United States stun England Brazil Maracanazo woe in World Cup’s biggest upsets

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This article has been edited and originally appeared on ESPN FC on May 30, 2014.

Sports fans love an underdog story and the World Cup has provided a number of them down the years.

Here are 10 of the most memorable World Cup upsets to have caught the football-loving public’s imagination.

10. Italy vs. Germany, 2006

While the eventual champions and three-time winners beating anyone might not seem to be the most galloping shock, the defeat of hosts Germany in 2006 was quite an upset, because it seemed written that Jurgen Klinsmann’s side would lift the cup on their own turf. The semifinal in Dortmund was a hugely tense affair that, as the 119th minute approached, was heading for penalties. And if you think the English hate shootouts, before this tournament the Italians really hated them, given three of their previous four World Cups had ended in such a manner, including their own home semifinal in 1990 and of course the 1994 final. But then, up stepped Fabio Grosso, sweeping improbably home before the final punch was delivered in the form of Alessandro Del Piero’s clincher, two minutes later. An exhilarating upset.

9. Northern Ireland vs. Spain, 1982

Northern Ireland beating Spain was not quite as much of a shock 36 years ago as it would be today, but it was still quite the eyebrow-raiser. The Spanish hosts had already qualified for the second round, but expected to brush Billy Bingham’s team aside, who themselves needed a win to go through. Just after half time, Gerry Armstrong powered through the centre of the Spanish midfield, before feeding Billy Hamilton on the right. His low cross was palmed out right into the danger zone by keeper Luis Arconada, where Armstrong, who hadn’t stopped his run, was there to power the ball under the prone keeper and into the net. Northern Ireland survived something of an onslaught from the embarrassed Spaniards, but held on, and finished above them in the group. Alas, they would lose both games in the next group phase and go out, but they’ll always have that night at the Mestalla.

8. East Germany vs. West Germany, 1974

UEFA avoided a tricky political situation when Spain missed out on playing Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifying but FIFA was not spared a similar fate in 1974, when East Germany were paired with West Germany in the World Cup group stages, 15 years before the Berlin Wall would come down. “If one day my gravestone simply says ‘Hamburg 74,’ everybody will still know who is lying below,” said East Germany striker Jurgen Sparwasser, whose 77th-minute strike to win the game seemed to light a fire under a previously confident West Germany side. “All hell broke loose in our training camp when we lost,” Gerd Muller said years later. “Helmut Schon was in a right mood and we were up until the early hours trying to work out how we had lost.” The postmortem seemed to work, as West Germany won the tournament, beating Netherlands in the final.

7. Algeria vs. West Germany, 1982

One of the main reasons underdog stories are so popular is that the little guys get the happy ending they are so often denied. Unfortunately, in this upset the little guys didn’t get their fairytale moment, thanks to collusion and the vagaries of the World Cup schedule. West Germany really didn’t take first-time qualifiers Algeria very seriously after being drawn against them in the first round, the reigning European champions treating their first game as a formality. Indeed, according to Algerian full-back Chaabane Merzekane, one German player said he would play “with a cigar in his mouth.” Their complacency would come back to bite them, with an Algerian side of surprising skill and athleticism simply outplaying their cocky opponents and winning 2-1 with goals from Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi. The Algerians would lose their next game but recover to win their final fixture, played a day before West Germany and Austria closed the group, but both sides knew a one or two-goal win for the Germans would see both European sides go through, so after Horst Hrubesch’s early goal, they simply played out the remaining 80 minutes, to the sound of jeers from the crowd. “To see two big powers debasing themselves in order to eliminate us was a tribute to Algeria,” said Merzekane about the “Anschluss” match. “They progressed with dishonour; we went out with our heads held high.”

Hristo Stoichkov struck a fine free kick to help Bulgaria stun Germany in 1994.

6. Bulgaria vs. Germany, 1994

By the time they played Germany in the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup, Bulgaria already had a couple of shocks to their name, after sending France into a spiral of national introspection in the qualifiers and beating Argentina 2-0 in the first round. However, Germany were the defending champions and were looking good to at least make a decent fist of becoming the first side to retain the title since Brazil in 1962. It all looked like a fairly familiar story when Lothar Matthaus gave the Germans the lead just after half time, however two goals in three minutes — a brilliant free kick from the great Hristo Stoichkov, followed by that flying header by Yordan Letchkov — stunned Germany, leaving them defeated and baffled on the turf of Giants Stadium.

