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The World Cup’s Most Shocking Upsets

After Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina in the 2022 World Cup, we look back at some other famous David vs. Goliath matches.

By Andrew Woodin
Lionel Messi of Argentina walks off the pitch as Mohammed Al-Owais of Saudi Arabia celebrates at full time during the FIFA World Cup

Everyone loves an underdog story.

In an absolute stunner of an upset, the Lionel Messi-led, World Cup juggernaut Argentina fell 2-1 Tuesday to Saudi Arabia, snapping La Albiceleste’s 36-game unbeaten streak – one shy of Italy’s record set between 2018-2021. Though many a doubter might say such a devastating loss cripples the Messi's dreams of hoisting the championship trophy, history may prove otherwise. In 1990, Cameroon defeated Diego Maradona’s Argentina team 1-0 in the group stage, and as overwhelming as that disaster could’ve been, Argentina fought on to ultimately reach the final before ultimately losing 1-0 to Germany. Despite what could potentially lie ahead for Messi in Qatar, there’s no denying the magnitude of Saudi Arabia’s Herculean achievement in what ranks among the most shocking upsets in World Cup history.

Here are some other indelibly surprising moments:      

RELATED: Why Harry Kane And Gareth Bale Won’t Be Allowed to Wear ‘OneLove’ Armband in World Cup

1950 – USA 1, England 0

Known as the “Miracle on the Green” in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a USA team comprised mostly of amateur, part-time players pulled off the most unlikely of miracles, managing to best a far superior England squad that had notched 23 victories in the years following the end of World War II. Both nations were equally shocked when the American “No-Hopers” took down the “Kings of Football” thanks to Joe Gaetjens’ lone goal for the Yanks.

1966 – North Korea 1, Italy 0

Expected to coast through the tournament, two-time World Cup winner Italy received a full dose of comeuppance after North Korea’s Pak Doo Ik scored the winning goal at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough during the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England. The victory successfully put Asian footballers on the map and anointed Pak a hero of mythical proportions in Pyongyang.  

1982 – Northern Ireland 1, Spain 0

In a true test of will, Northern Ireland bested Spain in the opening round of the 1982 World Cup despite playing a man down the final 30 minutes after Mal Donaghy earned a red card for shoving Jose Camacho. The monumental win came after Gerry Armstrong netted the solo goal. The epic upset is even more noteworthy considering Spain were the tournament hosts.

1982 – Italy 3, Brazil 2

If there was a right moment for Brazil to end its 12-year wait to win the World Cup, 1982 appeared to be a match made in heaven for the Samba Boys until it all came thunderously crashing down. Zico and Socrates battled valiantly for Telê Santana’s team in Brazil’s first four games, all wins featuring Brazil's signature slick attacking play. The more defensively stout Italy, on the other hand, scuffled to draws in their first three, followed by a narrow 2-1 win over Argentina. Based on form, this should've been a fait accompli, but Italy had other plans. Paolo Rossi delivered one of the greatest solo World Cup performances in history with a glorious and inspiring hat trick to spell disaster for the favorites from South America.

2002 – France 0, Senegal 1

Despite the best efforts of four-time Golden Boot winner Thierry Henry, the curse of the defending World Cup champions struck Roger Lemerre’s France side like Zeus’ thunderbolt in the opening match of the tournament. Senegal, making their World Cup debut, was flying high after Papa Douba Diop’s second-chance goal, proved decisive and spelled doom for Les Bleus’ chances of a repeat. Maybe things would’ve been different had Zinedine Zidane been available for the game, but sadly, the French talisman was relegated to watch in horror. France ended up crashing out of the tournament in short order, finishing dead last in their group.

2002 – South Korea 2, Italy 1

By the time 2002 rolled around to see South Korea co-host the World Cup with rival Japan, the Tigers of Asia had already ascended the rank of World Cup regulars, though they hadn’t earned a single win in the five previous tournaments. After lopsided wins first against Poland then against Portugal, it was evident South Korea wasn’t going to allow history to repeat itself, and in the 117th minute, with a pitch full of tired, weary souls, Ahn Jung-hwan headed in the golden goal to upset the heavily favorited Italians.  

2014 – Germany 7, Brazil 1

Ok, so we can't rightly call the 2014 Germany squad underdogs. Their World Cup win, thumping Argentina handily in the finals, was completely deserved. But the thrashing they handed host Brazil in the semifinals was nothing short of shocking and merits a mention on this list`. Pundits may point to the fact that Brazil was without two of its biggest stars in Neymar and Thiago Silva, but a six-goal margin for such a reliable pillar of the international football community? That’s a sour taste left in the mouths of all Brazilians they’d like to collectively wash out this year with their first World Cup championship in two decades.

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