Football (or soccer for those who live in the U.S.) is loved and treated like a religion by many fans because is not an exact science. So, even if it’s not likely, sometimes happens that the underdog takes the trophy home, against all odds. Whether it’s a club like Leicester or a national team.
The last World Cup in Russia was won by France, but Croatia was the outsider. Seeing the Balkan team on top of the world would have been a surprise, however far from being a David vs Goliath triumph. Croatia has many strong players, from Perišić (Inter) to Mandžukić (Juventus), from Rakitić (Barcelona) to Modrić (Real Madrid). Plus, they already came third in the 1998 World Cup in France.
This competition was never won by an actual Cinderella. Uruguay is the only name which may appear weird, but back in the days was a well organized team. The famous success against Brazil in 1950 was unexpected, but La Celeste had talented players like Schiaffino and Ghiggia and a tough leader like Varela. Hungary (1954), Sweden (1958) and Czechoslovakia (1962) went close to the final goal, but still, they had a generation that never came back, not at these levels.
The Scandinavians had Gren-Nordahl-Liedholm (a popular trio named GreNoLi), Hungary had Puskás, Kocsis and Czibor. Not to mention the fact that communist countries used to invest a lot in sports, after years of voluntary confinement.
Other teams were able to thrill the fantasy of all the football fans. Cameroon in 1990, that defeated Maradona and Argentina in the first match and played one of the best games ever against England in the quarter finals (3-2 for the British after extra time). Four years later was Nigeria‘s turn, another brilliant African team. And another naive elimination. Cameroon payed the inexperience of their defense, that gifted two penalties to England. Nigeria lost a ball at the last minute with Italy and was punished by Roberto Baggio.
The growth of African football was carried on by Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). They both were eliminated in the quarter finals, Ghana even wasted a penalty at the last minute of the extra time against Uruguay. Then the South Americans won the p.k. battle.
The most unbelievable victories against all odds happened in continental competitions, though. In 1992 Sweden hosted the Eurpean Championship. Yugoslavia is one of the eight qualified teams, but at the same time the country is falling apart. They used to say “6 States, 5 Nations, 4 languages, 3 religions, 2 alphabets, one Tito”. But Tito was gone 12 years earlier and independence movements rose everywhere. If Slovenia can easily leave, for Croatia and Bosnia is not the same, because they have Serbian enclaves in their territory.
As we know the war is bloody, and UEFA can do nothing but disqualify Yugoslavia. The second team of the qualifying tournament is Denmark, but they’re already on vacation. It’s hard for the coach Møller Nielsen to put together a roster and the best player, Michael Laudrup, says no. He’s at the beach and he thinks it’s useless to interrupt his holidays to play a couple matches that, basically, are already lost.
Laudrup couldn’t be more wrong. Denmark gets through the first phase and they beat Holland and its aces (Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten) in the semifinal. The final is against Germany. Everyone thinks that the dream will stop, Denmark did a lot already. But they’re ahead after 18′ with Jensen. The goalkeeper Schmeichel blocks every German attempt to equalize and in the end (78′) Vilford scores the 2-0, and that’s a fable within the fable.
The midfielder has a sick eight years old daughter, he decides to go to the Championship also because Sweden is pretty close to Denmark, so after every match he can go back home and cheer up the family. His goal in the final gives Denmark the victory, but it’s also the last, touching gift to the little girl. It’s a fable, sure, but Andersen (ironically Danish as well) must be the author.
In 2004 Greece is the big surprise. The German coach Otto Rehhagel is very pragmatic. He knows he has a few players with quality and his tactic is very basic. A rough defense, with very physical center-backs like Dellas, a muscular midfield and a tall striker, Charisteas, who turns to gold any cross coming from the section.
After the first group, where they defeat the home team Portugal, draw with Spain and lose with Russia, Greece starts the barricades. 1-0 with France, 1-0 with Czech Republic, 1-0 again with Portugal and his rising star Cristiano Ronaldo. Nikolaidis, the goalkeeper, is definitely the best player. Many people turn their nose, as Greece doesn’t play a spectacular football. But we cannot scorn a vintage triumph, that brings this sport back 50 years, but in a good way. When having a strong character was as important as having good feet.
Let’s leave Europe and move to Africa, where the last winning underdog is Zambia. This country had a promising football team, but a plane crash in 1993 erased it, right before the USA World Cup. They start from scratch and in 2012 they win the African Cup for the first time, crossing their path with another crazy story, the one of Ivory Coast. The Elephants are one of the best teams, but they felt victim of a curse which prevented them from winning since 1992 to 2015. Right after they paid the wizard of the isolated village of Akradio they won again.
The most incredible success, really against all odds, is the one of Iraq in the 2007 Asian Cup. In 2003 the U.S. Army invades the country, in 2006 the dictator Saddam Hussein is executed, but this doesn’t solve things. On the contrary, is the beginning of an even worse chaos. Hussein was (kind of like Tito) holding together a country divided among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish. After his reign of terror was over, terrorist group took control, taking advantage of the absence of an iron fist leader, delaying the democratic process.
The last thing you expect is to see Iraq in a football competition. Nevertheless, they are there, in the south-east of Asia, where four countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) co-host the 2007 edition of the Asian Cup. The Iraqi overcome Vietnam and the favorite teams, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, giving a moment of relief to the population, inside and outside the remains of a country, reuniting people even for a while.
Syria lived a similar dream. This devastated and homeless country (the national team played in Malaysia, thousand of kilometers far from the Middle East) almost qualified for the Russian 2018 World Cup. The score at 93′ with Iran brought Syria to an unhoped-for playoff with Australia. No chance, would have said any expert. But to ties for 1-1 led to the extra time, only then the Aussies were able to win.
This story left some controversies behind. Almost every player of the national team is somehow faithful to Assad’s regime, except the captain Firas Al-Khatib, who previously left the selection as a protest. Thirty-eight Syrian players got killed during the conflict, other fled abroad, like Ayman Kasheet, who tried (without any result) to expose to FIFA the political interference in sports.
All this reasons made the public opinion believe that a qualification would have been good for Assad – happy to participate in Putin’s World Cup and show a “normal” country, where you can practice football – more than a people looking for representation.