As we gear up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, plenty of pundits and fans across the world have expressed their opinions on which teams they believe will lift the coveted World Cup trophy. Still, there have been those times when determined underdogs have unceremoniously defeated the tournament favorites. Let’s take a look at the most surprising World Cup upsets that even the most dedicated football experts may not have seen coming.
Bulgaria 2, Germany 1 – 1994 Quartefinals
Having won their group and defeated Belgium 3-2 in the Round of 16, Germany seemed to be in fine form going into the quarterfinals. Bulgaria, on the other hand, were surprise packages, clinching second place in their group and sneaking through to the quarters by defeating Mexico on penalties.
Form didn’t matter much once the match got underway, however, as Bulgaria came from behind to send the Germans packing, proving themselves to be the dark horses of the tournament.
USA 1, England 0 – 1950 Group Stage
Going into this game, the United States looked particularly shaky, having lost seven consecutive matches. In fact, the USA conceded 45 goals in those seven games while managing to score just two. This made the result of the game with England all the more astonishing.
Dubbed the “Miracle on Grass”, the rag-tag American team managed to hold on for the win after scoring in the 38th minute, effectively eliminating England from the tournament.
Switzerland 1, Spain 0 – 2010 Group Stage
While Spain may have gone on to win the World Cup in South Africa, few would have expected “La Furia Roja” to lose their opening game; particularly given how strong their squad was on paper. Still, this didn’t deter the Swiss from causing the upset of the tournament.
Despite dominating possession, Spain was unable to claw their way back after Gelson Fernandes opened the scoring for the Swiss.
Scotland 3, Netherlands 2 – 1978 Group Stage
In an era where Dutch “Total Football” reigned supreme, few could believe it when minnows Scotland managed to put three goals past the highly-rated Dutch defense. What’s more, the Netherlands made it all the way to the previous World Cup final; a feat that many believed they could repeat this time around.
Ultimately, the result made little difference to the tournament outcome, as the Dutch reached yet another World Cup final. Still, Scotland’s victory will not easily be forgotten.
Cameroon 1, Argentina 0 – 1990 Group Stage
Having won the previous World Cup, the 80s were the golden age of Argentinian football, particularly with Diego Maradona in his prime. That being said, the reigning world champions were stunned when Cameroon’s François Omam-Biyik scored the winner in a hard-fought opening game.
While Argentina still managed to clinch third place at the tournament, Cameroon brought much pride to Africa by making it all the way to the quarterfinals.
Senegal 1, France 0 – 2002 Group Stage
Although many knew it would be challenging for France to defend their 1998 World Cup crown, few would have expected this star-studded team to be shut out by Senegal. With a goal from Bouba Diop, Senegal was able to secure a coveted spot in the knockout rounds.
While the Senegalese put themselves on the map after reaching the quarterfinals, 2002 was a year to forget for the French, who were eliminated without a goal to their name.
North Korea 1, Italy 0 – 1966 Group Stage
In 1966, Italy were two-time World Cup winners who were determined to add a third cup to their collection. North Korea, on the other hand, was participating in its first-ever World Cup. This match proved that history means nothing once the kickoff whistle blows.
Thanks to their shock 1-0 triumph, North Korea was able to launch a memorable cup run to the quarterfinals while the Italians bowed out in the group stage.
Germany 7, Brazil 1 – 2014 Semi-Finals
As World Cup hosts, Brazil had heavy expectations on their shoulders as they looked to win a sixth title in front of their home crowd. Up until the quarterfinals, it really seemed as if they could achieve this feat. That is, until, they met Germany.
Having steamrolled Portugal 4-0 in the group stage, Germany proved that they still had plenty of fuel in the tank as they humiliated Brazil en route to World Cup glory.
Northern Ireland 1, Spain 0 – 1982 Group Stage
As home to some of the best soccer clubs on earth, it seemed illogical that the Spanish national team had been unable to win a World Cup until 1982. While they may not have been the powerhouses they are today, a win against minnows Northern Ireland was a reasonable expectation.
