The 10 greatest World Cup upsets

We're used to seeing the same outcome in the Champions League; 22 men chase a ball around the pitch and, in the end, Real Madrid win.

Luckily the World Cup isn't quite as predictable as club football's most illustrious competition.

Sure, there are certain unwritten rules at the quadrennial tournament, like Germany winning a penalty shoot-out or England losing a last-16 game from the spot.

Generally speaking though, each tournament springs its fair share of surprises and nothing sticks in the memory quite like a major upset, so we've trawled back through the annals of World Cup history to compile a list of the ten greatest.


Spain 1-5 Netherlands (2014)

When these two nations met in the 2010 World Cup final, it was a drab affair. Four years later, their Group B encounter was anything but.

Holland, led by Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, both of whom bagged a brace, ran riot in Salvador, reducing the reigning world and European champions to quivering wrecks, helpless in the face of Louis van Gaal's rampant Oranje army.


The enduring image, of course, is van Persie, repositioning himself to send an unorthodox diving header over Iker Casillas' head.

Holland went on to secure third-place in the tournament as La Roja's defence ended ignominiously in the group phase.

South Korea 2-1 Italy (2002)

They may have been co-hosts and managed by Guus Hiddink, but nobody expected South Korea's memorable surge to the semi-finals in 2002.

The emotional crescendo was reached not in the quarter-final but the last-16 with a controversial extra-time win over Italy.

When Gianluigi Buffon saved Ahn Jung-Hwan's fourth-minute penalty before Christian Vieri headed the Azzurri in front, it looked as though Korea's race was run.

They hadn't read the script. With two minutes of normal time remaining, Seol Ki-Hyeong struck to forcer extra-time. With two minutes left of the first extra-time period, Francesco Totti went down in the box. Having already been booked, the Roma striker was penalised for simulation and sent off.

Italy's burning sense of injustice soon descended into national humiliation when Jung-Hwan, more than two hours after missing his penalty, popped up with the golden goal to book a quarter-final date with Spain. Incredible.

Senegal 1-0 France (2002)

Another entry from the 2002 tournament and another remarkable feat of giant-killing, Pape Bouba Diop's goal was enough to stun the reigning champions on a memorable evening in Seoul.

The African nation defended with discipline in their 4-5-1 and occasionally stretched Les Bleus on the counter-attack, with a lively, Liverpool-bound El Hadji Diouf unnerving the aging central defensive pairing of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf with his direct running and pressing.

Zinedine Zidane's absence was felt but, even with Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Robert Pires on the pitch, France were unable to breach the debutants' defence.

It set the tone for France's disastrous campaign as they finished bottom of Group A with one point and no goals.

Cameroon 1-0 Argentina (1990)

In what became known as the “Miracle of Milan,” Cameroon toppled defending champions Argentina thanks to François Omam-Biyik’s goal.

It was no almighty smash-and-grab either. Simply, the better team won. Although it was a stunning result with which to open Italia '90, a Diego Maradona-led Argentina recovered to eventually reach the final, losing 1-0 to West Germany.

Despite having André Kana-Biyik and Benjamin Massing sent off, The Indomitable Lions conquered Carlos Bilardo's holders and sent shockwaves through Italy with a precursor for the high drama that would characterise that summer's tournament.

North Korea 1-0 Italy (1966)

The other time Italy were downed by a Korean nation, Pak Do-ik's strike enough to consign the Azzurri to a withering defeat in Middlesbrough.

North Korea had shocked the world by even qualifying but they weren't content with resting on their laurels, shutting out the much-fancied Europeans for a famous triumph on Teeside.

Brazil 1-7 Germany (2014)

An exception to the rule on this list: an upset, not because of the unlikelihood of the winner but rather how the win came about.

A massacre in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's hopes of clinching a sixth World Cup on home soil were brought to a humiliating and brutal end at the hands of a ruthless Germany, who mercilessly tore through their hosts until, at the final whistle, those in yellow were left shellshocked, haunted and utterly inconsolable.

The Seleção were missing both star player Neymar and captain Thiago Silva and it showed, with the defence collapsing in spectacular fashion as Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and co repeatedly walked through gaping holes.

A result that plunged a nation into mourning, it will be interesting to see how Brazil respond in Russia.

West Germany 3-2 Hungary (1954)

To the millennial, a team with Germany in its name beating Hungary, modern-day footballing minnows, may not sound like much of an upset.

In 1954, though, Hungary hadn't lost in four years. The ‘Mighty Magyars' had Ferenc Puskás who, alongside other greats Zoltan Czibor and Nandor Hidegkuti, devised an astonishingly effective style of play defined by fluid, interchangeable positions.

West Germany, on the other hand, had been a footballing giant but, like everything else in the country, had been ravaged by World War Two. When they met Hungary in the final, they weren't fancied, owing much to having been thrashed 8-3 by the same opponents in the group stage.

Puskas and Czibor scored inside eight minutes to set Hungary on their way but West Germany staged a stunning fightback, Maximilian Morlock pulling one back before a Helmut Rahn double applied the finishing touches to the ‘Miracle of Bern.'

USA 1-0 England (1950)

The USA's team in 1950 were a bunch of part-timers and they included a paint-stripper and a mailman. Their goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, was a hearse driver by trade.

But they could certainly play and they stunned World Cup favourites England inside the Independência.

Joseph Gaetjens, a Haiti-born dishwasher, only ever scored one goal for the USA but it was against Sir Walter Winterbottom's Three Lions.

1950 was a tournament best remembered by Uruguay's shock defeat of Brazil in the final but, given their anonymity on the footballing map, the USA's triumph over England was something else entirely.

Spain 0-1 Northern Ireland (1982)

In a tournament that saw Manchester United's Norman Whiteside become the World Cup's youngest player, surpassing Pele aged just 17 and 41 days – a record which remains untouched – Gerry Armstrong gave Northern Ireland's fans something to really shout about.

In the Valencian heat, Armstrong fired a 47th-minute winner to step into Irish football immortality and give the Green and White Army and Billy Bingham, their legendary manager, their greatest moment.

West Germany 1-2 Algeria (1982)

But as memorable a moment as Armstrong's goal was, the almighty shock of that tournament belonged to Algeria.

The Africans caused one of the greatest World Cup upsets when, on their tournament bow, they edged the European champions in the El Molinon Stadium in Gijón with a goal by African Footballer of the Year Lakhdar Belloumi.

Belloumi was the chief architect of Algeria's finest hour, assisting one before capturing the winner after Karl-Heinze Rummennigge had equalised.

Amazingly, it wasn't the first time Algeria had beaten West Germany, having edged a friendly 1-0 in 1966. But this wasn't a friendly, it was the World Cup and, thanks to Belloumi's ingenuity, the Algerian people toasted a glorious sporting success.

Of course, the brilliance of Algeria's win was to be overshadowed by the ‘Disgrace of Gijón,' when West Germany and Austria played out a non-aggression pact of a 1-0 that saw both nations safely through to the next round at the expense of Algeria.


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Gavin Davison

Gavin is a full-time copywriter based in the UK and has developed in-depth knowledge of the igaming world by working in the betting industry for over five years. During this time, he has written thousands of articles covering various topics, including bookmaker reviews, ‘how to’ guides, bonus comparisons and much more.