The A-Z of football’s greatest underdogs
It’s only halfway through at the time of writing, but 2016 will surely be remembered as the year of the footballing underdog.
In the Premier League, 5000-1 long-shots Leicester City were crowned champions. An astounding turnaround from a team who only narrowly escaped relegation the season before.
They were helped to their success by former non-league striker Jamie Vardy, who set an amazing Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive matches.
Then came the shocks at Euro 2016; Wales, appearing at their first major international tournament since 1958, made it to the semi-finals. Iceland, meanwhile, made it to the quarter-finals (knocking out England along the way). Theirs was a herculean effort for a team who were ranked below Burundi and Liechtenstein by FIFA as recently as May 2012.
We’ve dug out 26 additional amazing tales from the history of world football. There are giant-killings and last-gasp goals, miracle minnows and astonishing comebacks.
There’s even a party so raucous that it put the team’s manager in hospital.
So what are you waiting for? Get stuck in to our A-Z of the greatest football underdogs of all time…
A - Aberdeen
In 1983, Aberdeen beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. Just think about that for a minute; Aberdeen as serious European contenders, beating Real Madrid to win a European trophy.
The Dons, managed by an upstart Glaswegian named Alex Ferguson and including a young midfield maestro called Gordon Strachan, sealed a 2-1 win in extra time courtesy of substitute John Hewitt’s goal (above). Hewitt had also scored the winner against Bayern Munich in the quarter final. That’s Bayern actual Munich. Truly, these were wonderful times.
B - Beasant, Dave
The 1988 FA Cup Final and Dave Beasant’s penalty save are the stuff of folklore.
Liverpool – fresh from securing their 17th league title – were overwhelming favourites to beat unfashionable Wimbledon, a club who had only entered the football league 11 years previously.
Although defender Lawrie Sanchez nodded ‘The Crazy Gang’ in front just before half-time, an upset still seemed unlikely until Liverpool striker John Aldridge – the league’s top scorer – saw his penalty saved by Beasant on the hour.
It was the first time a penalty had been missed in an FA Cup Final and the Dons held on to claim a famous victory. As captain, Beasant also became the first ’keeper to lift the trophy.
C - Chelsea
In 2012, Chelsea won the Champions League spectacularly against the odds. Two exhausting backs-against-the-wall performances in an epic semi-final triumph over Barcelona had taken their toll. In the final, interim manager Roberto Di Matteo led his injury and suspension-ravaged team out against a Bayern Munich side who were expected to win with ease.
Indeed, Bayern – playing at their home stadium, the Allianz Arena – attacked Chelsea as relentlessly as Barcelona had done. But although they won 20 corners and had 26 shots blocked, Jupp Heynckes’ men struggled to break the deadlock. When Thomas Müller finally did score in the 83rd minute, it seemed Chelsea’s valiant defence would be in vain.
However, Didier Drogba had other ideas. The big Ivorian met Juan Mata’s corner – the only one Chelsea won all night – five minutes later to force extra time.
During a tense 30 minutes, Chelsea had yet another reprieve when Arjen Robben failed to convert a penalty, and the game went to a shootout.
Though Mata missed Chelsea’s first spot-kick, Bayern then missed twice, allowing Drogba to slot home and secure the trophy.
D - Duckadam, Helmuth
In 1986, Steaua Bucharest defeated Barcelona to become the first eastern-European side to lift the European Cup.
Barça had beaten Juventus, the reigning champions, in the quarter-finals and victory against the Romanians in Seville was assumed.
However, after 120 minutes of goalless tedium, the match went to penalties. It was here that the drama finally unfolded; Helmuth Duckadam, the moustachioed Steaua ’keeper, saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties to win the cup and earn himself the nickname ‘The Hero of Seville’. Not an amazing nickname to be honest but, like Helmuth himself, it did the job.
E - Euro 1964
Think Euro 2016 was chock-full of upsets? You should have seen the 1964 European Championships…
Somehow, minnows Luxembourg saw off the Netherlands over two legs to land a place in the quarter-finals against Denmark. Over three games, they ran the Danes very close, drawing twice before narrowly losing a replay 1-0.
Denmark, now minnows themselves, progressed to the semi-finals in Spain, where they lost 3-0 to the Soviet Union and 3-1 to Hungary in the third-place play-off. Home nation Spain defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 to win the tournament, but this feature is about underdogs, so who cares?
F - Ferguson, Iain
In 1987, Dundee United beat Barcelona home and away en route to the UEFA Cup Final (where they lost to IFK Göteborg). Terry Venables’ Barça team had Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes up front, but they couldn’t overcome The Terrors, for whom Iain Ferguson scored an 89th-minute winner at the Camp Nou.
