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The 5 greatest upsets in the history of sports

Kunal Salvi
Editor's Pick
Published 05 Jul 2012, 23:29 IST
05 Jul 2012, 23:29 IST

Everybody likes the underdog, because everybody feels like the underdog. No matter how successful you are, you always think, no one’s being nice enough to me!

- Kate Beckinsale

There is a strange and fulfilling kind of joy in watching an underdog win. Much of it stems from our own hidden, outrageous and unfulfilled fantasies. Through the medium of the underdog, we take vicarious pleasure in seeing the ‘’greater’’ entity getting thrashed. For some people, this humiliated entity may for a moment acquire the face of a childhood bully or an oppressive boss; as these upsets prove that unprecedented sagas of revenge are not impossible.

Upsets are not that uncommon in sports as in, say, elections. Lower ranked teams or players consistently beat the favourites in various sports throughout the world. However, there are some upsets that are so flabbergasting that they bury conventional logic in a grave and build a crucifix on it. This article is a compilation of sporting upsets of such astonishing magnitudes, that they deserve national holidays named after them.

#5. Senegal embarrasses France in the 2002 FIFA WC

Before the World Cup commenced, the stature of France was quite similar to that enjoyed by Spain today. They had conquered the 1998 WC and Euro 2000 in a dominating fashion. The array of stars they had at their disposal was mindboggling. Thuram, Viera and Desailly would have walked into any team in the world. They had the man who plucked goals out of thin air, King Thierry Henry. And then, to complete a perfect team they had Zinedine Zidane, the wizard who could create magic on the field by sheer touch. For Senegal, this was their first World Cup and the world expected nothing more of them than to be the typical punching bags that minnows are. However, Senegal had entirely different plans and looked like a team on a mission.

The first omen for France was rather alarming. Zidane had withdrawn due to an injury and this meant that the entire midfield symphony would miss its conductor. Still, the rest of the team was talented enough and was expected to sail through this game. Yet, the French could only find the crossbar and not the net. The one who found the net was Senegal’s Papa Bouba Diop and he did so with style. It was enough to seal the game and left the French so deflated that they crashed out of the first round without scoring. An energised Senegal team made it to the quarterfinals, having shown the door to their former colonial masters.

#4. James ‘’Buster’’ Douglas bursts the Tyson bubble

‘’Iron’’ Mike Tyson in 1990 was a marauding juggernaut in the world of boxing. Forget winning, his opponents would consider themselves lucky if they survived more than a couple of rounds against him in the ring. Such was his dominance that a vast majority of his wins came about in knockouts. So when James “Buster ”Douglas was scheduled to fight him for the title, there was no one who gave him a chance against Tyson. In fact, betting parlours in Las Vegas, the betting capital of the world, refused to take any bets for a game with a foregone conclusion.


What transpired on the day of the fight was watched by the world in widening disbelief. Using his superior reach, Douglas attacked Tyson from the first round and thoroughly dominated the fight. Tyson was so severely bruised that his left eye was swollen shut and he appeared a shadow of his self. In the tenth round, Douglas unleashed a brutal uppercut and Tyson was knocked down for the first time in his career. He was too battered to get up while the referee counted ten and the biggest coup in heavyweight boxing was pulled off.

#3. India triumphs over ‘’THE’’ West Indies

For many cricket fans from the current generation, the only thing signifying India’s 1983 World Cup triumph is a black and white photograph of Kapil Dev holding aloft the trophy. Few of them know that in 1983, India defeating West Indies was a sporting equivalent of David slaying Goliath.

India had a miserable record in ODI’s until then, with only 17 victories in nine years, most of them against minnows. Their previous WC campaigns of 1975 and 1979 had ended in dire failures. On the other hand, the West Indies team of that era was an unstoppable machine, crushing everything in its path. They had fast bowlers who could put the fear of God in the opponents and brutal batsmen like Viv Richards who decimated bowling attacks with consummate ease. They were the 1975 and ’79 champions and were hugely tipped to claim a hat-trick of titles.

The first innings of the WC final played out as per expectations, with India getting bundled out for 183. Though the Windies lost an early wicket in pursuit of the total, Viv Richards started out in his destructive fashion and it seemed as though the game was headed for an early finish. But then somehow, due to some ingenious bowling from the Indian medium pacers and some overconfidence from the West Indians, wickets started tumbling and the innings folded up for 140. The Indians were now world champions and it fuelled such a craze for cricket in India that other sports took a backstage for the coming decades in the country.

#2. Goran Ivanisevic, the Cinderella man

Goran Ivanisevic was one of the many journeymen on the tennis circuit; a fierce competitor but without any Grand Slam to his name. His ultimate dream was to conquer the Wimbledon trophy. He did make it to the Wimbledon finals three times, only to stumble on each occasion. Time and injuries were taking their toll and in the year 2001, Goran’s ranking had plummeted to 125. He only qualified to play in the 2001 Wimbledon as a wild-card entry and not many expected him to make much of an impact in the tournament.

However, the one thing that rivalled Ivanisevic’s determination was his huge serve. It was considered to be one of the best in business and on some days, was virtually unplayable. Riding on his serve, Ivanisevic surprised people round after round and on his way to the final, defeated the likes of Moya, Roddick and Safin. His final battle was to be with two-time Grand Slam winner Pat Rafter. In an epic five-setter, he used his serve to dig himself out of trouble time and again. Ivanisevic eventually prevailed and completed a story that belongs to a book of fairy-tales. He still remains the lowest ranked player and the only wildcard to lift the Wimbledon trophy.

#1. The Miracle on Ice

Many of you may have no familiarity whatsoever with ice hockey and neither do I. Yet this story is so poignant that it deserves the first place due to the sheer magnitude of the upset. Going into the 1980 Winter Olympic Games held in U.S.A, the Soviet Union men’s ice hockey team had won the gold medal six times in their last seven attempts. They had also won a majority of the world championships until that point. The Soviet players, some of whom were in the military, played in a very well-developed league with world class training facilities and some of them were considered legends in ice hockey.

On the other hand was the American team, comprised of amateurs and collegiate players who had been playing together only for a year. The semi-final match took place at a time when the Cold War tension between the two nations was at its peak. Though Americans fervently wished for their team to win, they believed in their hearts that this was a near-impossible task.

On the eve of the game, home support for the American team was prolific, with the stadium filled to capacity and the crowd singing patriotic songs. The Soviets led the game 3-2 after about two thirds of the game had been completed, though the Americans remained attacking throughout. In the final period of play, the Americans fired in two goals to lead 4-3 and defended manfully during the last ten minutes.

Commentator Al Michaels delivered this final piece of call that would become immortal. “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. 5 seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES! ” U.S.A. had indeed pulled off the mother of all miracles.

Modified 19 Dec 2019, 18:09 IST
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