Even with the talented Juanito in their attack, Spain was unable to find the back of the net as Northern Ireland humiliated them at their home tournament.
Costa Rica’s 2014 World Cup Run
Placed in the “group of death” alongside giants Uruguay, Italy, and England, underdogs Costa Rica seemed destined for elimination before the tournament even started. That was before the strong-willed Central Americans defeated Uruguay 3-1 and Italy 1-0 and drew 0-0 with England to win the group.
Ultimately, it took a penalty shootout against the Netherlands in the quarterfinal to end Costa Rica’s fairytale run which remains the proudest achievement of the country’s football history.
Slovakia 3, Italy 2 – 2010 Group Stage
Africa’s World Cup was iconic for many reasons, among them the upsets that the tournament produced. Just one of these games was the defeat of reigning champions Italy at the hands of Slovakia, who were appearing in their first-ever World Cup.
Despite being newcomers, Slovakia managed to secure a spot in the Round of 16 thanks to this victory, while Italy crashed out of the competition, coming last in their group.
South Africa 2, France 1 – 2010 Group Stage
After making it to the previous World Cup final, plenty of fans would have expected France to exhibit the hunger that was needed to win the tournament this time around. Instead, it was the South Africans who were more determined to impress in front of their home fans.
While they may not have progressed from the group stages, South Africa enjoyed a strong ending to their World Cup journey, eliminating the former world champions in the process.
South Korea 2, Italy 1 – 2002 Round of 16
As tournament co-hosts, South Korea had impressed in the group stages, defeating Portugal and Poland while drawing with the United States to win their group. Up next was the challenge of facing an in-form Italian team led by legends such as Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, and Fabio Cannavaro.
Despite not looking as glamorous on paper, the South Koreans showed their grit, scoring a dramatic winner in extra time to seal a 2-1 victory.
Algeria 2, West Germany 1 – 1982 Group Stage
In what was their first World Cup appearance, Algeria was given the stern test of beginning their campaign against two-time champions West Germany. Still, the African side exhibited the cool temperament they needed to defeat the Germans, scoring the winner just a minute after conceding a goal.
Sadly, progression from the group was not on the cards for Algeria, who missed out on goal difference. Still, this was the first of several tournaments for the North Africans.
Uruguay 2, Brazil 1 – 1950 Final
While the numbers remain disputed, the 1950 World Cup final is believed to hold the attendance record for any World Cup game. In addition to this solid home ground advantage, the Brazilians were also tournament favorites, with a victory seemingly sealed before the game even started.
Although Brazil predictably opened the scoring, what fans didn’t predict was for underdogs Uruguay to score two goals in the second half to clinch the World Cup trophy.
Italy 2, Germany 0 – 2006 Semifinals
Leading up the tournament, Italian football was going through a dark period, with a corruption scandal in Serie A leading to widespread investigations. Germany, on the other hand, was enjoying a promising age, cruising to the World Cup semifinals without dropping a single point.
With penalties looming, Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero scored in the final minutes of extra time to propel Italy to World Cup glory and eliminate the host nation.
Norway 2, Brazil 1 – 1998 Group Stages
Before their final group game against Norway, 1994 World Cup winners Brazil seemed to be cruising to the knockout stages. Norway, on the other hand, had everything to play for after drawing their first two games against Scotland and Morocco. Unbelievably, the Norwegians would soon prove that determination is everything.
Despite being their toughest opponents yet, Norway defeated the group winners to secure second place and, therefore, a spot in the Round of 16.
Nigeria 3, Spain 2 – 1998 Group Stages
With legends such as Raul and Luis Enrique at their disposal, Spain seemed destined to cruise through their World Cup group. The team’s expectations were no smaller ahead of their opening game against Nigeria. This made it all the more surprising when Nigeria scored three goals against La Furia Roja.
