Top World Cup Upsets Ever Witnessed
It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve endured the four-year wait for the FIFA World Cup to arrive, it always ends up feeling like four lifetimes. By no means has the wait for the 2018 World Cup in Russia been any different, but alas, it has finally arrived!
As 32 countries from around the world come together to assert their dominance and leave Russia with the World Cup trophy in hand, soccer fans from all over tune in (whether their team is in or not) to watch some of the most thrilling competition in sport.
Inevitably, no matter how dominant one country’s team may be, a match comes on that defies logic. There always seems to be at least one team we can’t believe even made tournament that somehow strings together a performance against a heavyweight team to beat impossible odds for an unforgettable upset.
Early in the 2018 tournament, we have already witnessed a David and Goliath classic, with Mexico upsetting defending champion Germany. Let’s look back on some of the other more-improbable upsets in World Cup history.
11. Mexico vs. Germany (2018)
Group F looked to be one of, if not the most, lopsided group of all in Russia 2018, with Germany, ranked No. 1, looking like it would have a field day sweeping through Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
Expectations of a yawnfest came to a screeching halt almost immediately, as No. 15 Mexico stepped onto the pitch to face the 2018 titans in their first game of group play.
Not only did Germany hold the top rank heading into the World Cup, they were the reigning champs, having defeated Argentina for the 2014 title.
As German fans and the rest of the world anticipated group play to be little more than proceeding through necessary formalities to advance to the knockout stage, Mexico prepared for a different storyline.
Mexico came out breathing fire from the first touch. In the first minute, Mexico pushed the attack, setting up left winger Hirving Lozano with a dangerous strike that was narrowly deflected.
Although the shot missed its target, Mexico had set the tone, and they followed up with a couple more shots on goal to keep Germany on the defensive.
Then, after Germany made a push of their own in the 35th minute, Mexico quickly turned the tables with a lightning fast counterattack that didn’t allow any time for defensive positioning.
A few quick touches led the ball up to Mexico’s striker, Chicharito, who saw an open Lozano breaking for the goal with only one man to beat.
Lozano stopped on a dime to throw off his first man and ripped his shot off before a seconder defender could reach for help.
Halfway around the world, Mexico erupted in celebration after the goal. Cheers boomed so loudly that, in Mexico City, the Institute of Geological and Atmospheric Research in Mexico actually detected an artificial earthquake believed to be caused by fans jumping!
Germany would not go away, getting off 26 shots to try and even the score, but none could sneak across the goal line. These 26 shots proved to be a World Cup record for most shots on goal without scoring, leaving Mexico the victors in a stunning 1-0 upset over the reigning World Cup champs.
10. USA vs. Colombia (1994)
This upset is a doozy in a number of wild ways.
Flashback to 1994 when the No. 23-ranked United States hosted the tournament. Group A was no easy assignment and, after a 1-1 tie against Switzerland in their opener, the U.S. was already backed in a corner, in danger of not passing the group stage.
Next up was international powerhouse Colombia, which looked to pose a major threat to the home team’s hopes of advancing.
But of course, one must never underestimate the power of home-field advantage, as the U.S. had the added bonus of playing in front of a rowdy California crowd at the famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Team USA – dressed to the nines in fantastically patriotic unis – played well through much of the first half, keeping pace with Colombia when the soccer gods simultaneously revealed how caring and cruel they can be should they please.
America pushed the ball and, a few yards outside of Colombia’s 18-yard line, went to cross the ball. What looked to be as simple as a soft-footed cross that wouldn’t reach the striker turned into a freak play, as Colombian defender Andres Escobar successfully dove and got a foot on the ball.
Unfortunately for the center back, he landed a perfect strike, sending the ball in the opposite direction of the goalie, resulting in an own goal.
Early in the second half, the States continued their momentum and stayed hot on the attack, leading to a second goal. With the crowd going wild, the (seemingly) underdog Americans had a huge advantage, as Colombia was forced to play out of their comfort zone, taking risks that didn’t lead to a goal until the 90th minute.
