Best Underdog Stories in World Football
Against all the odds, there's something all too gratifying about seeing the little guy overcome adversity to achieve something that by all rights shouldn't be his.
Whether it's on the individual, club or national team basis, the world of football has thrown up its fair share of chaos theory contenders down the years, people pulling off massive feats despite probability running massively in the opposite direction.
Read on to find some of the biggest David vs. Goliath stories from the sport's recent history, underdog tales that give just about anyone encouragement
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Turkey Stun at Euro 2008
Having played in just three European Cups to date, Turkey have held nothing back when they do feature in the continental tournament, reaching the finals stage of two of those competitions.
Their most successful outing came at Euro 2008, when the Crescent Stars, then under the management of Fatih Terim, made their way to the semi-finals before being knocked out by Germany, despite putting up an incredible fight.
The likes of Arda Turan, Semih Senturk and Nihat Kahveci were all vital figures as Turkey pulled off comeback after comeback in the group and quarter-final stages of the tournament, before eventually ending their trip in die-hard fashion.
The Tale of Gareth Bale
Jumping firmly atop the Welshman’s bandwagon, Gareth Bale has actually fought against some odds on his journey to being named the world’s most expensive footballer.
The 24-year-old comes from a relatively humble background in Cardiff, but it’s the route Bale’s professional career has taken that really tells his tale of adversity.
Originally a full-back, Bale was all but written off as having a great future at White Hart Lane until he was pushed into a more offensive role circa 2010/11 campaign.
It took the Welsh sensation more than 24 Premier League games before emerging on the winning side of a game, but that’s where the ascent began and Bale hasn’t looked back since.
In total, Tottenham made a £78 million profit from the sale of their star, showing just how much his value has risen since the days he was playing second fiddle to Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
Uruguay’s Global Pedigree
As a country with a population of just under 3.4 million, Uruguay really have no business in being one of the world’s football giants.
In this sport, quantity combined with the right coaching platform can often produce quality, meaning the South American nation can never really have one of those factors running in their favour.
However, Uruguay haven’t let that disadvantage affect them too much when competing on the international stage, winning the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, as well as making the semi-finals of the tournament on three other occasions.
Combine that record with another four Copa America wins and numerous semi-final and final appearances and you end up with a minnow nation drawing in way more success than should ever have come their way.
8. West Germany’s 1954 World Cup Triumph
The first World Cup West Germany had competed in since the Second World War, the 1954 World Cup, had a myriad of factors working against Sepp Herberger’s side.
Although the nation had a hugely talented squad, Hungary were always being looked upon as favourites to come out on top of the tournament, with Ferenc Puskas as their leading force.
Coming into the competition on the back of a 35-match unbeaten streak, the Hungarians overcame West Germany in the group stage 8-3.
Hungary would then go on to knock out both 1950 World Cup finalists, Uruguay and Brazil, before meeting West Germany once more in the final and looking just about unstoppable in the process.
However, the underdog story was completed as West Germany began an assault on the world stage that wouldn’t end for another 20 years as they reached at least the semi-finals in four of the five World Cups following.
That dominance began with an eventual 3-2 upset over Hungary in the ’54 edition, where Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn provided the ammunition necessary to begin their reign as a global force.
7. Italy’s 1982 World Cup
After drawing all three of their group stage matches, one wouldn’t have been blamed for thinking Italy wouldn’t be capable of emerging from the 1982 World Cup as victors.
Having achieved fourth place in the competition four years earlier, Italy had proven that they were capable of going far in these kinds of tournaments, but perhaps lacking the touches necessary to beat the bigger teams.
However, that notion was put to bed in Spain as the Azzurri pulled off victories over reigning world champions Argentina, Brazil and finally West Germany to complete a trifecta of massive upsets in 1982.
Enzo Bearzot would stay in charge of the national team for another four years before failing to make it past the Round of 16 in Italy’s title defence, showing just what an anomaly the 1982 edition really was.
6. Sunderland’s 1972-73 FA Cup Tale
Still in the second division at the time, Sunderland’s 1972-73 FA Cup triumph provided perfect evidence as to just the type of underdog magic the English competition tends to produce.
Bob Stokoe’s side needed a replay at every stage of the tournament leading up to their quarter-final, seeing off the likes of Reading, Manchester City and Notts County along the way.
Luton Town were the next side to fall victim to the dark horses from the northeast, but it was in the semi-final fixture against Arsenal that Sunderland’s genuine talent really started to shine through.
Leeds United were the defending FA Cup champions at the time and a final fixture against Do Revie’s outfit was far from the ideal for Stokoe’s minnows.
However, an Ian Porterfield first-half finish, along with some of the best goalkeeping English football has ever seen, courtesy of Jimmy Montgomery, was enough to ease the Black Cats to a 1-0 victory.