By pulling off an unlikely victory, the Eagles secured their place in the next round. Spain, on the other hand, were eliminated by a single point.
Netherlands 5, Spain 1 – 2014 Group Stage
In a repeat of the 2010 final, the Netherlands were on the hunt for revenge after Spain clinched the World Cup trophy near the end of extra time. This time around, it was the Netherlands’ turn to break Spanish hearts.
By putting five goals past Spain, the Dutch secured their spot as group winners while the reigning champions crashed out of the group stage.
West Germany 3, Hungary 2 – 1954 Final
While the opposite may be true today, in 1954, Hungary was the team to beat. Having already thumped West Germany 8-3 in their group stage clash, it seemed only logical for Hungary to triumph again and clinch their first World Cup trophy.
Unfortunately for the Hungarians, it wasn’t to be as the Germans made a valiant comeback from 2-0 down to attain World Cup glory.
Croatia 3, Germany 0 – 1998 Quarterfinals
With Juergen Klinsmann as captain, Germany seemed to be on track to clinch their fourth World Cup, after winning their group convincingly and disposing of Mexico in the Round of 16. Croatia, on the other hand, was enjoying a promising run of their own.
Despite not having a star-studded team on paper, Croatia proved the importance of team chemistry as they crushed Germany 3-0 to secure their spot in the semifinals.
Switzerland’s 2006 World Cup Run
Stuck in a challenging group consisting of France and the 2002 World Cup’s fourth-placed team South Korea, the Swiss emerged as group winners, earning a valuable point in a goalless draw against France before defeating both South Korea and Togo by 2-0 scorelines.
Although Switzerland lost on penalties against Ukraine in the Round of 16, they accomplished a unique achievement, by becoming the only team to not concede a goal in normal time.
South Korea 2, Germany 0 – 2018 Group Stages
With Sweden and Germany tied on points going into the final round of group games, Germany’s game against South Korea was a must-win, especially since their opponents had lost both of their previous matches. Still, the South Koreans were determined to save face in what had been a disappointing tournament.
The game seemed destined to remain goalless until Kim Young-gwon scored in the 94th minute. Son Heung-min then doubled South Korea’s lead at the death to seal a dramatic victory and eliminate Germany from the competition.
Poland 1, Brazil 0 – 1974 Third-Place Play-off
As reigning champions, Brazil had high hopes of repeating their 1970 title run. Ultimately, it wasn’t to be after they finished second in both the first and second round of group stage games. Still, they sealed their spot in the third-place play-off against Poland.
While they had an opportunity to end their tournament on a high, Brazil bowed out with a 1-0 loss to Poland, thereby bringing a disappointing tournament to a close.
Russia 1, Spain 1 (4-3 penalties) – 2018 Round of 16
After being eliminated from the group stage in 2014, the Spanish were eager to prove themselves this time around. Despite being in a tough group along with Portugal, they emerged as group winners, ready to face hosts Russia in the round of 16.
Spain struggled to find the back of the net, relying on an own goal to keep the match level before losing to the Russian underdogs in a penalty shootout.
Portugal 3, Brazil 1 – 1966 Group Stage
While Portugal may have proven to be a challenging opponent with Eusébio as their front man, Brazil certainly wouldn’t have expected to lose considering their star-studded team. What’s more, Brazil had won the two previous tournaments, making them clear favorites.
Pelé and the rest of Brazil’s icons were unable to prevent what was a clear loss and Brazil’s second. Thus, the Seleção was unexpectedly eliminated in the group stage.
Spain 0, South Korea 0 (3-5 penalties) – 2002 Quarterfinals
For Spain, this quarterfinal clash was their opportunity to overcome their history of premature World Cup exits. South Korea, on the other hand, was out to prove their ability as host nation to delight their home fans with yet another surprise victory.
With the game goalless after extra time, the South Koreans repeated their heroics against Italy in the previous round, this time clinching a spot in the semifinals.