Amazingly, Dundee United remain the only British team ever to have beaten Barcelona home and away in a European tie. Even better, they’ve done it twice, also beating the Catalan giants in both matches of their 1966/67 UEFA Cup campaign. So that’s Dundee United four, Barcelona nil. Unbelievable, Jeff!
G - Goss, Jeremy
Norwich City finished third in Division One in 1992/93, qualifying for the UEFA Cup. They were drawn against the mighty Bayern Munich whose captain, Lothar Matthäus, counted three Bundesliga titles, one Serie A title and the 1990 World Cup under his belt, as well as the European and World Footballer of the Year awards.
Norwich City’s Jeremy Goss, meanwhile, won the FA Youth Cup in 1983.
Regardless, the two found themselves sharing the same pitch, and it was Gossy who was to be the hero. After a weak defensive header from Matthäus, Goss flew through the air to leather a right-footed volley past the motionless ’keeper and give Norwich the lead.
The Welsh international had set the ‘country bumpkins’ on the way to a famous 2-1 victory, the first and only time an English side won at the Olympic Stadium.
Though they lost narrowly to eventual champions Inter Milan in the next round, nothing could take the shine off Goss’s wonder-strike.
H - Hewitt, Jamie
Fightbacks; injustice; a manager with funny hair - Chesterfield’s 1997 FA Cup run had all the hallmarks of a classic underdog tale. It also spawned a true cup hero in midfielder Jamie Hewitt.
An hour into their first-ever FA Cup semi-final, everything seemed to be going Chesterfield’s way.
The Spireites were 2-0 up against Premier League Middlesbrough, who had also had full-back Vladimir Kinder sent off.
Could manager John Duncan – a sort of pound-shop Arsène Wenger in his shabby tracksuit and oversize John Lennon specs – really be about to lead his team to Wembley?
Sadly, goals from Fabrizio Ravanelli, Craig Hignett and Gianluca Festa swung the game back in Boro’s favour. To make matters worse for Chesterfield, they should have been awarded a goal when Jonathan Howard’s shot crossed the line, but it was missed by the officials.
However, the Derbyshire side didn’t give up and, with just 65 seconds to go, Old Trafford was treated to a moment of sheer cup magic. Midfielder Jamie Hewitt, a Chesterfield man born and bred, looped a header into the top left corner at the Stretford End to force a replay. It was an emotional moment; commentator Martin Tyler sounded like he might cry.
Though Chesterfield lost the second match, the injustice of Howard’s disallowed goal and Hewitt’s heroic header earned them a place in cup history.
Middlesbrough found no happy ending in 1996/97 either; three days later they would lose their League Cup final replay to Leicester City, and were beaten to the FA Cup by Chelsea. They were relegated from the Premier League that same season.
I - Istanbul, The Miracle of
The comeback: it’s a special thing at the best of times. But inside seven minutes in a Champions League final? From 3-0 down? With Djimi Traoré in your team?
For these reasons, Liverpool’s Lazarus-like resurgence in the 2005 final against AC Milan may never be bettered. It’s the sort of miracle where, even though you know the result, you can watch back the recording and still be on the edge of your seat. Perhaps you remembered it wrong – surely they didn’t win from that far behind, did they?
Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan side was star-studded, including Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Hernan Crespo, Paolo Maldini, Cafu, Kaka and (a still quite-good) Andriy Shevchenko, and was fancied by many to win in Istanbul.
At half-time, with Milan three-up, the game seemed over. Liverpool’s Irish full-back Steve Finnan was withdrawn due to a thigh strain, forcing manager Rafa Benítez to make a bold tactical shift, introducing Didi Hamman to midfield and switching from 4-4-1-1, to 3-5-2.
The change had a dramatic effect: seven sensational minutes saw a Steven Gerrard header, a Vladmir Smicer long-ranger and a Xavi Alonso penalty (won by Gerrard) get Liverpool back on terms at 3-3. Milan, punch-drunk, were unable to reassert themselves, and the scores stayed level until the end of extra-time.
During the penalty shootout, Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek did his own version of Reds legend Bruce Grobbelaar’s “spaghetti legs” dance to try and put off the Milan players. It worked; Serginho blazed over, while the Polish keeper saved Pirlo and Shevchenko’s efforts to complete the revival and hand Liverpool their fifth European Cup.
