1) England 0 USA 1, Brazil 1950
The biggest World Cup upset up to that point in the competition’s history and one so shocking that some newspapers assumed the wire report of a 1-0 final score was a typo and so instead reported that England had won 10-0. That is a myth, apparently, but nobody could blame editors at the time for not believing the turn of events in Belo Horizonte. An England team featuring players such as Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen were meant to wipe the floor with an American side made up largely of amateurs and who had arrived in Brazil having trained for only a week together. Even their own manager, Bill Jeffrey, described them as “‘sheep ready to be slaughtered” but in their second group game they performed like lions, taking the lead through a 38th-minute header from Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian-born dishwasher from New York, and holding on during a second-half onslaught from England to complete the so-called “Miracle on Grass”.
2) Italy 0 North Korea 1, England 1966
It’s hard to think of North Korea as plucky little underdogs but that was very much the case on a July evening at Ayresome Park as a nation featuring at the World Cup finals tournament for a first time came up against the two-time winners of the competition. According to most, North Korea stood no chance of prevailing, especially given they went into what was the final round of fixtures in Group 4 having lost 3-0 against the Soviet Union and drawn 1-1 with Chile. Italy had beaten Chile 2-0 but then lost 1-0 against the Soviet Union so were vulnerable, but they should have breezed to victory in Middlesbrough. Instead, however, they were undone just before half-time via a low shot from a little-known midfielder who is now part of pub quiz folklore: Pak Doo-ik. “The North Koreans take the lead – what a sensation!” the BBC commentator Frank Bough roared, and it really was. That North Korea held on and qualified for the quarter-finals at Italy’s expense made it even more so.
3) Argentina 1 Saudi Arabia 2, Qatar 2022
The latest World Cup may be a regrettable one but it has already produced one of the greatest upsets in the competition’s history. Saudi Arabia arrived at the Lusail Stadium ranked 51st in the world – a place below Qatar – and found themselves coming up against a team unbeaten in 36 matches, a run during which they have also become Copa América champions. They also had a certain Lionel Messi in their ranks. Argentina should have won with ease but instead were undone through a combination of their own sluggishness and a display of great togetherness and ambition by their opponents. Crucially, Hervé Renard’s men also had a cutting edge, cancelling out Messi’s 10th-minute penalty via two well-taken second-half goals, scored by Saleh al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari. Argentina reacted with increased intensity but Saudi Arabia stood firm and, eventually, were able to celebrate a result of genuine shock and awe.
4) Argentina 0 Cameroon 1, Italy 1990
As difficult as it is for football fans in their forties to accept, Italia ‘90 was not a good World Cup. What is for sure, however, is that it started with an almighty bang. Cameroon arrived at the tournament with little pedigree or form and with a squad largely made up of journeymen from France’s second division who were constantly at each other’s throats. They were in a wretched state going into the opening game in Milan and were fully expected to be hammered by the holders, who just so happened to be captained by the best player on the planet in Diego Maradona. Ultimately, however, neither he or anyone else in blue and white could pierce the wall of African defiance in front of them and were left stunned after François Omam-Biyik’s header squirted through the grasp of goalkeeper Nery Pumpido on 67 minutes. It would prove to be the winning goal and lives on as one of the most iconic, and vivid, moments in World Cup history.
5) France o Senegal 1, Korea & Japan 2002
Another opening game that saw a team from Africa kick things off in spectacular style. Appearing at their first World Cup, Senegal should have stood no chance against not only the holders but also reigning European champions. France were imperious and even without the injured Zinedine Zidane were expected to win with ease on a late May night in Seoul. But instead they were overwhelmed by positive, skilful and determined opponents largely made up of players from the middle-ranks of France’s domestic leagues. Lens’ El Hadji Diouf was Senegal’s tormentor-in-chief and it was he would assist what would prove to be the winning goal, driving down the left-wing on 30 minutes and delivering a low cross that Papa Bouba Diop put past Fabian Barthez at the second attempt. “We have achieved something extraordinary,” said Diouf afterwards. He was not wrong.
6) Bulgaria 2 Germany 1, USA 1994
Upsets in the group stages are one thing; upsets in the knockout stages, when the bigger and better teams should well and truly be in their stride, is another. That, in part, is what makes Bulgaria’s victory over Germany in the quarter-finals of the 1994 tournament so legendary; it simply should not have happened, despite the fact Bulgaria had been performing well in the United States and contained a handful of highly talented players, no one more so than Hristo Stoichkov. Germany were the holders and this was the sharp end of proceedings; they were going to do what they so often do – win. Instead, however, they were stunned on a hot July afternoon in New Jersey as Bulgaria cancelled out a 47th-minute penalty from Lothar Matthäus via goals from Stoichkov and Yordan Letchkov, the latter remaining the greatest diving header by a balding player ever seen at a World Cup.