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When underdogs ruled: Greatest upsets at the FIFA World Cup

A look at some of the most prominent upsets in the history of the FIFA World Cup

football Updated: May 19, 2018 12:06 IST
Rajesh Pansare
Rajesh Pansare
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
FIFA World Cup,2018 FIFA World Cup,the maracana blow
South Korea stunned stronger opponents, albeit some of them in controversial circumstances, as they reached the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. (Getty Images)

We wait for the knockouts or ‘Group of Death’ matches because that’s when the FIFA World Cup’s charm peaks. But then there are also matches we never thought about ticking in the schedule before the World Cup started, ones remembered for the Davids and not the Goliaths. Here’s looking at some of the most prominent upsets in the history of the quadrennial event.


Result: Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in last match of final round

Edition: 1950, Brazil

Alcides Ghiggia scored the winner for Uruguay in their 2-1 win over Brazil which handed them the 1950 FIFA World Cup title. (Getty Images)

The format saw the winners of four groups qualify for the final stage and the team topping the group would be declared the winners. Brazil had already humiliated Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 and going into the decider against Uruguay they were overwhelming favourites. So sure were the local newspapers of a victory that their early editions declared the Samba Boys the winners with them leading 1-0. The anticipated celebration also saw 22 victory medals embossed with names of Brazilian players. Playing in front of 200,000 people at Maracana, Uruguay equalised through Juan Alberto Schiaffino before taking the lead through Alcides Ghiggia.

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.” The defeat is known as the ‘Maracana Blow’.

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Result: West Germany beat Hungary 3-2 in final

Edition: 1954, Switzerland

West Germany stunned Hungary 3-2 to win the 1954 FIFA World Cup. (Getty Images)

West Germany were still collecting pieces in the aftermath of World War II and were considered rank outsiders. In the final, West Germany were up against Ferenc Puskas-led Hungary, the best team in the world who were unbeaten in four years.

The match was termed as the biggest mismatch in the history of football. No one thought West Germany would go so deep into the tournament leave alone enter the final.

On a rain-soaked field, at the final whistle, West Germany emerged 3-2 victors after trailing 0-2 in the first 10 minutes.

Helmut Rahn scored twice, including the winner in the 84th minute as Germany achieved the impossible. Rightly, the German march to the title is known as the ‘Miracle of Bern’. German football went from strength to strength after the win. Not only that, academic papers have been written on the effect of the victory in 1954 on the collective German psyche.

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Result: North Korea beat Italy 1-0 in group stage

Edition: 1966, England

Italian goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi fails to save a shot from North Korean forward Pak Doo Ik (right) during North Korea's World Cup match against Italy at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, in 1966. (Getty Images)

The secretive nation, dubbed as the ‘Mystery Men’, became the first Asian team to make it to the World Cup quarter-finals after they stunned Italy 1-0 to finish second in their group behind Soviet Union. Drawn in a tough group with Chile being the fourth side, it was expected that they will be steamrolled but their grit saw them through. They lost to Soviet Union 3-0 and drew Chile 1-1. The match against Italy was practically a shootout with winner advancing. North Korea took the lead through Pak Doo-ik and defended out of their skins. Italy had eggs on their faces, literally and North Korea won hearts.

In the quarters, they took a 3-0 lead against Portugal before succumbing to pressure and Eusebio’s hat-trick to lose 3-5.

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Result: Cameroon beat Argentina 1-0 in group game

Edition: 1990, Italy

Claudio Caniggia of Argentina is shadowed by Benjamin Massing of Cameroon during the World Cup first round match at the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium in Milan, Italy. Cameroon won the match 1-0. (Getty Images)

Nowadays the hosts get the honour of playing the first match of the tournament. But back then the defending champions kicked off the tournament. The 1986 champions Argentina, led by the great Diego Maradona, were vanquished by an unheralded team largely made up of journeymen from the French lower divisions.

The match was also used as a catapult by other African nations. In 90 minutes African football, once derided for being all about juju magic, became credible. The result was celebrated not only in Cameroon, where impromptu street parties erupted across the nation but also across Africa.

Such was the brute force about Cameroon’s play that they ended the match with nine men. “I got a kick from a guy against Cameroon that nearly took my head off,” recalled Maradona recently about the physicality of the tie.”

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Result: South Korea stun Spain 5-3 in penalties in a pulsating quarter-final

Edition: 2002, South Korea & Japan

Eul Yong Lee of South Korea takes the ball between Joaquin and Ivan Helguera of Spain during their FIFA World Cup 2002 quarterfinal match played at the Gwangju World Cup Stadium, in Gwangju. The match ended in a 0-0 draw after extra-time, with South Korea winning 5-3 in penalties. (Getty Images)

South Korea had already beaten Portugal and Poland in round robin games to top their pool. In the round of 16 they faced one of the World Cup’s best teams, Italy. South Korea beat them 2-1 in extra-time.

In the quarters, up against Spain, everyone thought South Korea’s bandwagon would finally come to a halt, but it wasn’t to be as they won 5-3 in penalties after a goalless draw. But the fairy-tale run ended with a 0-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals.

The round of 16 and the quarter-final were marred with wrong refereeing decisions with Italy and Spain both complaining that referees favoured the hosts. By the end of it, the South Korean players earned themselves iconic status and many used it as a launchpad towards successful careers abroad.

Manager Guss Hiddink went on to become a national treasure, was afforded honorary citizenship and Gwangju Stadium was renamed the Guus Hiddink Stadium.

First Published: May 19, 2018 10:56 IST