Every drop of football glory is worth its weight in goals – but there is something miraculous when victory is snatched against the odds. Although sometimes, calling it snatched does the success a disservice.
From covering every blade of grass to making the most of their one shot at hitting the back of the net, football’s underdogs often fall by the wayside – but when they do pull off the spectacular, their place in sporting history, on the terraces or down the pub is assured.
Here, we take you through 11 of the best underdog team performances the beautiful game has ever seen. Not all of them took silverware – but every one was the moral victor…
1 – Nottingham Forest are champions of England, 1978
For years it was Forest who set the bar for shocks in the English top-flight.
Centred around the brilliance of manager Brian Clough, Forest scraped promotion the previous season – before cleaning out the first division 12 months later, in what is now the Premier League.
They spent a bit of money and proved their class by also taking the League Cup that season – before Clough took them from under dogs to become the kings of Europe, beating Swedish side Malmo 1 – 0 in, what was then called, the European Champions’ Cup final.
2 – Sunderland win the 1973 FA Cup
Defending FA cup holders Leeds took on their second-tier rivals at Wembley, who had hit replay after replay just to make it to the season’s dearly-loved climax.
And yet, one 31st minute goal from Ian Porterfield and some astounding heroics from goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery saw Sunderland win out. They haven’t won any major silverware since.
What’s more, they did it without a single internationally-capped player. Hard work can beat talent, and any team can reach heights beyond the sum of its parts.
3 – Exeter hold Brazil in 1914
Exeter City were formed in 1890 and just 24 years on, they took part in a historic tour of South America.
Eight games against teams from Argentina and Brazil filled the schedule and legend has it, that included the Brazil national team’s first ever game – on July 21, at Laranjeiras in Rio de Janeiro; home of Fluminense.
Bizarrely, the result is still a bone of contention. Some claim Exeter lost 2-0. Others called it a 3-3 draw – which even as a suggestion is remarkable, for one city taking on a football powerhouse.
The Grecians successful tour saw two defeats in their eight games – the last game and their opener, which kicked off 12 hours after the players got off their boat. To hell with the jetlag and humidity lads, lets crack on and kick off!
Exeter’s invitation to join the Football League came six years later.
4 – Wales & Iceland do their thing at Euro 2016
The expanded format of Euro 2016 was supposed to dilute the quality, so said the pundits. In the end, it gave us two of the greatest stories in the championship’s history.
Wales’s first major finals in 58 years was there to be enjoyed, nothing more. Instead, the principality of 3,000,000 people made it to the semi-finals before being undone by the eventual winners. More on that to come.
Wales had a global superstar in Gareth Bale – but it was the team ethic and unsung heroes that pushed Chris Coleman’s men over the line.
And yet, Iceland arguably trumped them. Yes, they only reached the last eight before losing out to France. But they provided one of the great shocks by knocking out England.
Not bad for an island that has the same population as Leicester. Maybe they drink the same water too, given what happened in 2016. More on that later too.
5 – Hellas Verona, kings of Italy 1985
It was a Serie A season like no other.
They may have only been in the Italian top flight sporadically since 2002, but no one can take away from Hellas Verona the year they were Serie A kings.
Why the scudetto headed to Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi remains a moot point. It could’ve been astute signings like Hans-Peter Briegel and Preben Elkjaer.
Or it was the fact betting scandals meant the 1984-85 season saw blind draws to assign match officials.
But we’ll take the heart that took Verona over the line as their illustrious title rivals charged the run-in as the real key to success.
6 – Cameroon do their thing at Italia 90
It remains one of the greatest openings to any World Cup.
Making only their second appearance, Cameroon roughed up and then beat defending champions Argentina.
“Les Lions Indomptables” won their group, before beating Columbia and narrowly losing to England.
Superstars were made – such as Roger Milla’s iconic four goals in their five games –and offering the greatest element of surprise, they were the first African side to reach the quarter-finals, a feat no other African team has achieved since.
7 – Uruguay beat Brazil, in Brazil, to claim 1950 World Cup Glory
Brazil were hammered on home soil in 2014 by Germany, and for some of the team’s more senior supporters it must have been déjà-vu.
The fourth World Cup was the first since World War II; a round-robin format climaxing in the Maracana with Brazil convinced the silverware was theirs.
But Uruguay’s influential captain Obdulio Varela was having none of it – stirring his team-mates before battle, controlling the midfield during it and ultimately leading his side to glory.
8 – Denmark do the unthinkable at Euro 1992
Sometimes the underdog doesn’t even know he’s the underdog until the eleventh hour. Sometimes the underdog isn’t even meant to be in the competition to begin with. Like Denmark.
They have the break-up of Yugoslavia to thank for their greatest football moment. The wars back home ruled the crumbling nation out of competing, so Denmark stepped in with just 11 days to prepare for kick-off in Sweden.
They had nothing to lose – and duly knocked out France and England in the group, defending champions Netherlands on penalties in the semis, before beating the newly-unified world champions Germany in the final. Talk about tales of the unexpected.
That was Denmark’s first and last major international title.
9 – And Greece do a double at Euro 2004
They did it their way. It wasn’t pretty, but it was exceptionally effective.
Pre-tournament favourites and hosts Portugal had its golden generation desperate to end its wait for a first major championship. All that stood in the way were minnows Greece, after a remarkably austere journey to the final.
Everyone knew how Greece would go about it, sitting back as far as they could dare before striking gold at opportune moments. Sometimes even when you know what you’re up against, you still can’t stop it.
Greece beat Portugal in the group stages – and did it to Portugal in the final too, leaving the hosts with their own version of Brazilian incredulity and rivalling Denmark’s success with unparalleled defensive resilience and collective effort.
10 – Portugal didn’t win a game, but they won the final at Euro 2016
Fernando Santos’ side did not win a group game. Their semi-final victory was the only one achieved at the tournament inside 90 minutes.
And in extra time of the final, they toppled the tournament hosts despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s early, game-ending injury. It was arguably the iconic footballer’s greatest moment – and he wasn’t actually playing.
11 – Leicester, 2016 Premier League champions
We’ve saved another recent one until last – and arguably the greatest.
Pre-season odds of 5,000-1 underlined the feat as simply not possible before a ball was kicked. Over a 38-game season involving clubs richer than some countries, it was supposed to be impossible said the clever people.
Yet led by Claudio Ranieri and driven by a host of supremely scouted buys, Leicester turned the previous season’s dramatic relegation survival – as a newly promoted side – into winning the world’s toughest top-flight by 10 points too.
That sort of lightning will never striker twice. Will it?