This winter World Cup has thrown up a number of surprising results across the group stage and beyond. The history of the World Cup has been no different, with big-name teams falling to lesser-known nations throughout the tournament’s near 100-year existence.
Here is a list of the three biggest upsets in the 21st century, according to FIFA rankings.
Table of Contents
France 1-2 South Africa (June 22, 2010)
The hosts of the 2010 edition of the tournament ended their Group A campaign with what is still the biggest upset in the group stages of any World Cup, according to FIFA rankings. 83rd-placed South Africa took on 9th-ranked France in matchday three, with Bafana Bafana looking to avoid becoming the first World Cup host not to win a match.
Bongani Khumalo opened the scoring after 20 minutes before Katlego Mphela doubled the hosts’ advantage 17 minutes later, with South Africa able to down 1998 winners France despite a late strike from Florent Malouda on 70 minutes.
This winter, Didier Deschamps’ side gave a much better account of themselves as 2018 holders, with World Cup odds of -120 to go on and win the tournament. Leading man Olivier Giroud is among many pundits’ World Cup tips to finish as the Golden Boot winner in Qatar after he overtook Thierry Henry to become France’s leading ever scorer.
Back in 2010, though, Les Blues ended up finishing below the hosts and bottom of Group A, having amassed just one point from three games. The tournament was eventually won by Spain for the first time after they beat Netherlands 1-0 in the final.
South Korea 2-1 Italy (June 18, 2002)
Eight years earlier, the World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan witnessed the biggest upset in the knockout stages of the competition. The joint hosts were placed 40th in FIFA’s rankings, while Italy was as high as 6th. It was the match favorites who made the faster start, though, with Christian Vieri opening the scoring after just 18 minutes to put the Azzurri in front.
The game looked set to go the way of Giovanni Trapattoni’s side, until South Korea’s Seol Ki-hyeon scored with two minutes of regulation time remaining, taking the game to extra time.
In a cagey additional period, which saw Italy’s Francesco Totti red-carded on 103 minutes, the match was poised to go either way, with both sides aware of a last-eight berth that was up for grabs.
Eventually, the result was decided by a golden goal in favor of the Koreans, with Ahn Jung-hwan striking home in the 117th minute to break Italian hearts and send the home crowd into ecstasy. South Korea would eventually go all the way to the semi-finals in 2002 before falling to a 1-0 defeat to Germany, becoming one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup.
South Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan knocked out Italy in 2002 and was forced into a legal battle with Perugia over his signature becuase of it. FIFA sided with the club and he had to pay $3.5m in damages. To pay it off, he had to host A LOT of reality TV – even now. pic.twitter.com/P6p93WTYkH— Football Ramble (@FootballRamble) November 17, 2022
South Korea 2-0 Germany (June 27, 2018)
The Asian side was back to their giant-killing best 16 years later in Russia 2018. The result marked the biggest upset of a defending champion, with South Korea ranked a whopping 57th by FIFA and Germany, naturally, first.
The game itself was a largely uneventful affair, with Die Mannschaft needing all three points in order to progress but finding themselves frustrated by the Korean backline. Then, in the dying embers, the match turned on its head.
Two minutes into stoppage time, South Korea broke down the other end and snatched a late winner thanks to Kim Young-gwon’s strike. With Germany trying to push for an equalizer that never came, they left themselves even more exposed at the back, this time allowing Son Heung-min the beneficiary to unceremoniously make it 2-0 six minutes into injury time.
Unsurprisingly given the lateness of the goals, that is how the result remained, with Germany being condemned to the World Cup winners’ curse after finishing bottom of Group F with three points to their name. Die Mannschaft failed to progress to the knockout stage four years later in Qatar, with new coach Hansi Flick unable to bring his side any more joy in international soccer’s showcase event.
TWO YEARS AGO TODAY: The World Cup holders Germany were sent home from the 2018 World Cup after a shock 2-0 defeat to South Korea.— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) June 27, 2020
What a day this was! 👋👋👋 pic.twitter.com/375uNjgQxb
While these are considered the World Cup’s biggest upsets in terms of FIFA rankings, there have been many more not included in this list that have been just as shocking. Qatar 2022 has been no different, as the globe’s best teams are within touching distance of international soccer’s coveted prize.