The drama of the World Cup produces some of the greatest shock results not in just soccer, but the entire world of sport. Even better, these upsets happen in front of a global audience, making the glory of the underdog exponentially greater, and the embarrassment of the humbled giant that much more profound. Here are the 10 biggest upsets in World Cup history.
The 2002 World Cup was full of surprises, and it all started with Senegal’s first round defeat of defending champions France, who had also won Euro 2000. Zinedine Zidane missed the match through injury but France still had the talents of Thierry Henry and many more to call on and were overwhelming favorites to beat their West African former colony, making its first ever World Cup appearance.
In the 30th minute, the bleached head of El-Hadji Diouf raced down the left hand side and delivered a low cross which ricocheted around the six yard box, with Papa Bouba Diop proving himself calm enough to score while France lost their heads, and marking it with a memorable celebration in which Diop laid his jersey on the floor and invited his teammates to dance around it. The French looked shell-shocked the rest of the match, did not win a game or score a goal in the tournament, and became the first ever defending champion to exit at the group stage. Senegal, meanwhile, went all the way to the quarterfinals.
The 1982 Algerian team remains one of Africa’s greatest ever sides but going into their first round match against West Germany, few expected they’d have a fighting chance. With goals from Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi, the speedy, athletic and deftly skillful Algerians played their illustrious opposition off the pitch.
It was awfully cruel that this historic 2-1 win would not land them a second round berth. Algeria would lose their next game but win their final match, played a day before West Germany closed out group-play against Austria. Both European sides knew a one-or-two goal win for the West Germans would see them both go through and after West Germany’s Horst Hrubesch scored an early goal, both sides played out the remaining 80 minutes with no intention to attack, let alone score, the game finishing 1-0 and both European sides progressing at the expense of Algeria. The host Spaniards dubbed the debacle the “Disgrace of Gijón” and an embarrassed FIFA would eventually force a rule change for future tournaments ensuring that all final group games would be played simultaneously.
In this highly controversial game, home team South Korea had the entire the nation behind them, but a talented Spanish team — Ike Casillas, Fernando Morientes, Luis Enrique at al — stood in their way. Spain attacked from the start, but Dutch coach Guus Hiddink had Korea well organized, able to withstand the pressure and create several chances of their own. Korea arguably had a little help from the referee, who disallowed two Spanish goals, including one where a clearly in-bounds ball was ruled to have gone out of bounds.
When the match went to extra time and eventually to penalties, the odds were in Korea’s favor, regardless of the referee, because every tied game in the K-League was decided by a penalty shootout, and so Korea’s keeper Lee Woon Jae had already been in seven shootouts that season. Controversy aside, Lee Won Jae saved Joaquin’s kick and the Koreans converted all five to prevail 5-3 on spot kicks and celebrate becoming the first Asian side to reach the World Cup semi-finals.
Germany were defending champions and looked like maybe being the first nation to repeat since Brazil in 1962. Bulgaria were led by Barcelona superstar Hristo Stoichkov and had beaten Mexico to make the quarterfinal. Lothar Matthaeus gave Germany the lead in the second half, but Bulgaria produced a comeback for the ages. Two goals in three minutes an exceptional 75th free kick from Stoichkov and a flying 85th minute header from the famously follicly challenged Yordan Letchkov made Bulgaria 2-1 winners and darlings of the tournament.
It was communism versus capitalism, and in one of the most politically charged matches in World Cup history, it seemed football was the last thing on anyone’s mind, but for those players on the pitch. Coming into this final first round game in Hamburg, the only ever meeting between two halves of what was once, and today is once again, one nation, took place with both teams qualified for the second round but winning the group at stake.
Gerd Müller struck the upright for West Germany with a thunderous shot, but that would be the only real goal-scoring chance for the West Germans. In the 77th minute, just when it looked like both sides would play out to a scoreless draw, East German midfielder Jurgen Sparwasser took down a cross off his chest and beat two defenders before firing high into the net for a goal that would send his side into the next round as group winners. A shock win, but it ultimately benefited the Federal Republic more than the Democratic Republic—“The goal from Sparwasser woke us up,” said captain Franz Beckenbauer years later. “Otherwise we would never had become world champions.”
The Italians still call it “The Miracle of Milan” and it was arguably Africa’s greatest footballing moment. The 1990 Argentina team were the defending champions and possessed the world’s best player in Diego Maradona. Cameroon was a relative unknown on the global football scene with most of its players earning a wage in the French lower divisions.
Cameroon’s game plan from the start was clear: neutralize Maradona. It seemed every time the left-footed magician received the ball, two or three, sometimes four players immediately surrounded him, and two Cameroon players were sent off as a result of the Indomitable Lions physical play. One of those sent off was André Kana-Biyik but all was forgiven six minutes later when his brother, François Omam-Biyik, rose above Argentina’s defense to head the ball down past Nery Pumpido (who made a mess of the save) and give Cameroon an unexpected 1-0 lead, which they somehow held on to, and would go all the way to the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals.
The Germans call it “The Miracle of Bern” and a miracle it was.This game took place just nine years after the end of World War II, and long before West Germany was established as a World Cup powerhouse. The Hungarians entered the tournament with one of the finest teams ever assembled. Led by Ferenc Puskas, the Mighty Magyars tore apart their opposition in the opening round, scoring 17 goals in two games, including an 8-3 victory over this same West German team.
