The 10 Great Underdogs In Football (Part 1)

There seems to be little place for the underdog in modern football. With the game now so utterly dominated by money, it is tougher than ever for a team with a lower profile or less resources than their rivals to come out on top. In the Premiership, the title race and even the battle for Champions League qualification is regularly contested by the same elite group of clubs. Yet the underdog is the type of team that will always have a special place in our hearts, and every once in a while, a smaller team will have their moment of glory.

This article looks back at some of the great underdog teams of the past and their triumphs. Note that this article focuses only on teams that had actual success within a tournament or league, so one off triumphs, for example Hereford's famous giant killing of Newcastle United in the FA Cup, will not be considered, as it did not lead to a trophy.

Please also be aware that this list is made up only of British sides and international teams due to the impossibility of compiling a list using teams from all over the world, given the number of underdog triumphs there have been. This is, of course, far from a definitive list. Simply a selection of underdog victories which capture the imagination. This list is in chronological order and not in any particular preference.

Uruguay (1950)

That Uruguay where such underdogs owes perhaps more to the brilliance of the Brazil team at the time, but the fact remains that Brazil were huge favourites going into this game. Indeed, such was the level of confidence that an early edition of a Brazilian newspaper published a picture of the team underneath the headline, "These are the world champions." Uruguay had been the first world champions, but it must be remembered that last triumph had taken place 20 years before, and this was a different team. Brazil were the hosts, had already scored 21 goals in the tournaments and with 13 in their previous two games, were on rampant form. With how the competition was structured, they needed only a draw in order to seal the title, though nothing less than a win was expected.

The Maracana was packed, with an official crowd of 174,000, though it is estimated there were really over 200,000. The stage was set for them to be crowned world champions. Unfortunately for them, Uruguay didn't seem to be willing to stick to the script. Uruguay set up to stifle Brazil and managed to keep things level until half time. Shortly after the break, Brazil took the lead. However, Uruguay hit back 20 minutes later, and the packed Maracana fell silent. Just over 10 minutes from time, Alcide Ghiggia hit the winner.

The greatest side in the world had been overcome, and Uruguay had reclaimed their trophy. Whilst perhaps not the biggest underdogs there have ever been, their victory was a huge shock for the footballing world and for Brazil. Indeed, a Brazilian playwright said of the defeat, "Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950."

West Germany (1954)

The idea that Germany defeating Hungary would be a shock result would seem ridiculous in modern day football, given the current state of the two teams. But back then, Hungary were regarded as perhaps the finest side in the world. They had become the first side to defeat England at Wembley with a 6-3 victory there the previous year in a game which they dominated and had been unbeaten in 36 games by the time of the final. Hungary had already humiliated Germany in the group stage, beating them 8-3. They had also beaten favourites Brazil and defending champions Uruguay. Germany, meanwhile, were unseeded but managed to overcome Yugoslavia and Austria in the knockout rounds to set up a showdown with Hungary.

The final began as many expected it to as Hungary dominated, and after eight minutes, they had already established a two-goal lead. Yet Germany struck back with two swift goals of their own, and after 18 minutes the game was tied at 2-2. Playing on a muddy, wet pitch which hampered their legendary passing game, Hungary were unable to score again, and in the 84th minute, Helmut Rahn scored to win Germany the trophy.

In a country still suffering the aftermath of the Second World War, the victory helped raise national spirits - indeed, it was the first time since the war that the German national anthem was played in public. The match was christened "The Miracle of Bern," such was its unexpected and seemingly impossible nature, even within Germany itself.

Sunderland (1973)

Sunderland's FA Cup triumph in 1973 is a story which illustrates the magical nature of the FA Cup. Sunderland were languishing in Division Two at the time and only finished sixth. It would be difficult to foresee the triumph when they began their campaign with a draw against Division Three Notts County before defeating them 2-0 in a replay. They were also forced into a replay against Division Four side Reading, and though they eventually progressed, their form didn't seem particularly promising.

