The saying goes that “the world only remembers the winners”… but that’s not always true.
Here we look back at World Cup history and pick out two of the great underdog stories, of sides that didn’t win the tournament, but left it with their heads held high.
A Rugby Nation Celebrates its Soccer Stars
Look back to the 2010 World Cup and New Zealand were making only their second appearance in the major tournament after beating Bahrain to reach the competition. An island nation that takes great pride in its All Blacks rugby union side, it was the All Whites who took centre stage for the competition in South Africa. In a group that included Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia, the Kiwis were not given much of a chance of picking up any points in the pool. While New Zealand failed to reach the knockout stages, they did manage to go through their group without losing a match and were the only team to be undefeated at the tournament. Even the eventual winners Spain suffered a 1-0 loss to Switzerland on their way to World Cup glory.
New Zealand started with a 1-1 draw against Slovakia thanks to an injury-time goal from Winston Reid, before a remarkable stalemate against Worlds Cup holders Italy. Scoring early can give an underdog a real confidence boost and Shane Smeltz’s opener after seven minutes certainly did that. However, it was by no means the quickest goal in the tournament’s history as there have been numerous goals within the first minute including Hakan Sukur’s strike within 11 seconds in 2002 for Turkey against South Korea.
Vincenzo Iaquinta went on to equalise for the Azzurri in the 29th minute from the penalty spot, before New Zealand held on for a famous draw at Mbombela Stadium. A goalless draw with Paraguay meant the Kiwis missed out on reaching the knockouts by a point, but they did finish above the Italians and headed back to New Zealand with plenty of plaudits for their efforts.
Cameroon Take African Football Forward
There have been some great runs from African nations at World Cups, with the likes of Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) being two prime examples. But Cameroon back in 1990 were the first African country to really make a statement on the world stage. The Indomitable Lions managed to secure a 1-0 win over eventual finalists Argentina in their opening game of Italia 90, with François Omam-Biyik scoring the all-important goal. The result was even more remarkable considering Cameroon had two players sent off in the match against an Argentina side captained by the great Diego Maradona.
Age is just a number. At 43 years old, I was still playing because football is life. I had a great time in Pelita Jaya, Indonesia ⚪️🔴 pic.twitter.com/2TJj1vHJVS
— Roger Milla (@roger_milla_9) August 26, 2020
Cameroon then went on to beat Romania 2-1, before a heavy 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union. Still, Cameroon managed to finish top of Group B before their 38-year-old forward Roger Milla became a world sensation with his goals and eye-catching celebrations. Milla bagged a brace as Cameroon beat Colombia 2-1 in extra-time in the last-16, before a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat to England in the quarter-finals. It took extra time to separate the two sides, and Cameroon left the tournament having put African football firmly on the map.
World Cups are more than just about the winners, and Qatar 2022 is likely to produce its own stories of underdogs who will grab the headlines.