With Russia’s surprising 3-1 victory over Egypt all but guaranteeing the hosts safe passage to the round of 16, plenty of pundits and fans who expected them to crash out in the group stage – allowing Uruguay and Egypt through – have been firmly proven wrong. What’s more, the right results could see the Russians pull an even bigger upset by winning the group.
Russia, of course, aren’t the first World Cup hosts to upset some higher-profile rivals – while established hosts like Germany (2006), Brazil (2014) and France (1998) were all expected to have some success, the following four were able to prove their critics wrong in some surprising turnouts.
#1 USA – World Cup 1994
When the World Cup went stateside in 1994, soccer wasn’t anywhere near as established as a sport in the USA as it is today. Major League Soccer had only been founded months before the tournament; the USA’s squad was filled largely with unknowns, and the previous World Cup had seen their team crash out in the group stages after losing all three games.
Despite being hosts, few people saw them going any further in the 1994 tournament – they were drawn in a tough group against two highly-touted sides in Romania and Colombia, as well as a tough Switzerland outfit who had qualified ahead of Portugal and Scotland and had even beaten Italy.
Driven by a lot of pride, though, the Americans proved everyone wrong. First, they picked up a valuable point by drawing 1-1 with the Swiss, and then in one of the upsets of the tournament, they managed to defeat Colombia 2-1, partly thanks to Andres Escobar’s fateful own goal.
The result eliminated Colombia from the tournament and despite a 1-0 loss to Romania in their third game, the USA managed to make the knockout stages.
Even there they put up a surprisingly tough fight against eventual tournament winners Brazil, only losing 1-0 after a late Bebeto goal. Thanks to their performances in their own World Cup, the USA gained the respect of the football world.
#2 South Korea – World Cup 2002
The ultimate World Cup fairytale run, pretty much nobody expected South Korea to even escape the group stages – let alone make it all the way to the semi-finals – in 2002 despite being co-hosts of the tournament along with Japan.
After all, they were faced with a remarkably tricky group which included Euro 2000 semi-finalists Portugal, Poland, who had only lost once during qualifying, and the ever-improving USA.
But a first-ever World Cup finals win over Poland – a comfortable 2-0 – set the tone and the Koreans never looked back, as they followed it up with a draw against the USA and a shocking 1-0 victory over Portugal.
Their remarkable run was then supposed to end at the hands of Italy, only for South Korea to pull off another stunning upset – bringing the game back to 1-1 with two minutes remaining and then finding an incredible Golden Goal winner in extra time.
A 0-0 draw with Spain followed in the quarter-finals – although it was controversial as Spain had two apparently legal goals chalked off by the referee – and the Koreans continued their miracle run by winning a penalty shoot-out.
Their run came to an end at the hands of Germany in the semis, but for them to make it so far was absolutely jaw-dropping.
Accusations of the Italy and Spain games being fixed by questionable refereeing still float around the internet to this day but have never been proven – making South Korea the ultimate in World Cup hosts to pull off a major upset.
#3 South Africa – World Cup 2010
By hosting the first ever African World Cup, South Africa – better known by their nickname Bafana Bafana – were always under a lot of pressure to succeed.
Unfortunately, they were drawn into an incredibly tough group against 2006 finalists France, former winners Uruguay and the always-tough Mexico, meaning passage to the knockout stages was always unlikely.
South Africa got the tournament off with a bang against Mexico thanks to Siphiwe Tshabalala’s thumping goal, but a late equaliser left them with just a point and a 3-0 loss to Uruguay meant that they needed to somehow beat France – and hope Uruguay could thump Mexico - in order to make it into the round of 16.
Incredibly, Bafana Bafana actually pulled it off. Despite France being able to call upon the talents of the likes of Thierry Henry, Franck Ribery and Djibril Cisse, South Africa went 2-0 up inside the first half and played the more established nation off the park.
A late goal from Florent Malouda meant the game ended 2-1 – and Uruguay’s narrow win over Mexico meant that Bafana Bafana missed the round of 16 on goal difference – but South Africa’s victory over France remains their greatest on the world stage and meant that they were still able to pull off a memorable upset on home soil.
#4 Japan – World Cup 2002
Japan didn’t make it as far as co-hosts South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, but the fact that they made it through the group stage and into the round of 16 – winning two games and drawing the other – was an upset in itself given their diabolical showing four years previous. In the 1998 edition of the tournament, they’d been Group H’s whipping boys, losing all three games, even against fellow strugglers Jamaica.
A 2-2 draw with a solid Belgium side in their opening game set the tone, though, giving Japan their first ever World Cup point.
From there they went from strength to strength, defeating Russia 1-0 with a second-half goal from Junichi Inamoto and then overcoming Tunisia 2-0 with both goals coming after halftime.
A match with eventual semi-finalists Turkey proved to be a bridge too far in the round of 16 – but they didn’t go down without a fight, as Japan had more shots, more possession and more corners, but couldn’t make it count.
Still, they’d proven themselves to be far more than the joke side they’d been in 1998, and that in itself was an upset victory for the co-hosts as they came away with their first two World Cup wins.
Which of these upsets are in your favourites list? Sound off in the comments section below!