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World Cup

First XI: World Cup upsets

March 24, 2010
By Robin Hackett
(Archive)

For all the pre-tournament talk of the haves and have nots, World Cups have always had the propensity to provide a shock or two.

As the likes of North Korea and New Zealand look to become conquering heroes in South Africa, we take a look at the First XI greatest upsets of all time.

USA 1-0 England (1950 group stage) England had missed out on the first three World Cups, largely on the English FA's assumption that they were too good for the competition, but there was to be a rude awakening in their inaugural tournament. After winning their first match 2-0 against Chile, England suffered abject humiliation in the second when a part-time USA side beat them with a solitary goal from Haitian-born Joe 'Larry' Gaetjens in the 38th minute. The English public was incredulous, and a common story is that many believed the newspaper headlines were a misprint and that England had won the match 10-1, but England were beaten and failed to emerge from the group. Gaetjens, meanwhile, received little attention in America and eventually returned to Haiti, where he disappeared after protesting against dictator Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier.

Juan Alberto Schiaffino
GettyImagesJuan Alberto Schiaffino scores the equaliser to stun the Maracana

Brazil 1-2 Uruguay (1950 final) The Brazilians, playing on home soil, were in blistering form as they edged towards their first World Cup final. They had won four of their five games, opening with a 4-0 victory over Mexico and winning their two fixtures going into the final 7-1 and 6-1 against Sweden and Spain. As they took to the field at Rio's Estadio do Maracana, the general feeling was that Uruguay would be lambs to the slaughter. Coach Juan Lopez apparently took that view and told the players to defend for their lives. A Uruguay official reportedly told the players that if they lost by fewer than four goals, the team's honour would be preserved. The Uruguay captain, Obdulio Varela, disagreed and, in the dressing room ahead of the match, said they must attack. "If we play defensively against Brazil, our fate will be no different from Spain or Sweden," he said. "Boys, outsiders don't play. Let the show begin." After going a goal down, Uruguay stunned the 174,000-strong crowd by coming back to win 2-1. The game is still known as the Maracanazo - or 'Maracana Blow' - in Brazil and Varela later said that only three people had silenced the Maracana: "The Pope, Frank Sinatra and me."

West Germany 3-2 Hungary (1954 final) The Hungarian 'Golden Team', led by Ferenc Puskas, are widely considered one of the greatest of all time. They had won every game en route to the '54 final, including an 8-3 victory over the Germans in the first group stage. Little wonder, then, that West Germany's triumph became known as the 'Miracle of Berne'. Puskas had returned from injury to feature in the game but it was not enough, with his disallowed late equaliser one of a series of refereeing decisions to go against Hungary.

North Korea 1-0 Italy (1966 group stage) North Korea return to the World Cup this summer after a 44-year absence, and they have plenty to live up to if they are to match the class of '66. Starting the tournament as 1,000-1 outsiders, they bounced back from a 3-0 defeat to Soviet Union in their opening game to draw with Chile and then stun two-time champions Italy to progress to the knockout rounds. Inspired, as they are today, by a 'Great Leader', the country almost went a step further as they led Portugal 3-0 in the second round, but Eusebio scored four goals as Portugal came back to win 5-3.

Jurgen Sparwasser
GettyImagesJurgen Sparwasser leaves West Germany stunned

East Germany 1-0 West Germany (1974 group stage) During the team's 38-year existence, East Germany qualified for just one World Cup: the 1974 tournament in West Germany. As it turned out, the draw for the first group stage of the tournament actually pitted them against West Germany, too, setting up the only significant meeting between the sides in history. After a solid first two games, both teams had already qualified for the second group stage, but this meeting in Hamburg was about much more than sporting success. The West Germans, winners of the 1972 European Championship, were said to have dismissed the East's chances ahead of the match, but they proved tough to break down and, in a match low on quality with a slew of missed chances, Jurgen Sparwasser's 77th-minute strike made the difference. The goal was used for political purposes for years afterwards, but Sparwasser denied suggestions he had been financially rewarded for his efforts and, feeling the strain of continued state exploitation, fled to West Germany shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. "For us, it was just a game," he said in a 2006 interview. "Nothing political." West Germany's Gerd Muller later told FIFA: "All hell broke loose in our training camp when we lost. Helmut Schon was in a right mood and we were up till the early hours trying to work out how we had lost. It shouldn't have happened."

Algeria 2-1 West Germany (1982 group stage) Algeria shocked the world with victory over the European champions in their first ever World Cup match, with Lakhdar Belloumi scoring the winner just seconds after Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's second-half equaliser. "It is the most beautiful memory in Algerian football," Belloumi later said. However, Algeria's joy turned to indignation when they were edged out of a place in the second round on goal difference as, in the final match of the group, West Germany and Austria seemingly agreed to play out the 1-0 German win in that would see both teams through. After Horst Hrubesch's goal in the tenth minute, the sides knocked the ball around aimlessly, prompting anger even among Germans and Austrians. FIFA later changed the rules to ensure the final games of each group would be played simultaneously to avoid a repeat, but Algeria's dream was over.

Spain 0-1 Northern Ireland (1982 group stage) While hosts Spain had already confirmed their passage into the second group stage, there had been little expectation of an upset when they faced Northern Ireland. However, Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal of the game following a goalkeeping error just after the break to see his team top the group. 'That night in Valencia' remains a key moment in Northern Irish history and Armstrong later told the BBC: "It's always mentioned when there's a World Cup here, I think to give inspiration to a lot of the smaller countries trying to emulate what Northern Ireland achieved in '82."

Cameroon 1-0 Argentina (1990 group stage) The defending champions, still featuring the great Diego Maradona, were fully expected to cruise to victory over Cameroon in their opening match at Italia '90. Cameroon, though, were made of sterner stuff than anyone had predicted. Down to ten men on the hour, the Indomitable Lions nonetheless won out as a goalkeeping error saw Francois Omam-Biyik direct a header into the net on 67 minutes. They were even down to nine men in the dying moments but held on to record one of the great upsets.

Ray Houghton
GettyImagesRay Houghton fires in the only goal against Italy in 1994

Republic of Ireland 1-0 Italy (1994 group stage) It was in New Jersey's Giants Stadium that David slayed Goliath in Group E's opening match thanks to a shock long-range effort from Glasgow-born Ray Houghton. Manager Jack Charlton took Ireland through to the second round of the tournament with a host of converted Brits and, together, they gained revenge for their quarter-final exit to the Italians four years earlier. Liverpool-born John Aldridge said later that he felt the Italians were "complacent" in the match, which proved to be Italy's last defeat before losing the final on penalties to Brazil.

Senegal 1-0 France (2002 group stage) World Cup and European Championship holders France endured a stunning first-round exit in 2002 as they failed to score a single goal in the tournament. It would be naive to downplay the quality of Senegal, who were finalists in that year's African Nations Cup and boasted the African Player of the Year in El-Hadji Diouf, but the absence of Zinedine Zidane through injury was widely credited for the loss. "We needed Zizou to keep the ball," defender Frank Leboeuf said. "The Senegalese have had only one chance and they have scored. On top of that, it was a silly goal."

South Korea 2-1 Italy (2002 second round) and South Korea 0-0 (5-3 pens) Spain (2002 quarter-finals) Both matches were certainly aided by favourable refereeing decisions but, nonetheless, South Korea pulled off two stunning upsets on home soil to go further than any other Asian side to date. The country's president, Kim Dae-Jung, said reaching the semi-finals marked the "happiest day since Dangun" founded the country in 2333 BC, while coach Guus Hiddink was, more conservatively, just "happy for the boys".