Ethan Shone 12th June 2018
The World Cup underdog is as integral a part of the whole World Cup experience as the eventual winner of the tournament, and usually plays a much greater role than our beloved and beleaguered lions.
Basically every major tournament has had one. Some pique our interest more for their obscurity or determined amateurism, defying the odds only briefly before falling at the might of better teams, while others genuinely take the world by surprise, storming through tournaments and taking on football’s behemoths in the process.
With this in mind, here’s a list of the best World Cup underdogs ever. No — thank you.
Senegal in 2002
In a format not since repeated by FIFA (though we’re eagerly anticipating the 2026 US/Canada/Mexico extravaganza), the 2002 World Cup saw Japan and South Korea joint-host the tournament and welcome the world’s biggest sporting event to Asia for the first time. If you are either me, or roughly my age, the 2002 World Cup is probably the first you remember in any detail, and oh, what a World Cup it was.
Brazil were the stars of the tournament, no doubt, but it could be said that this World Cup was just as much about the underdog stories of two teams, the first (and least controversial) of which, was Senegal.
The Lions of Teranga came into their first World Cup as rank outsiders and found themselves in a particularly difficult group with reigning world and European champions France and two other perfectly capable sides; Denmark and Uruguay. The opening day of the tournament saw Senegal take to the field in Seoul against France, as the world watched on, confident it would see a comfortable win for the champs. A total of 90 minutes after the first whistle blew, the world collectively picked up its jaw and said: “Fucking hell Senegal, good effort lads.” They had triumphed, 1-0 thanks to a goal from future-Fulham star Papa Bouba Diop.
Senegal would advance through the group stages in second place, after notching up draws against Denmark and Uruguay, the latter a six-goal thriller. In their round of 16 games the west-African side came up against the formidable Swedes and for a little while after Henrik Larsson headed home in the 11th minute, it looked as though the dream might be over. Senegal rallied quickly however, with Henri Camara slotting into the bottom left corner from outside the box in the 38th minute and then, with the game in extra time and the golden-goal rule still in effect (for the last time, at this tournament), Camara surged through the Swedish defence and fired home once again, to send him and his countrymen into the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.
They lost, unfortunately, to Turkey. Oh well, just a game!
Bulgaria in 1994
Probably the best of these underdog teams on paper, Bulgaria’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in 1994 still took the world completely by surprise.
World-class talents like Hristo Stoichkov and Krasimir Balakov, who had left Bulgarian teams for the likes of Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon, had begun to make names for themselves individually by 1994, but their country was still not considered a threat to football’s big nations.
After their first game, there was no obvious reason to revise this supposition, either. Bulgaria lost to Nigeria in a one-sided affair ending 3-0 to the African side. This was followed by a comfortable win for the Bulgarians, 4-0 over Greece, and a remarkable 2-0 win over Argentina, who may have lost their fading star Maradona to a drug test, but were still expected to trounce Bulgaria easily.
Despite ’94 being their sixth World Cup these wins were Bulgaria’s first at the tournament, but to progress further they would have to beat a Mexico side who were playing well and receiving great support in the US. Again, the brooding Bulgarians triumphed, thanks to an early goal from Stoichkov, cancelled out by Mexico, and then solid goalkeeping from Borislav Mikhailov in a penalty shoot-out which finished 3-1 Bulgaria.
Having seen off Argentina, the previous tournament’s runners-up, they now had to face the reigning champions Germany. By this stage, the team had made quite the impression, with several players marking themselves out for lucrative transfer deals following the tournament, but as far as the pundits were concerned, the fairytale was sure to end here.
Except it didn’t. Dirty Klinsmann took a dive early in the second half and won a penalty, which was obviously put away with ruthless efficiency. One would imagine that by this stage, the German fans had already put their towels out on the chairs in the semi-final venue, but Bulgaria had other ideas.
First came Stoichkov’s free-kick, bent improbably into the bottom left corner from 25 yards, it was his fifth goal of the tournament and it put Bulgaria back in the game with just less than 20 minutes to go. The world watched dumbstruck as Germany conceded again just a few minutes later, this time to 27-year old Yordan Letchkov, also known as The Magician for his midfield wizardry. The final whistle blew and Bulgaria were through to the semis.
Bulgaria lost their next games, to Italy in the semi-final, and then Sweden in the third-place play-off, though by this stage they had captivated not only their own fans, but football lovers throughout the world. Stoichkov finished the tournament with 6 goals, making him the joint top goal scorer of the tournament, with Russia’s Oleg Salenko.
North Korea in 1966
We tend to think of one thing only when discussing the 1966 World Cup.
Yes, this was the first and last year (to date) that football came home. We’re all familiar with England’s ’66 success, but what do you know about North Korea’s run of form in that tournament?
