The World Cup soccer tournament will finally get underway in Brazil next month. For aficionados of the sport, it represents the holy grail of soccer: a global mecca of “futbol fun” that will rivet their attention for a month. For casual soccer fans, it presents an opportunity to observe different players, styles, and tactics of teams that they don’t normally get to see. For patriotic types, it’s a chance to get swept up in the excitement of cheering their homeland on to victory against the rest of the world. And for cynics, it’s an occasion to watch whether the much-publicized problems plaguing Brazil and the event will have any effect on the tournament itself.
But like all high-profile sporting events, the World Cup also presents the possibility of producing monumental upsets. After all, the World Cup finals format randomly assigns teams into groups for pool play. For instance: in Brazil this year, Australia has to play Spain, Iran takes on Argentina, and Honduras will battle France. So it’s quite common for a soccer upstart to be pitted against one of the historic kings of the sport. And given that soccer is unpredictable enough to where one miscue, fortuitous bounce, or lucky shot can be enough to win a match, the ingredients exist for a stunning upset to occur at least once every tournament.
That’s part of the excitement and allure of soccer. And as a result, there have been numerous upsets that have taken place in the previous 19 World Cup tournaments that have been played around the globe since 1930. Some of them have happened early in group play, while others stunned the world in a World Cup final. But they all were jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, and astonishing to behold.
Here then are the ten most memorable upsets in the history of the World Cup tournament.
10. Iran 2, United States 1 – France 1998
World Cup organizers try to play up the fact that politics takes a back seat to athletics during the tournament. But that story didn’t fly when the U.S. competed against a nation whom it did not have diplomatic relations with in 1998. The Americans were coming off a tough 2-0 loss to Germany in group play and wanted to make a statement against the Iranians. Instead, Iran scored a goal in both the 40th and 83rd minute and held on for a 2-1 win. Even though the U.S. almost doubled the Iranians in shots and had several scoring opportunities, it was Iran’s citizens who celebrated in the streets of Tehran after the nation”s first-ever World Cup finals victory.
9. West Germany 3, Hungary 2 – Switzerland 1954
The U.S. ice hockey team had its “Miracle on Ice” in its 1980 win over the Soviet Union. West Germany notched what was later called the “Miracle of Bern” on the soccer pitch in 1954. It was the final of the World Cup against Hungary, which had routed the West Germans 8-3 in group play. The Hungarians were the alpha male of the soccer world, having been undefeated for six years and averaging over four goals per match in their previous 30 games. And the world thought Hungary had it under control when the match was tied at halftime. But then West Germany’s Helmut Rahn scored the game-winning goal in the 84th minute, and his side held on to win the nation’s first-ever World Cup championship.
8. Costa Rica 1, Scotland 0 – Italy 1990
Scottish soccer fans were chomping at the bit in 1990, hoping to advance out of pool play for the first time in history. In their opening match of the tournament, they were paired against Costa Rica – who was making its first-ever appearance in the World Cup finals -and if they could also beat Sweden (which they later did) they had a legitimate shot at advancing to the elimination round. But Scotland wasn’t counting on Juan Arnado Cayasso, who became a Costa Rican legend by scoring the game’s only goal early in the second half, to give his country the upset. Costa Rica later beat Sweden to advance to the round of 16, and has never made it that far since.
7. South Korea 2, Italy 1 – Japan/South Korea 2002
The host nation always gets a few advantages in World Cup play, the most important of which is an automatic berth in the finals. Even though South Korea won its group, no one gave them much of a chance against world soccer powerhouse Italy in the second round in Daejeon. But Seol Ki-Hyeon scored in the final minute of regulation to tie the match and send it into sudden-death overtime. Then after Italy’s Francesco Totti earned a second yellow card in the 105th minute for diving and was disqualified, Ahn Jung-Hwan scored the golden goal 13 minutes later to propel South Korea into the quarterfinal round and set off a nationwide frenzy.
There was a huge amount of controversy surrounding this game as people everywhere were dumbfounded by the referees and the linesman. Numerous obvious calls went against Italy and some believe there was a conspiracy to ensure South Korea’s passage further into the tournament.
