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The List: Biggest upsets in FIFA World Cup history

It’s been nearly two weeks now that the 2018 World Cup concluded, with an impressive French side dispatching Croatia 4-2 in the final to cap off one of the more exciting tournaments in recent memory.

Every tournament features a moment, a game or player that in some way delivers drama we feel we will not experience ever again. In 2018 that tradition continued with Germany’s shock exit and Argentina’s near miss of a knockout stage berth, both pulling on fans’ heart strings.

What prompts this list is obviously the early German exit in this year’s world cup, losing 2-0 to South Korea in their final match and finishing with only one win from three games. But the most unbelievable upset’s in sports biggest tournament have been around a long time.

Honourable mentions

-Germany 3-2 Hungary: Hungary’s glorious run to the 1954 World Cup final, highlighted by a hefty goals difference, was halted by a resilient German outfit.
-North Korea 1-0 Italy: As the first Asian nation to ever qualify for the Word Cup, North Korea defeated competition favourites Italy in in 1966.
-Italy and France fail to advance: The reigning World Cup finalists finish last in their respective groups, with only one win in six games between them, failing to qualify for the next round.

5) South Korea’s 2002 run to the semi finals

This doesn’t directly qualify as ‘an upset’, but more a series of other national upsets that came at the hands of another nations’ triumph. Additionally, since this indirect upset spanned over more than just one game its brilliance feels greater than any of the honourable mentions involving just one game.

South Korea and Japan jointly hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Host nations tend to perform better than usual. South Africa actually won a game in 2010 and didn’t finish last in their group and Germany made the final four in 2006 when others were primed to go further than them. It was expected South Korea and Japan would manage to make the knockout phase, or at least contend for it, and that would be it.

The hosts topped respective groups, which in itself was good enough. However although japan would expectedly fall in the first round of the knockout phase, the Koreans weren’t done there. Ranked 41st themselves, Korea dispatched the 6th ranked side in the world Italy 2-1 in extra time in the round of 16. If that wasn’t good enough, they then took down Spain in the quarter finals, ranked 8th in the world, with a 5-3 win on penalties. Their dream run though came to an end at the hands of Germany 1-0, who would go on to lose to Brazil in the final.

4) Germany’s group stage exit in 2018

Germany at the 2018 world cup
Germany (green) in despair after their World Cup defeat to South Korea (orange) in 2018. (Photo / Ali Kagou)

Much like South Korea’s run in the 2002 World Cup, Germany’s early exit this year spanned for than one game making their collapse that much more emotional. The immediate aftermath of this event could still be fresh in my mind and therefore pushing it a little higher on this list than other historic upsets, but Germany’s early exit is definitely one for the ages.

Germany entered the 2014 tournament number one in the world and had no trouble advancing to the final, going undefeated and culminating in a 1-0 win in the final over Argentina. Four years later, and although with stronger competition from France, Brazil and Belgium possibly stumping their knockout stage progress, Germany remained the best in the world and likely winners.

What they had to overcome, was no one had ever won back-to-back tournaments and three of the past four defending champions failed to qualify for the knockout stage – that proved too hard a task.

Their group, one of the easiest, did not stop them from stumbling. A first up loss to Mexico, and then a come from behind victory against Sweden left fans nervous for their final game. Those nerves of an exit developed into reality, as two late goals saw Germany fall to South Korea, ending their hopes of defending the cup.

Criticism of the players’ spirit and dedication, as well as the skill of Coach Joachim Löw flowed in quickly in the immediate aftermath, and a nation still mourns in disbelief and embarrassment.

3) Senegal takes down the defending champions in 2002

Senegal were ranked 65th in the world heading into the tournament, and were World Cup debutants in 2002. They were coming off a second placing at the Africa Cup of Nations, their best finish at the time, which could’ve become an influencer for their World Cup campaign.

France won the 1998 tournament on home soil, as well as winning the Euros in 2000, and featured plenty of talent headed by forward Thierry Henry. They would go ahead against Senegal without star-man Zinedine Zidane for their opening game, but the difference in class was so great France should have no troubles.

That ‘script; didn’t pan out, and it’s possible the humidity and loss of Zidane played a huge part on their performance as scoring chances were limited for Les Bleus. A goal from Papa Bouba Diop in the 30th minute put the Africans ahead, and the great form of Senegalese goalkeeper Tony Sylva secured the victory – one no one, in a million years, saw coming.

Senegal would advance to the knockout stage with two draws against Denmark and Uruguay, but what proved to be an impressive run fell short at the quarter final stage against Turkey. While the loss seemed to harm France’s mentality as they drew with Uruguay and fell to Denmark, finish last with just one point and becoming the first defending champion to do so before the knockout stage.

2) The United States overcome their western rival in 1950

The game that’s known as the miracle on grass is also widely considered the biggest shock in World Cup history. The United States entered the tournament as a nobody, expected to get trounced in their group with a very average side. They consisted of a bunch of semi-professionals who had separate jobs to support themselves. On top of that, they only managed one training session all together prior to the tournament.

England were known as the kings of football with 23 wins from 30 games entering the tournament, and were one of a handful of teams likely to make the final. That script changed dramatically as a 38th minute goal for Joe Gaetjens of the United States was the difference between both sides; a first half goal that ignited the confidence the USA needed to compete with a quality opponent for the remainder of the game.

Ironically the news didn’t break in the United States or England as much as there news outlets around the world. Understandably enough as England’s humiliation was so much they avoided the issue, but for the United States football (or soccer as they know it) was not a popular sport compared to the likes of Baseball and American Football.

1950 was the United States last world cup campaign for another 40 years, while England would continue to do-battle in 14 of the next 17 World Cups, winning it in 1966 – further proving the difference in class between both sides at the time.

1) Uruguay knock off an over confident Brazil in 1950

The structure of the 1950 world cup was unique in that a round robin match between Brazil and Uruguay determined the winner, something that would be seen as absurd in this day and age. Brazil needed a draw to win the cup, which was almost a certainty.

Brazil had finished undefeated in their group with a healthy goals difference, while Uruguay only played one match against Bolivia, as France – their other pool stage opponent – had withdrawn from the cup. That one game however saw Uruguay triumph 8-0 and joined Brazil, Spain and Sweden in the final round.

Brazil, in front of 200,000 passionate fans, took an expected 1-0 just before half time and sending fans into a confident frenzy in preparation for celebrations. Uruguay though, with a strong finish to the second half, score them take a 2-1 lead which silenced the crowd. What was more unbelievable was the extent to which people believed Brazil wold win, with newspapers reporting a Brazilian victory before the game had finished, a victory song being composed and victory medals set aside, with all having to be scrapped come full time.

The impact of the loss on Brazil as a country hasn’t, and may never be replicated in sports ever again. The loss was described as “their Hiroshima”, and many fans went as far as taking their own lives in absolute distraught. They would however manage back-to-back world cups in 1958 and 1962, behind the emergence of one of the greatest, Pelé.

Lachlan Waugh View All

Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.

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