Everyone loves an underdog, especially when they beat the odds and emerge with the win. The problem is it happens so rarely that we often can’t believe what we’re witnessing.
Anything can happen over the course of a race or a few seconds during a match, a touch of brilliance or an unfortunate fall when victory should have been guaranteed.
Over a 90-minute soccer game, the odds are always against the underdog. The better team has time to recover, mistakes can be rectified, and even if one player has a stinker, the rest of the team can always make up for their mistakes. That’s why when a genuine upset does happen, it stays in the memory for years.
Today we’re going to look back at the biggest upsets in soccer, games where you only need to mention the teams involved, and someone will immediately think back to the fateful day everything went wrong. Underdogs shouldn’t win; they rarely win, but we love it when they do.
Here are the 7 biggest upsets in soccer history.
7. Real Madrid 1-2 Sheriff Tiraspol (2022 Champions League)
It’s fair to say that Real Madrid is the most accomplished Champions League team of all time, 14-time winners of the most prestigious club competition in world soccer.
The fact that Real Madrid went on to win the 2021-22 Champions League is irrelevant; during the group stages, the club had arguably their most surprising defeat ever in the competition.
On the 28th of September 2021, Madrid hosted Sheriff Tiraspol at the Santiago Bernabeu, and so low was the expectation of an upset that only 24,522 fans even bothered to make the trip to the game.
An early goal for Sheriff after 25 minutes was met with raised eyebrows but no genuine concern; Madrid had over an hour to punish the cheeky Moldovan team.
After another forty minutes, Madrid was still losing, and it took a penalty by Karim Benzema after 65 minutes to even the score. Incredibly, the floodgates didn’t open, and by the 90th minute, the game looked set for an incredible shock result.
Sheriff Tiraspol would have snatched your arm off for a draw before the game but incredibly had the audacity to score a 90th-minute winner, shocking the Bernabeu into silence and Moldovan fans into stunned disbelief.
It’s the most significant victory in Moldovan history and one that’s unlikely to be repeated, at least until the next time.
6. Greece 1-0 Portugal (Euro, 2004 Final)
The 2004 European Championships was only the second time that Greece had ever qualified for a major international tournament.
Hence, expectations were low for anything other than a good experience for Greek fans. The scene was set with the tournament hosted by Portugal and Greece finding themselves in the same group as the host nation.
The opening game of Euro 2004, Portugal Vs. Greece was expected to be as easy an opening game as possible; Portugal, on home soil, had a superb team.
Greece, inexperienced and underwhelming, would be an easy game. So a 2-1 victory for Greece was a stunning result that helped the Greek national team make it through the group stages.
Incredibly, the Greek team kept winning, beating France and the Czech Republic on their way to an incredible final against the hosts, Portugal.
It was inconceivable that the result would go anywhere but to the hosts. However, Greece had other ideas and spent the tournament with one of the most resolute defenses in the competition.
Once Greece took the lead in the game, the result was a foregone conclusion; in front of their home crowd, Portugal simply couldn’t find a way through.
Greece held on for their one and only international trophy and became part of soccer folklore. Easily one of the most unexpected victories in international soccer.
5. Fulham 4-1 Juventus (2009, UEFA Cup Quarter Final)
Fulham FC had been in turmoil for decades, with money in short supply and the club always hanging on to their Premier League status, a season where relegation seemed unlikely was considered a great year.
So the club’s incredible end to the 2009-09 season, where they managed to finish in seventh place, was heralded as good as it could get for the London club.
Finishing in seventh place meant entry to the Europa League for the 2009-10 season; expectations were sub-zero, and the fans were simply looking forward to a European adventure, an early exit, and some much-needed revenue entering the club. What actually happened was a near miracle.
After making it through the group stages, Fulham would eventually reach the last 16 against the mighty Juventus. A 3-1 defeat in Turin seemed to be the end of the road; Juventus were far superior in every respect.
The second leg at Craven Cottage was to be a final goodbye to the competition, and the fans turned up expecting to see a defeat, albeit at the hands of European giants.
Trailing 3-1, Fulham threw everything they could at Juventus; if you’re going to lose, you may as well lose with style.
Incredibly, the goals started to go in, and by the end of the game, Juventus had conceded four and scored only one in reply. A 5-4 victory over the two legs saw Fulham through to the next round against Wolfsburg, which they again won.
In the Semi-final against Hamburg, Fulham again emerged victorious and found themselves in their first European final.
A 2-1 loss in the final to Atletico Madrid was a sad end to an incredible journey for the Cottagers. Still, it remains one of the most remarkable cup runs in the history of European club competition.
4. England 1-2 Iceland (2016 European Championships)
It’s well known that England hasn’t won a major trophy since 1966 and seems able to find new and inventive ways to trip themselves up at the last hurdle in major competitions.
The 2016 European Championships saw England again throw their chance away after coming unstuck against one of the smallest nations in world soccer.
