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The biggest ever World Cup shocks

The World Cup has given football plenty of its greatest ever moments since the very first tournament was played in 1930.

It is all about he best players performing on the biggest stage. But the World Cup is also much more and tournament football has long been a great equaliser.

It doesn’t always play out as expected, with the underdogs sometimes pulling off the kind of shocks that no one could have predicted before kick-off.

Here’s a look back at 14 of the biggest shocks in World Cup history…

It seemed like Brazil’s divine right to win the World Cup in 1950, hosting for the first time in a football mad nation. By the time they reached the final game against Uruguay – it wasn’t actually a final as we would think of now because of the slightly bizarre round-robin format – it was clear they had been the best team across the whole tournament.

But Uruguay, who had won the first World Cup in 1930, also stood a chance of making it a second title if they could beat Brazil. The hosts, however, had enough of a cushion that they only needed to draw the game to win overall.

Brazil, averaging 4.2 goals per game, made the breakthrough early in the second half and looked on course for World Cup glory. But Uruguay equalised and then Alcides Ghiggia, who was still alive until 2015, scored another that broke Brazil’s hearts at the Maracana.

Gelson Fernandes

Spain lost their opening game in 2010 / Jasper Juinen/GettyImages

Spain won the 2010 World Cup to ensure that both the European and global titles had their home in Madrid during a dominant period for La Roja. But the Euro 2008 winners got off to a rocky start in South Africa in 2010 when they were stung by a shock defeat to Switzerland.

It was Spain’s first game and former Manchester City midfielder Gelson Fernandes scored the only goal early in the second half.

Spain responded to the unexpected setback by winning six consecutive games – 1-0 in all four of their knockout games – to lift the trophy.

Robin Van Persie

Robin van Persie learned how to fly in 2014 / Soccrates Images/GettyImages

By 2014, Spain had won each of their previous three international tournaments dating back to 2008 and easily making them one of the best teams in football history.

They were no longer at their peak vintage, but Netherlands exposed that in a shockingly brutal way and also took some revenge for the 2010 final.

Spain did take a first half lead but had no response for the relentless and fluid 3-5-2 Dutch formation. Robin van Persie equalised with an audacious and iconic diving header, before Netherlands surged through time after time and kept racking up the score.

Germany were not expected to beat Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final

Germany were not expected to beat Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final / STAFF/GettyImages

West Germany were underdogs ahead of their first World Cup final in 1954, taking on Hungary’s ‘Magical Magyar’ generation that included the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti at its absolute peak.

The two had already in the group stage of the tournament and a rampant Hungary won 8-3, scoring three times in the first 21 minutes alone.

Hungary again raced into an early lead in the final, with Puskas scoring after six minutes and Zoltan Czibor straight after. But then the Germans came to life and it was back to 2-2 with less than a quarter of the game played. Helmut Rahn eventually won it for West Germany in the closing stages.

Archie Gemmill

Archie Gemmill was Scotland’s hero in 1978 / Mike Stephens/GettyImages

Scotland were no strangers to the World Cup by 1978, having previously qualified in 1954, 1958 and 1974. But nothing about them suggested they would pose a threat to Netherlands, finalists in 1974.

The Dutch, albeit without Johan Cruyff at the World Cup that year, were still a supremely talented team full of world class players. Scotland, meanwhile, had only taken one point from initial games against Peru and Iran.

An inspired Scottish performance, with a brace from Archie Gemmill that included one of the all-time famous World Cup goals, secured a three-time win over the eventual 1978 finalists.

East Germany upset their neighbours in 1974

East Germany upset their neighbours in 1974 / -/GettyImages

Although once of the same country, West Germany and East Germany was a major mismatch when it came to the football pitch. When they met on German soil in the 1974 World Cup, there was only one expected winner.

The West had a team packed full of stars, many of whom – including Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller had just embarked on a run of European Cup dominance with Bayern Munich. Conversely, the East’s players were far from household names.

That made Jurgen Sparwasser’s winner all the more surprising and even put East Germany top of the final first round group standings. West Germany still recovered, however, and went on to lift the trophy in the end.

The 1982 World Cup didn’t go particularly well for Spain. They scraped into the second group stage after losing to Northern Ireland in the opening round and eventually existed the tournament on home soil with a whimper.

It was the first time any Irish team had qualified for a World Cup and Gerry Armstrong, who ironically made a post-playing career as a pundit and co-commentator in Spanish football, scored the solitary goal in Northern Ireland’s finest ever footballing moment.

Northern Ireland even played the final 30 minutes with 10 players after Mal Donaghy, later of Manchester United, was sent off.

Ahn Jung hwan

Ahn Jung-hwan knocked Italy out of the 2002 World Cup / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

South Korea had become World Cup regulars by the time they co-hosted with Japan in 2002 but had still never won a game at five previous tournaments. Just getting a win against Poland was a major achievement, while beating Portugal to top the group was even more huge.

