The history of the FIFA World Cup™ is filled with memorable upsets. Think USA defeating England in 1950, Korea DPR’s landmark victory over Italy at England 1966 and Germany's loss to Algeria at Spain 1982. Such classic giant-killings resonate across the world, standing the test of time.
However, there are also numerous lesser known upsets that have become the stuff of legend in the land of the victors. FIFA.com looks back through the rich history of the FIFA World Cup and throws the spotlight on a few of these never-to-be-forgotten matches.
African breakthrough paves the way
Tunisia 3-1 Mexico, Rosario, Argentina 1978
On the eve of a first FIFA World Cup in Africa, featuring six representatives from the continent for the first time, it is easy to forget that an African side had never won a match at the world finals until Argentina 1978. Tunisia secured the landmark victory thanks to a deserved 3-1 comeback win over Mexico. After falling behind to a penalty on the stroke of half-time, the Carthage Eagles showed great heart to prevail thanks to goals from Ali Kaabi and Nejib Ghommidh, who then set-up the clincher for Mokhtar Douieb. The stylish and technically-gifted Tunisians were deserving of their victory, with coach Abdelmajid Chetali describing the result as an uplifting victory for a golden generation: “The French have their 68ers, revolutionary students making their mark on the social-cultural landscape. We have our 78ers, a generation of footballers who were outstanding.”
Dynamic Danes arrive
Denmark 6–1 Uruguay, Neza, Mexico 1986
Arguably the most effervescent and exciting FIFA World Cup debut came when Denmark finally took their place on the world’s greatest football stage at Mexico 1986. Having reached the semi-finals of the 1984 UEFA European Championship, Denmark’s golden generation were eager to display their talents to a global audience. Scotland were defeated 1-0 in the opener before Uruguay were put to the sword. Playing a high-tempo version of Total Football under German mentor Sepp Piontek, Denmark fielded a host of attacking quality with Michael Laudrup, Jesper Olsen, Preben Elkjaer and Frank Arnesen chief amongst the talent production line. Though Uruguay were hampered by a first-half red card, the Danes were in irresistible form, scoring at regular intervals with Elkjaer leading the way with a hat-trick. There were also goals for Olsen and Soren Lerby, while Laudrup scored a solo strike of rare quality. The side rounded out the group with a win over West Germany, only to capitulate 5-1 to Spain in the knockout round.
Indomitable Lions roar
Cameroon 1-0 Argentina, Milan, Italy 1990
The opening match of the 1990 FIFA World Cup pitted Diego Maradona’s world champions’ Argentina against little-known Cameroon in what seemed a classic David and Goliath match-up. Despite impressing eight years earlier in Spain, the west Africans were still largely an unknown quantity. Playing with a mix of flair and physical power, the Indomitable Lions stunned the holders by taking the lead on 67 minutes despite losing Andre Kana-Biyik to a red card six minutes earlier. Francois Omam-Biyik etched his name into the history books with an astounding leap and header to score the only goal of the match. Despite Maradona’s promptings, Argentina were unable to equalise and Cameroon pushed their nation’s name into the vernacular of sports fans across the globe. The Indomitable Lions becoming everyone’s second team with a historic run to the quarter-finals in a first for an African side.
Al Owayran achieves Saudi immortality
Saudi Arabia 1-0 Belgium, Washington DC, USA 1994
Saudi Arabia became the first west Asian nation to win through to the knockout stage at a FIFA World Cup by edging Belgium in a famous win in the warm afternoon sun of Washington DC’s RFK Stadium. Needing victory in their final group match over a side who had already vanquished Lowlands neighbours Netherlands, Said Al Owayran produced an unforgettable FIFA World Cup goal to secure a place in history for both himself and his country. Collecting the ball nearer his own penalty area than the halfway line, Al Owayran went on an astonishing run to get the better of five opponents before finding the stamina to finish past USA 1994’s outstanding goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme. The achievement of the Saudis helped to pave the way for Asian representatives to be doubled to four for France 1998.
History-making home triumph
Korea Republic 2-1 (AET) Italy, Daejeon, Korea/Japan 2002
Asian achievement at the FIFA World Cup reached a new zenith at Korea/Japan 2002, with Japan moving into the knockout stage for the first time, while Korea Republic became the first team from the continent to win a Round of 16 match. Ultimately the Koreans advanced all the way to the semi-finals but it is the first knockout match which remains most memorable for its drama and place in history. Christian Vieri’s first-half goal had appeared enough for Italy to achieve a 1-0 win, only for Seol Ki Hyeon to equalise two minutes from time for Guus Hiddink charges. Equally late drama was to follow during extra time as Ahn Jung Hwan’s header three minutes from the end secured a Golden Goal win and propelled the Taeguk Warriors into the annals of history.