The greatest FIFA World Cup upsets

In its near 100-year history, the FIFA World Cup™ has seen many shock results, with several unfancied teams pulling off unlikely wins against illustrious opponents. 

LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - NOVEMBER 22: Salem Al-Dawsari of Saudi Arabia celebrates with teammates after scoring their team's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at Lusail Stadium on November 22, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Maddie Meyer - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
  • The FIFA World Cup™ has produced some major shock results over the years
  • Argentina and France have both lost opening matches as reigning champions
  • Cameroon, Senegal, USA, Norway and Costa Rica among the tournament’s most famous giant killers

First contested nearly 100 years ago, the FIFA World Cup™ has grown in popularity with football fans thanks in part to its ability to throw up unexpected results on a regular basis. Some of these upsets have since entered football folklore. FIFA+ explores the tournament’s most famous shocks, which include opening match stumbles for a couple of defending champions.

France 0-1 Senegal, Korea / Japan 2002

How big a shock was it? This upset came in the opening match of the tournament. Though deprived of the services of the injured Zinedine Zidane, defending world champions France looked to have an even stronger side than the one that had lifted the world title on home soil four years previously. Les Bleus were also reigning European champions, having won the continental title in 2000. As for Senegal, this was their first ever World Cup finals match. What happened next? The defeat put the French under pressure and, after a draw with Uruguay, they rushed a clearly unfit Zidane back into the side for the final group match against Denmark. The gamble did not pay off and France were unexpectedly dumped from the tournament. Meanwhile, Senegal made history by qualifying for the Round of 16, where they beat Sweden before going out to Turkey in the quarter-final. One-hit wonders? The Senegalese have returned to the World Cup just once since 2002, at Russia 2018, when they went out in the Group Stage despite collecting four points. What became of the heroes? Papa Bouba Diop scored the only goal of the game against France and became a national icon. Sadly, the former midfielder died in 2020 after a long illness. Aliou Cisse, who also played in the memorable defeat of the French, is now Senegal’s head coach.

Argentina 0-1 Cameroon, Italy 1990

How big a shock was it? While the world expected Diego Maradona and his team-mates to put on a show in the opening match in Milan, the defending champions never got into gear and went down to a side making only their second World Cup appearance. What happened next? The Indomitable Lions went on to win the group and reach the quarter-finals, where they lost to England in a thriller. Argentina recovered from the setback to qualify from the group in third place, going on to beat Brazil and Italy to reach the Final, where they lost to West Germany. One-hit wonders? Cameroon have appeared at five World Cups since 1990, failing to progress beyond the Group Stage each time. What became of the heroes? Cameroon’s matchwinner against the Argentinians, Francois Omam-Biyik, enjoyed a long career and played in France and Italy. The brightest star in the team was the veteran Roger Milla, who was still in Cameroon’s colours at USA 1994 where, at the age of 42, he became the oldest goalscorer in World Cup history.

Watch the highlights from the match between Argentina and Cameroon played at Giuseppe Meazza, Milan on Tuesday, 08 June 1990.

Italy 0-1 Costa Rica, Brazil 2014

How big a shock was it? Costa Rica were seen as rank outsiders in a group containing three former world champions. Defying expectations, the Costa Ricans kicked off with a win over Uruguay in their opening game and then showed it was no accident by overcoming for Italy in their second match. What happened next? Italy duly went out in the group stage, while Costa Rica topped the section and went on to produce their best World Cup performance ever, eclipsing their run to the Round of 16 at Italy 1990 by reaching the quarter-final. Netherlands put an end to their heroics with a penalty shoot-out win. One-hit wonders? Costa Rica returned to the World Cup at Russia 2018, where they went out in the first round. What became of the hero? The main man in Los Ticos’ campaign in Brazil was goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who became hot property after the tournament and won a series of trophies with Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.

England 0-1 USA, Brazil 1950

How big a shock was it? England had a big reputation at the time as the inventors of the game, while USA had little or no footballing tradition to speak of, despite placing third at the inaugural World Cup in 1930. What happened next? Both sides failed to progress, with Spain winning the section to advance to the final four-team round. One-hit wonders? Since their landmark win in Belo Horizonte in 1950, USA have reached the knockout phase on four occasions. They claimed their biggest scalp since England in beating a much-vaunted Colombia side in the Group Stage on home soil in 1994. What became of the hero? USA’s matchwinner against England, forward Joe Gaetjens met a tragic end, dying in mysterious circumstances in 1964 in Haiti, where his family hailed from.

Italy 0-1 Korea DPR, England 1966

How big a shock was it? Korea DPR were tournament newcomers and Italy two-time champions. This surprise win, which came in the final round of group matches, knocked the Italians out of the competition. What happened next? Korea DPR came close to causing another upset in the quarter-final, racing into a 3-0 lead against Portugal, who turned the match around to win 5-3. One-hit wonders? Korea DPR have made just one World Cup appearance since England 1966, at South Africa 2010, where they lost all three of their group matches. What became of the hero? Pak Doo-Ik scored the only goal of the game against the Italians. A corporal in the army at the time, he later left the military to become a youth coach.