They once again faced a replay in the next round, but this time against Division One Manchester City, who they beat 3-1 at Roker Park to give fans hope that perhaps they could pull off a middle, and they received a favourable draw for the next round, fellow Division Two side Luton Town. For the first time they managed to progress without the need for a replay, winning the game 2-0 to sit up a semifinal against Arsenal. The Gunners would eventually finish as runners up in the league and were heavy favourites to finally bring Sunderland's cup run to an end. But shockingly, Sunderland once again won, a narrow 2-1 victory sending them to Wembley.

There, they would face the leagues third placed side and the cup holders, Leeds United. Though Sunderland had performed admirably so far, Leeds were still expected to bring an end to their dreams. They were a side with no full international players, whilst Leeds had stars such as Billy Bremner, Allan Clarke and Johnny Giles and were managed by Don Revie. Ian Porterfield gave Sunderland a shock lead, and despite pressure from Leeds which forced Jimmy Montgomery to pull off a double wonder-save, Sunderland held on. It was, and still is, their only trophy since the Second World War.

Nottingham Forest (1978)

The previous season, Nottingham Forest had finished third in the Second Division. Their manager was Brian Clough who had already lifted the championship with Derby County and was rebuilding his reputation after disastrous spells with Brighton and Leeds United. Despite the high profile of their manager, few would have predicted the success Forest would achieve and just how quickly it would come about. Forest added Peter Shilton to their side, and he proved a vital component as Forest conceded just 33 goals in what was back then a 42-game season, John Robertson thrilled the fans with his wonderful wing play, and the likes of John McGovern, Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd provided defensive solidarity.

Clough's team lost only three games all season, finishing seven points clear of nearest rivals Liverpool, a considerable gap back then considering only two points were awarded for a win. They also defeated Liverpool, thanks to a Robertson penalty, in the League Cup final in March to lift their first trophy for 19 years. The side also swept up the end of season awards. Burns won Football Writers Player of the Year, Shilton won PFA Player of the Year and Tony Woodcock won PFA Young Player of the Year. Unsurprisingly, Clough was crowned Manager of the Year.

The side played some excellent football as they claimed a League Cup-League Championship double. It was a remarkable triumph for Clough, his assistant Peter Taylor and the club as a whole. The next season, Forest would win the European Cup and then defend it the following year, but it was during the '77/78 season that Forest were true underdogs. They remain the last side to win the First Division in England in the season following their promotion to the league.

Aberdeen (1983)

Aberdeen's Cup Winners Cup win of 1983 was surely one of the greatest underdog triumphs. Aberdeen finished third in the Scottish league that season, illustrating the improbability of their success. The side they faced in the final, Real Madrid, finished as runner-up in La Liga.

Even when Aberdeen thrashed Swiss side FC Sion 11-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round, few would have foreseen what was to come. They narrowly made it past KS Dinamo Tirana in the first round proper before a comfortable victory over Lech Poznan to set up a quarter final with German giant Bayern Munich. Remarkably, Aberdeen once again triumphed, winning 3-2 in the second leg after a 0-0 stalemate in the first, and followed it up with a first leg annihilation of Belgian side Waterschei, winning 5-1. A 1-0 defeat in the second leg made little difference.

This brought Aberdeen up against Real Madrid. Though not a vintage Madrid team, they should still have had more than enough to overcome Aberdeen. It truly was a David and Goliath match up, Madrid, one of the most famous sides in the world with their six European cups, facing Aberdeen, who had managed only two league titles in their own country. Yet somehow, Aberdeen did it, taking the game to extra time where John Hewitt scored the winner to secure one of the great European upsets. Even with all he has accomplished since, it must surely still rate amongst Sir Alex Ferguson's finest achievements in management.

Continue Reading: The 10 Great Underdogs In Football (Part 2)

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