World Cup 2014: 10 Biggest Group Stage Upsets in History
Tomorrow’s group stage draw will set the scene for six months of speculation and prediction, as well as shaping the concerns and expectations for a whole host of competing nations.
The prospect of a Group of Death has been mooted extensively in the media and indeed, it remains an intriguing, fascinating and very realistic prospect.
However, while the thought of being drawn alongside some of world football’s finest sides and most prominent superstars may fill any of the tournament’s so-called smaller sides with dread, they need not be fatalistic.
A brief glance back through the World Cup history books demonstrates that the competition has an extensive history of smaller sides who have been written off when faced with more-illustrious opponents, only to upset the odds and win through in the end.
Could one of this year’s unfancied teams defeat or even eliminate a big name in Brazil next summer and etch their name into history? If the World Cup group stage teaches us anything, it is that nothing is impossible.
This article outlines some of the most remarkable results and indeed eliminations in the competition’s group stage history. This collection is not a "ranking" and thus the entries are not in any order.
Please comment below and let me know which you think are the most exceptional on this list or indeed, if you anticipate any more upsets next summer.
Scotland vs. Holland, 1978
Unlike the majority of the other "small teams" to feature in this piece, the Scottish side that travelled to Argentina in 1978 weren’t half bad.
With talented players such as Kenny Dalglish, Joe Jordan and Archie Gemmill, the Scots were confident that they could travel deep into the tournament—this sentiment was stirred up to overpowering proportions by cavalier manager, the late Ally MacLeod, to such an extent that some were even hoping to bring the trophy back to Edinburgh.
Unfortunately, the Scots’ aspirations were not matched by their application.
They were outclassed by Peru in their opening fixture, then only managed a draw against lowly Iran in their second match.
Heading into their final clash with Holland, finalists four years previously, they needed a miracle or, tangibly, to win by two clear goals.
They didn’t quite manage that, but they did manage a superb 3-2 victory nonetheless.
Gemmill’s delightful winner was unforgettably immortalised in the Danny Boyle film Trainspotting while the Dutch overcame their disappointment sufficiently enough to make it all the way to the final again.
France vs. Senegal, 2002
In 2002, France and Senegal contested a remarkable World Cup opener.
Les Bleus were the all-conquering, Zidane-inspired generation heading into the tournament as favourites. They had conquered the world four years earlier and had taken the European crown in 2000.
However, that glorious generation came crumbling to the ground in the most inglorious of fashions in the Seoul World Cup Stadium in South Korea.
Following a David Trezeguet miss, the Lions of Teranga broke forward expertly; El-Hadji Diouf sent in a tempting cross having burst down the left flank. The ball was missed by Fabien Barthez and "The Wardrobe", Papa Bouba Diop, tore in to send it into the French net.
Bruno Metsu’s men managed to hold on to secure a memorable and previously unthinkable 1-0 victory. The result set the tone for both teams’ tournaments; Senengal embarked on a magnificent run to the quarter-finals, while France, vanquished and humiliated, endured a horrible campaign and surrendered their title in ignominious fashion.
Ireland vs. Italy, 1994
There were 75,000 in the Giants Stadium, New York, to witness this engrossing bout between Italy and Ireland at the 1994 World Cup.
The atmosphere was unique, due to the large diasporic population in the Big Apple and the overpowering ambience created by two sets of supporters keen to treat the fixture as a home game.
Defeated semi-finalists four years beforehand, the Azzuri, inspired by Roberto Baggio, were expected to comfortably dispose of Jack Charlton’s team. They were stunned, however, by Ray Houghton’s 11th-minute opener, a remarkable, long-distance shot that silenced large portions of the crowd.
The Irish managed to preserve their lead and advanced to the second round. Italy, of course, made it all the way to the final before Baggio’s luck ran out.
Argentina vs. Cameroon, 1990
When Cameroon and Argentina met to open Group B at the 1990 World Cup, global football had a very different complexion from today’s landscape.
Sub-Saharan African teams had a very limited pedigree; the great Zaire team of the late 1960s and early 1970s had endured a rocky tournament in 1974 and that, unfortunately, informed the perception of the region’s ability.
That was all to change as the Indomitable Lions met holders Argentina in the San Siro.
The ill-tempered contest was characterised by Cameroonian aggression and growing Argentine frustration. It was decided, however, in the 67th minute as Francois Omam Biyick leapt to meet a corner and send the ball past Nery Pumpido.
The nine men of Cameroon secured a priceless result, changing the perception of the football of Sub-Saharan Africa in the eyes of the wider footballing universe. The Indomitable Lions would race into the quarter-finals during a pulsating campaign, yet to be bettered by an African side.
