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Five surprising World Cup runs

Mar 05
Schoenfield By David Schoenfield

Here's the dirty little secret about the World Cup: It's the world's biggest sporting event, but most of the world doesn't actually do very well at the tournament.

The World Cup has been held 10 times since 1970, and just six countries account for the 20 spots in the championship games: Germany/West Germany with five, Brazil and Italy with four each, Argentina with three, and France and the Netherlands with two each.

Those same six countries also account for nine of the 20 teams that played in the third-/fourth-place games. Not surprisingly, those teams all rank in the top 11 of the latest Soccer Power Index. (Surprisingly -- at least if you're not familiar with your World Cup history -- Spain, the No. 2-ranked team, has never reached the semifinals.)

Now, this doesn't mean there haven't been some surprising runs in World Cup history. After all, 11 of those 40 semifinal spots weren't filled by the big six soccer powers. Not all surprising runs, however, are as impressive as they might appear. Turkey finished third in 2002, but it reached the knockout stage via a weak group (Costa Rica and China) and reached the semis with wins over Japan and Senegal. Many soccer fans remember North Korea's win over Italy in 1966, and although that remains one of the all-time upsets, it was North Korea's only victory of the tournament. South Korea reached the semifinals in 2002, but benefited from home turf and especially from some questionable officiating in a round of 16 win over Italy.

5. Netherlands, 1974

The Dutch are recognized as a consistent World Cup contender now, but that wasn't always the case. The Netherlands qualified for the 1974 tournament in Germany after having failed to qualify in 1970 … and 1966 … and 1962 … and 1958. In fact, the country had never won a World Cup game (nor had it qualified for a European Championship tournament at that point). But led by the great Johan Cruyff and its system of "Total Football" developed at the Ajax club team, the Netherlands earned its "Clockwork Orange" nickname for its fluid passing. In the '74 World Cup, the Netherlands easily advanced out of the first group stage with two wins and a draw. In the second round (another group stage), it defeated Argentina 4-0, East Germany 2-0 and Brazil 2-0 to advance to the championship against host West Germany. Johan Neeskens gave the Dutch a lead two minutes in, but West Germany rallied for a 2-1 victory. Four years later, the Netherlands proved the run was no fluke, reaching the title game only to lose yet again to the host (Argentina).

4. Cameroon, 1990

Legendary Roger Milla, at 38 years old, sparked Cameroon's surprising run. Cameroon had stunned defending champion Argentina 1-0 on the first day of the tournament despite finishing with nine players. Against Romania, Milla entered in the second half and scored two late goals for a 2-1 win. Cameroon then became the first African team to reach the quarterfinals, defeating Colombia 2-1 as Milla -- again entering in the second half -- tallied twice in the extra period after the game was tied 0-0 through 90 minutes. In the quarters against England, Cameroon played heroically, leading 2-1 before England was awarded a penalty with eight minutes remaining and tied the score. In the overtime period, England was given another penalty, Gary Lineker converted for the second time and Cameroon went home with a 3-2 loss.

3. United States, 2002

The U.S. run in '02 reached only the quarterfinals, but consider the United States' World Cup record since it qualified in 1990 after a 40-year absence: 3-12-3. That's three wins in 18 games, and remember that the 2-1 win on home turf over Colombia in 1994 came with the help of an own goal by the Colombians. So that just leaves the two wins from 2002 -- a shocking 3-2 win over Portugal (which had qualified without a loss) that included three first-half goals, and a 2-0 win over familiar foe Mexico in the round of 16. The U.S. even dominated the first half in its quarterfinal game against Germany, but a superlative effort by German goalie Oliver Kahn kept the U.S. out of the net in a 1-0 contest.

2. Croatia, 1998

It was difficult to predict how Croatia would do in 1998. Croatians had played for the Yugoslavian national team until 1990 before breaking away and becoming eligible for their first World Cup, which they barely qualified for after beating Ukraine in a playoff. The group stage results didn't yield much information, as wins over Jamaica and Japan were hardly surprising. But in the knockout stage, Croatia beat Romania 1-0 and shocked Germany with a convincing 3-0 defeat. A 2-1 loss to host France ended the run, but a win over the Netherlands locked up third place. Davor Suker cemented his legacy as one of the best ever as he ended up with the Golden Boot as the tournament's high scorer with six goals and was named the second-best player in the tournament behind Ronaldo.

1. Bulgaria, 1994

The Bulgarians certainly didn't enter the '94 World Cup in the United States with high expectations -- after all, they hadn't qualified in 1990 and in five previous World Cup appearances (including four straight from 1962 to 1974), they had never won a game, getting outscored 35-11. This tournament didn't begin any better, with a 3-0 loss to Nigeria, but then Hristo Stoichkov & Co. (later known as the "Golden Generation" in Bulgaria) heated up, beating Greece 4-0 and Argentina 2-0. In the knockout stage, Bulgaria tied Mexico 1-1 (advancing on penalties) and shocked Germany 2-1 to reach the semifinals. A 2-1 loss to Italy and 4-0 loss to Sweden dropped the squad to fourth place. Stoichkov would win the Golden Boot, tying for the tournament lead with six goals. Bulgaria qualifed in 1998 but once again failed to win a game, and it hasn't qualifed since.

David Schoenfield is a senior editor for