The final whistle blew, and the crowd erupted at their stunning upset.
Of course, Colombia very well have had less of an advantage than the roster’s talent would suggest. The drug and cartel crisis with Pablo Escobar (unrelated) was at its peak. As the story has gone, the team was reportedly under extreme duress and pressure from various parties back home.
There was no better evidence of this than Escobar’s murder back in Medellin, Colombia merely five days after his team was eliminated.
9. Netherlands vs. Spain (2014)
The 2010 World Cup was a smashing success for Spain. Then ranked No. 2, their defense was an impenetrable wall that pushed the team through the elimination rounds without letting up a single goal!
Remarkably, Spain only got better heading into 2014 and was given the prestigious No. 1 ranking to show for it.
Looking to make some noise of their own, the No. 15-ranked Netherlands knew they would have to set the tone early facing Spain in their first match if they hoped to move past the first stage.
With their easiest opponent, Australia, looking like a sure thing, their third match was still expected to be a tight one against No. 14 Chile to close out the first stage.
Up against the best in the world or not, the Netherlands was prepared to show they could take on anyone.
Both teams butted heads from the start, narrowly missing opportunities and trading blows that set the stage for a compelling match. That is, until Stefan De Vrij made a costly mistake inside his own penalty box, over-committing to a tackle on Spain’s Diego Costa and hooking his foot for a blatantly-obvious trip.
Xavi Alonso stepped in for the penalty kick and buried it in the corner.
It took 27 minutes to put Spain up, which was longer than most of the world expected. With the final minutes waning, it looked like Spain was about to pad their lead when a point-blank chip shot turned into a horribly blown attempt.
The Netherlands wasted no time capitalizing and, just one minute later, a flawless lob up the middle set up the captain, Robin van Persie, for what was one of the most gorgeous flying headers in the history of the game.
That gave the Netherlands a fresh start to close the half knotted at 1-1.
What happened next was an onslaught of epic proportions. Roughly every 10 minutes, the Netherlands fired off one spectacular goal after another, leaving Spain (on and off-field) at a complete loss as to how this could be happening to them.
By the matches end, the Netherlands walked away with a stunning 5-1 upset.
There’s little doubt that this explosive start was the catalyst to Netherlands’ third-place finish.
On the other end, however, the atrocious start undoubtedly hung over Spain’s head through the remainder of the group stage, as they suffered another loss to Chile, effectively ending their run in the first round.
Consider it karmic retribution for the Netherlands’ heart-wrenching loss to Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final.
8. South Korea vs. Italy (2002)
The 2002 FIFA World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan makes this underdog story all the better.
Expectations for South Korea were essentially non-existent. Second only to Senegal, their No. 40 rank put them right at the bottom of the totem pole that seemingly assured it not making it past the group stage.
By the end of Game 3, after they had already exceeded expectations with a win over Poland and impressive tie against the U.S., the world was left scratching its collective head, as was No. 5 Portugal, trying to figure out how this soccer superpower was just eliminated against what was supposed to be the easiest win of group play.
Next up, a fearsome Italian squad.
Korean fans came out in droves to support their home heroes, hoping for another stunning upset (which we’ll dive into next).
What proceeded to be a bizarre game in many ways wasted no time diving down that direction when, in just the fifth minute of play, a questionable call set up South Korea with a penalty kick, though the Italy’s keeper deflected the shot in spectacular fashion.
An inability to capitalize on the opportunity shifted the momentum and, 15 minutes later, Italy buried a goal. Like the flip of a switch, the entire tone of the game turned around. The intensity was cranked up, and tensions only grew in the second half.
After three yellow cards were dished out during the first half, the physicality was ramped up to the nth degree. The aggression was excessive and undeniable; it also eventually forced Korea’s Kim Nam-il off the field after sustaining an injury.
With opportunities dwindling, it looked like a second-round exit was in the cards until a fantastic chip up the middle set up Seol Ki-hyeon for a flawless game-tying goal in the 88th minute. Free soccer!
