Players can become a World Cup cult hero in a variety of ways.
For some, it is being involved in bizarre on-pitch action. For others, it is starring in a great upset.
Goalkeepers and strikers have hit the best form of their career at opportune moments, while some cult heroes have captured the public’s imagination with eye-catching hairdos or flamboyant personalities.
There are plenty to choose from, so it wasn’t easy narrowing down the top World Cup cult heroes to this list of 10.
1. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Who else? Guillermo Ochoa was without a club ahead of the 2014 World Cup, but that didn’t stop him putting in arguably the greatest goalkeeping performance in World Cup history to shut out Brazil.
Ochoa conceded just one goal in the group stage as Mexico made their way to the round of 16.
Four years later, he kept a clean sheet against Germany in the opening match on Mexico’s route to the knockout rounds once again.
Ochoa was El Tri’s hero in Qatar, too, saving a penalty from Robert Lewandowski in the opening match.
2. Tim Krul (Netherlands)
Only one goalkeeper in World Cup history has been brought on specifically for penalties. That ‘keeper was Tim Krul when the Netherlands faced Costa Rica in 2014.
Fittingly, the manager was the larger-than-life Louis van Gaal, who hooked Jasper Cillessen in the final minute of stoppage time to introduce Krul for the spot kicks.
Fortunately for van Gaal, his unusual approach paid dividends, even if Cillessen wasn’t aware of this plan before the match.
Krul saved two penalties from Los Ticos as the Oranje progressed to the semi-finals. He has earned just eight caps for the Netherlands since 2014.
3. Josimar (Brazil)
Entering the 1986 World Cup without a single cap to his name, Josimar was a backup right-back for Brazil.
Playing for Botafogo, those outside South America weren’t exactly clued up on Josimar, but it didn’t take long for him to become a worldwide star.
Debuting in the second match of the group stage against Northern Ireland, Josimar fired home from 25 yards, which he followed up with a solo effort in the next match.
His reward was a place in the Team of the Tournament and South American Team of the Year.
Despite breaking through in Mexico, Josimar only made 16 total appearances for the Canarinho.
4. Enner Valencia (Ecuador)
Until Moisés Caicedo scored in Ecuador’s loss to Senegal in Qatar, Enner Valencia had scored his country’s last six World Cup goals across two editions of the tournament.
Valencia had underwhelming stints with Everton and West Ham, but he has found his best form at the World Cup.
Ecuador hasn’t made it out of the group on either occasion, yet Valencia was something of a sensation from the wing in 2014, when he scored three goals in his first two matches.
5. Roger Milla (Cameroon)
The World Cup’s oldest goal scorer at 42 years old, Roger Milla set the record for the first time in 1990 before breaking his own record in the USA four years later.
It was at 38 years old that the brilliant Milla lit up the World Cup, scoring four goals as Cameroon made history by reaching the last eight of the tournament.
While a member of the World Cup All-Star Team in 1990 and twice named African Footballer of the Year, many will best remember Milla for his iconic dancing celebrations at the corner flag.
To this day, Milla is Cameroon’s second-leading goal scorer all-time, and only seven players have more caps for the Indomitable Lions.
6. Carlos Valderrama (Colombia)
Carlos Valderrama’s unmistakeable blonde curls were a sure-fire route to cult hero status.
Valderrama was more than a recognisable hair style, though. He was a two-time winner of South American Footballer of the Year and won Copa América MVP in 1987.
El Pibe played the game at his own pace, showcasing supreme technical ability and finding pockets of space to create chances for others.
His brief foray into European club football didn’t work out, but Valderrama will forever be remembered fondly for skippering Colombia at three World Cups.
7. Rüştü Reçber (Turkey)
To this day, Rüştü Reçber holds the appearance record for Turkey.
Reçber was eight years into his international career when he shone at the 2002 World Cup, as Turkey made a surprise run to the semi-final.
Possessing bucket loads of charisma, Reçber’s face paint and long hair were part of his appeal as a cult hero.
His superb reflexes and shot-stopping ability helped Turkey to clean sheets over Japan and Senegal in the knockout rounds, which earned Reçber a place in the Team of the Tournament.
8. Ahn Jung-hwan (South Korea)
Out of form at Perugia, Ahn Jun-hwan was coming off the bench for Guus Hiddink’s South Korea at the start of the 2002 World Cup.
A goal against the USA earned Jung-hwan a place in the starting XI, and against Italy in the round of 16, he became a true World Cup legend.
South Korea were 1-0 down to the Azzurri with Jung-hwan having had a penalty saved by Gianluigi Buffon. The Italians tried to cling on rather than kill the game, though, and a late strike from Seol Ki-Hyeon sent the match to extra time.
With only a couple of minutes left before penalties, Jung-hwan attacked a cross, out-jumping Paolo Maldini, and scored an historic golden goal.
That is only part of his story, however, as a lengthy dispute with Perugia president Luciano Gaucci altered the trajectory of his club career.
Jung-hwan, however, had the last laugh – South Korea made it to the semi-final, and he finished his career with 71 caps.
9. Oleg Salenko (Russia)
Oleg Salenko scored just six goals in his international career, all of which came at the 1994 World Cup.
Included in that tally was five against Cameroon, which remains the World Cup single-match goal-scoring record to this day.
Salenko’s reward for his historic exploits was a share of the Golden Boot with Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov. He remains the only player to win the Golden Boot without making it out the group stage.
Having featured for Dynamo Kyiv from 1989 to 1992, Salenko embarked on a journeyman career, including stops at Rangers, Valencia and İstanbulspor.
10. Slaven Bilić (Croatia)
Croatia were the surprise package of the 1998 World Cup, eventually falling in the semi-final to hosts France.
Slaven Bilić’s campaign is unfortunately remembered for his play acting to get Laurent Blanc sent off (and suspended from the final). But prior to those antics, Bilić had become a favourite of neutrals.
A lover of heavy metal and a technically gifted defender, Bilić has been a cult hero throughout his career as a player and manager.
Ferociously competitive but ultimately a very talented footballer, Bilić has been widely praised for his punditry stints at more recent tournaments.