6. Algeria 2, West Germany 1 – Spain 1982
Modern World Cup watchers take the abilities of the African nations for granted, but it wasn’t that long ago that the gap was even larger between them and European sides. Coming into the 1982 World Cup in Spain, no African nation had ever bested a European opponent in tournament play; and certainly no one expected Algeria, who were 1000-1 longshots to win the Cup, to defeat heavy favorite West Germany in pool play. But the Algerians broke the ice with an early second-half goal by Rabah Madjer; and one minute after a West German equalizer, Lakhdar Balloumi scored in the 69th minute to give Algeria the lead and the eventual victory. However, the ’82 tournament is remembered for the suspected collusion between West Germany and Austria, who manipulated the goal differentials in their following matches to prohibit Algeria from advancing to the second round.
5. United States 1, Colombia 0 – United States 1994
Even though the U.S. was hosting the World Cup, they were still heavy underdogs against the highly-skilled Colombian side in the second match of pool play. That’s largely because while all of Colombia’s starters played professional soccer, only four of the Americans did. But in Los Angeles, the Rose Bowl crowd was stunned and elated when Colombia’s Andres Escobar scored an own-goal to give the Americans an early lead. Earnie Stewart added another goal in the second half, and the U.S. went on to upset the Colombians 2-1. Neither side advanced to the second round, and Escobar was later sadly gunned down in the street in his native country.
4. Cameroon 1, Argentina 0 – Italy 1990
In every World Cup tournament, the defending champions are usually one of the favorites to repeat. In 1990, that role was played by Argentina, who still had the legendary Diego Maradona in the midfield. Their opening match was against a lightly-regarded Cameroon squad, who was making just its second-ever tournament appearance. Despite losing a man to a red card early in the second half, Francois Omam-Biyick fired a header toward Argentian keeper Nery Pumpido, who fumbled it into the goal to give the Indomitable Lions the lead. Cameroon had to finish the match with nine men after a second red card, but eked out the win and eventually won the group before becoming the first-ever African side to reach the World Cup quarterfinals.
3. North Korea 1, Italy 0 – England 1966
You know how the nation of North Korea is regarded by the world nowadays? It was pretty much the same a half-century ago. In fact, the United Kingdom almost refused visas to allow the secretive North Koreans into the country. No one gave North Korea much of a chance, especially after they got drubbed by the Soviet Union 3-0 in their initial match. But after a draw with Chile, North Korea had a chance to advance to the second round – if they could just knock off perennial power Italy. And somehow, the Koreans were able to make a late first-half goal by Doo-Ik-Pak hold up as the match winner. North Korea actually became the first South Asian nation to reach the quarterfinals, but then lost to Portugal 5-3 after building a 3-0 lead.
2. Senegal 1, France 0 – Japan/South Korea 2002
This match marked the steepest fall from grace in World Cup history. France stunned the world in 1998 by trouncing Brazil 3-0 to win the 1998 World Cup, and also prevailed in the European Championships two years later. And as heavy favorites to repeat, the French faced lowly Senegal, a former French colony, in their tournament opener. But Papa Bouba Diop scored on a counterattack in the 30th minute, and the Senegalese made it stand up to grab the unthinkable upset win. Senegal went on to advance out of the group; but France failed to score a goal in the next two games and were eliminated; thereby recording the worst-ever performance in World Cup play by a defending champion.
1. United States 1, England 0 – Brazil 1950
The U.S. has qualified for every World Cup final since 1990. But before that, the Americans had last qualified in 1950, when a team literally made up of teachers and mailmen traveled south to face England, who was competing in the World Cup for the first time. The English were 3-1 favorites to win the tournament, while the U.S. was 500-1. Remarkably, a header by Haitian immigrant Joe Gaetjens would be the only goal of the match and lift the Americans to victory. Many British publications thought the score was a misprint, and that the English had won 10-1 over the lowly U.S. So how was the U.S. team received when they arrived home after the tournament? Crickets. Only one American journalist covered the event in Brazil, and he paid for his ticket and accommodations. Hey, it was just soccer after all.