The game went into extra time. Chippy play ensued and, as the first half of overtime was drawing to a close, attacking midfielder Francesco Tott – one of Italy’s most celebrated footballers – received his second yellow for “diving.”
Even with Italy down a man, they found an opening for a wide-open goal called back for offsides.
South Korea finally got its opportunity with two minutes left to play, finding the back of the net on a header to put the host country on to the next leg of its Cinderella run to the semi-finals.
7. North Korea vs. Italy (1966)
Oof… If it seemed like Italy got a raw deal out of the 2002, it only gets worse realizing that this is not the first time they suffered a loss to Korea in brutal fashion.
The first time around though, Italy’s tough loss came at the hands of North Korea.
Turn back the clocks to 1966 when England hosted (and won) the World Cup.
Only 16 teams made the tournament at this time, which makes it all the more impressive that this was North Korea’s first ever appearance in the quadrennial event – a feat it wouldn’t accomplish again until 2010.
This first showing was also on behalf of the entirety of Asia, putting even more eyes on this virtually unknown squad.
After a rough first outing, losing 3-0 to the Soviet Union, North Korea rebounded with a 1-1 tie against Chile. Italy wasn’t far behind point-wise with one stripe in the win and loss columns. That mean their showdown would determine who moved on to the knockout stage, as the Soviets had already locked up the other spot.
In a horrible stroke of luck for the heavily favored Italian squad, the team captain, Giacomo Bulgarelli, suffered a serious knee injury that forced him out of the match while still scoreless in the first half.
It was the ultimate trifecta: Bulgarelli was Italy’s captain, their central midfielder and was irreplaceable.
No, seriously. Italy literally was not allowed to replace their captain since the rules at the time would not allow a substitution, so they had to play a man down for the remainder of the match .
The one-man advantage proved to be the difference maker (sound familiar?). With a few minutes left in the first half, North Korea got an open look on goal and executed. The entirety of the second half was a defensive showdown with neither gaining a leg on each other.
That was perfectly fine with North Korea, at least when the final whistle blew, cementing their 1-0 victory and advancing them to the knockout stage.
North Korea’s victory was historic on a few levels. Historic as the success was for their team and continent, they were also pioneers on a grander scale, becoming the first country outside of Europe or North and South America to survive group play and move on to the knockout stage.
6. Bulgaria vs. Germany (1994)
The United States played host to not one, but two unforgettable upsets during the 1994 World Cup. The showdown took place between No. 29-ranked Bulgaria and (recently reunited) No. 1 Germany.
Before facing Germany, Bulgaria first had to survive the group stage.
Surviving the first round can be tough for even the most talented teams, but the world considered Bulgaria to be as good as gone.
It wasn’t just their low world ranking that had spectators doubting this underdog squad, Bulgaria had some rough history on its side. In their previous five appearances, Bulgaria had not one a single World Cup game… let alone even make the previous tournament in ’90.
Somehow, they ended up going 2-1 in group stage followed by a 1-1 win in penalty kicks in the Round of 16.
That set them up for one of the most unexpected, lopsided looking quarterfinals in recent memory.
Bulgaria remained undeterred.
After a scoreless first half, Bulgaria had stunned the world, shutting the reigning champs down for a scoreless half, but that would change very soon.
In the 47th minute, Germany caught a stroke of luck with a penalty in the box. Just like that, Bulgaria found itself in a 1-0 hole.
Even still, the small nation kept hammering away, fighting tooth and nail and never letting up for a second until finally finding a crack in Germany’s armor to even the score with a stunning direct free kick in the 75th minute by star lefty striker Hristo Stoichkov.
The game was all knotted up and, in an instant, the impenetrable German line no longer seemed so invincible.
Bulgaria smelled blood in the water and immediately went on the offensive. They controlled the ball soon after and worked their way up Germany’s flank, finding an open cross minutes after scoring.
An expertly placed ball found Yordan Letchkov, who cut loose from his man on the left toward the penalty marker where he connected for a perfect header.
Letchkov’s header was a thing of beauty, finding the upper 90 for an impossible-to-stop goal in the 78th minute that would prove to be the game-winner.
