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7 Best Dark Horses in World Cup History

 
 
Costa Rican fans wait for the arrival of the national football team, following their participation in the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup, in San Jose on July 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO

At almost every World Cup there is a dark horse, a team who no-one is really talking about and suddenly they come along and enjoy great success.

Now, everyone has a slightly different interpretation of what constitutes a dark horse. For example, I’ve seen lots of people call Belgium dark horses at this summer's finals in Russia - despite the fact they have a loaded squad and were the fifth favourites to win the thing pre-tournament.

So for me, sorry but no, Belgium are not dark horses, and nor are Croatia for that matter. No true minnows or dark horses have ever won the World Cup, so you’ll have to settle with teams who went far further than expected in this seven, and it is ranked in terms of how unfancied the nation was in relation to how far they progressed and how impressively they played.

Here are our 7 best World Cup dark horses

7. Costa Rica - 2014

Kicking us off in seventh place are the most recent inclusions in this video, Costa Rica, and they are well worth their place in this seven. Costa Rica went into the 2014 World Cup having only won one game at a World Cup finals in the last 24 years. They were expected to be the whipping boys in a so-called ‘Group of Death’ containing three former World Cup winners, England, Uruguay and Italy. Not only did Costa Rica avoid any spankings, they topped the group, with two wins and one draw. They went on to beat Greece in the Round of 16 and were only knocked out on penalties by the Netherlands in the Quarter-Finals. Halcyon days indeed for Costa Rica, who have actually been whipping boys in Russia this time out.

6. Cameroon - 1990

England winger Chris Waddle (r) is challenged by Jean-Claude Pagal of Cameroon during the 1990 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final match on July 1, 1990 in Naples, Italy.England winger Chris Waddle (r) is challenged by Jean-Claude Pagal of Cameroon during the 1990 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final match on July 1, 1990 in Naples, Italy.

Three African nations have reached the Quarter-Finals of the FIFA World Cup, and all three could have made this seven, as could the bitterly unfortunate Algerians of 1982, but Cameroon were the trailblazers reaching that stage for the first time at Italia ‘90, and they could have gone further. Cameroon beat the defending world champions Argentina in their opening game of the tournament, with victory against Romania helping them top their group. The first knockout round was met with a 2-1 win against Colombia, teeing up a Quarter-Final tie with England. It was nip and tuck, as England won 3-2 in extra-time in the end - but the heroics of a 38-year-old Roger Milla and his team lived long in the memory.

5. South Korea - 2002

An inevitable inclusion in this seven, South Korea are prevented from finishing any higher in this seven due to the dubious nature of their passage to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup. South Korea had made five previous appearances at the World Cup finals, but had never won a game before jointly hosting the tournament with Japan in 2002. On home soil, a South Korean side marshalled by Guus Hiddink beat Poland and Portugal to top their group, before knockout round wins over Italy and Spain. However, their knockout successes were not without their controversy. Whether it was the result of shoddy officiating or something more sinister, the joint hosts received a large number of favourable decisions over the two games, but their spirited displays and group stage success earns them a place here nonetheless.

4. Wales - 1958

21st June 1958:  Ivor Allchurch of Wales jumping for the ball against Hideraldo Bellini and Nilton De Sordi of Brazil during their World Cup quarter final match in Gothenburg.21st June 1958: Ivor Allchurch of Wales jumping for the ball against Hideraldo Bellini and Nilton De Sordi of Brazil during their World Cup quarter final match in Gothenburg.

The small British nation of Wales have only ever made it to one World Cup, but just like their sole appearance at the finals of the European Championships in 2016, it was so nearly an extraordinary one-off. With the likes of Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones and Mel Charles, Wales had a really solid squad, but their star man was the indomitable brother of Mel - the one and only John Charles. This Welsh golden generation navigated a tight group which required a play-off against previous finalists Hungary, which they won 2-1. However, the aggressive Hungarian tactics had taken their toll on John Charles, meaning Wales would be without their talisman for their Quarter-Final tie with eventual winners Brazil. A Pele-inspired Brazil won both their semi-final and final matches 5-2, but could only beat a Welsh side lacking their best player 1-0.

3. Turkey - 2002

The 2002 World Cup is the only tournament with two teams in this seven, and in third place are South Korea’s third place play-off opponents Turkey, who beat them 3-2 in what is widely regarded as the most pointless match in competitive football. Turkey unsurprisingly finished second in a group also containing China, Costa Rica and Brazil, but few would have expected the Turks to reach the semi-finals. They overcame both of the joint hosts, Japan in the Round of 16 and South Korea in the third place play-off, either side of beating Senegal in the Quarter-Finals and losing 1-0 to Brazil in the Semi-Finals.

2. USA - 1930

A USA fan enjoys the atmosphere ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group C match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 23, 2010 in TshwaneA USA fan enjoys the atmosphere ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group C match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 23, 2010 in Tshwane

The United States was actually pretty early into football, and certainly international football, but the beautiful game wasn’t met with anywhere near the same enthusiasm as baseball, basketball and the other leading US sports. They were completely unfancied for the inaugural FIFA World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 then, and yet it remains their finest ever performance in the competition. The United States topped their group with wins against Belgium and Paraguay, both of whom they were expected to lose to. That gave them a direct route into the semi-finals, where they were duly thrashed 6-1 by Argentina.

1. North Korea - 1966

Not much has been known about North Korea since the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared in 1948, and virtually nothing was known of the side they took to the 1966 World Cup finals in England. It was their first appearance at the finals, and they weren’t expected to do much in a group containing Italy, Chile and the Soviet Union. ‘Do much’ they did, however, bouncing back from a 3-0 defeat to the Soviets in the first game to beat Italy and Chile, knocking both out in the process. They raced into a 3-0 first half lead against Portugal in the Quarter-Finals, but buoyed by the extraordinary form of Eusebio, Portugal bounced back to win 5-3.

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