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The 5 greatest underdog teams in football history

Football history has seen some great underdog stories. Here we take a look back at the top 5 greatest underdog teams in football history.

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Last updated: 10.06.2022
The 5 greatest underdog teams in football history

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Football history has seen some great underdog stories – teams managing to defeat much bigger and better sides to win trophies, even the biggest ones – and here are ten of the best of all time.

 

#5 South Korea, 2002 World Cup

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It’s a controversial call I guess because there are some fans that believe the 2002 World Cup was fixed in order for hosts South Korea to make it into the semi-finals, but there’s never been definitive proof of any wrong-doing, and for a side like South Korea – with practically no notable players – to make the semi-finals of a World Cup, even at home, is a great underdog story.

It began in the group stages, as the Koreans upset Poland 2-0 and then drew with the USA 1-1. That left them needing a result against Portugal in order to qualify, and this was a Portugal team who’d reached the semi-finals of Euro 2000 and had one of the world’s best players in Luis Figo. But South Korea beat them 1-0 and made it into the last 16.

From there, the Koreans defeated Italy 2-1 in extra-time via Ahn Jung-Hwan’s shock goal – the player was fired by his Italian club Perugia for it – and then managed to beat Spain in a penalty shoot-out to reach the semis, where the underdog story ended at the hands of Germany.

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#4 Iceland, Euro 2016

 

When Iceland were drawn in a group with highly fancied Portugal, and fellow underdogs Austria and Hungary at Euro 2016, few observers thought they could make it out of the blocks.

That theory was blown apart when they managed to claim a draw against Portugal in their opening match – much to the chagrin of Cristiano Ronaldo, who ranted against their “small mentality” and defensive tactics in a post-match interview.

A draw with Hungary followed to give Iceland a decent chance of escaping the group, but they still had to face a David Alaba-led Austria side who hadn’t quite kicked into second gear. Iceland took an early lead, only to let in an equalizer, but the game would end when the Icelanders caught Austria on the break, allowing Arnor Traustason to score the winner.

That set up Iceland for a clash in the last 16 against England – one of the pre-tournament favorites – and surely they’d lose, right?

Instead, in a classic underdog performance, Iceland managed to out-play, out-fight, and out-think the Premier League’s stars for the full 90 minutes, winning 2-1 despite conceding an early penalty.

 

#3 Montpellier, 2011/12 Ligue One

 

France’s Ligue One had been won by a remarkable four different teams in the four seasons leading up to 2011/12, but while a fifth, different team was expected to win the league title in that season, it certainly wasn’t supposed to be tiny Montpellier, who only finished 14th the previous year and had an annual budget of around £29m.

The summer of 2011 was the summer that saw Qatari Sports Investment take over Paris St. Germain and promised to make them the most powerful club in Europe. They spent millions to lure the likes of Javier Pastore, Jeremy Menez and Thiago Motta to the club and even appointed Carlo Ancelotti as manager, but it wasn’t enough.

Despite securing 79 points – usually enough for the title – they couldn’t overhaul Montpellier, who ended the season with 82.

 

#2 Cameroon, World Cup 1990

 

African sides have historically always been underdogs when it comes to the World Cup, and 1990’s tournament had perhaps the best side of African underdogs in the tournament’s history in the form of Cameroon.

Coming into the tournament, nobody had heard of Cameroon’s players despite some playing in the French Ligue One – and the side included a 38-year old forward named Roger Milla who’d come out of retirement at the behest of the country’s president.

Nobody gave them a hope in hell against reigning champions Argentina – led by Diego Maradona – in the first game of the tournament, but somehow the Africans pulled off the ultimate upset, beating the South Americans 1-0.

Next up were the dangerous Romania, who featured Gheorghe Hagi in midfield, but two goals from Milla put them to the sword. And despite losing their final group game to the Soviet Union, another two goals from Milla sent them past Colombia in the round of 16.

The Cameroon dream was finally ended by England in the quarter-finals, but not before the African underdogs took the lead and gave Bobby Robson’s side the fright of their lives. Despite the underdog story ending somewhat early, the shocks they caused – and Roger Milla’s unforgettable dancing celebration – would go down in World Cup history and are still fondly remembered by almost two.

 

#1 Leicester City, Premier League 2015/16

 

Of the modern Premier League, no team since the turn of the century had broken the stranglehold that the big clubs – Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea – had over the league title outside of Manchester City, who used a massive injection of Arab oil money to do so.

 

Going into 2015/16, Leicester City were 5000/1 to win the title; they’d finished 14th in the previous season and had then fired manager Nigel Pearson, replacing him with “tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri.

Many pundits predicted doom for the Foxes, as they barely strengthened their squad and only spent around £26m on players who were either largely unknown or journeymen. But somehow, Leicester started the season on fire.

Fuelled by the goals and attacking prowess of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, and strengthened by a solid defense shielded by the eventual Player of the Year, N’Golo Kante, Leicester topped the table at Christmas.

Everybody kept expecting the bubble to burst but it just didn’t happen – Leicester beat Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City, and a February loss to Arsenal didn’t stop them, it merely galvanized them.

The Foxes didn’t lose another game in the season, and they secured the title with two games to spare, eventually winning it by ten points. It was an underdog story that will likely never happen again, but it gave truth to the old adage that in football, anything is possible.

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