Had they been thrashed by Italy in the last 16, that squad would still have been national heroes. But in a massively controversial tie that saw Francesco Totti shown a second yellow card for diving and a would-be Italy winner disallowed for offside, South Korea it even further.

Ahn Jung-hwan scored the 117th minute golden goal to send the Italian superstars packing. Awkwardly, Ahn was playing his club football for Perugia at the time and had his contract cancelled the next day by a bitter owner.

This wasn’t even Italy’s worst World Cup defeat to a side from the Korean peninsula…

Saleh Al Shehri

Nobody expected much from Saudi Arabia / Soccrates Images/GettyImages

As they kicked off their 2022 World Cup campaign, Argentina were among the favourites to lift the trophy and were unbeaten in 36 international games. Saudi Arabia, ranked outside the world’s top 50 by FIFA, should have posed no threat to Lionel Messi et al.

It looked to going as expected too. Argentina dominated the first half and found the net multiple times, only to see an offside flag rule them out. Messi’s first half penalty was the only difference at the interval.

But Saudi Arabia came out a different team in the second half, scoring almost immediately through Saleh Al-Shehri. Salem Al-Sawsari then scored a fine second and the minnows held on for more than 40 minutes.

Cameroon beat the holders in the opening game in 1990

Cameroon beat the holders in the opening game in 1990 / STAFF/GettyImages

Argentina had it even worse in 1990, coming in as holders after Diego Maradona inspired the Albiceleste to glory in 1986 and losing to a Cameroon side that no one gave a chance to.

This wasn’t actually the game that made 38-year-old Roger Milla a World Cup legend. He was on the bench and only came on in the closing stages – his time would came later in the tournament.

Instead, Francois Omam-Biyik’s towering header that squirmed under the body of goalkeeper Nery Pumpido was the decisive moment. Benjamin Massing was also sent off late on for what more or less constituted assault on Claudio Cannigia.

 Billy Wright; Ed McIlvenny

USA stunned England in 1950 / Keystone/GettyImages

Having declined to even join FIFA and not compete at any of the first three World Cups throughout the 1930s, England eventually embraced the global game in 1950 – but lost to a USA side made up of amateur players.

The United States were second best on the day, but goalkeeper Frank Borghi had the game of his life and England couldn’t find a way through. Meanwhile, American forward Joe Gaetjens scored a scrappy winner.

With the World Cup not televised in those days, legend long claimed that newspaper editors back home getting word of the result assumed it must have been a mistake and it was reported as a 10-1 win instead – however, that much at least has since been outed as a myth.

France were second best to Senegal in 2002

France were second best to Senegal in 2002 / Gary M. Prior/GettyImages

In 2002, France had been imperious over the previous four years, becoming one of the few teams in history to hold both World Cup and European Championship titles at the same time. They hadn’t actually lost a game at a major tournament in 90 or 120 minutes since 1992.

But a golden generation of Senegal players changed all that on a remarkable day day in Seoul in May 2002.

France were missing Zinedine Zidane through injury and were caught cold by a Senegal side buoyed by the occasion. The late Papa Bouba Diop scored the only goal and the Lions of Teranga celebrated like they had won the cup.

Pak Doo-ik is a World Cup legend for his goal against Italy

Pak Doo-ik is a World Cup legend for his goal against Italy / Central Press/GettyImages

North Korea had never been a World Cup prior to 1966, while Italy had won it twice – albeit three decades earlier – and still boasted many of the best players around, including several that had recently won back-to-back European Cup titles with Inter.

Italy had won their opener against Chile, while North Korea were beaten by Soviet Union. Italy also lost to the Soviets, while the Koreans then improved by drawing against Chile.

It meant it was all to play for when they met in Middlesbrough in the final group game. But it was still an extraordinary shock for Pak Doo-ik to score in the first half and North Korea hold on. Italy were knocked out and their players were pelted with tomatoes when they arrived back home.

No one predicted Brazil's almighty collapse in 2014

No one predicted Brazil’s almighty collapse in 2014 / Laurence Griffiths/GettyImages

It wasn’t the result that makes this the biggest World Cup shock of all time because Germany were absolutely worthy winners of the 2014 tournament as a whole when they eventually beat Argentina in the final.

But no one ever could have ever predicted just how one-sided the semi-final would be against a Brazil side on home soil and with expectations that they would go on to lift the trophy and make up for heartbreak 64 years earlier the last time they had hosted in 1950.

As Brazil fans wept in the stadium and at home, the world watched on in astonishment as Germany raced into a 5-0 lead inside 30 minutes. The pace of the goals slowed in the second half, but it was 7-0 before Brazil managed even a consolation right at the end.

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