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How well do surprise packages do at the World Cup?

Underdogs —just bark or also bite?

Photo by Eric Masur on Unsplash

Surprise packages

A surprise package is a side that surpasses expectations. Expectations however are relative. For this reason, we need to be clearer.

Which teams have surprised us?

Let us work through in reverse chronological order. This may also address some recency bias as we hopefully find examples from earlier World Cups.


While hosts Russia defied expectations to reach the quarterfinals (thanks to a penalty shootout Round of 16 victory), the Croatians were the real dark horses of the tournament, going all the way to the Final.


Colombia, playing their first World Cup since 1998, delighted fans before bowing out in the 1/4 finals to hosts Brazil. James Rodriguez became the Golden Boot, his stunner against Uruguay being an all-time great goal. His performances prompted an immediate scoop by Real Madrid.


Making only their second World Cup appearance, Ghana reached the 1/4 finals before losing in dramatic circumstances to Uruguay.


Co-hosts South Korea, became the first Asian team to reach the semi-finals, albeit helped by some controversial decisions. Turkey, appearing in the first World Cup since 1954, beat South Korea to finish 3rd, matching their achievement from 1954.


Croatia, making their first ever World Cup appearance, put in robust performances to reach the semi-finals, where the lost narrowly to hosts France; eventually finishing 3rd.


The two semi-finalists, Bulgaria and Sweden, lit up the tournament. Romania also brought in a talented side, but bowed out to Sweden in the quarter-finals courtesy of a penalty shootout. Of all World Cups, this was perhaps the one with the most “open” quarterfinal bracket.


Who else but the Indomitable Lions. Their opening day defeat of defending champions Argentina, ranks as the benchmark of all-time great upsets. A narrow defeat by England saw Cameroon exit at the 1/4 final stage but not without leaving an indelible mark on football.


The surprise packages of West Germany ’74 here might come as a surprise. They were two teams making their first World Cup appearances since 1938: Poland and the Netherlands. Poland finished 3rd. The Dutch finished as runners-up, attained immortality courtesy of their Total Football, which was modelled on Ajax’s European Cup winning sides of the early 70s.


North Korea, qualifying for the first time, famously beat Italy 1–0 to book a quarter-final ticket at their expense. The Italians were pelted with rotten tomatoes on their return home. Interestingly, this was also the first time Portugal qualified. They beat North Korea in the quarter-finals but lost to England in the semi-finals, eventually finishing 3rd.


Czechoslovakia put in some robust performances to reach the Final ahead of some better rated opposition.


Cuba, qualifying for their first, and only time (so far), reached the quarterfinals, although this was a straight knock-out World Cup tournament without group stages, that started from the Round of 16.

How do surprise packages fare?

Qatar 2022 is (co-incidentally) the 22nd edition of the World Cup. 12 of the 22 editions have given a trailblazer. For the other 11 editions, nothing particularly stood out, as per my criteria at least.

  • 39% bowed out in the quarter-finals
  • 27% have managed 3rd place
  • 17% reached the semi-final (4th place)
  • 17% reached the Final



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