FIFA World Cup: 10 best underdog stories
The history of the FIFA World Cup – filled with dazzling displays of footballing talent – has unfolded in spectacular fashion over the years. There have been heartaches and joys, upheavals and surprises, a cauldron of every human emotion thrown in all sorts of combinations, felt by both players and those who witness it.
These are the tall tales, gladiatorial displays of effort, strength and discipline. But there are also Herculean feats from the game’s unheralded practitioners and their gigantic acts of Goliath-slaying.
So to honor the little twists in history, we look back and celebrate the many underdog dates with fate.
1. United States 1-0 England; group 2 championship match; Belo Horizonte, Brazil – 1950
America, the new power on the world stage after World War II, showed little mercy to its British friends when they landed for their first World Cup adventure in 1950. The American team – which included a postman, stripper, dishwasher and hearse driver – shocked England, which had an array of professional stars in its ranks.
Joe Gaetjens – a Haitian dishwasher in New York – scored the only goal of the game.
2. West Germany 3-2 Hungary; Final; Bern, Switzerland – 1954
It was the “miracle of Bern”, when West Germany – still struggling to recover from the social and economic implications of the Nazi regime and World War II – killed the hitherto undefeated Hungarian team , better known as the “Magic Magyars”.
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Trailing by two goals in the first eight minutes of the match, West Germany leveled the score within 10 minutes, before Helmut Rahn found the winner in the 84th minute.
West Germany right inside Maximilian Morlock started his comeback against Hungary with a goal in the 10th minute. Germany became world champions with a 3-2 win. | Photo credit: Getty Images
German historian Joachim Fest, writing eloquently, described the moment as the day of the founding of the German Republic: “It was a kind of liberation for the Germans from everything that weighed on them after the Second World War. July 4, 1954 is in some ways the founding day of the German Republic.
3. North Korea 1-0 Italy; Group 4, last league game; Middlesbrough, England – 1966
The tiny North Koreans warmed the hearts of their England hosts when a strike – three minutes from half-time – from Army Corporal Park Do-Ik handed the Asian nation an unlikely victory over Italy of race.
The Chollima (a mythical winged horse that cannot be ridden by a mortal, a symbol of the nation’s revolutionary zeal), in their quarter-final against Portugal, took a 3-0 lead in the 25th minute, but a Magical display of the tournament’s top scorer, Eusebio, killed his dream.
4. Northern Ireland 1-0 Spain; Group 5, last league match; Valencia, Spain – 1982
“At the final whistle, we didn’t celebrate at first. We just stared at each other for about 10 seconds in amazement,” recalled Northern Ireland midfielder Tommy Cassidy.
The country, the smallest to ever qualify for the World Cup, has shocked the Mestalla host. After a scoreless first half, Gerry Armstrong, hidden in the box, took advantage of a goalkeeper yell from Luis Arcanda, striking hard and low past two defenders and the keeper.
5. Cameroon 1-0 Argentina; Group B, first league game; Milan, Italy – 1990
During the “Miracle of Milan”, Argentina, defending champion, was at the reception of a Cameroonian team difficult to tackle in the first match of the competition. “I got kicked by a guy against Cameroon that almost ripped my head off,” Diego Maradona, Argentina’s inspirational captain, said later.
The maestro was marked from close range as a 10-man Cameroon found extra reserves in his indomitable spirit to score the all-important goal through Francois Omam-Biyik in the 67th minute.
6. Bulgaria 2-1 Germany; Quarter-finals; New Jersey, USA – 1994
Germany, playing as a unified state for the first time since World War II, were ambushed by a gritty Bulgaria, who had the dubious distinction of zero wins in their previous six appearances.
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Midfielder Yordan Letchkov, then plying his trade in Germany, scored the winner with a bold header after Hristo Stoichkov restored parity for Bulgaria in the 75th minute.
7. Croatia 3-0 Germany; Quarter-finals; Lyons, France – 1998
No one would have given Croatia, which had just become a sovereign member of the European Council after a half-decade war, a chance in the 1998 edition of the quadrennial showpiece, but that was just a matter of long before she pulls the rabbit out of the hat.
After defeating Greece to qualify for the World Cup, they beat Japan, Jamaica and Romania before facing Germany in the quarter-finals.
Croatian striker Davor Suker scored the last goal of the game against Germany in the 1998 World Cup final in France. (File photo) | Photo credit: Getty Images
Real Madrid’s Davor Suker and AC Milan’s Zvonimir Boban caught the Germans off guard after defender Christian Worns was sent off in the 40th minute. Robert Jarni scored only five minutes later to put Croatia ahead. Later, Goran Vlaovic extended the lead with another goal in the 80th minute, while Suker drove the final nail in the 85th.
Croatia eventually won the match for third place against the Netherlands, beating the team 2–1.
8. Senegal 1-0 France; Group A, first league match; Seoul, South Korea – 2002
Coach Bruno Metsu, enjoying a long association with the French game as a player and coach, played a 4-1-3-2 system, using his team’s pace and physique to intimidate the defense aging of France, led by Marcel Desailly and Franck Lebœuf. The imposing Papa Bouba Diop scored the first goal of the tournament on the half hour mark, from a cross from his RC Lens teammate El Hadji Diouf.
9. Netherlands 5-1 Spain; Group B, first league match; Bahia, Brazil – 2014
Spain, playing their unique brand of possession play, had deservedly dominated football talk after their nimble-footed ball players won the 2008 European Championship. The nation continued its dominance of world football, winning his first world title in South Africa (2010), before adding another European crown in 2012.
The reigning World and European champion entered the 2014 World Cup as an early favourite, but a pedestrian display in their opening game saw La Furia Roja lose 5-1 to the Netherlands. Bas, then ranked No. 15 in the world.
Spain took the lead in the 27th minute, but paired strikes from Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben helped the Dutch get revenge on their opponents, who beat them in the 2010 final. The annus horribilis of Spain continued as the team lost 2-0 to Chile, ending their campaign prematurely.
10. Russia 1-1 Spain (4-3 on penalties); round of 16; Moscow, Russia – 2018
Sergei Ignashevich’s 12th-minute own goal gave Spain the lead and that was pretty much supposed to set the agenda. However, a Gerard Pique handball into the box saw the host win a penalty, which Artem Dzyuba managed to convert in the 41st minute.
The stalemate, however, could not be broken in regulation time and the game turned into a penalty shootout. In what was a major upset, Russian Igor Akinfeev made two quality saves to prevent Koke and Iago Aspas even as all of the Russians headed home.
Igor Akinfeev of Russia saves Iago Aspas of Spain’s fifth penalty in the penalty shootout during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match. | Photo credit: Getty Images
Russia’s remarkable run ended in a heartbreaking quarter-final defeat as Croatian Ivan Rakitic scored the decisive penalty in a shoot-out.