Croatia 3, Argentina 0 – 2018 Group Stage
Headlined by the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Javier Mascherano, big things were expected of Argentina at the 2018 World Cup. Still, Croatia weren’t about to let pre-match predictions determine their fate. Soon after kickoff, the Croatians began to barrage the Argentinians with shot after shot.
Croatia’s fierce attack paid off, while captain Luka Modric showed exactly why he was awarded the Ballon d’Or that year.
Republic of Ireland 1, Italy 0 – 1994 Group Stage
As the third-placed team in 1990, the Azzuri was determined to go the distance in this around, starting with a convincing victory over underdogs Republic of Ireland. Considering that the Irish were participating in their second-ever tournament, they weren’t given much chance by the bookies.
Although Italy were ultimately runners-up that year, the Irish pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of defeating Italy and booking their spot in the next round.
Mexico 1, Germany 0 – 2018 Group Stage
Despite their strong lineup, Mexico wasn’t expected to pose much of a threat against the reigning World Cup champions. Through much of the first half, this expectation seemed to ring true as Germany dominated possession. That all changed in the 35th minute, when Hirving Lozano fired home a goal to hand Mexico the lead.
Mexico’s resilient defensive efforts paid off as they held on for the win and sent Germany on their way to an early World Cup exit.
Ghana 2, Czech Republic 0 – 2006 Group Stage
Plenty was expected of the Czech Republic, particularly with stars such as Pavel Nedvěd and Tomáš Rosický in their prime. What’s more, they had just thumped the United States 3-0, while their opponents Ghana were reeling from a 2-0 loss at the hands of Italy.
Contrary to both teams’ recent form, the Ghanaians scored twice to defeat the Czechs and book a place in the knockouts while the Czech Republic booked an early ticket home.
Belgium 1, Spain 1 (5-4 penalties) – 1986 Quarterfinals
In what had been an underwhelming era of Spanish football, La Furia Roja were looking to turn their fortunes around. After narrowly qualifying for the knockout rounds, Spain finally seemed to find their groove with a 5-1 victory over Denmark in the round of 16.
Sadly for Spain, their joy was shortlived, as surprise package Belgium defeated them on penalties to book a coveted semifinal spot.
Croatia 2, England 1 – 2018 Semi-Finals
Captained by 2018 Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, England had high hopes of repeating their 1966 success as they fought their way to the semifinals. But while England displayed plenty of grit during their World Cup journey, Croatia had emerged as a dominant force during that World Cup.
After conceding an early goal, Croatia clawed their way back through an Ivan Perišić strike before Mario Mandžukić sent the Croats to the final with an extra time winner.
Mexico 2, France 0 – 2010 Group Stage
Following a goalless draw with top contenders Uruguay, France knew that a win against Mexico would be crucial in order for them to pave the way to the knockout rounds. Mexico, however, had no intention of doing the French any favors as they sought their own progression.
Mexico’s hard work paid off in the second half when they scored two goals to grab second place in the group while France bowed out of the competition.
Chile 2, Spain 0 – 2014 Group Stage
Before being crowned the 2015 Copa American champions, Chile was widely viewed as an underdog on the world stage, particularly when compared to the likes of then-reigning world champions Spain. Little did the Spanish realize, however, that Chile’s reign was about to begin.
With two first-half goals courtesy of Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz, the South Americans booked their place in the next round while Spain’s tournament came to an unceremonious end.
Bulgaria 2, Argentina 0 – 1994 Group Stage
As champions in 1986 and runners-up in 1990, Argentina had heavy hopes of adding another World Cup to their collection,especially with Diego Simeone and Gabriel Batistuta among their ranks. Little did they realize that Bulgaria was gearing up to be the surprise package of the tournament.
With the game deadlocked, two late goals sealed the win for Bulgaria, thereby enabling them to replace Argentina in second place in the group.