The Miracle of Istanbul is pure Roy of the Rovers - the stuff of cartoon strips and idle childhood dreams. Did it really happen? We’ll have to watch the video again, just to be sure.
J - Jensen, John
Midfielder John Jensen played 99 games for Arsenal, scoring just once. In fact, his inability to find the net became his defining characteristic; Arsenal fans would bellow for him to shoot whenever he got the ball.
To be fair, they had just seen their new signing score the most memorable goal of his career – a sizzling opener for Denmark in their Euro 92 final victory against Germany – so expectations were high.
Though dubbed, “Europe’s answer to Brazil” by Johann Cruyff in the mid-80s, by Euro 92 the Danes looked to be a team on the wane. They had failed to qualify for the tournament after suffering defeat in a play-off against Yugoslavia, and were only included when the deteriorating political situation forced that country to withdraw.
Getting to the tournament in Sweden didn’t solve everything, either; star midfielders Michael Laudrup and Jan Mølby were already boycotting the national team after disagreements with coach Richard Møller Nielsen. The Danes lost to the hosts in their second match, and only qualified for the knockout stage in the last 12 minutes of the group, when Lars Elstrup mustered a winner against France.
In the semis, they beat reigning Champions Holland on penalties, before shocking Germany 2-0 in the final.
So there you have it – Denmark won Euro 92 without even qualifying, shorn of their best players, aided by a goal-scorer whose trademark was not being able to score. Anything’s possible.
K - Korea, North
North Korea were an unknown quantity, but certainly underdogs, when they arrived for the World Cup in England in 1966.
In the group stages, they took on Italy at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park. The crowd were expecting to watch the classy Italians waltz to victory. Instead, midfielder Pak Doo-ik scored the only goal of the game (above), winning the hearts of the locals. So much so, 3,000 Teesiders travelled to Liverpool to see them play Portugal in the quarter-finals. Though North Korea went 3-0 up, Eusebio inspired the Portuguese to a 5-3 win.
Filmmaker Daniel Gordon revisits the story in his 2002 documentary The Game Of Their Lives, where he tracks down Doo-ik and the six other surviving members of North Korea’s 1966 World Cup squad, and brings them back to visit Middlesbrough.
L - Lozano, Ladislas
In 2000, Ladislas Lozano – a council foreman, and goalkeeper of minor renown – managed Fourth Division Calais RUFC to the brink of winning the Coupe de France. He also partied so hard that he put himself in hospital, but more on that later.
Lozano’s Calais were the ultimate minnows; their journey so nearly the ultimate cup romance. Staffed entirely by amateurs, and from an unfashionable part of the country, they captured the French people’s imagination as they knocked out four higher-division teams en route to the French Cup final.
Calais had already come through five ties – including a dramatic penalty-shootout giant-killing of near-neighbours Lille – by the time they were paired with Second Division AS Cannes in the round of 16.
Naturally, defeat was expected. But, after a 1-1 draw, the “blood and golds” triumphed on penalties to set up a quarter-final with First Division RC Strasbourg.
A 2-1 win advanced them to the semi-finals and a meeting with reigning League Champions Bordeaux. Here, Calais would surely – finally – be knocked out.
Instead, the game entered extra-time with the score stuck resolutely and implausibly at 0-0. Eight minutes in, Cédric Jandau put Calais ahead (above) and although France International Lilian Laslandes levelled for Bordeaux, two more goals from Mathieu Milien and Mickael Gerard dared the public to believe. If they could beat Bordeaux 3-1, then surely Calais could win the cup?
Lozano, his team and the people of Calais were delirious. An all-night party took over the town; at around 3am there was an open-top bus ride, while the mayor laid on a foie gras and duck reception at the town hall at 4.30am.
“Everyone was celebrating,” says then-Calais resident Sophie Granpera, who was out that night. “We broke our car horn from hooting it so much. People were so happy.”
Some were too happy: the exertion of the match and the party proved too much for Lozano, who collapsed and spent three days in hospital.
In the final, they met another First Division team, Nantes, who were looking to win the cup for the second year in a row.
The game proved to be a heart-breaker; ahead after 34 minutes, Calais eventually succumbed to two Antoine Sibierski goals, the second a 90th-minute penalty.
The dream was over, but the town was still on a high. Granpera again: “Everyone was disappointed,” she remembers. “But it was as if everybody from Calais was a part of the team; we were just so proud to have been in the final.”
M - Montpellier
Inspired by the Leicester City story? Well, the equivalent has already happened across the channel. In 2011/12, Montpellier pipped the mighty Paris St. Germain to the French title, amassing an amazing 82 points. Like Leicester, they managed this feat with only a modest budget.
