Italy's captain dejected after Italy is knocked out in the Group Stages of the 2010 World Cup
Italy’s captain dejected after Italy is knocked out in the Group Stages of the 2010 World Cup

Scripts are written to be followed. But once in a while, someone comes along and tears up the screenplay and does whatever he wants. The unexpected becomes the surprise which many speak of for years on end.

It could be how David defeated Goliath with that one swing that landed a pebble into the giant’s forehead. As such, such instances are few and far between. Their occurrences produce tales to be told to those who are yet to come. Those who witness it are left in disbelief and dismay, deceived by their logical minds which told them that things would definitely only go one way. Their hearts now believing the impossible as the improbable becomes reality.

Upsets. That one thing every underdog team hopes to achieve in a game of football. Restricted by resources, relying on a lack of experience, the upset can become a point of romanticised fantasy to many a football fan. Sometimes however, that fantasy realises itself.

And in as far as upsets at the World Cup are concerned, here are our top 5:

5. West Germany 1-2 Algeria (Spain, 1982)

The surprise was that at half time, it was still 0-0. World Cup debutants Algeria were holding European Champions West Germany at the break.  Nine minutes into the second half, they would go one better.

Harald Schumacher in the West German goal managed to deflect Lakhdar Belloumi’s shot but the ball only fell into the path of Rabah Madjer. The future FC Porto star tucked the ball away to put the Algerians a goal up.

The Germans however have always been resilient, and on 68 minutes, Karl Heinz Rumennige managed to equalise from a Felix Magath cross. Back in the game, West Germany fell behind just a minute later. Belloumi this time was on the end of a Salah Assad cross. Amidst a final 20 minutes that saw both West Germany and Algeria have goals disallowed, the frame of the goalposts shaken and both goalkeepers produce magnificent saves, it was Algeria who came out victorious. Their defence withstood the West German pressure.

It meant that Algeria had a dream start in their first ever World Cup game. It however also laid foundations for one of the game’s most cynical episodes. While Algeria would lose their next game 2-0 to Austria, a 3-2 victory put them on course to qualify for the next round.

However, in an era where final group games were not played simultaneously, the Algerians watched painfully as Germany and Austria played out what is know known as the Disgrace of Gijon. A 1-0 win was enough to see both the Germanic sides progress, and after West Germany scored after 10 minutes, the game descended into a lull. Both teams seemed content to see out the game as it was.

Cruelly, qualification to the next round was robbed from Algeria. But by defeating West Germany in their opening game, they became the first African side to register a victory against a European team at a World Cup. That victory will always be remembered for having come against the European Champions and the eventual runners up of that year’s World Cup.

4. North Korea 1-0 Italy (England, 1966)

The BBC titled the 2002 documentary that told of the episode of this game as, “The Game of their Lives.”

North Korea has never been a football powerhouse. Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, there is much to be skeptical with about the level of democracy. One thing was for certain however. Nobody gave them a chance at the 1966 World Cup.

Even Kim Il Sung had acknowledged their football inferiority. Embraced before they departed Pyongyang for their group games at Middlesborough, the ‘eternal’ president urged them to win a game or two.

Strange had been their qualifying phase, as FIFA had declared that only one country from Africa, Asia and Oceania would be represented at the World Cup. That qualifying zone thus endured massive boycotts, and North Korea’s defiance to boycott qualifying saw them appear at the World Cup.

Soviet Union would show what the world expected as they defeated the Koreans 3-0 in the first game. A 1-1 draw with Chile gave them a glimmer of hope. But up next was Italy.

Italy was not mighty any more, but was still a force to strong for North Korea. Or so they thought. Carrying confidence and cockiness in indulgent abundance, the Italians quickly realised that they had to work for their win. More so, the Italian captain got himself injured while sliding for a tackle and in the era before the introduction of substitutes, Italy had to play the final hour with only 10 men.

North Korea capitalised, with Pak Doo Ik scoring in the 42nd minute. Holding on for the rest of the game against 10 men, they managed a famous win, which not only saw them qualify for the next round, but also knockout the Italians.

West Germany's Pierre Littbaski in the 1982 World Cup Final. The path to the final had began with defeat to Algeria.
West Germany’s Pierre Littbaski in the 1982 World Cup Final. The path to the final had began with defeat to Algeria.

3. France 0-1 Senegal (South Korea and Japan, 2002)

Seoul will forever be remembered for hosting the first ever World Cup game on Asian soil. It will also be remembered for one of the World Cup’s grandest upsets.