Only two other outfits of lower league position have won the tournament, and the FA Cup upset remains Sunderland’s last major trophy win.
5. Lionel Messi’s Small Beginnings
In essence, the biggest underdog story one can ever tell on the individual scale is when a person is genetically handed an inferior hand.
Although that’s not to say being smaller makes it impossible for one to fashion a career out of sports. But to be born with a growth defect and yet still go on to become one of the world’s highest paid and most adored players is simply overcoming the odds in an altogether more marvelous way.
Such was the case for Lionel Messi who, after being diagnosed with a growth hormone disorder in his early youth, was rejected by River Plate as they wouldn’t shell out for his medical needs.
Through Human Growth Hormone (HGH) injections, Messi would eventually rise to his current height of 5’7”, which appears to be doing him alright.
While the Argentine giants may have missed out on the then Newell’s Old Boys prodigy, one club who did choose to invest in the Rosario wunderkind were FC Barcelona, and the rest is history.
4. Rickie Lambert, from Rags to Riches
Like Messi, Rickie Lambert is a player who was never dealt with the greatest of hands.
Nevertheless he's played his cards well and has gone on to earn a great deal as a result of sheer hard work.
Although the undoubted flavour of the month, Lambert’s now well-known journey from being a beetroot factory worker following his release from Blackpool earlier in his career is nevertheless one of the biggest testaments to the notion that hard work pays off.
Having played in every tier of English football, the Southampton sensation made his England debut in August of this year at the grand old age of 31.
Just four years ago, the forward was purchased by League Two’s Bristol Rovers for a fee of £200,000, despite being in what many would say is the prime of a striker’s career.
Having been released from Liverpool as a youth, how amazing it is that the journeyman should come to finally debut for his national team 16 years later, scoring with his first touch of an international ball.
3. Zambia’s 2012 African Cup of Nations
In 2012, Zambia’s Africa Cup of Nations tournament was the crowning achievement for a side who had come full circle. It was an amazing achievement for a team who had experienced tragedy almost a quarter of a century earlier the likes of which no national team should have to endure.
In 1993, a military plane from Libreville carrying 18 players from Zambia crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 30 passengers on board. At the time, the country was entering a period of football prosperity and were expected to qualify for the following year’s World Cup.
After two decades of rebuilding, Zambia won their first continental title, despite still being one of the more unfancied outfits competing.
Herve Renard led his side past the likes of Senegal and Ghana before completing the upset after a penalty shootout triumph against three-time finalists, Ivory Coast.
Stoppila Sunza, Emmanuel Mayuka and Christoper Katongo may have been the stars of Zambia’s show, but not many times before has a more united team progressed to win the competition.
The tense outcome of the final only helped in emphasizing just how far this country had come since being sent back to the drawing board 19 years previous, in what remains one of the most emotional moments in African football.
2. Greece’s Euro 2004 Adventure
Like many a minnow story, Greece’s victory at Euro 2004 started off with the side being pretty much written off as an actual threat to the silverware.
Otto Rehhagel’s side weren’t the most talented nor the side perhaps with the biggest cause to win, but Greece nonetheless came out on top in a tournament containing some of the most powerful teams ever assembled on the international stage.
Pitted as 150/1 shots coming into the competition, the odds alone are enough to show just how stacked probability was against a side that would eventually pull off arguably the biggest "cupset" in European national team history.
With a draw against Spain and a shock win over Portugal in the group stage, Greece made their way into a quarter-final tie against France, again with a defensive mindset which would work to their advantage as they came out on top of a 1-0 scoreline.
An extra time win over the Czech Republic at the semi-final stage would set up another clash with Portugal for the finale, where Rehhagel’s strategy would work once again.
Angelos Charisteas providing the sole goal in another 1-0 victory.
What was even more incredible about this surprise result is that The National would manage to overcome the host country not just once but twice in their own backyard.
Lisbon sat stunned.
1. Nottingham Forest Pull off 1978 Magic
These days, the very thought of a promoted side coming into the Premier League and overcoming the established institute of English giants to win the division is nothing short of ridiculous.
But it wasn’t always the case.
Back in the 1970s, before club investment and transfers had begun to take as much of a grip on matters among the football hierarchy, Nottingham Forest pulled off the unthinkable themselves.
After gaining promotion from the English Second Division by coming third, Brian Clough would then lead his side onto considerably greater things in Division One, the league title being the greatest of those.
What’s more, Clough’s squad had the depth to even sew up triumph in the League Cup, marking a historic double for a team only just promoted to the English top flight.
This made Clough only one of several managers ever to win the First Division title with two different clubs in the process.