World Cup Surprise Packages!
While there’s never really been a surprise World Cup winner, it’s no great shock to see an unfancied side reach the last eight.
Most tournaments have thrown up a romantic sub-story of some plucky underdogs progressing through the group stages and beyond. We look at some of the best.
Cameroon’s performances at Italia 90 weren’t so surprising when you consider the fact they entered the tournament as the only side never to be beaten at a World Cup finals.
Their maiden appearance in Spain eight years earlier had yielded impressive performances and three group stage draws. However, they entered the 1990 finals as underdogs in a tough group containing reigning champions Argentina, Romania and the Soviet Union.
The opening match of the tournament was a fiery affair with The Indomitable Lions reduced to nine men after a series of crunching tackles on their rattled Argentine opponents. The match was a mixed affair for the Biyik household with Andre-Kana one of those given his marching orders before his brother Francois-Omam grabbed a shock winner.
They followed this up with another win over Romania with supersub Roger Milla lighting up the tournament with a brace and a first showcase of his iconic corner flag celebrations.
After defeat to the Soviets in a dead rubber clash, the African side’s heroics returned in the second round with Milla grabbing another double in an extra-time win, most memorable for Colombian keeper Rene Higuita’s mistake for Milla’s winner. Cameroon came within eight minutes of an unlikely semi-final place before a dubious Gary Lineker penalty drew England level in an intriguing clash.
Another Lineker strike from the spot ended the African dream but ensured the Cameroonians wouldn’t be underestimated at future tournaments.
South Korea, 2002
Although the hosts are typically expected to perform admirably on home soil, South Korea exceeded even their own wildest expectations when they co-hosted the 2002 finals with Japan.
They opened their account with a 2:0 win over Poland and a 1:1 draw with USA but it was their 1:0 win over Portugal in their final group game that made the footballing world sit up and take notice.
Guus Hiddink’s side were outplayed until the Portuguese were reduced to nine men but Park JI-Sung made the most of the Koreans numerical advantage with a seventieth-minute winner.
Their World Cup journey was supposed to come to an end in a last sixteen fixture with the much-fancied Italians. However, in one of the most notoriously controversial matches in World Cup history, South Korea continued their incredible adventure with a golden goal winner in extra-time.
The Italians cried foul, and with a series of inexplicable refereeing decisions in the Asians favour the Azzurri claimed there was a conspiracy against them to progress at the expense of the co-hosts.
The South Koreans quarter-final tie with Spain was another controversial affair overshadowed by questionable refereering.
With Spain having two goals disallowed the match ended goalless and Korea triumphed in the penalty shoot-out. Afterwards the Spanish accused the referee of match-fixing claiming both disallowed goals were legitimate.
Their journey ended in semi-final defeat to Germany but they’d become the most successful-ever Asian team at a World Cup, with a little assistance from the officials of course.
It wouldn’t be a World Cup these days without a controversial Luis Suarez incident but it was the Uruguayan’s hand rather than his teeth that caused uproar in South Africa eight years ago.
Ghana had entered their second finals as also-rans with a number of experienced players omitted from their squad. Their trust in youth paid off, however, as they finished runner-ups to Germany in a tough group following a win over Serbia and a draw with Australia.
Their extra-time victory over USA in the second round ensured they’d become only the third African team to reach the quarter-finals. Their form during the tournament also suggested they’d a great chance to become the continent’s first semi-finalists before their last eight tie with Uruguay.
With the scores tied near the end, a Dominic Adiyiah header seemed bound for the net before Suarez’s hand intervened. The striker was dismissed but Ghana missed the subsequent penalty to bring to penalties. Justice did not prevail with the South Americans ending the Ghanaians dream of finishing as the most successful African team of all-time.
Despite the Croatian side in 1998 containing some extremely talented stars such as Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker, no-one expected the debutants to progress to the semi-finals.
They cruised through the group stages and defeated Romania in the second round to set up a quarter-final match with Germany, where they were widely considered underdogs.
However Croatia, which hadn’t even existed as a country eight years previously, stunned the Germans – exploiting the space provided by Christian Wörns’ dismissal. A three-goal salvo from Robert Jarni, Goran Vlaovic and Suker ended the German resistance in style and set up a mouth-watering semi-final with France.
The hosts and eventual champions were to prove a bridge too far for the Croats, who did beat Holland in the third-place play-off, with Suker also finishing the tournament with the Golden Boot.