France met Senegal in a match pitting defending World and European Champions against the debutants from Africa. While one was the blue wave transfixed against the background of a hubris cockerel, the other were the lions of Teranga — which basically translated into hospitality. Nothing other than Senegal’s hospitality in ensuring France began their defence of the world title on a high note was expected.

The French were however missing the talents of Zinedine Zidane, who had picked up an injury in a pre-tournament friendly. Also missing was Robert Pires, who had been ruled out months earlier. Still, it was a fancy looking France, which had the firepower of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Djibril Cisse to call upon. The three had been top scorers in Leagues in England, Italy and France respectively.

Up against this might of force was a Senegal of unknowns. Their qualifying phase had been impressive, and their run to the African Cup of Nations final earlier in the year had been lauded. But still, nobody knew a lot about the bunch of players, most of whom played at lower league teams in France’s top three divisions.

What transpired is that Bruno Metsu managed to get his team to play beyond their expected standards. Their defence held, and they were lethal on the break. One such break broke from the transition that saw El Hadji Diouf released down the left hand side. Skinning Franck Lebouef, the Senegalese star man advanced down the byline. All that was required was a perfect cross.

It did not get it, but amidst a Fabien Barthez charging out of his goal and French defenders retreating, the ball got caught up in confusion. A sliding Papa Bouba Diop became the beneficiary. Also seeming confused, he all of a sudden found himself on the ground, staring into an empty net, the ball just inches away from his left foot. One swing and the Senegalese were 1-0 up.

That is how it would finish as the reigning champions started to slowly descend from their lofty throne. The ingrained memory forever belongs to that dance the Senegalese did around Diop’s jersey in celebration of that goal. As if like that of a powerful witch doctor, that dance was enough to see them dancing all the way to the quarter finals.

2. United States of America 1-0 England (Brazil, 1950)

The United States had shown their superiority, and though that had seen the World War end, nobody expected them to do anything at a World Cup.

Especially not the English. It was they that still held a sense of ownership as to the invention of football. As such, they almost felt as if victory was a right they had long earned.

That arrogance had seen them boycott previous World Cups due to a disagreement between the FA and FIFA. By 1950 however, all had been resolved. England would take part in the game’s global tournament for the first time.

Easy is what they expected it to be. And while they were dreaming of the prize that awaited, they forgot about the reality.

So confident of victory were the English that one newspaper, the Daily Express, had even written that it would only be fair it the USA had been given a three goal head start. The English kings were after all coming up against a hastily assembled, multi-ethnic bunch of part time footballers. They could even afford to rest Stanley Matthews and save him for more tougher games ahead.

The game would end 1-0 to the Americans. Rumour has it that so unbelievable was the scoreline that some in the English media thought it was a typing error and went ahead to report that England had won 10-1. Though that story is false, that 1-0 win by the USA over England in 1950 was very much real.

The USA had once more stunned the world.

Francois Omam-Biyik rises to score against Argentina
Francois Omam-Biyik rises to score against Argentina

1. Argentina 0-1 Cameroon (Italia, 1990)

Against probably the greatest footballer who ever lived, Cameroon produced arguably one of the greatest football upsets at a World Cup.

Diego Armando Maradona had been the star man before the game began. By the end of it, he had been surpassed by a group of Cameroonian footballers. The Africans had beaten the defending champions in such unexpected circumstances.

It was a game that followed script. Argentina produced the chances as Cameroon stuck to defending. The Argentine’s dominance seemed to have risen when just past the hour mark, Andre Kana-Biyik was shown a straight red card for a professional foul on Claudio Cannigia.

It seemed to have been Valeri Nepomniachi’s strategy. The Africans were getting in the faces of the illustrious South Americans, determined to prevent them from gaining any sort of rhythm.

Kana-Biyik’s brother would produce the moment to justify those tactics. Francois Omam-Biyik rose to head the ball after Argentina had failed to clear a free kick. Omam-Biyik’s header lacked the power, and seemed destined for Nery Pumpido’s hands. The ball however inexplicably slipped Pumpido and found itself scrambling across the line.

A half chance, a goalkeeper’s fumble, a goal. Cameroon now had something precious to hold on to. And even though they were later on reduced to nine men, hold on they did.

It meant that at the end of the game, Maradona walked off defeated, and Cameroon victorious. Even though Maradona would find his powers and guide Argentina to the final, it is that game — and Omam-Biyik’s leap — that sank Argentina.

Further reading:

World Cup Archives —

50 Greatest World Cup Matches —

World Cup History —

[images courtesy of zimbio and imortaisdofutebol]