With World Cup 2022 just over a week away, the excitement around the world is almost palpable. The biggest and the best international teams the world has to offer, going head-to-head is undoubtedly an exciting prospect.
As always with the World Cup, though, there will be shocks and big stories along the way. In this article, we will look at the lowest-ranked underdogs who have beaten giants of the world game. Here are the lowest-ranked teams to have caused significant shocks at World Cups:
South Korea shocked mighty Italy in 2002
The 2002 World Cup was held jointly by Japan and South Korea. The latter caused one of the biggest shocks the competition has ever seen, as they saw off a star-studded Italy team 2-1 in extra time of the second round of the competition. The hosts were ranked 40th in the world at the time, while Italy was sixth.
The victory was not without its controversy, though, as referee Byron Moreno produced one of the most memorable refereeing displays a World Cup has ever seen.
The hosts were awarded a third-minute penalty, despite there not seemingly being much contact from Christian Panucci on Seol Ki-Hyeon. However, Gigi Buffon saved the resulting spot-kick from Ahn Jung-Hwan.
After a feisty early exchange, Italy took the lead on 18 minutes. Christian Vieri was too strong for the home defenders and rose to head home from a Francesco Totti corner kick. The home team stayed in a game full of niggle and got their reward for a spirited display after 88 minutes, as Seol Ki Hyeon fired home after the ball appeared to hit Panucci on the thigh and the arm. The goal sent the stadium into raptures.
Vieri should have won it for Italy in normal time, but the big striker produced one of the misses of the tournament as he fired over the bar from six yards out. It wasn’t to be, and the game went to extra time and a golden goal period after two more near misses for South Korea.
The game turned in South Korea’s favour in the 103rd minute, as Totti went down in the home box under a challenge from Song, and referee Moreno gave the Roma man a second yellow card for diving.
South Korea’s winning goal arrived with just three minutes of extra time remaining. Ahn Jung-Hwan made up for his earlier penalty miss by firing home and dramatically sending his team into the last eight of the competition.
Senegal see off Sweden
This was another last-16 shock in 2002, as Senegal, ranked 42nd in the World, recorded a 2-1 extra-time victory over 19th-place Sweden. In the process of booking their place in the quarter-finals, Senegal became just the second African team to make it to the last eight of a World Cup.
The game started well for Sweden, as Henrik Larsson scored after just 11 minutes, with Senegal goalkeeper Tony Sylva out of position. Senegal were level on 37 minutes, however. Striker Henri Camara controlled the ball superbly 20 yards out before firing into the top corner of Magnus Hedman’s goal.
Both teams had chances to win the game but never could find a winning goal in 90 minutes. The game then went into extra time and a golden goal period. With the pair searching for that crucial golden goal, Senegal who found it after 103 minutes. It was that man Camara again. He beat his man, and the forward’s low effort rolled past Hedman and in off the post.
South Korea at it again against Spain
After eliminating Italy in the last 16 of World Cup 2002, hosts, South Korea then got past world-ranked eighth Spain in the quarter-finals. South Korea won a penalty shootout 5-3 after 90 minutes and extra time failed to produce a goal or a winner.
However, just like the win over Italy, the officials’ performance was highly unconvincing. The officiating team, led by Egyptian referee Gamal Al-Ghandour, produced some questionable decisions, including disallowing two Spain goals, despite the efforts looking legitimate.
The victory was a historical one, though, for South Korea, as it was the furthest that the Asian nation had progressed at a World Cup. It was also the first time in 72 years that a country not from UEFA or CONMEBOL advanced to the semi-finals of a World Cup finals.
Russia had Spanish eyes crying in 2018
The biggest shock in terms of lowest-ranked teams to upset the odds came in the last 16 of World Cup 2018, when hosts Russia, who were incredibly ranked a massive 70th place in the ranking, eliminated Spain, who were 60 places higher than their opponents in the world rankings.
The 90 minutes produced a 1-1 draw, but Russia headed through to the semi-finals courtesy of a 4-3 penalty kick victory. Spain actually took the lead after 11 minutes, as Russian centre-back Sergei Ignashevich diverted the ball past his own goal goalkeeper following a scramble from Isco’s corner kick. The defender became the oldest player ever to score an own goal at a World Cup.
Russia equalised on 41 minutes, as Barcelona centre-back Gerard Pique was adjudged to have handled in his own penalty area. Spanish protests only delayed the spot kick, although that didn’t stop Russian striker Artem Dzyuba from slotting home the resulting penalty kick.
Despite being big favourites, Spain had to wait 45 minutes for their first shot of the game through Isco. It was the longest period that La Roja failed to have a shot during any World Cup game.
The game was a stalemate until extra time. An arguably controversial call came on 115 minutes when Pique went down under a challenge in the Russia area. However, the officials and VAR, in operation for the first time during a World Cup, decided it was not a penalty kick.
Then came the dreaded penalty shootout for Spain, as La Roja had lost their previous three shootouts at World Cups. This shootout ended no differently, as Iago Aspas’ miss saw Russia qualify for the competition’s quarter-final for the first time since the Soviet Union’s break up.
Morocco Lead The Line Of Upsets In 2022
Morocco became the first African team to reach the semi-finals in 2022 by beating Portugal (1-0), Spain (0-0 on penalties), Belgium (2-0) and Canada (2-1) along the way before bravely losing to France 2-0 in the semis. The team with a ranking of 22nd in the world were not expected to get out of their group that included Belgium and Croatia but they didn’t only get out of it they topped it.
Despite Morocco topping the group Spain finished runners-up in their group so they got drawn against them in the last 16. That may seem unfortunate on paper but Morocco bravely fought off Spain and went on to win on penalties following a 0-0 draw. They pretty much did the same to Portugal in the Quarter-Finals but this time they managed a goal in normal time to win 1-0. In the semi against France they were dominated but still nearly managed to force extra-time with France 1-0 up until the 80th minute before adding a second late on.
That was only the tip of the iceberg, though, in a tournament that saw the most upsets in history. It started when Saudi Arabia, ranked 51 in the world, beat eventual champions Argentina, led by Messi, 2-1 in the opening group game. Croatia managed to see off favourites Brazil on penalties too in the quarter-final after a 1-1 draw.
The tournament also saw Japan beat Germany and Spain in their group before being eliminated narrowly on penalties by Croatia in the last 16. Cameroon beat Brazil 1-0 in their final group game, which was not enough to progress but will still be regarded as one of the greatest results for the African nation. Finally South Korea again managed an upset, this time beating Portugal 2-1 in their final group game before Brazil knocked them out in the round of 16.
Lowest-ranked teams looking to follow in footsteps?
The 2026 World Cup features 48 teams so naturally there are going to be more lower ranked teams than usual and the gulf between some teams will be very big, meaning we could see the biggest upset ever at the next tournament.
The number of upsets could increase, however, the number of group games remains at 48, the same as the previous 32-team world cups, so in spite of adding an additional knockout round of 32 we may see less shocks as a proportion of games overall. It ultimately depends how many lower ranked teams make it out of the groups to cause upsets in the knockout phases.
However, if the recent history of the World Cup tells us anything, it is that shocks happen regularly, so when it comes to this competition, absolutely anything can and does happen.