Video is currently unavailable

West Germany 1-2 Algeria, Spain 1982

How big a shock was it? Two-time world champions West Germany were one of the tournament favourites. For debutants Algeria, this was their first ever World Cup match. What happened next? Beaten by Austria in their next match, Algeria defeated Chile in their final game. Their tally of four points was not enough to take them through, however. That was because the Germans beat Austria 1-0 in a controversial match in which the two sides settled for a result that took them both through. West Germany eventually reached the final, where they were beaten by Italy. One-hit wonders? The Algerians have appeared at three World Cups since and almost beat the Germans again at Brazil 2014. In their one and only appearance in the Round of 16 to date, they took the eventual champions to extra time in a dramatic encounter. What became of the hero? The scorer of one of his side’s two goals in Gijon, Rabah Madjer, became a star of European football in the 1980s. The forward clearly had a liking for German opposition, scoring a memorable goal for Porto against Bayern Munich in the 1987 European Cup final.

Watch the extended highlights from the match between Germany FR and Algeria played at El Molinon, Gijon on Wednesday, 16 June 1982.

Korea Republic 2-1 Italy, Korea / Japan 2002

How big a shock was it? This Round of 16 tie was Korea Republic’s first in six appearances. The Italy line-up was packed with star players from the world’s strongest league at the time. What happened next? Co-hosts Korea Republic knocked Spain out in the quarter-final and then lost to Germany in the next round. They finished fourth, after losing to Turkey in the third place play-off. One-hit wonders? The Koreans reached the last 16 again at South Africa 2010, losing to Uruguay. They went out in the Group Stage at Russia 2018, but not before recording a surprise win over defending champions Germany to knock them out. What became of the heroes? The scorer of the extra-time winner against the Italians, Ahn Jung-hwan, had a career of highs and lows after the World Cup, playing for clubs in Germany and France with varying degrees of success. Team mate Park Ji-sung spent seven seasons with Manchester United.

Video is currently unavailable

Brazil 1-2 Norway, France 1998

How big a shock was it? The Norwegians’ comeback came in the last match in Group A, with Brazil having won their first two matches and Norway drawn theirs. It was only the Scandinavians’ second victory in a World Cup match. What happened next? Norway went through to the Round of 16 but were beaten by Italy. Brazil advanced as group winners and made it to the final, only to lose to hosts France. One-hit wonders? That historic win in Marseille was Norway’s last in the tournament to date. They have failed to qualify for every World Cup since then. What became of the heroes? Tore Andre Flo, who scored Norway’s first goal against the Brazilians, had a fine club career and ran out for the likes of Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers. Fellow forward Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who came on as a sub in Marseille, ended up a firm favourite of the fans at Manchester United.

Brazil v Norway | Group A | 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ | Highlights

East Germany 1-0 West Germany, Germany 1974

How big a shock was it? This was East Germany’s World Cup debut, while their western neighbours were established World Cup heavyweights and were aiming to win a second world title, this time on home soil. What happened next? Both sides went through to the second group stage, where East Germany failed to win a game, finishing behind Netherlands and Brazil. West Germany recovered from this defeat by winning their next four games to lift the famous trophy. One-hit wonders? East Germany never returned to the World Cup. Following reunification in 1990, Germany has competed as one nation from USA 1994 onwards. What became of the hero? Jurgen Sparwasser scored the only goal that night in Hamburg. He enjoyed a modest career with Magdeburg after the World Cup and had a stint as an assistant coach at Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1980s.

Watch the highlights from the match between German DR and Germany FR played at Volksparkstadion, Hamburg on Saturday, 22 June 1974.

Spain 2-3 Nigeria, France 1998

How big a shock was it? Nigeria were playing in only their second World Cup. Though they had made a good impression in their first, four years earlier, when they reached the Round of 16, they were not expected to trouble a strong Spain side featuring the likes of Fernando Hierro, Raul and Luis Enrique. What happened next? Spain drew with Paraguay in their second group match and then thrashed Bulgaria, but still went out. Nigeria advanced to the last 16 but went out to Denmark. One-hit wonders? Nigeria reached the same stage at Brazil 2014, though Spain remain their last major World Cup scalp. What became of the heroes? The scorer of the best goal of the match, midfielder Sunday Oliseh, later played for the likes of Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Several members of that Nigeria side also had successful careers in Europe, among them Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu, who was on the bench in that game.

Video is currently unavailable

Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia, Qatar 2022

How big a shock was it? Colossal. Argentina began Qatar 2022 as the second favourites to lift the trophy behind Brazil. Furthermore, the first two Asian teams to play at this competition were beaten soundly, with Ecuador cruising to victory over the hosts and England thumping IR Iran 6-2. And when Lionel Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Co went 1-0 up, it seemed more a question of how many they’d win by rather than what the result would be. What happened next? One-hit wonders? What became of the heroes? Only time will tell. Beginning on Saturday when Saudi Arabia meet Poland.

You may also like