In the second round, they easily beat a strong Brazil team before brushing aside the defending champions Uruguay in the semifinal. Like the Brazilian side four years prior, Hungary believed themselves to be champions before playing out the final. The West Germans entered the match with nothing to lose.
Puskas gave Hungary the lead after just six minutes, with Zsotan Czibor adding a second just two minutes later. Rather than fold, the West Germans quickly responded with two goals of their own in the next ten minutes, making it 2-2 at halftime. Looking a desperate side, the Hungarians came out of halftime determined to break down a disciplined German defense but couldn’t convert on their numerous chances. With only six minutes left, German midfielder Helmut Rahn picked up a loose ball in the area and fired past goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics. Just two minutes from time, Puskas scored the equalizer but it was ruled offside, a controversial call, which haunts World Cup-less Hungary to this day. The West Germans won the match 3-2 and the result was such a surprise that the original match clock sits outside the Stade de Suisse in Wankdorf as a reminder that yes, this really happened. It remains the arguably greatest triumph in German football history, and laid the groundwork for future World Cup success.
The Americans sent an amateur team to Brazil for the 1950 World Cup. They didn’t expect to compete with Europe and South America’s elite, much less win a game. They lost their opening match 3-1 to Spain and met England, at that time recognized as the world’s best team, in the second match. Clearly, an epic blowout was in the cards.
The English began the game in Belo Horizonte with blistering attacks and managed six shots on goal within the first 15 minutes, but could not convert. U.S. goalkeeper Frank Borghi was masterful, brilliantly mustering save after save to keep the Americans in the game. His play inspired his teammates to not just sit back and defend, but try their chances in attack. In the 37th minute, their moment came. Midfielder Walter Bahr took a shot from twenty-five yards out but as English goalkeeper Bert Williams came out to his right to parry it, forward Joe Gaetjens met the ball first with a diving header near the penalty box, which he redirected to Williams’ left. The Americans were up 1-0.
The flustered English side didn’t create any clear chances the rest of the half and the Americans went into the dressing room up 1-0 and beaming with confidence. They came out in the second half and attacked, creating a few chances before the English again took over possession and went for the equalizer. The Americans could barely get out of their own half as they absorbed unrelenting pressure from the high-powered English attack. They held their ground. The match ended and some Brazilian fans rushed the field in disbelief. Gaetjens was hoisted by his teammates, the last image most of the world saw of him as he later disappeared into oblivion, much like U.S. Soccer. The Americans would not qualify for another world cup for 40 years.
The Italians were one of the favorites to win the 1966 World Cup in England. The North Koreans entered the tournament as the first Asian nation ever to qualify for a World Cup, and the English bookies had North Korea at 1000-1 to win the tournament.
When the two met at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park in the final match of the first group stage, the Azzurri needed a draw to progress. However, despite the Azzurri boasting some of the biggest names in in European football — led by stars Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti — the speedy North Koreans won the crowd over by outworking the Italians to every ball.
Three minutes from halftime, Korean forward Pak Doo-ik struck the goal that would grant North Korea passage into the second round. A sloppy Italian clearance was headed back to the area and the striker sent a low shot past goalkeeper Ricky Albertosi. The Koreans held the lead for the remainder of the match, help by Italy losing captain Giacomo Bulgarelli to a knee injury — no substitutes were allowed in the 1966 tournament. The stunned crowd, which had taken a liking to the feisty underdogs, rushed the pitch to celebrate North Korea’s unexpected progress to the next round.
The Italians were eliminated and was famously greeted by angry fans in Genoa who pelted the players with rotten tomatoes. So shocking was the win that the city of Middlesbrough honored the game-winning goal with a bronze sculpture of a football boot marking the exact spot where Pak’s goal secured one of the most unexpected wins in World Cup history.
“El Maracanazo” is undoubtedly the biggest upset in World Cup history. Though often billed as the 1950 World Cup final, Brazil vs Uruguay was actually the deciding game in the the four-team group stage. Brazil had rampaged through the early stages of the tournament and had already crushed Sweden and Spain 7-1 and 6-1 respectively in the final group stage, and so needed only a tie or a win against the speedy, scrappy Uruguayans to be crowned world champions. Nearly 200,000 spectators, the most ever for a World Cup match, packed Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaná stadium for the coronation. Some newspapers printed congratulatory headlines even before the match.
Uruguay had other ideas. La Celeste maintained their defensive posture, resisting attack after attack from Brazil’s powerful offensive line. Finally, in the 47th minute, Brazil took the lead through star forward Friaça. But the goal didn’t unsettle the Uruguayans; rather it emboldened them. They equalized in the 66th minute, before famously taking the lead in the 77th minute when winger Alcides Ghiggia roared down the ride side of the field unmarked before hitting a low strike into the near post past goalkeeper Barbosa. The stadium was absolutely silent. Shocked, Brazil could not muster another goal and eleven minutes later, the Uruguayans rushed the field to claim their second world cup title. In a 2010 ESPN documentary about World Cup legends, Ghiggia said, “The Maracana has been silenced by three people: The Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.”