Biggest International Football Shocks Ever

Image credit: Sports Illustrated
Image credit: Sports Illustrated

Despite all the odds being against them, the Ivory Coast became one of the most unlikely International Competition winners in football.

The Ivorian’s may have been the host of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, but they were far from the favourites to take the title. Their journey to their third AFCON championship was a totally unique one in football and potentially sport in general.

We’ll go into why this was such a shock and show you some of the other biggest surprise winners in international football competitions.

The Most Unlikely International Competition Winners

The Ivory Coast used to be a powerhouse of African football with their golden generation. Didier Drogba, Saloman Kalou and the Toure brothers helped make the best national team on the continent, which qualified for three FIFA World Cups in a row.

Surprisingly, though, The Elephants only won one AFCON during this period, in 2015. Despite being hosts for the 2023 edition (that took place in 2024), not many would’ve backed Ivory Coast to lift the trophy in the final.

This side is a far cry from its golden generation around a decade ago, but they did get off to a good start in the tournament-opener against Guinea-Bissau. However, things went south fast, with losses to Nigeria and a 4-0 battering by The Gambia.

Believing they were out, the Ivorian FA sacked manager Jean-Louis Gasset. To their surprise, though, the Ivory Coast qualified for the knockout stages as the fourth-best third-placed team. Emerse Fae was placed in caretaker charge and had the impossible task of managing his country in a tournament that they thought they’d been eliminated from.

This is Fae’s first managerial position, having only been a coach in Gasset’s backroom staff before this. We all know what happened next, as Ivory oast beat defending champions Senegal on penalties.

An extra-time victory against Mali followed before a 1-0 victory against DR Congo in the semis. The final pitted them against Nigeria, who they lost to in the Group Stages, but Sebastian Haller, a man who was in hospital with testicular cancer 18 months ago, gave the Elephants a first AFCON win on home soil.

You could not write a script as exciting and shocking if you tried, this has to go down as one of the biggest surprise wins ever. Who else joins the Ivory Coast in this regard, though?

Euros – Denmark 1992

The European Championships have had some big shocks in the 21st century, with both Greece in 2004 and Portugal in 2016 having a claim to this title. Although from an odds perspective, Greece would top the lot, we’re going with Denmark in 1992 because of the circumstances around it.

Denmark didn’t qualify for the 1992 Euros but still managed to win it. This is the only major trophy in their history, and only came about because of Yugoslavia being kicked out due to the conflict in the region at the time.

Denmark had finished in second in Yugoslavia’s group, so were offered the chance to appear at Euro 92. Nobody gave Denmark a chance, even their own players, as Michael Laudrup declined to cut his summer holidays short. I bet he regrets that now…

The Danes were given a tough group, but managed to qualify for the knockouts ahead of both France and England. Reigning champions the Netherlands were beaten on penalties in the semis and Germany were sent packing 2-0 in the final.

There were some great players in this squad, most notably Peter Schmeichel in goal, but this upset will take some beating.

Copa America – Colombia 2001

The 2001 edition of the Copa America was a tournament full of shocks. The Latin American competition saw a surprise winner in hosts Colombia, still their only Copa America title to this day. Mexico made the final after besting Brazil in the Group Stages.

This was just a year before Brazil would win a fifth World Cup and that was a star-studded line-up including Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and more. Brazil only made the quarter-finals, being knocked out 2-0 by tiny Honduras.

Honduras would get the bronze medal, beating Uruguay on penalties in the third-place play-off. Colombia’s win was also a very popular one too, as it came after what was an incredibly tough decade for the nation in the 1990s. It signaled a new beginning for a long-suffering country.

The World Cup – West Germany 1954

We’ve saved the biggest tournament of them all for last, the FIFA World Cup. Dating back to 1930, we’ve got a lot of editions to choose from, but which is the biggest surprise winner in its history?

Well, some might say England in 1966, but they were playing on home soil and were one of the favourites anyway. West Germany in 1954, though, were anything but favourites and this win was a huge shock. 

Germany was a nation torn apart and divided after the Second World War and neither East nor West Germany were allowed to compete at the 1950 edition. In 1954, though, the west qualified and scraped through the groups with a play-off win against Turkey.

West Germany hit their stride in the knockouts, beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the quarters before battering Austria 6-1 in the semis. In the final, they’d be pitted against the Mighty Magyars of Hungary, a team that beat them 8-3 in the groups. 

In what would later be called “The miracle of Bern”, the Germans came from 2-0 behind to win 3-2 thanks to goals from Morlock and Rahn. 

There have been allegations of doping ever since this final, but what’s not in doubt is that the Germans dealt with the wet and muddy conditions better to beat what was arguably the greatest international team ever. 

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