Top 10 Greatest Upsets in FIFA World Cup History
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Jordy McKen
These upsets shocked the soccer world! For this list, we'll be looking at the crazy times the underdogs got the upper hand in the illustrious tournament. Our countdown includes Senegal vs. France, North Korea vs. Italy, USA vs. England, and more!
Top 10 Greatest Upsets in FIFA World Cup History
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Greatest Upsets in FIFA World Cup History.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the shocking times the underdogs got the upper hand in the illustrious tournament. We’ll only be exploring matches for the main event, not the upsets during qualification.
Which underdog nation do you support on top of your own country? Let us know below!
#10: Algeria vs. West Germany
Algeria was thrown in at the deep end at the 1982 World Cup when they were put in a group with Austria, Chile, and West Germany. Well, Algeria took on the latter in the group’s opening match. And amazingly, the then-two-time World Cup winners were beaten by the African nation two-one. Then, after losing to Austria, Algeria beat Chile and looked to progress to the knockout round. Instead, West Germany and Austria took part in the scandal known as the “Disgrace of Gijón.” If West Germany won by at most two goals, alongside Austria they would qualify instead of Algeria. Once West Germany scored one, both teams sat back and waited for the final whistle, screwing The Greens in the process.
#9: Northern Ireland vs. Spain
Since Spain was hosting the 1982 tournament, all eyes were on them to power through Group 5. After drawing against the debuting Honduras and getting a narrow win against Yugoslavia, La Roja had their final game against Northern Ireland. Spain was expected to win that match easily. Instead, they fell behind in the 47th minute to a Gerry Armstrong goal. The game turned in Spain’s favor when Mal Donaghy was shown a straight red for shoving Real Madrid’s José Antonio Camacho. Even with the advantage of an extra player, Spain couldn’t find a way through. As a result, Spain scraped through qualification on goal difference, while Northern Ireland finished top!
#8: Senegal vs. France
Going into the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Senegal, who were making their tournament debut, was placed 42nd in FIFA’s rankings. Well, they got the warm welcome of being put in the same group as France, the reigning world champions who were ranked first, and had to face them in the tournament’s opening match. Yikes. Yet Senegal rose to the occasion and then some. In the 30th minute, the late-great Papa Bouba Diop slid in to meet El Hadji Diouf’s cross, scoring the only goal of the game. But the fun wasn’t over. Senegal managed to qualify from the group stage with Denmark, while France shockingly finished bottom.
#7: East Germany vs. West Germany
After World War Two, Germany was split into three entities, West Germany, East Germany, and, until 1956, Saarland. Because of the political tensions, East and West didn’t face each other in a football match just in case things ever got a bit heated. Well, for the 1974 tournament, the two were somehow put in the same group. The world watched in anticipation for the group’s final game, expecting West Germany to run riot on its eastern neighbors. Instead, a singular goal by midfielder Jürgen Sparwasser got the win for East Germany. As a result, they finished at the top of Group 1, ahead of West Germany. But the West got the last laugh as they went on to win the World Cup.
#6: North Korea vs. Italy
When North Korea arrived in England for the 1966 World Cup, no one really gave them much of a chance…except Middlesbrough, who became the unofficial fan club for the squad. Drawn into a group with the Soviet Union, Chile, and Italy, it looked like it would be a quick exit for the Asian nation. In their final game against Italy, North Korea needed a win to progress to the quarter-finals. However, the stars aligned. With the score nil-nil, Italy’s captain Giacomo Bulgarelli had to go off due to injury, leaving his side down to ten. Seeing their chance, Pak Doo-ik finished the only goal of the game, getting his nation through the group and knocking off Italy.
#5: Cameroon vs. Argentina
For the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Cameroon made their second outing in the illustrious tournament. The Indomitable Lions faced the reigning world champions, Argentina, in the group’s first game. And if things couldn’t get any more difficult in the game, one of the team’s core players, André Kana-Biyik, was shown a red card. Minutes later however, François Omam-Biyik opened the scoring against Argentina. To make things even more tense, late in the game, Benjamin Massing booted Claudio Caniggia so hard that his boot came off, earning himself a second yellow and reducing Cameroon to nine players. Yet somehow, they held on and went on to top their group.
#4: Bulgaria vs. Germany
Coming into the 1994 tournament, Germany was the highest-ranked team in the world. With a German squad littered with talent with Jürgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler, and Lothar Matthäus, it looked like it would be an easy win for them against Bulgaria in the quarter-finals. Not quite. Hristo Stoichkov equalized the score in the 75th minute. Minutes later, Yordan Letchkov secured the famous comeback. While Bulgaria was knocked out by eventual winners Italy in the semi-finals, the team now had a cult following for their heroics. Stoichkov even finished joint-Top Scorer of the tournament with Russia’s Oleg Salenko, and the Bulgarian went on to win the iconic Ballon d'Or in 1994.
#3: West Germany vs. Hungary
Coming into the 1954 World Cup, Hungary was the overwhelming favorite to claim the trophy with their “golden team.” In a span of 4 years, they had gone unbeaten in 31 official matches with talents like Nándor Hidegkuti, Gyula Grosics, and Ferenc Puskás. However, standing in their way was West Germany, who they met in the final. Within eight minutes of the match, Hungary was two-nil ahead thanks to goals by Puskás and Zoltán Czibor. However, Max Morlock pulled one back for West Germany in the 10th minute, followed by Helmut Rahn in the 18th. Hungary assaulted the German goal but couldn’t get through. Then, Rahn scored again in the 84th minute, giving the Germans their first World Cup, and cementing this match into folklore as the “miracle of Bern.”
#2: USA vs. England
With a team of stars like Tom Finney, Billy Wright, and Stanley Matthews, England was one of the hot favorites coming into the 1950 edition of the tournament. So, when they faced a United States team formed of mostly part-timers in a Group 2 fixture, the England team was probably rubbing their hands with glee.They initially dominated but then couldn’t find a way through. It was at around this point that Joe Gaetjens put the US shockingly ahead. With some luck and a lot of passion, they hung on. This startling win came to be known as “the miracle on grass.” While neither side progressed from the group, this famous battle left its mark on US sports history.
#1: Uruguay vs. Brazil
With England out of the 1950 tournament, all eyes were on Brazil to become world champions in their own country. With the winner being determined by a league table, all Brazil had to do was avoid a defeat against Uruguay in the final match. Meanwhile, Uruguay was in a must win situation. With how dominant Brazil had been, FIFA was so confident that 22 winning medals for their squad were apparently made before kick-off, and a celebratory song was composed. But shortly into the second half, Friaça put Brazil in the lead. Against all odds, Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia’s efforts propelled Uruguay to the famous win, and their second World Cup since its inception in 1930, as distraught Brazilian fans watched on.