The England team, full of world-class, world-renowned players such as Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane, and Raheem Stirling, found themselves facing Iceland in the last 16 of the 2016 European Championships. An easy win was predicted, yet England completely underestimated the quality of the Iceland team.
After an early goal for England after just four minutes, it looked like all was going to plan, yet within 20 minutes of the game starting, England found themselves 2-1 down to the Icelandic team.
With 70 minutes left to play, it looked like only a matter of time before England equalized, yet as the game went on, and chance after chance was missed, panic spread throughout the team.
Iceland held on for a historic victory, and although they were knocked out in the next round by eventual finalists France, the minnows from Iceland claimed their biggest-ever scalp in international competition.
Shamefaced and out of ideas, England limped home yet again and suffered horrifically at the hands of fans and the media over their shocking loss.
3. Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan (2005 Champions League Final)
In what would later be dubbed “The Miracle of Istanbul,” the 2005 Champions League final has gone down in history as the most fantastic European final of modern times.
Both Liverpool and AC Milan, that year’s finalists, have long and illustrious records in Europe, and the final looked set to be a close, exciting finale to the season.
Incredibly, by halftime, AC Milan was three goals up, with Liverpool going into the tunnel 3-0 down and looking bereft of ideas.
Milan had repeatedly torn through the Liverpool defense time and again and looked set for another historic victory. Only one Milan player felt the game wasn’t over; club captain and Italian legend Paolo Maldini.
Maldini was seen remonstrating with his teammates to stay focussed in the second half, he believed Liverpool was still a dangerous team, and the Milan captain tried everything he could to ensure the victory was secured.
An early goal for Liverpool in the second half gave fresh hope, and then Liverpool scored another. Milan found themselves on the ropes when a penalty was awarded to Liverpool.
The penalty was saved, but the rebound was scored to pull the game to 3-3 for one of the most incredible comebacks of all time.
The game swung in both Milan’s and Liverpool’s favor, with neither team able to take the lead. Extra time soon led to penalties, where Liverpool held their nerve to record an unlikely Champion League victory.
2. Brazil 1-2 Uruguay (1950 World Cup Final)
The final of the 1950 World Cup saw favorites Brazil line up against fellow South American nation Uruguay, with Brazil fully expecting to come away with a win at the Maracana Stadium in Jio de Janeiro.
With an estimated attendance of 173,580, the 1950 final is one of the biggest attendances ever recorded. With Brazil, the hot favorite, what happened next is still regarded as a national disaster for Brazilian soccer fans.
In a goalless first half, Brazil dominated, attacking in waves, with the Uruguayan defense holding firm until halftime.
Within minutes of the restart, Brazil took the lead, and normal service seemed to have resumed. Despite having an incredible attack, Brazil’s defense was notoriously weak, and Uruguay, having managed to keep the score at 1-0, was still in with a shout.
An equalizer on 66 minutes meant the game had turned on its head, and Brazil began to panic. A second Uruguay goal in the 79th minute of the game killed off any resistance, and Uruguay went on to lift the trophy.
Even today, 73 years later, it’s still one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history; ask any Brazilian what they think of the game, and they’ll likely break down in tears.
1. Leicester City Win The Premier League (2015/2016)
Winning a game of soccer when you’re the underdog is quite the achievement. Against a superior team, holding on for 90 minutes can be challenging, mentally and physically. So to hang on not for 90 minutes but for an entire 38-game season is almost impossible.
The 2014-2015 Premier League season was an awful year for Leicester City. The club was bottom of the league for much of the season, and only a late surge of wins stopped the club from being relegated.
Helped by their lethal striker Jamie Vardy hitting a vein of form late in the season, the club retained their position in the league.
The 2015-2016 season was, therefore, a bonus. The fans and players had fully expected to play in a lower division, so another season in the Premier League was a massive bonus.
Under manager Claudio Ranieri, the team started the new season well and would eventually, and unexpectedly, find themselves sitting at the top of the league.
It wouldn’t last, it couldn’t last; Leicester was 5000-1 to win the league before the season started, and everyone knew they’d eventually fall away and finish the season in mid-table. Only they didn’t; they kept winning games and began to pull even further away from the chasing pack.
By the end of the season, Leicester would only lose three games all year, winning 23 and drawing 12. Finishing ten points clear of Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City would win their first (and only) Premier League title with an astonishing 81 points.
The story went viral, and coverage was worldwide; it’s undoubtedly the greatest underdog story of all time.
On a shoestring budget, a team that only 12 months earlier had been staring relegation in the face had somehow managed to play 38 Premier League games against some of the biggest teams in world soccer and win. It won’t happen again, it shouldn’t have happened in 2016, but it did.
Bookmakers were stung for millions of dollars as fans making ludicrous $10 bets at 5000-1 suddenly found themselves richer. The Premier League was richer for the story, too. Fans of every club believed their club stood a chance; if Leicester City could do it, why not their home team?
Here’s the full story: