There is nothing more fascinating for the fans of football than to see the giants of international football being humbled by their weaker counterparts, especially if such an upset win takes place in the World Cup.
Not only do the upset wins by minnows give a boost to the confidence of smaller teams, but also affect the outcome of the tournament. The World Cup has been the stage for plenty of memorable upsets over the years, including some on the opening day itself.
With just days to go for the start of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, let’s take a look at the five biggest opening day upsets in the history of the tournament.
#5: Brazil 0-0 Yugoslavia, 1974
Brazil were not only experiencing one of their Golden Generations of football in 1974, but they were also the firm favourites of the tournament.
Under Pele’s stewardship, the Selecao clinched three of the four previous World Cups, establishing themselves as the dominant force in the global game.
Yugoslavia, on the other hand, were minnows of international football since they did not even qualify for the previous two editions of the World Cup. Grouped with Scotland and Zaire, Brazil’s path to the knockouts was as easy as it could get.
But the Selecao, now without Pele, played one of their most uninspiring fixtures in the tournament opener. Both sides missed a flurry of chances, but Yugoslavia’s defenders were the stars of the game.
The goalless draw allowed Yugoslavia to top the group and advance to the second round, while Brazil’s campaign ended in a humiliating fourth-place finish.
#4: Belgium 1-0 Argentina, 1982
Eight years after Brazil’s upset draw at the hands of a European team, it was time for another defending champion from South America to face humiliation, only this time it was an outright loss.
Argentina’s rise in the global game has been rapid since after failing to advance past the quarterfinals stage for decades, the Albiceleste utilised their role as the host of the 1978 edition to clinch the trophy.
Argentina’s stature in the 1982 World Cup was even bigger with the introduction of the young Diego Maradona, who was considered the best player of his time even before he entered the tournament. Their opponents Belgium did not even qualify for the World Cup finals in six of the previous seven editions.
But in the tournament opener, Belgium displayed extraordinary man-marking skills, containing Diego Maradona and tossing up Argentina’s tactics. The Albiceleste tried to attack the goalpost from various quarters but were countered effectively by the Belgian defenders.
The only goal of the game came 17 minutes into the second-half when Erwin Vanderbergh punched the ball into the bottom-right corner of the goal.
#3: Italy 1-1 Bulgaria, 1986
Italy were the defending champions heading into the 1986 edition of the World Cup in Mexico.
While the Azzurri were not favourites to win the tournament in Latin America, they nevertheless were one of the strongest teams in the competition. The squad itself was quite different from the one they deployed four years ago, with just four key players still playing for the team.
Bulgaria employed a conservative approach to tackle the threat from the Italians, soaking up the pressure and letting the Italians tire out on the field.
Italy scored first as Alessandro Altobelli scored for the Azzurri in the first-half, but the Eastern European side had to quickly change their tactics and they punished Italy’s laid-back approach to the game with an equaliser.
Italy would go on to draw their second game of the tournament as well, barely qualifying from the group stages with a 3-2 win over South Korea in their last group-stage game.
Argentina, after their disastrous exit from the previous World Cup, would go on to put on their best performance ever – with Diego Maradona scoring the famous “Hand of God” and “Goal of the Century” goals to lead his team to a World Cup victory.
#2: Cameroon 1-0 Argentina, 1990
Continuing their seesaw in World Cup football, Argentina were once again at the receiving end of an opening day upset, this time against Cameroon.
The 1-0 victory by a group of veterans who were mostly outcasts in domestic football stunned the world and would give a big boost to the game’s expansion in the African continent.
While Cameroon were accused of aggressive defending and had to face two red cards during the game, they displayed resilience to an attack that was led by the already legendary Diego Maradona. Francois Omam-Biyik struck the winner for Cameroon in the second-half, partly thanks to clumsy defending from the Albiceleste.
Argentina managed to barely qualify for the knockout rounds, but Diego Maradona’s men found their form back to cruise their way to the final, only to lose the trophy to Germany.
#1: Senegal 1-0 France, 2002
Considered one of the greatest upsets of all time, Senegal’s win over France in the opener of the 2002 FIFA World Cup truly announced the rise of African football to the world.
France were an imposing side before the tournament as not only were they the defending champions but also lost just six games in the span of four years. The French boasted a talented lineup that consisted of veterans of the game, while Senegal’s players barely played any international football.
Zinedine Zidane’s untimely injury ahead of the tournament opener was a major loss for Les Bleus, as the team missed his inspiring presence on the field.
Papa Bouba Diop scored the opener for Senegal 30 minutes into the game, stunning the world. While the French dominated possession, Senegal’s midfielders and defenders remained disciplined on the field. A flurry of late shots by France showed their desperation, but could not alter the outcome of the game.
One of the biggest upsets in the history of football itself, the loss to Senegal would affect France’s morale throughout the tournament, leading to their early exit from the World Cup.
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