What are the biggest shocks in international football history?

In international football, it is much less common to see a less-vaunted team pick up a win over a favoured contender. International teams play just a few games every year, and when those games are competitive as opposed to friendlies, they bring their full concentration to it. While club football needs a full-season shock to really grab the attention, an international team losing to a minnow is a big deal. They can call on players from the best clubs in the world; their opponents can scratch together any eleven people with boots and a passport. And that’s why international football shocks, when they come, are talked about for decades afterwards.

North Korea 1 Italy 0, 1966

After early defeats, both teams came into this game needing a win to reach the quarter-finals. The expectation was that Italy would more or less match the 3-0 blanking that the USSR had inflicted on the North Korean side. Instead, Pak Doo-Ik fastened on to a loose ball outside the Italian penalty area just before half-time. He unleashed a shot which flew into the Italian net, and despite intense second-half pressure, that would be the game’s only goal. On returning home, the eliminated Italian squad was pelted with rotten tomatoes. North Korea for their part took a 3-0 lead in the next round against Portugal, but a dream trip to the semis was denied by a second-half Eusebio-inspired comeback and a 5-3 defeat.

Ireland 1 England 0, 1988

Ireland have played – and beaten – better teams than the 1988 version of England, but in 1988 they entered the Euros as rank outsiders, the weakest of the eight teams taking part. The goal that sealed the game came in the sixth minute, and wasn’t the best you’ll ever see. Irish attackers couldn’t get a clean cross in, but English defenders couldn’t fashion a clearance and as the ball ballooned into the Stuttgart air Ray Houghton, then of Liverpool, met it with a looping header. Peter Shilton was beaten and so, 84 minutes later, were England. Jack Charlton, a former World Cup winner with England, became an Irish national hero for masterminding the upset victory, and the story was only beginning.

Saudi Arabia 2 Argentina 1, 2022

Lionel Scaloni’s side came into the tournament as one of the favourites, and an early Leo Messi penalty seemed to herald a comfortable entry to the 2022 World Cup. As the first half went on, an unusually profligate Argentina failed to add to their lead, and they paid for it within the first ten minutes of the second half. First Saleh Al Shehri fired in an equaliser, and then a stunning curling strike from Salem Al Dawsari in the 53rd minute put the Saudis 2-1 up. Even with the 2022 World Cup’s fashion for adding on huge swathes of time after the 90 minutes had elapsed, Argentina could not find an equaliser. Still, all’s well that ends well.

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