5. World Cup 1990 – Cameroon
At the beginning of World Cup Italia ’90 most English fans didn’t even know Cameroon existed and commentators regularly pluralised the name, giving it an awkward colonial ring. That was all to change within 90 magical minutes as the rank outsiders humbled holders Argentina with an irresistible mixture of audacious skill, team spirit and sheer brutality.
Already everyone’s second team, the tough tackling Lions Indomptables won still more friends when 38-year-old striker Roger Milla – who had come out of retirement to play at the tournament – put Romania to the sword and celebrated with his trademark dance around the corner flag.
Despite losing their final group game 4-0 to the Soviet Union, Cameroon progressed and upset Colombia aided by some more Milla magic and the eccentric antics of opposing goalkeeper Rene Higuita. Reluctant ‘keeper Higuita was happiest around 40 yards from his goal line: a trait that unsurprisingly proved costly when he was dispossessed by Milla while a bus ride away from his box. Cameroon’s elder statesman netted again in a 2-1 extra-time win and set up a quarter-final with England.
Amazingly, Cameroon were seven minutes away from dumping Bobby Robson’s men out but the Africans’ soft spot for reckless challenges proved their undoing as they conceded two penalties that ice-cool Gary Lineker converted to secure the 3-2 win. Nobody summed up Cameroon’s heroic run better than legendary England manager Robson. “We didn’t underestimate Cameroon, they were just better than we thought,” he insisted in his post-match press conference.
4. World Cup 2002 – Senegal
The 2002 World Cup felt somewhat unreal from the off. Games in Japan and South Korea were being played at breakfast time for European viewers, so there was a very real possibility of seeing Nigeria line up against Sweden before you’d even heaped sugar onto your cornflakes.
And there was a distinctly hallucinogenic quality to the opening match as minnows Senegal beat a star-studded French side 1-0. Led by French boss Bruno Metsu, a cross between Michael Bolton and a 1980s porn star, Senegal poached a goal through Papa Bouba Diop, performed the obligatory African dance, and held on for the win against the unsettlingly lacklustre hosts. France crashed out and Senegal, in their maiden World Cup, progressed to the last 16.
In a tournament with an unprecedented number of upsets, Senegal pushed past Sweden and were three wins away from a World Cup final. Sadly the bubble burst in a forgettable 1-0 extra-time defeat to Turkey, but the Senegalese had done enough to ensure an orderly queue of Premier League scouts were waiting for them at the airport.
3. World Cup 1950 - USA
Prior to 1950, England’s footballers had mocked the idea of a World Cup. After all, we were clearly the best in the world.
Results in Brazil didn’t quite seem to back up English claims of superiority. England fell to an unthinkable 1-0 defeat to the USA – a game that has been labelled the “Miracle on Grass” by American writers and the same score-line against Spain was enough to send the tournament favourites home red faced.
English confidence was understandable. The Three Lions team including the great Stanley Matthews, Alf Ramsey and Tom Finney had lost only four times in 30, while the amateur Americans had been massacred in their last seven internationals by an aggregate margin of 45-2.
Joe Gaetjens – who was actually Haitian – won the game for the US with a diving header that left Bert Williams stranded in goal. Only one American journalist had actually attended the game, so news spread slowly of the US triumph, while readers in England generally assumed there had been a misprint and the score-line should have read ‘England 10-0 USA’.
2. World Cup 1974 -East Germany
West Germany may have lifted the World Cup in 1974, but they got off to the most inauspicious of starts when they lost bragging rights to their rivals in a political grudge match. Tensions ran high as the German DR and German FR clashed in Hamburg in a group game with added bite.
The West Germans had the stars like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller, but the East Germans were no slouches and football had overtaken other sports such as swimming and weightlifting in the national hierarchy of importance.
Nearly 75 percent of the East German population watched the game on TV and they were rewarded with a highly unlikely victory courtesy of Jurgen Sparwasser’s 77th-minute goal.
The result proved to be the peak of East Germany’s achievements, while the West Germans bounced back to win the trophy by beating Holland. Capitalism would also triumph over Communism, but West Germany never their revenge over the East on the football pitch.
1. World Cup 1966 - North Korea
While English people may just think you are sneezing, Italians still shudder at mention of the name Pak Doo-Ik. And just as the year 1966 stirs pride in the heart of the English, it conjures up dark memories for fans of the Azzurri.
The remarkable story of the 1966 North Korea team started before Pak Doo-Ik’s winning goal that sent Italy packing. A team of few notable talents, it was the short stature of the Korean squad that made most impression on the watching public. In a less politically correct age, newspaper reports gleefully declared that the players ‘looked like jockeys’ and they were treated more like a travelling circus than a football team.
Based in Middlesbrough for the group stages, the charming visitors became hugely popular amongst the locals, who adopted them as a second team, and Ayresome Park erupted so violently that the strip lighting in the press box collapsed when the Koreans grabbed a late equaliser against Chile in their second match to retain a chance of progressing to the knockout stages.
They just had the small obstacle of a mighty Italian team with legends such as Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti to overcome. Goalkeeper Ri Chan-Myong was the hero of the opening minutes, making three magnificent reflex saves to keep the favourites at bay. The Italians were shaken and an uncharacteristic chink in their catenaccio system allowed diminutive book manufacturer Pak Doo-Ik to pounce and score the only goal of the game.
Bizarrely, North Korea went 3-0 up against Portugal in the next round before submitting to the mighty Eusebio and conceding five times.
Film director Daniel Gordon made a film about the plucky Koreans called ‘The Game of Their Lives’, which was released in 2002.