FIFA World Cup underdog stories: From the Miracle of Bern to Argentina’s shock defeat to Saudi

The FIFA World Cup has seen its fair share of herculean feats from the unheralded practitioners of the game and their gigantic Goliath-slaying acts. We recall these underdogs’ many dates with destiny.

Surprise package: US centre forward Joe Gaetjens is carried off by cheering supporters after his team shocked England 1-0 in their World Cup match at Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1950.

Surprise package: US centre forward Joe Gaetjens is carried off by cheering supporters after his team shocked England 1-0 in their World Cup match at Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1950. | Photo Credit: AP

The FIFA World Cup has seen its fair share of herculean feats from the unheralded practitioners of the game and their gigantic Goliath-slaying acts. We recall these underdogs’ many dates with destiny.

The story of the FIFA World Cup — replete with dazzling displays from gifted footballers — has unfolded dramatically over the years. There have been heartaches and joy, upsets and surprises, a cauldron of every human emotion thrown in all manner of combinations, felt as much by the players as those witnessing them.

They are the grand tales, gladiatorial displays of effort, strength and discipline. But there are also herculean feats from the unheralded practitioners of the game and their gigantic Goliath-slaying acts.

So, to honour the little twists in the tale, we look back and celebrate the underdogs’ many dates with destiny.

1. USA 1-0 England; Group 2 league match; Belo Horizonte, Brazil – 1950

America, the new powerhouse at the world stage post World War II, showed its British friends little mercy when they landed for their first World Cup adventure in 1950. Team USA — which included a mailman, a paint-stripper, a dish-washer and a hearse driver — shocked England, which had an array of professional stars in its ranks.

Joe Gaetjens — a Haitian dishwasher in New York — scored the only goal of the game.

2. West Germany 3-2 Hungary; Final; Bern, Switzerland – 1954

It was the ‘Miracle of Bern’, when West Germany — still struggling to recover from the social and economic implications of Nazi rule and World War II — slayed the till then undefeated Hungarian team, better known as the ‘Magical Magyars’.

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Trailing by two goals within the first eight minutes of the game, West Germany levelled the score in the next 10 minutes, before Helmut Rahn found the winner in the 84th minute.

Maximilian Morlock, West Germany’s inside-right, started he comeback against Hungary with a goal in the 10th minute. Germany went on to become World Champions with a 3-2 victory.

Maximilian Morlock, West Germany’s inside-right, started he comeback against Hungary with a goal in the 10th minute. Germany went on to become World Champions with a 3-2 victory. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

German historian Joachim Fest, writing eloquently, described the moment as the founding day of the German Republic: “It was a kind of liberation for the Germans from all the things that weighed down upon them after the Second World War. July 4, 1954 is in certain aspects the founding day of the German Republic.”

3. North Korea 1-0 Italy; Group 4, final league match; Middlesbrough, England – 1966

The diminutive North Koreans warmed the hearts of their English hosts when a strike — three minutes from half time — from Army Corporal Park Do-Ik handed the Asian nation an unlikely win over pedigreed Italy.

The Chollima (a mythical winged horse that cannot be mounted by a mortal, a symbol of the nation’s revolutionary zeal), in its quarterfinal against Portugal, raced to a 3-0 lead by the 25th minute, but a magical display from the tournament’s highest scorer, Eusebio, killed its dream.

4. Northern Ireland 1-0 Spain; Group 5, final league match; Valencia, Spain – 1982

“At the final whistle, we didn’t initially celebrate. We just looked at each other for about 10 seconds in amazement,” Northern Ireland midfielder Tommy Cassidy recalls.

The country, the smallest to ever qualify for the World Cup, shocked the host at the Mestalla. After a goalless first half, Gerry Armstrong, lurking in the box, made the most of a goalkeeping howler from Luis Arcanda, striking it hard and low past two defenders and the ’keeper.

5. Cameroon 1-0 Argentina; Group B, first league match; Milan, Italy – 1990

In the ‘Miracle of Milan’, defending champion Argentina was at the receiving end of a tough-tackling Cameroon side in the first match of the competition. “I got a kick from a guy against Cameroon that nearly took my head off,” Diego Maradona, Argentina’s inspirational captain, said later.

