BERLIN, July 5, 2006 (AFP) – Pele in 1958, Geoff Hurst in 1966, Maradona in 1986, Ronaldo in 2002.
The first three quarters of a century of World Cup action has been marked by the heroics of stars who thrilled and personified a generation.
Pele’s stunning exploits aged 17, when he followed up a hattrick against France with a double in the final over Sweden propelled the man from Tres Coracoes christened Edson Arantes do Nascimento into the history books.
Hurst’s exploits in becoming the only man to net a World Cup final hattrick brought lasting global fame and, as interest in the tournament has gone truly global thanks to modern media technology, so Maradona and Ronaldo are now among the most recognisable faces on the planet.
This year has been rather different.
With the 64-match programme just three games away from being completed, the 18th tournament has been marked by two trends.
The first is the disappearance of a raft of star-studded veterans who have graced the game over the past three editions and who are now leaving the stage.
The 30 somethings are led by genial Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, who having surely pushed former Real Madrid teammate Raul towards the World Cup retirement door can Wednesday do the same to another ageing former Real colleague, Luis Figo of Portugal.
As Zidane and Figo bring down the curtain on their international careers they will go the same way of England’s David Beckham, who as well as finishing off his World Cup career in the exit to Portugal may even have played his last game in England white.
Roberto Carlos and Juninho have already said "adeus" – goodbye – to Brazil, and Ronaldo will be too old to make the squad for a fifth time in 2010, as will veteran defender Cafu.
As the old guard fade away, so the young guns to whom the future must belong have been called on to show their mettle.
But not many have risen to the challenge most notably Brazil’s ball-juggler Ronaldinho who failed miserably to live up to all the expectations.
For more than a few, the 2006 event ended in ignominy – not least for England star Wayne Rooney, the 20-year-old who, having battled back miraculously from a broken metatarsal to play in the tournament ended it with a red card for stamping on Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho’s groin.
Compatriots Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard tried but failed to assume Beckham’s authoritative (if not effective) mantle and Lampard’s disappointing campaign ended with a penalty miss against the Portuguese led by 2002 nemesis Luiz Felipe Scolari.
In the words of England’s 1966 terrier Alan Ball, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s big-name players "fell short."
Of the budding youthful brigade, Germany have been able to showcase striking prospect Lukas Podolski, the 21-year-old who will get to strut his stuff with Bayern Munich next season after benefiting from his partnership with the more experienced Miroslav Klose.
Defender Philipp Lahm has also impressed – though primarily for his stunning opening goal of the event.
For Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo is the most talented of the post "golden generation" which has enjoyed the twilight of the Figo years – but his mark on the tournament will largely revolve around his intervention in the Rooney sending off – and the satisfied wink to the bench which followed.
The likes of Robinho and Kaka only shone fleetingly for a disappointing Brazil side – they could hardly hope to match Pele’s grand entrance – but at least France have found a potential heir to Zidane in 23-year-old Franck Ribery.
It will not have escaped Pele’s notice that in a year where he reached 65, the age equated in most industrialised societies with drawing a pension, one of the teenagers who might have taken the tournament by storm started and ended it on the bench while another spent the duration invisibly sidelined.
It therefore will fall to a 23-year-old Lionel Messi of Argentina and a 21-year-old England hope named Theo Walcott to blossom on South African fields in 2010 as a new generation belatedly takes shape.