Serbia 1, Germany 0 – 2010 Group Stage
With Germany looking to improve on their third-placed finish in 2006, few would have expected newcomers Serbia to cause them any problems. After all, Germany had just defeated Australia 4-0 while Serbia had lost 1-0 to Ghana. Unfortunately for Germany, form had no effect on this game’s outcome.
Despite finishing last in the group, Serbia’s 1-0 victory over Germany was arguably the underdogs’ proudest moment of the tournament.
United States 2, Portugal 2 – 2014 Group Stage
After being silenced 4-0 by Germany, Portugal was in desperate need of a victory against the United States in order to have any chance of survival. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the U.S. got the game off to a fiery start, with Clint Dempsey scoring seconds after kickoff.
Although Portugal was able to rescue a draw in the final moments of the game, this didn’t stop them from being eliminated in the group stage.
Germany 4, Argentina 0 – 2010 Quarterfinals
While Germany’s squad for this World Cup was undeniably talented, many would have expected a team of Argentina’s stature to at least add some difficulty to their title challenge. Ultimately, the game was not nearly as even as it appeared on paper.
After Thomas Müller opened the scoring in the third minute, Germany ran rampant, putting four goals past Argentina to send them crashing out of the competition.
Switzerland 2, Italy 1 – 1954 Group Stage
As champions at the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, Italy was already considered to be a football powerhouse, especially when compared to a less developed team such as Switzerland. Unfortunately for the Italians, however, their opening group game would not go as planned.
Italy’s loss against Switzerland contributed to the Azzurri’s short World Cup journey, as another defeat would see them exit the tournament in the first round.
Saudi Arabia 2, Argentina 1 – 2022 Group Stage
As the 2022 World Cup in Qatar opened in November, Argentina were heavy favorites to go all the way. Heading into their World Cup debut match against Saudi Arabia, they had been undefeated for 35 matches in a row, on track to break Italy’s record.
Things looked promising at first, with Lionel Messi scoring a penalty early on. But the Saudi defence held firm and they managed to shock the world as they scored two goals in the second half.
Morocco 2, Spain 2 – 2018 Group Stage
After drawing 3-3 with Portugal and grabbing a narrow 1-0 win over Iran, Spain knew that a win in their final group game was vital. Despite seeming inferior on paper, Morroco would push Spain to the limit in this clash.
Ultimately, Spain had to rely on a last-minute Iago Aspas goal to rescue a point and sneak through to the knockouts by a single point.
Uruguay 2, Portugal 1 – 2018 Round of 16
Fresh off their Euro 2016 victory, many expected Portugal to go the distance at the 2018 World Cup. Still, Uruguay was not to be underestimated, with stars such as Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez among their ranks as well as a fourth-placed finish in 2010 to prove their ability.
Despite dominating possession, Portugal could not handle Uruguay’s blistering counter-attack, thereby failing to replicate their European Championsip success.
Morocco 2, Portugal 1 – 1986 Group Stage
Having already defeated England, all that Portugal had to do to qualify from their group was beat Morocco, who were appearing in only their second World Cup. For the Portuguese, however, this task would be prove more challenging that was first expected.
Morocco had little trouble defeating Portugal, racing to a three-goal lead to secure qualification to the next round while Portugal bowed out of the competition.
Denmark 2, France 0 – 2002 Group Stage
As 1998 world champions, France looked set to launch their title defence with the likes of Patrick Viera and Zinedine Zidane in their ranks. What they didn’t bank on, however, was the resolve that Denmark was about to exhibit.
Denmark put two goals past France to win the group, while France left the tournament prematurely without scoring a single goal.
Sweden’s 1958 World Cup Run
While they may not be one of the more successful teams at the World Cup, Sweden embarked on a cup run in 1958 that is worthy of recognition. As the host nation, Sweden delighted their home fans in what remains their finest World Cup performance.
Sweden topped their group and defeated the likes of West Germany and the Soviet Union before losing the final to Brazil.