5. North Korea vs. Italy, 1966

Ayresome Park is a housing estate these days, demolished in the early 1990s as Middlesbrough moved to the Riverside, but in the middle of the paths and lawns there is a bronze cast of a football boot. Specifically, Pak Doo-Ik’s football boot, in roughly the spot that he struck the goal in the 1966 World Cup that beat Italy 1-0, sending them home to be pelted with eggs by an outraged public. The Italians were among the favourites for the tournament, boasting stars Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti, but while they lost their second game against a strong Soviet Union, there was little panic as a win against the North Koreans, the first Asian side to qualify for the World Cup finals, would be enough to send them through. The Italians started well but were denied on a few occasions by North Korean keeper Ri Chan-Myong, who recalled, years later: “If I conceded a goal the reputation of North Korea would fall. We would have failed in the task set us by the Great Leader. Therefore, I guarded the goal with my life.” Then Pak stepped up, and history was made.

England’s defeat to United States in 1950 ranks as one of the biggest shocks in football history.

4. USA vs. England, 1950

The famous and possible apocryphal story goes that, upon receiving word that the USA had beaten England 1-0 in the first round of the 1950 tournament, several English newspapers simply assumed there had been some sort of typographical error, and instead published the result as 10-0 or 10-1 to the English. True or not, that such a story is plausible speaks to what an extraordinary shock this result was, because the England team featured Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright and Wilf Mannion, while the Americans were a collection of hastily thrown together semi-pros who played together only once before the tournament. The only goal was scored by Joseph Gaetjens, a Haitian dishwasher, who deflected a shot from teammate Walter Bahr into the net. Some believed it was a fluke, but because the grainy footage of the game misses the moment of the goal, it’s rather hard to say. “It’s been 60 years,” said then-England keeper Bert Williams in 2010. “It’s taken a lot of forgetting as far as I am concerned.”

3. Cameroon vs. Argentina, 1990

These days, as seems relatively appropriate, the hosts kick off the World Cup, cutting the ribbon on a month-long jamboree of football and thinly veiled nationalism. However, the curtain used to be raised by the defending champions, facing whichever unfortunate whipping boy they had been drawn against. In 1990 Argentina faced Cameroon, a spirited collection of perceived no-hopers who were simply there to provide some nominal form of opposition. It wasn’t just that they were playing the champions, but Cameroon were something of a shambles before the tournament, having lost embarrassingly in the African Nations Cup and dropped their goalkeeper Joseph Antoine-Bell after he had the temerity to ask the FA about bonuses. “I thought it was a very bad team and we were going to lose,” said Bell’s replacement, Thomas N’Kono, but on 67 minutes Francois Oman-Biyik’s rather weak header squirmed through the hands of Nery Pumpido and Cameroon held on, despite a few bursts of the old ultra-violence resulting in two red cards. They were eventually unluckily eliminated by England in the quarterfinals.

2. West Germany vs. Hungary, 1954

Germany make quite a few appearances on this list, but this is the only time they are the upsetters rather than the upsettees. Hungary — Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti, Sanor Koscis and all — had cut swathes through the 1954 tournament in Switzerland, sashaying through the first round with 17 goals in two games (including an 8-3 victory over the very same West Germans), gently brushing aside Brazil in the second round before beating defending champions Uruguay in the semifinal. Victory was a forgone conclusion for the Magyars, with commemorative stamps printed up back home and work had begun on 17 life-size statues of the winners. Despite Puskas being half-fit at best for the final having fractured his ankle earlier in the tournament, it all looked good after eight minutes — Puskas gave them the lead and Zsoltan Czibor added a second, only for Germany to score two in the next 10 minutes to equalise. Thus it stayed until the 84th minute, when Helmut Rahn picked up a loose ball and fired into the net from the edge of the area. Puskas had an equaliser shortly afterwards disallowed, and … well let’s just say he wasn’t happy about it. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was almost a minute afterwards when he raised his flag. I could have murdered him. To lose a World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.” But lose it they did, on the day the Germans call “The Miracle of Bern.”

Alcides Ghiggia scored the winning goal for Uruguay to stun Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final.

1. Brazil vs. Uruguay, 1950

Victory for Brazil was expected, assumed, meant to be. The Uruguayans were supposed to be training cones dressed in light blue that the hosts would simply have to dribble around and score four, five or really as many times as they wanted. Brazil were South American champions, having won the 1949 Copa America in fine style, scoring 46 goals in eight matches and handing out a 7-0 shoeing to Paraguay in the “final” (it was actually a playoff game after the two sides had finished the eight-team league level on points). When this game came around, it seemed everyone was just setting out the trestle tables in preparation for a celebration, rather than readying themselves to watch a football match. A celebratory song had been composed; a couple of newspapers got their victory congratulations in early — that is to say, before the game; the mayor of Rio offered his own preemptive well-dones; Uruguay midfielder Julio Perez wet himself during the national anthems. It was written. Then Uruguay won 2-1 and a nation fell into a collective depression — and the match was latter dubbed the Maracanazo. Lucky, then, they could dry their eyes on another five titles in the years to come.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.