It all came down to the final day of the Ligue 1 season, with former Portsmouth striker John Utaka’s goal against Auxerre (above) securing the southerners’ first-ever top-flight championship.
N - Nottingham Forest
Brian Clough won Division One with Derby County in 1971/72. However, when he took over at Nottingham Forest in 1975, he seemed to be stepping into a world of mediocrity. The East Midlands side were on course to end the 1975/76 season mid-table in Division Two.
In 1976, Clough was reunited with his Derby assistant Peter Taylor and, though they scraped promotion to Division One in 1976/77, few foresaw the spectacular successes that lay ahead.
Forest won their maiden Division One title in their first season back in the top flight – finishing seven points clear of reigning Champions Liverpool – and claimed the League Cup. They would retain the latter in 1978/79, and win the European Cup in consecutive seasons (1978/79 and ’79/80) - something even the mighty Barcelona have never done.
O - Osbourne, Roger
Roger Osborne is a legend among Ipswich Town supporters. As soon as the midfielder found the net against Arsenal in Town’s 1978 1-0 FA Cup final win, he fainted and had to be substituted.
The win kicked off Ipswich’s most successful period; manager Bobby Robsonwould lead them to the UEFA Cup triumph in 1980/81.
Looking back, the 1970s were a boom time for FA Cup shocks. Which leads us to…
P - Porterfield, Ian
Amazingly, Division Two Sunderland made it to the 1973 FA Cup final. While the Wearsiders’ run was impressive, they were expected to succumb to Don Revie’s famously uncompromising Leeds United. United had finished the season third in Division One and were considered one of Europe’s best teams.
However, a crowd of 100,000 at Wembley were to witness one of the FA Cup’s biggest-ever shocks. After half an hour, Scottish midfielder Ian Porterfield found the net to put Sunderland 1-0 in front (above) and somehow, the underdogs clung to their lead to win the cup.
Bob Stokoe’s side also had goalkeeper Jim Montgomery to thank for a stupendous double-save (below), which remains an enduring moment in FA Cup history.
Q - Queens Park Rangers
QPR’s League Cup win in 1967 was momentus. After going 2-0 down against Division One West Bromwich Albion, Third Division Champions Rangers enjoyed a Lazarus-like comeback to win 3-2, with their third goal scored by, er, Mark Lazarus.
Unfortunately, The Rs’ Third Division status denied them eligibility for entry to the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup - the forerunner to the UEFA Cup. (This, combined with Swindon Town’s stunning underdog triumph over Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup final, would lead to the short-lived Anglo-Italian Cup.)
In 1976, QPR would again be underdogs, mounting a sensational 12-game unbeaten run in Division One that would take them to the brink of winning the Championship. A 3-2 defeat away at Norwich in the third-to-last game scuppered their title hopes, allowing Liverpool to win the league by a single point.
R - Rehhagel, Otto
German manager Otto Rehhagel led underdogs Greece to a sensational win at Euro 2004.
The Greeks started the tournament as 150-1 outsiders. They were also drawn in a tough group alongside home nation Portugal, a well-fancied Spain, and Russia. However, Rehhagel - renowned for his ability to organise resilient teams who rarely concede goals - steered his charges through, thanks in large part to a 2-1 win over the Portuguese in the tournament’s opening fixture.
In the knockouts, they shocked France and Czech Republic before meeting and defeating Portugal once more in the final courtesy of Angelos Charisteas’s header (above). Rehhagel’s solid defensive approach was underscored by the fact that all three of those games finished 1-0.
Inevitably, the German was treated as a hero in Greece, where he was heralded as ‘Rehakles’ - a pun on Heracles, son of Zeus (in case you’re not up with your Greek mythology).
S - Senegal
France headed into the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea as holders, and were fancied by many to retain their title.
Senegal, meanwhile, were a team of largely unknown players. However, in 21-year-old RC Lens striker El Hadji Diouf, they had the African Footballer of the Year.
Diouf terrorised French defenders Marcel Desailly and Franck LeBoeuf and, after 30 mins, set up midfielder Papa Bouba Diop to score the only goal of the game.
France went out in the group stage, registering just one point after a 0-0 draw with Uruguay. Senegal progressed to the quarter-finals, where they were narrowly defeated by Turkey in extra-time.
T - The Great Escape
In 1999, Carlisle United avoided relegation from the Football League in the last seconds of the season. And thanks to a most unlikely goalscorer.
Going into their final match, United needed to beat Plymouth Argyle and hope Scarborough – one point ahead of them – failed to win.
