They weren’t supposed to get out of the group. They certainly weren’t supposed to win the group. Yet somehow Costa Rica topped Group D, beating Uruguay and Italy before going easy on England, then toppled Greece in the Round of 16 and took the Netherlands all the way to penalty kicks in the World Cup quarterfinal.
To celebrate the triumph of Los Ticos, here’s a look at the most surprising knock-out round qualifiers in World Cup history.
A few things to note: none of the pre-World War II World Cups were counted because the only one of the three that included a group stage was the first World Cup, and no one knew what to expect when 13 teams kicked off in the summer of 1930 in Montevideo.
10. East Germany, 1974
In the one and only major tournament that the former East Germany played in, they provided one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Their group wasn’t the best as the two teams who didn’t qualify were a weak Chile team and World Cup debutants Australia, but led by star striker Joachim Streich, East Germany did the unthinkable: they beat the hosts and favorites, West Germany, in the final group game to finish on top of Group 1 and qualify for the second group stage.
East Germany sputtered in the powerful group that included the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina, only earning a single point. This would mark the end of their relevance on the international stage, as West Germany went on to win the tournament, but it remains one of the most shocking advancements in World Cup history.
9. Republic of Ireland, 1994
Coming off a quarterfinal appearance in Italia 1990, the Irish were considered a decent side who defended well and had a few stars such as Roy Keane and Denis Irwin. But no one predicted that they would win their opening game against eventual finalists Italy and advance from a group that also included Mexico and Norway.
In a win mired by one of the worst occurrences of violence during The Troubles, the Irish upset Italy and then drew Norway in the final group game to qualify in second place. Ireland’s run was ended by a superior Netherlands team in the Round of 16, but for a nation of roughly 4 million to qualify from the group that they did will remain one of the greatest achievements in Irish soccer despite the tragedy that overshadowed it.
8. Ghana, 2006
Heading into the 2006 World Cup in Germany, everyone knew that Ghana had high-profile stars such as Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien, not to mention up-and-comers such as Asamoah Gyan and Matthew Amoah, but no one would have predicted that they would finish second in possibly the toughest group of the tournament.
Ghana’s inaugural World Cup didn’t start well for them. A mistake from veteran defender Samuel Kuffour gifted Italy a goal in a 2-0 Italian win. From there, they faced the Czech Republic, an aging, but talented, side who had just throttled the United States 3-0.
Though the Czechs were missing some stars such as Jan Koller, Asamoah Gyan scored just two minutes into the game to give Ghana a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. The Black Stars then became the bane of every American fan’s existence when they opportunistically won 2-1 against the US that put them through with six points before they were beaten by Brazil in the Round of 16.
7. Morocco, 1986
Before anyone took African soccer seriously, Morocco became not only the first African soccer team to advance from a group at a World Cup, but also the first team to top one. And they did it in spectacular fashion by beating Portugal while drawing with England and Poland.
Even though the Lions of Atlas had a good showing at the African Cup of Nations just a few months prior to the tournament, they were a relatively unknown side as just six of their squad plied their trade in Europe—the rest played in the domestic league. Though Morocco were defeated in the Round of 16 by West Germany, they set a legendary precedent as at least one African team has qualified out of the group stages in every single tournament since their groundbreaking run.
6. Northern Ireland, 1958
With a population of just 1.8 million people, Northern Ireland is the second-smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, and yet in their inaugural appearance in 1958, they qualified for the quarterfinals out of a group that included West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina.
Northern Ireland began their tournament with a 1-0 win over win over the Czechs before star striker Peter McParland took over the tournament by scoring in a loss against Argentina, hitting for a brace in a draw against the Germans and finishing another brace off with a 97th minute goal against the Czechs again in a playoff to determine who would advance in second position in the group.
The Irish were smashed in the quarters by Just Fontaine and France and have only been back to the World Cup twice since, but they will always be remembered as one of the surprises of a fantastic tournament in Sweden.