A small country that had never won a single game in its previous five appearances suddenly found itself advancing to a semifinal appearance. If that isn’t the script for a Disney feel-good film, nothing is.
5. USA vs. England (1950)
At the 1950 FIFA World Cup, England was the only team making its debut at the esteemed tournament. Though it may have been England’s first Cup appearance, they were the top-ranked team competing with a No. 2 rank.
Way off on the other end of the spectrum was the United States, which held a lowly No. 40 world rank that was second only to Bolivia (63) on the underdog scale.
It wouldn’t be until 1990 that the U.S. would once again make an appearance at the World Cup competition.
Other oddities included Scottish footballer Ed McIlvenny, who was awarded captaincy for the game “because he was British,” and there was also the fact that he and two other players were not actually U.S. citizens at the time having only “declared their intentions of becoming United States citizens.” (Only two of the three players would actually end up doing so.)
Late in the first half, the States saw their opportunity when the ball came to Joe Gaetjens via a deep shot outside the penalty box.
Well, the Haitian-born (Gaetjens was another of the three US “citizens”) forward was the one who came to the ball, running in for a diving header that he got just enough on it to catch the goalie going the wrong way.
Gaetjens was truly as fitting a player as any to deliver the decisive goal in the 38th minute, having been the American Soccer League’s leading scorer the same year.
The entire course of the game very well could have changed, as England looked to have a chance for a shot on goal of their own, but time expired and first-half play was blown dead before an attempt was made.
Brazilians reportedly came flooding into the stadium, hopping walls and getting in by any means necessary to root on the underdog Americans.
The second half went scoreless, leaving Gaetjens’ lone goal the final score in a shocking upset – the fact the United States didn’t make another appearance for 40 years says it all – for the ages.
4. Northern Ireland vs. Spain (1982)
Part of what makes the story of Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup appearance so impressive is the fact that the tiny nation was even able to qualify in the first place. At roughly 1.54 million people, Northern Ireland held the title of the smallest nation to participate in a World Cup until Slovenia (2006) and Iceland (2018).
Northern Ireland may have been lacking in size, but the roster boasted more than enough heart to equalize the playing field.
As much heart as the underdogs had heading into the tournament, that didn’t change the fact that they had the unfortunate task of taking on the host team, Spain, in the first round of group play.
The first two games could have been better or worse for Northern Ireland, as they tied in a scoreless match against Yugoslavia followed by a 1-1 draw against Honduras. With Spain and Yugoslavia having both already claimed a victory, Northern Ireland needed a win to avoid heading home.
Spain was heavily favored against the small nation, and the fact that they were the 1982 hosts set the stage for a blowout of epic proportions.
Instead, Northern Ireland unblinkingly stepped up to the heavyweight hosts like it was any other game. It should also be noted that this group of lion-hearted underdogs also included 17-year-old Norman Whiteside, the youngest athlete to ever play in a World Cup.
Neither side could find an opening to score in the first half, but that changed almost immediately in the second minute of the second half when Gerry Armstrong struck gold for what would turn out to be the lone goal of the game.
It wasn’t that simple, though. In the 60th minute, Northern Ireland’s Mal Donaghy was given a red card, forcing his team to close out the final 30 minutes undermanned.
Overwhelming underdogs, a man down and playing against the host country: none of that was enough to keep Northern Ireland from claiming the victory to advance to the second round.
3. Iran vs. USA (1998)
The United States got its fair share of special moments in the spotlight, but this time, it was not for the right reasons.
Group F looked was a doozy at the 1998 FIFA World Cup with No. 2 Germany, No. 8 Yugoslavia and No. 14 USA. Then, there was No. 42 Iran, the second-worst ranked team in the tournament and last to earn a bid.
Both the United States and Iran suffered a loss in their first games against Germany and Yugoslavia respectively, and they did so without scoring a goal.
Looking to rebound, and with little wiggle room for mistakes in such a tough group, their matchup in Game 2 would be imperative if either was to have a shot at moving past the first round.