It all originated with this unbelievable giant-killing.
Northern Ireland vs. Spain, 1982
As host nation, the 1982 World Cup seemed to offer Spain a glorious opportunity to shake off their "underachievers" tag and claim a premier international crown.
Considering this defeat, however, it’s no surprise that they would have to wait another 28 years before breaking their duck.
Northern Ireland, playing before a raucous Valencia crowd, proved to be much greater than the sum of their parts. Their collection of journeymen delivered an outstanding team performance, overcoming the dismissal of Mal Donaghy to remain resolute and thwart the Spanish onslaught.
Winger Gerry Armstrong was the hero, the quickest to react following a slip from Luis Arconda and firing home to silence the crowd. It remains Northern Ireland’s finest hour at the World Cup.
Italy vs. New Zealand, 2010
Unlike the other results featured here, this one didn’t end with the defeat of a major footballing power.
However, considering the differences in quality between Italy and New Zealand, the very fact that the All Whites were not defeated must go down as one of the biggest shocks in group stage history.
Heading into this Group F clash at the 2010 World Cup, Italy were the globe’s reigning champions, while New Zealand were the tournament’s rank outsiders, relative no-hopers whose primary aspiration was to avoid a hammering or two.
The Italians were out of sorts, however, with Gigi Buffon injured and out of action, and a transitional squad that had looked off the pace in their opening-day draw with Paraguay.
An early Shane Smeltz goal rattled the Italians and even though Vincenzo Iaquinta responded with a 29th-minute penalty, Italy were unable to break down the resolute New Zealanders. Current Toronto FC boss Ryan Nelsen was particularly outstanding.
Neither side escaped the group stage but, remarkably, it was the All Whites that finished in third place and the Azzuri who claimed bottom spot.
West Germany vs. Algeria, 1982
By my reckoning, Lakhder Belloumi’s showing at the 1982 remains the finest World Cup tournament for an African individual in history.
The playmaker was in inspirational form as Algeria began the tradition of African giant-killings against West Germany.
The North Africans scored first, but when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge equalised, a German triumph looked imminent. It wasn’t to be, however, and showing great resolve, the Fennecs fought back to find a winner.
It was that man Belloumi who scored it, finding the net in the 68th minute.
Despite this victory and a subsequent win over Chile, Algeria were eliminated following collusion between Austria and West Germany. This meant that both European teams advanced, with the North Africans heading home by virtue of an inferior goal difference.
England vs. USA, 1950
Heading into this group stage clash at the 1950 tournament, England were the assumed kings of the sport, while the United States were veritable no-hopers.
However, a hopeful shot by Walter Bahr was deflected past Bert Williams in the England goal by the Haitian Gaetjens’ brave diving header.
England gave everything they had in order to break down the assembled amateurs of the States, but their attempts were futile and America clung on to claim an infamous 1-0 victory.
England were humiliated in failure, but ultimately both they and the U.S. crashed out at the group stage.
North Korea vs. Italy, 1966
In 1966 Italy met the unfancied North Koreans at Ayresome Park in Group 4.
Just before half-time, Pak Doo-Ik received the ball on the edge of the Italian box with the defence trying to pull away from goal. He let the ball drop over his shoulder before spanking it past Ricky Albertosi in the Azzuri goal.
The finish sparked delirium among the local fans in attendance, many of them having turned out in the hope of witnessing a giant-killing.
Italy, stunned, went into the break dwelling on their errors and were unable to muster a response during the second half. A point would have been sufficient to see them qualify for the next round, but they failed to manage even that and crashed out.
Predictably, the result was not well received back home. The team were met by a barrage of rotten vegetables upon their arrival, many of them with their reputations in tatters.
Brazil vs. Uruguay, 1950
The 1950 World Cup was settled by two group stage rounds. The clash between Uruguay and Brazil was not the final per se, but as it was the deciding game of the final group stage, it is often considered as such.
Nonetheless, it makes it into my list as it did come within the context of a group.
Brazilians still remember this defeat as The Lost Final—it prompted a national, communal depression.
Heading into the contest at the Maracana, the home side had already decided that this was their year finally to ascend to the throne—an honour they had never previously claimed.
However, the 200,000 in attendance fell silent as right-half Julio Perez—who had earlier soiled himself with fear during the anthems—played in Alcides Ghiggia. The Brazilians, who after being frustrated by their own attacking inadequacies had lost some of their earlier bravado, expected a cross, but Ghiggia took a shot.
He wasn’t disappointed.
The goalscorer later said: "Only three people have ever silenced 200,000 people at the Maracana with a single gesture: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and I."