5. Senegal, 2002
Most teams who qualify for their first World Cups are just happy to be there. Going against the defending World Cup and European champions in the opening game, no one would expect a draw, much less a win from an inexperienced side like Senegal.
Thanks to big contributions from future English Premier League players El Hadji Diouf, Papa Bouba Diop and Henri Camara, not only did Senegal upset France in that game, but they drew Denmark and Uruguay as well to advance to a knock-out round matchup against Sweden which they won with a dramatic golden goal from Camara. Senegal’s run was ended by another surprise quarterfinalist, Turkey, who knocked them out with a golden goal of their own. They haven’t been back to the tournament since.
4. Saudi Arabia 1994
Coming into the 1994 World Cup in the United States, only one Asian team (we’ll get to that later) had advanced from the group stages of the tournament. Placed in a group with the Lowlands – the Netherlands and Belgium – the Gulf State was hardly expected to perform well even though they had won two of the last three AFC Asian Cups and finished second in the other.
Undone in their opening game by the Netherlands the Green Falcons got a win against Morocco to set up a qualification scenario in which a win against 2-0 Belgium would assure advancement to the knockout stage. Thanks to one of the most breathtaking individual pieces of skill from midfielder Saeed Al-Owairan, the Saudis did just that. Their World Cup ended against a strong Swedish teams in the heat of Dallas and though they qualified for the next three tournaments, they have yet to win a game since that moment of brilliance from Al-Owarian
3. Costa Rica 1990
Not only had Costa Rica never qualified for the World Cup before 1990, but Central American teams had yet to record a victory in the history of the tournament in three separate tries. Few could have expected Costa Rica then to come out in their opening game and post a victory against the still-somewhat-relevant Scotland and then follow that up in their third game with another victory, this time over Sweden.
It will surprise no one that this squad was led by the eccentric Bora Milutinovi?, who coached Mexico (1986), this team (1990), USA (1994) and Nigeria (1998) to knock-out round appearances in the World Cup in his legendary coaching career. The Tico’s tournament was ended by the last Czechoslovakian side to qualify for the World Cup, in the Round of 16.
2. Cameroon 1990
Sadly, the Costa Rican team was overshadowed by another Cinderella team in 1990: Cameroon. If Morocco in 1986 started the movement for African teams to play well in the World Cup, the Indomitable Lions made that movement mainstream with an inconceivable run to the quarterfinals where they almost knocked out the last legendary English team, before ultimately losing 3-2 in extra time thanks to a Gary Linekar penalty.
Somehow, Cameroon began their tournament by upsetting the defending champions, Argentina 1-0 even though they ended the game with just nine men thanks to two red cards. But what Cameroon are really remembered for began in the next game. Tied 0-0 against Romania, the Africans inserted 38-year-old Roger Milla who promptly scored two goals to ensure that Cameroon would participate in knock-out stage soccer.
Again a substitute in their elimination game against Colombia, Milla came on and scored a second brace to score a 2-1 extra time win over the South Americans before their run was ultimately ended in the quarters.
1. North Korea, 1966
Situated in a group with Soviet allies as well as perennial contenders Italy and 1962 semifinalists Chile, there was no bigger lock than a 3-and-out for the Koreans who were participating in their first ever World Cup. After a loss to the Soviets and a surprising draw with the Chileans, Italy came in to their game against the isolated Asian nation likely just needing a draw to advance.
Not only did Italy not win, but they didn’t draw either, as Pak Doo-ik scored in the 42nd minute, prompting a 1-0 win and a quarterfinals birth for an Asian team for the first time ever, and last time until 1994.
Even more surprising, North Korea came out to a 3-0 lead against Portugal at Goodison Park in Liverpool. This is where the legend of Eusébio was born as the Mozambique-born Portugal striker scored four goals in 34 minutes after the last Korean goal to almost single-handedly defeat the unfancied side from the Far East.
Norh Korea wouldn’t make it back to the World Cup for another 44 years, and when they did, they were easily beaten by Brazil, the Ivory Coast and Portugal again, but this 1966 team remains in soccer folklore as the most shocking team in World Cup history.