This was far more than a game to survive the group stage, this was a political chess match between two countries that had been at odds for two decades. Even the simplest of exchanges was far from easy:
“According to FIFA regulations, team B should walk towards team A for the pre-match handshakes, but Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei gave express orders that the Iranian team must not walk towards the Americans.”
When the game proceeded, it was all fair play, and it turned out to be a match for the ages. It was a back-and-forth battle that saw no advantage on either side until, with only five minutes left in the first half, Hamid Estili saw a chip cross popped up to him, which he punched in with a header to the opposite post.
Like the first half, neither side could best the other for much of the second half until the 83rd minute. Iranian midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia broke away into open space, closing the gap with no one around until inside the penalty box where he let a shot fly to put Iran up 2-0.
The U.S. retaliated with a goal by Brian McBride a few minutes later, but there wasn’t enough time to equalize the score. Iran had stepped up to go toe-to-toe with a giant and walked away the victor.
2. Switzerland vs. Spain (2010)
It is hard to say that Spain once again came out on the wrong side of history after this historic upset at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Although this was a rough game for No. 2-ranked Spain, it was also the super squad’s only black mark on a run that would see them raising the World Cup trophy after defeating the Netherlands in the championship.
For No. 24 Switzerland, this was an opportunity to overcome incredible adversity. There was no time to find a rhythm and prepare to take on Spain, as their bout was set on the first day of Group H matchups.
As seems to be the case in so many of unfathomable upsets, the match largely consisted of a defensive stalemate that saw a number of promising chances on goal unrealized.
Spain dominated possession with 63 percent time on ball.
That excess of possession also led to a lopsided number of shots on goal that weighed heavily in Spain’s favor, as they drummed up 24 attempts to Switzerland’s eight.
Ample as the chances may have been, it was only the one of Switzerland’s eight that was needed to find the back of the net.
A massive boot cleared out by the Swiss goalie found its way to center forward Blaise Nkufo, who popped it forward to striker Eren Derdiyok where a breathtaking collision left the ball sitting alone in front of the goal… but just for a moment.
Gelson Fernandes came in to clean up and drove it through in the nick of time before Spain’s goalkeeper could get back to it.
Although Switzerland was unable to survive the group stage, the fantastic goal proved to be the decider in an absolutely thrilling upset in South Africa.
1. Uruguay vs. Brazil (1950)
The 1950 FIFA World Cup was truly one for the ages. After the prior two tournaments were cancelled because of World War II, the teams made sure to make up for lost time in breathtaking fashion with two all-time stunners.
Brazil, the host country, was an unstoppable scoring machine, giving their go fans the show of a lifetime throughout the tournament.
In group play, Brazil never scored fewer than two goals. In the final round – this World Cup featured the equivalent of a second group stage opposed to bracket-style knockout stages – Brazil dismantled Sweden 7-1, then Spain 6-1.
Thanks to this round-robin format and a plethora of goals scored, all Brazil needed in its final game against Uruguay was a tie to secure the Cup.
After so many high-scoring games, a defensive showdown for Uruguay was overdue. By the end of the half, the game was just as it started with a pair of donuts.
Zeroes were quite all right for Brazil but, for Uruguay, a 2-2 tie against Spain to start of the final round put them in a dangerous position with only one half of play to go.
The start of the second half only got worse for Uruguay.
In the 47th minute, Brazilian striker Friaca buried a shot to put the host team up 1-0. The crowd went wild, and the country could smell a World Cup victory in the air.
It wasn’t until the 66th minute that Uruguay was finally able to equalize with a goal of its own, thanks to the nation’s greatest player, Juan Schiaffino.
With no other choice, Uruguay stayed on the offensive and continued to attack. Their aggressive attack came to a head quickly when, in the 79th minute, winger Alcides Ghiggia found the back of the net to gain a 2-1 lead.
The crowd was silenced. Stunned.
When the final whistle blew, word is that such an eerie silence hung over the stadium that the only noise being made was that of the Uruguayan national team celebrating the stunning upset. Everyone in the world had counted Uruguay out… except for Uruguay, the World Cup champions.