On Monday, we were lucky to witness one of the great comebacks in World Cup History as Belgium recovered from a 2-0 deficit to beat Japan 3-2. There is perhaps nothing better in football (or sports) than a great comeback- the despondency of trailing, the hope provided by a supposedly “consolation” goal, the delight of the equalizer and the simple euphoria when a team realizes they’ve completed the comeback.
Those were all aspects of Belgium’s victory over Japan. Yet what made the Red Devils’ victory really special was the fact that it took place in the knockout stages of the World Cup. In the 70th minute, Belgium had already booked their tickets back to Brussels while Japan were headed to Kazan.
Belgium’s “Golden Generation” seemed destined to fail in another tournament while Japan were being hailed as the greatest team in the country’s history. Within 20 minutes that had changed. It is those incredible stakes that make a World Cup knockout comeback so exciting. So what are the best comebacks in World Cup knockout stage history?
Fortunately, we have been spoiled for choice as there have been several great comebacks across the 88-year history of the World Cup. Thus, many exceptional fightbacks were excluded including the 1930 final, 1966 final, Switzerland vs Germany in 1938 and even France vs Argentina this past Saturday.
#10 1994 World Cup Round of 16: Italy 2-1 Nigeria
The 2018 World Cup has been a tough one for African nations as not a single team from the continent made the knockout stages (though Senegal and Nigeria came close). Twenty years, things were not very different as only one team from Africa made the knockout stages: Nigeria. Yet what a team it was as the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha led the Golden Eagles to first place in a group that included Argentina and Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria.
Their reward for finishing first in their group? A matchup against World Cup giants Italy. That didn’t daunt Nigeria as after a cagey start, they got off the mark with a scruffy corner goal finished by Emmanuel Amunike. Despite an assault by an Italian team led by the Baggio (Roberto started and Dino came off the bench) brothers, Nigeria survived. The Golden Eagles’ chances got even better when Italy’s other substitute Gianfranco Zola was sent off in the 75th minute.
At that point, Italy’s World Cup seemed to be over. However then, the magic of the Divine Ponytail took over. Roberto Baggio smashed in a low shot from the edge of the box and Italy were level again. As the match went into extra time, Nigeria were still favourites considering their opponents had been reduced to ten men.
However, Baggio came up with another moment of magic as his chipped pass found Antonio Benarrivo who was brought down. Baggio converted the penalty and a magical comeback was complete. Italy progressed to the World Cup final where their tournament would ironically be ended by a (missed) Baggio penalty. Nigeria sure understood that feeling.