The maestro was marked closely as a 10-man Cameroon found extra reserves in its indomitable spirit to score the all-important goal through Francois Omam-Biyik in the 67th minute.

6. Bulgaria 2-1 Germany; Quarterfinals; New Jersey, USA – 1994

Germany, playing as a unified state for the first time since World War II, was ambushed by a gritty Bulgaria, which had the dubious distinction of zero wins in its previous six appearances.

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Midfielder Yordan Letchkov, then plying his trade in Germany, scored the winner through an audacious header after Hristo Stoichkov had restored parity for Bulgaria in the 75th minute.

7. Croatia 3-0 Germany; Quarterfinals; Lyon, France – 1998

Nobody would have given Croatia, which had just become a sovereign member of the European Council after half-a-decade-long war, a chance in the 1998 edition of the quadrennial showpiece but it was only a matter of time before it pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

After beating Greece to qualify for the World Cup, it beat Japan, Jamaica and Romania before facing Germany in the quarterfinal.

Croat forward Davor Suker scored the final goal of the match, against Germany at the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. (File Photo)

Croat forward Davor Suker scored the final goal of the match, against Germany at the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. (File Photo) | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Real Madrid’s Davor Suker and AC Milan’s Zvonimir Boban caught the Germans off-guard after defender Christian Worns was sent off in the 40th minute. Robert Jarni netted only five minutes later to hand Croatia the lead. Later, Goran Vlaovic extended the lead with another goal in the 80th minute, while Suker hammered in the final nail in the 85th.

Croatia eventually went on to win the third-place playoff against Netherlands, beating the side 2-1.

8. Senegal 1-0 France; Group A, first league match; Seoul, South Korea – 2002

Coach Bruno Metsu, enjoying a long-standing association with the French game as a player and manager, played a 4-1-3-2 system, using the pace and physicality of his team to bully the aging France defence, marshalled by Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf. The towering Papa Bouba Diop scored the first goal of the tournament at the half-hour mark, heading home a cross from fellow RC Lens team-mate El Hadji Diouf.

9. Netherlands 5-1 Spain; Group B, first league match; Bahia, Brazil – 2014

Spain, playing its unique brand of possessional game, had rightly dominated the football discourse after its nimble-footed ball-players won the 2008 European championship. The nation continued its dominance of world football, winning its first world title in South Africa (2010), before adding another European crown in 2012.

The defending world and European champion entered the 2014 World Cup as one of the early favourites, but a pedestrian display in its opening game saw La Furia Roja losing 5-1 to the Netherlands, then ranked No. 15 in the world.

Spain took the lead in the 27th minute, but twin strikes from Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben helped the Dutch to exact revenge on its opponent, which had beaten it in the 2010 final. Spain’s annus horribilis continued as the team lost 2-0 to Chile, bringing a premature end to its campaign.

10. Russia 1-1 Spain (4-3 on penalties); Round of 16; Moscow, Russia – 2018

Sergei Ignashevich’s own goal in the 12th minute handed Spain the lead and that was pretty much supposed to set the order of the day. However, a Gerard Pique handball in the area saw the host win a penalty kick, which Artem Dzyuba successfully converted in the 41st minute.

The deadlock, however, couldn’t be broken in regulation time and the match trickled into the penalty shootouts. In what was a major upset, Russia’s Igor Akinfeev pulled off two quality saves to deny Koke and Iago Aspas even as all of the Russians slotted home.

Igor Akinfeev of Russia saves the fifth penalty from Iago Aspas of Spain in the penalty shoot out during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match.

Igor Akinfeev of Russia saves the fifth penalty from Iago Aspas of Spain in the penalty shoot out during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Russia’s remarkable run ended in a heart-breaking quarterfinal defeat as Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic scored the decisive penalty in a shootout.

11. Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia; Group C league match; Lusail, Doha – 2022

Saudi Arabia stunned South American giant Argentina in its opening game of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar at the Lusail Stadium. All the talk in the leadup to the match was surrounding Lionel Messi and Argentina as they came in on a 36-match unbeaten streak, one shy of the world record.

Messi opened the scoring inside 10 minutes from the penalty spot after a VAR check. But Saudi bounced back in the second half with two goals inside the space of five minutes from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari.

Saudi Arabia lead the Group C standings with three points, while Argenina is at the bottom after the opening fixture.

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