germany 2006 – Miroslav Klose
Nothing if not unnervingly reliable, the Germans. Miroslav Klose came on top of the bunch in his own back yard 12 years ago, albeit in a backyard where no one else managed more than three.
His five goals came from a combined total of about five metres out, such that it matters for the man who was always more prolific in international football.
Klose bowed out in style after his side won the final eight years later, becoming the World Cup’s all-time top scorer en route after appearing in four editions.
Japan/South Korea 2002 – Ronaldo
Remember that fat bloke who stood around at this year’s opening ceremony, pretending to like Robbie Williams? Well, he used to kick a ball about, too.
The Brazilian hotshot hauled himself up off the treatment table after spending much of the previous three years injured in time for the trip to Asia. Better than that, he racked up eight goals on the way to Brazil winning the tournament for a record fifth time.
A dream switch from Inter Milan to Real Madrid and a third FIFA World Player of The Year award followed. It was the perfect way to forget the farce of the ‘98 final when he played, lamentably, hours after suffering a seizure as Brazil were minced by hosts France in Paris.
France 1998 – Davor Suker
The go-to guy as Croatia enjoyed a dream World Cup debut as an independent nation. The highlight of Suker’s six tournament goals was his classy solo effort to help see off Germany in the quarter-finals.
Heartbreak followed in the last four, but Suker was on hand against the Netherlands as Croatia won the play-off for third place.
Suker was one of a few players to have represented more than one country, after playing twice for war-torn Yugoslavia before Croatia was officially recognised by the FIFA bigwigs.
USA 1994 – Oleg Salenko and Hristo Stoichkov
Diana Ross may have duffed her tournament-opening shot wide in the States, but our Russian and Bulgarian joint-winners had no such problems.
Would you believe Salenko scored all of his six goals in the group stage? And he needed to because Russia fell at the first hurdle. Not only that, they were the only international goals he ever scored.
Far more prolific in the long term was then-Barcelona hothead Stoichkov, who was also judged the third best player in the competition behind Romario and Roberto Baggio.
Italy 1990 – Salvatore Schillaci
A dream purple patch in his home World Cup for the Palermo-born striker, who only received his first call up a couple of months before the competition and even had to start on the bench for the first two group games.
He only managed one further goal for his country but did compile a shedload as he saw out his playing days with Jubilo Iwata in Japan’s burgeoning J-League.
An honourable mention, too, for African legend Roger Milla, whose four goals earned him a bronze shoe. What he had to put on his other foot is anyone’s guess, but he did help Cameroon become the first side from the continent to reach the quarter-final stage.
Mexico 1986 – Gary Lineker
Crisp finishing was the order of the day for the English goal-hanger-turned-snack-salesman in Central America. Lineker managed a quickfire hat-trick against Poland and a brace against Paraguay in the second round.
He notched six times in all, although his final effort in England’s quarter-final defeat to Argentina was rather overshadowed by a certain Diego Maradona.
Spain 1982 – Paolo Rossi
Football is a simple beast. How do you overcome the ignominy of a ban following a betting scandal? Just score loads of goals – always does the trick.
Italian Rossi did just that with six of the best to help propel his nation to a third global title in Spain. It didn’t come easily throughout a torrid group stage, but a quarter-final hat-trick against mighty Brazil, two more in the semis over Poland and another in the final to repel West Germany did just nicely for the inaugural winner. DM
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope