20 greatest upsets in World Cup history

In the world of sports, there are winners and losers, it’s just how it goes. For one team to win, the other has to lose and go home. While some teams are more used to winning, or losing, there may come a time when the tables are turned, and the underdogs pull off an upset victory. That has happened several times at the World Cup, when the entire world is tuned in and watching. There have been occasions when former champions no longer have the fight left in them to succeed. Some of the less-fancied teams can win through sheer determination, they will soak up all that their great opponents throw at them before going to the other end of the field and scoring the crucial winning goal.


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While most soccer players are professionals these days, there have been times at the World Cup when amateur players have prevailed over fully-fledged professional athletes. These victories go to show that even though talent is important, attitude, determination, and heart, are sometimes just as, if not more, important. In a win or lose situation, one party is always going to end up disappointed, but usually it is the favored team who comes out on top. Thankfully, throughout history, there have been many occasions where the underdogs have managed to cause an upset on the grandest stage in soccer. If you are hoping to witness an upset or two in the upcoming World Cup in Russia, then let’s refresh your memory of the greatest upsets in World Cup history as a teaser.

Senegal 1-0 France, Japan/S.Korea 2002

France had won the previous World Cup, and two years before they were to defend their crown in 2002 they won the European Championships. They were much fancied to go all the way again when the World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea. In their opening game of the 2002 tournament they faced Senegal, a team that few soccer fans knew much about. Senegal began the game with great intent, and soon it became apparent they were willing to put up a hard fight against the current world champions. After just 30 minutes, Papa Bouba Diop put Senegal in the lead. They managed to hang on to secure an incredible victory.

Iran 2-1 USA, France 1998

This game was one of the most politically charged matches in the history of the World Cup. The president of US Soccer called it the mother of all games when the draw was made. Relations between the two countries had been hostile for almost two decades, and there was a danger it would spill over onto the field. Iran took the lead toward the end of the first half and scored another with just less than ten minutes to play. The USA scored one to make it close, but Iran managed to secure their first ever win at the World Cup. This defeat meant the USA would exit the tournament earlier than expected.

New Zealand 1-1 Italy, South Africa 2010

Italy were coming into the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 as champions. It had been four years since they had beaten France in the final on penalties and they were once again expected to be a force. At the time there was not even a professional soccer league in New Zealand, so they were not supposed to be able to compete against the world champions. They did much better than that, they held Italy to a draw but could have won but for a missed chance right at the end.

Republic of Ireland 1-0 Italy, USA 1994

2010 was not the first time Italy underperformed on their return as champions. In 1994 Italy were facing an Irish team that not many people fancied to get a result. Italy had the incredible Roberto Baggio in their team, but Ireland somehow found a way to keep him and his other teammates from scoring. The result is one of the most famous in Irish soccer history. Italy would go on to reach the final in 1994 but lost out to Brazil in a penalty shootout.

Algeria 2-1 West Germany, Spain 1982

Algeria were well-known in Africa for being an incredible team, but beyond their own continent, not many people knew anything about their players. As they lined up against the formidable West Germany, few had given them a chance. Algeria were quicker and more athletic than the Germans, and they used their speed to beat them that day. After winning another group game, Algeria watched on as Austria and West Germany played out the only result that would see the African nation eliminated, many argue they fixed the game to eliminate Algeria.

Brazil 1-2 Norway, France 1998

Brazil had won the World Cup in 1994 and if anything were thought to be a better team four years later at the 1998 World Cup. Although Brazil had won their first two group games, they were beaten by a competitive and unfancied Norway team. Brazil were winning the game until the 83rd minute when Tore Andre Flo managed to get an equalizer. Amazingly, one minute before the end of the match Norway were awarded a penalty which they scored to win the game.

Spain 0-1 N. Ireland, Spain, 1982

Spain were hosting the World Cup in 1982, and many thought the Irish team wouldn’t compete. Historically the World Cup had been reserved for the best 16 nations, but this was the first year 24 teams would play. Those fears were soon put out of everybody’s mind when the Northern Irish underdogs found a way to beat the Spanish side on home ground. Even having a player sent off with 30 minutes to go wasn’t enough to stop the Irish being victorious that evening in Valencia thanks to Gerry Armstrong’s goal.

North Korea 1-0 Italy, England 1966

Italy had won the World cup in 1934 and 1938 and were considered one of the superpowers in soccer by 1966. They went up against a massive underdog in North Korea. For many, it was unbelievable that the Koreans had been able to qualify, but no one expected them to beat the Italian team. Korea had managed to get a point in their game against Chile earlier in the group so if they could beat Italy they would progress to the next round, knocking Italy out at the same time.

USA 2-1 Colombia, USA 1994

Heading into the World Cup, Colombia had been expected to do very well at the tournament, they were thought to have an outside chance of winning the whole thing. They faced up against the hosts of the tournament in 1994 and lost the game thanks to an own goal from defender Escobar. That own goal proved tragic for Escobar, as he was executed by Colombian cartel on his return to his country following their exit from the competition.

Brazil 1-2 Uruguay, Brazil 1950

Brazil were hosting the World Cup in 1950 and looked as though they would win the tournament. They were winning 1-0 against Uruguay in the final game of the competition and were supremely confident they would be lifting the trophy at the end of the game. The medals already had Brazil printed on them, and the newspapers were ready to publish their stories of Brazil’s success. Uruguay didn’t get the memo and turned the game around, winning the match 2-1 and with it, the World Cup.

USA 3-2 Portugal, Japan/S. Korea 2002

Portugal were a team full of star names when they went to the 2002 World Cup. Many experts believed this was the golden generation Portugal had been waiting for, and they would win the competition. In their opening game, the USA took a 3-0 lead against the Portuguese inside 36 minutes. This was too much for Portugal to recover from and they lost the match 3-2. Thanks to this result they failed to get out of the group stage in one of several extraordinary results in the 2002 tournament.

West Germany 3-2 Hungary, Switzerland 1954

If a team gets to a World Cup final, many people would argue that it isn’t much of an upset for them to win, even if they are the underdog. This was not the case when West Germany won the World Cup in 1954. Hungary’s team were fully expected to win this match, they had already beaten the Germans 8-3 in a group game, so the same result was expected in the final. The final was held in Switzerland, and many people in Germany call the victory the Miracle of Bern.

South Korea 2-1 Italy, Japan/S. Korea 2002

South Korea were the surprise package of the 2002 World Cup, the year they co-hosted the tournament along with Japan. Korea finished top of their group, unbeaten, and were up against three times world champions Italy. Many thought this would be the end of the road for Korea, but to everyone’s surprise, they managed to beat the Italians to progress to the quarter-finals. Ahn Jung-hwan ensured he would be remembered forever as he scored the winning goal in extra time.

South Korea 0-0 Spain, Japan/S. Korea 2002

Korea had one surprise result left in them at the World Cup in 2002. They were taking on Spain in the quarter-finals and were once again the favorites to lose. Korea put up a great fight and managed to bring the game to extra time following a goalless 90 minutes. Amazingly they held on until the end of extra time forcing the game to penalties. Korea won the shootout and progressed, beyond all odds, to the semifinal of the World Cup.

Brazil 1-7 Germany, Brazil 2014

This was an upset for the circumstance rather than the result. Brazil losing to Germany is entirely plausible, and it would always be expected to be a close game. Brazil was hosting the World Cup however, and the players had the hopes of the nation on their shoulders. Instead of standing up to that pressure they crumbled embarrassingly. Germany destroyed them 7-1, leaving the Brazilian players, and fans, in tears when the final whistle was blown to put them out of their misery.

East Germany 1-0 West Germany, West Germany 1974

This game was played before the Berlin Wall came down, and the divided nations were playing against each other in the World Cup, hosted by… West Germany. West Germany were full of professional players, but the East German players all had regular jobs back home. It was believed the West German team were dismissive of East Germany’s chances and it was this complacency that cost them a victory over their neighboring rivals. The game was decided by just one goal, scored by East German’s Jürgen Sparwasser.

Bulgaria 2-1 Germany, USA 1994

Germany were the world champions heading into the tournament, although this was the first World Cup since East and West were brought together to play as the unified German team. Bulgaria were having their best-ever tournament and were now facing the Germans in the quarter-final. Germany were as formidable as always and were expected to have too much power for the impressive Bulgarians. Bulgaria were inspired and took the game to Germany, dumping them out of the tournament with a 2-1 victory.

USA 1-0 England, Brazil 1950

England is where soccer as we know it today was invented, and as far as their players were concerned at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, America would have no chance against them. Soccer was a relatively new sport in America, but that didn’t stop them qualifying for the tournament. The US players were part-time and had been thrown together pretty quickly for the competition. England were considered the “Kings of Football” at the time and were expected to be no match for the USA. England lost 1-0 in their very first World Cup tournament.

Peru 3-1 Scotland, Argentina 1978

Heading into the World Cup in 1978 many people, especially in Scotland, believed they had a chance to win the entire competition. They had many of the stars of British soccer in their ranks, and their coach even promised the people of Scotland that he would bring the World Cup back when they returned from Argentina. Peru were relative unknowns, and there were no such expectations made of them. Peru went on to win their group that included the great Netherlands team and the now derailed hype train that was Scotland.

Cameroon 1-0 Argentina, Italy 1990

Argentina were heading into the World Cup in Italy as champions from the previous competition. They faced Cameroon in their opening game to get their tournament off with a comfortable victory. The problem was that they took Cameroon lightly and the African nation left the Argentinian players red-faced when they recorded a win over the world champions. Maradona was to be feared after winning the World Cup in 1986 for Argentina, but Cameroon physically intimidated him and his teammates into defeat.