North Korea’s group games were scheduled to be played at Sunderland’s Roker Park and Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, so the team set up camp in Middlesbrough, training for weeks at the sports grounds of the town’s massive ICI chemical plant, which provided 30,000 jobs for the area. Over the course of a few weeks, the people of Teeside would develop a real affinity for the plucky North Korean side, due to their polite and humble nature, all-out-attack tactics and the fact that, like Middlesbrough, they were underdogs who played in red.
Their first game against the Soviet Union was a physical mismatch, with the diminutive Koreans struggling to embrace their normal style of play against the large and domineering Soviets. They lost 3-0 and their next game ended in a draw against Chile, with Pak Seung-zin scoring 2 minutes from the end to tie things up at 1-1.
To continue in the tournament, North Korea had to beat an Italian side which boasted some of the best players of the day and was tipped as one of the tournament favourites. Suffice to say, they were not expected to do well, but not long into the game, it became clear this would not be a walk-over for Italy.
Basing their whole footballing ethos on a legendary flying horse thought to embody the Korean Spirit of rebellion, the Koreans pressed Italy relentlessly and were rewarded with a goal by Pak Do-ik just before half-time. They held onto the lead throughout the second half, and when full-time went, the noise in Ayresome Park was deafening. At their first World Cup, as an unknown quantity expected to lose heavily, North Korea advanced through the group stage.
Though they would eventually lose their quarter-final game against Portugal, the Korean side did not go out without a fight. In their customary style, the Koreans came out all guns blazing and were somehow 3-0 up against Portugal before the 30th minute. It took Eusebio, Portugal’s talisman and probably one of the best players of all time, to turn the game around by scoring 4 goals himself to retake the lead by the 60th, with Jose Augusto adding a fifth in the 80th.
Though they didn’t win the tournament, the North Korean side won themselves a place firmly in the hearts of Middlesbrough fans, 3000 of whom reportedly made the trip down to Liverpool to watch their new favourite team try and take on Portugal.
Cameroon in 1990
In a World Cup which has come to be remembered for its low-goal count and defensive football, Cameroon brought fun and flair to proceedings in Italy, but they were also the first African team to come to the tournament and look like a real threat to whoever they came up against, and in doing so paved the way for African sides in future tournaments to be taken seriously.
Cameroon should have been coming into the tournament hot, they had won both the ’84 and ’88 African Cup of Nations tournaments but crashed out of the ACN early in 1990 after a couple of shock defeats. The team was in turmoil, which is why then-retired Cameroon legend Roger Milla, aged 38, received a call asking him to consider coming out of retirement for the tournament.
Cameroon were expected to lose heavily in their first game again Cup-holders Argentina. Cameroon kept a clean sheet at one end, while pressure at the other eventually led to a headed goal by Francois Omam-Biyik. In their customary style, Les Lions Indomptables played a highly physical game and picked up two red cards. Were they deserved? You decide.
Though Milla did make it onto the pitch against Argentina as a sub in the 87th minute, it wasn’t until the next game when his impact would really be felt. Cameroon and Romania were locked in a 0-0 draw when Milla came on in the second half, and the seasoned striker didn’t wait long to make an impact. Scoring twice within 10 minutes in a game Cameroon would win 2-1, the 38-year old outpaced much younger defenders and then delighted the millions watching at home with his trademark corner-flag dance.
After a thumping loss to the underdog-slaying Soviets, Cameroon progressed through the group stage to face Colombia. A formidable side, Colombia would come to be best known for the unbelievable antics of their goalkeeper Rene “El Loco” Higuita – the scorpion kick guy. It was a tight game, goalless after 90 minutes, but once again it would be Milla to save the day. Subbed on in the 54th, Milla showed off his unbelievable fitness, keeping his composure well into extra time to score two goals. Colombia pulled one back, but it was too late, Milla had carried his side through to the quarter-finals, were England awaited.
The African side looked threatening throughout, peppering the England goal with shots and keeping Peter Shilton on his toes all game. Against the run of play, England went one-up thanks to David Platt, while Cameroon kept looking for an opening. They would eventually find one, but not until Milla had again been brought on just after half time. He soon won his side a penalty, slotted away by Emmanuel Kunde, and minutes later Milla again was instrumental, finding space to play a ball through England’s defence for Eugene Ekeke to dink over the head of an advancing Peter Shilton. They were 2-1 up, and less than 10 minutes from the World Cup semi-finals, when Lineker was brought down in the box before converting his penalty; 2-2. Minutes later Gascoigne slotted a ball through to Lineker who was again brought down and again slotted home. And that was it, Cameroon’s World Cup Dream was over and England were through.
Ethan Shone 12th June 2018