When mailmen, paint-strippers, dish-washers & hearsemen played football

North Korean players swarm the Italian box. The Asian team stunned the mighty Squadra Azzura in the 1966 World Cup.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The heroics of unknown players and the unlikely wins of derelict teams cannot be just footnotes in the grand exercise of recording winners. These small achievements are as important as the Cup-winning efforts of any of football’s numerous rock stars, writes Ayon Sengupta as he takes a look at some notable upsets.

The story of the FIFA World Cup — chockful with dazzling displays by God-gifted footballers — has unfolded dramatically over the years with many significant subplots. It essentially has been perfectly penned, perhaps by a great writing sage of unmitigated talent, who has found the right mix of joy laced with vignettes of heartaches, upsets and surprises. This never-ending manuscript surely hooks its reader, offering him/her a chance to witness the unfolding of every human emotion.

These peripheral texts, though often ignored by the public conscience, to accommodate the richness of victorious grandeur, make the World Cup as endearing as a surreal novel of any South American literary genius. The heroics of unknown players and the unlikely wins of derelict teams cannot be just footnotes in this grand exercise of recording winners. These small achievements are as important as the Cup-winning efforts of any of football’s numerous rock stars.

So, to accord due respect to those trivial twists in the tale, we take a look back and celebrate the seeming pushovers’ many dates with destiny.

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

A few years after helping their British friends win World War II, the Americans were not as ready to accord a warm welcome to England in its first World Cup adventure. In a group stage game, team USA — which included a mailman, a paint-stripper, a dish-washer and a hearse driver — shocked an English side, filled with professional players (3-1 odds to win the World Cup). The only goal of the game came in the 38th minute, scored by forward Joe Gaetjens — a Haitian dishwasher in New York.

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

Yordan Letchkov of Bulgaria nods in his team's upset goal against Germany in USA 1994.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

It was the “Miracle of Bern”, when West Germany — still struggling to recover from the social and economic implications of the Nazi rule and World War II — defeated the “Magical Magyars.” The Hungary team, considered by many as one of the greatest ever, included players like Nandor Hidegkuti, Sandor Kocsis, Zolton Czibor and Ferenc Puskas, and lost only that final in Bern between 1950 and 1956, winning 42 of its 50 games. Hungary, which had earlier downed the Germans 8-3 in a group game, deservedly took a 2-0 lead by the eighth minute. West Germany, however, hit back soon and levelled the scores by the 18th minute, through Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn. The favourite attacked in numbers, but goalie Toni Turek pulled off a series of spectacular saves. Then, in the 84th minute, Rahn scored from the edge of the area to secure an incredible win.

The victory was epochal indeed and German historian Joachim Fest wrote: “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 Italy 0: Group 4 final league match, Middlesbrough, England – 1966

The North Korean footballers received a grand welcome back in Pyongyang in 1966, after creating quite a flutter in their first World Cup appearance in England. The Chollima (a mythical winged horse that cannot be mounted by a mortal, a symbol of the nation’s revolutionary zeal) defeated pedigreed Italy 1-0 in its last group game, Park Do-Ik (then an army corporal) scoring the winner, three minutes from half-time.

“It was the day I learnt football is not all about winning,” said Park, on his 2002 return to England. “When I scored that goal the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.”

And the Boro residents surely fell in love with the “Little Orientals!” Some 3000 of them travelled to Liverpool only to see the team’s 5-3 defeat to Eusebio’s Portugal in the quarter-finals.

4. Northern Ireland 1 Spain 0: 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, scored an upset victory over the host in a filled out Mestalla. The Spanish started with gusto and came close to scoring from a few set pieces but the game was goal-less at half-time. Minutes after the restart Billy Hamilton, eluding a challenge on the right wing, sent in a cross and when goalkeeper Luis Arcanada could only parry the ball, Gerry Armstrong, who was lurking in the box, struck it hard and low past two defenders and the ’keeper.

Upsetting the French applecart is Senegal's Papa Bouba Diop (right) in the inaugural match of the 2002 World Cup.-AP

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

This time it was the “Miracle of Milan” and defending champion Argentina was at the receiving end of a tough-tackling Cameroon side in the first match of the tournament. “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, marked by two or at times even by three players, was hardly given time with the ball and hence failed to exert his usual influence in the midfield. Still the Argentines had a few early look-ins, but the African team slowly tightened its defence and looked threatening on the counter.

Cameroon was reduced to 10 men when Andrea Kana Biyik was shown a straight red for a bone-crushing foul on Claudio Cannigia. The Indomitable Lions, true to their spirit, were, however, not daunted by these odds and Francois Oman Biyik, left unmarked in the box, headed in from a free-kick in the 67th minute to score the improbable winner.

6. Bulgaria 2 Germany 1: Quarter-finals; New Jersey, USA – 1994

Germany playing as a unified state for the first time since the end of World War II was shocked by a Bulgarian team, which had entered the competition with the dubious statistics of zero wins in its previous six appearances in the quadrennial event.

Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria’s greatest ever player, restored parity from a brilliantly struck free-kick from 30 metres out in the 75th minute, after skipper Lothar Matthaus had put the Germans ahead, converting a penalty, three minutes after the break. Midfielder Yordan Letchkov, then playing for Hamburger SV in Germany, won the game for the underdog, scoring in the 78th minute with an audacious header.

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

A 30th-minute strike by Papa Bouba Diop, a regular with Ligue 1 side Lens at that time, gave Senegal a stunning victory over defending champion France, again in an opening World Cup match. David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry hit the post and crossbar respectively before Diop scored, but the French failed to score.

Coach Bruno Metsu played a 4-1-3-2 combination which had skipper Alio Cisse, playing as a sweeper ahead of the back four. With the Senegal defence pressing ahead, operating right behind the midfield, France failed to find space at the centre and its strikers increasingly looked forlorn in the opposition half. El Hadji Diouf, another Lens player, was the fulcrum of the Senegal attack, using his pace and deft control to terrorise France’s ageing central defensive pairing of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf. It was his cross which set up Bouba Diop’s goal.

8. New Zealand 1 Italy 1: Group F second league match; Nelspruit, South Africa – 2010

Though, this was a drawn game, the sheer disparity between the two sides puts this result ahead of many other World Cup shock stories. In the most heart-warming of scenarios, the Kiwis, ranked 78 in the world, and with invested bankers and unattached players in its ranks, took an early, seventh minute lead against the then world champion.

Shane Smeltz, the Gold Coast United striker, took advantage of a refereeing error to poke the ball in from an offside position after Shane Elliott had curved in a free-kick from deep on the left. Italy, clearly rattled, upped its tempo, but failed to trouble the resolute New Zealand defence. Another refereeing howler, a penalty for a theatrical fall by Daniele De Rossi in the 28th minute, gave the Azzuri a way back, Vincenzo Iaquinta duly converting.

Still the result was impressive and New Zealand manager Rickie Herbert said: “I think it’s stopped the nation! It’s the most incredible result we’ve had right across the board.”