In the 94th minute, with the scores level at 1-1, Carlisle got a corner.
Scarborough’s match had already finished and their fans were celebrating on the pitch, believing their draw with Peterborough had kept them up.
However, Carlisle goalkeeper Jimmy Glass joined the attack and found the net from six yards to keep his team in the league.
U - United, Sutton
In 1987, Coventry City won the FA Cup, defeating the favourites, Tottenham Hotspur. However, 18 months later, the Sky Blues would be on the end of an even bigger upset.
Drawn away to non-league Sutton United, the top-division side contrived to lose 2-1.
Goals from captain Tony Rains and striker Matt Hanlan ensured the Us progressed to the fourth round. Sadly, it was here that their fairytale ended, as Norwich City demolished them 8-0.
In the 2008 FA Cup, however, The Canaries proved that what goes around comes around. Luton Town beat them, becoming the first non-league side to knock top-flight opposition out of the FA Cup since - yep, you guess it - Sutton United in 1989.
V - Vardy, Jamie
It’s no wonder he’s having a party; Jamie Vardy’s story is at the heart of Leicester City’s underdog fairytale.
At 16 years old, he was released by Sheffield Wednesday. Four years ago, he was playing for non-league Fleetwood Town. However, at the end of the 2015/16 season he found himself a Premier League winner and the subject of a biopic.
His feat of scoring in 11 consecutive Premier League matches in the 2015/16 season also landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records.
W - Wigan Athletic
In 2013, Roberto Martinez led his Wigan Athletic side to their first-ever FA Cup Final. Their opponents were Manchester City, the reining Premier League Champions. Wigan, meanwhile, were battling to stay in the division.
Despite the disparity between the sides, the game remained goalless and apparently headed for extra time. However, in the 91st minute, Latics substitute Ben Watson found the net with a glancing header to snatch the trophy.
Wigan’s triumph was arguably a bigger shock than Wimbledon’s famous 1988 FA Cup win, as Wimbledon finished seventh in the league that season. Martinez and his men, meanwhile, were relegated from the Premier League a week later. A 4-1 defeat to Arsenal gave them an unwanted statistic as the first team ever to win the cup and go down in the same season.
X - Ten men
Think Liverpool’s comeback in Istanbul was impressive? In 1957, Charlton Athletic produced something even more spectacular, with only ten men.
With an hour gone in their match against Huddersfield, the Addicks were trailing 5-1. Somehow, they mustered five goals to take a 6-5 lead, but even then the drama wasn’t over. An 86th-minute own goal brought Huddersfield level at 6-6, but Charlton still managed to find a winner and make the Yorkshiremen the only team ever to score six goals in a football league tie and lose.
Oh, and there’s a Liverpool connection too – Huddersfield’s manager was Bill Shankly, later to become an Anfield legend.
Y - Yeates, Halliday, Morais & Stead
No, it’s not a provincial Solicitors’ firm. These are the goalscorers who helped League One Bradford City pull off one of the biggest FA cup comebacks of recent times.
Drawn away to Chelsea in the Fourth Round of the 2014/15 FA Cup, the Bantams seemed to have no chance.
Though they had reached the final of the League Cup in 2013, Bradford weren’t expected to pose too much of a challenge for Jose Mourinho’s Premier League leaders. After all, they were unbeaten at home in ten league games. Victory would be a formality.
At first, things seemed to be going to plan as they raced into a two-goal lead.
However, the match – if not the world - suddenly went a little bit mad. Goals from Jon Stead, former Chelsea player Filipe Morais, Andy Halliday and Mark Yeates stunned the hosts and ensured Bradford ran out 4-2 winners.
Z - Zidane, Zinedine
In his book, Soccer Empire, author Laurent Dubois claimed that Zinedine Zidane was, “a powerful and inspiring rejection of racism in French society.” Blimey. Makes just being able to win the World Cup seem easy, doesn’t it?
The three-time World Player of the Year rounds out our list of underdogs because football is the people’s game, and Zizou is most definitely a man of the people.
He has humble beginnings; a Frenchman of Algerian descent and the youngest of five siblings, he came up in a tough neighbourhood in northern Marseille.
His performances propelled France to a home World Cup win in 1998, bringing the nation together. In 2001, he was the world’s most expensive player when he joined Real Madrid for £46m. In UEFA’s Golden Jubilee Poll in 2004, he was named the Greatest Player of the Last 50 Years.
And… despite his infamous headbutt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final, Zizou remains a truly inspirational figure whose achievements transcend football.