Which teams overcame dire starts to qualify for the World Cup knockouts?

<span>Photograph: Bongarts/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bongarts/Getty Images

“Before Niklas Fullkrug’s equaliser against Spain, it looked like Germany would lose their first two games yet still potentially go through. Has this happened at a World Cup before? And, if not, which team that qualified for the knockout rounds has the worst record after two group games?” asks Amanda Jackson.

The short answer is no, though it did happen at the European Championship last year when Denmark recovered from two defeats and the shock of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest to hammer Russia 4-1 on an unforgettable night in Copenhagen.

There have been a few near-misses at the World Cup, particularly in the period from 1986-94 when the structure of the tournament (24 teams, six groups of four) meant that the four best third-placed sides also qualified for the last 16. In 1990, Austria lost their first two games 1-0 to Italy and Czechoslovakia, then beat the USA 2-1 in the battle of the mullets. Two days later, in a completely different group, Daniel Fonseca’s injury-time winner for Uruguay against South Korea sent Austria (and Scotland, for that matter) out. Had Fonseca not scored, Austria and Scotland – who had an identical record and finished third in their group – would have drawn lots to see who went through. It was all pretty complicated, and it still gives us a headache 32 years later.

In the same tournament, the Soviet Union would have qualified from Group B despite losing their first two games had Romania and Argentina not drawn their final match. That’s because the Soviets whipped Cameroon 4-0 in their final game, and goal difference rather than head-to-head results was used to separate teams. Had Romania beaten Argentina 1-0, or vice versa, the Soviet Union would have finished third in their group and ahead of Austria and Scotland in the third-place table on goal difference.

In all, we think 10 teams have qualified after taking a single point from their first two games. Uruguay managed it at consecutive World Cups in 1986 and 1990. At Mexico 86, in one of the first celebrated groups of death, they drew 1-1 with West Germany before being demolished 6-1 by Denmark.

Jesper Olsen scores the final goal in Denmark’s 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay at Mexico 86
Jesper Olsen scores the final goal in Denmark’s 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay at Mexico 86. Uruguay qualified for the last 16 despite a desperate start the competition. Photograph: AP

José Batista was sent off in the first minute of Uruguay’s final game against Scotland, but they held on for the 0-0 draw that put them through. Two points was enough to finish above Hungary – who had an even worse goal difference after losing 6-0 to the USSR and 3-0 to France – and Northern Ireland in the third-place mini-league. Had Scotland won, they would have reached the last 16 despite losing their first two matches. Instead their Mexico 86 legacy was a famous quote: the SFA secretary Ernie Walker described Uruguay as “the scum of world football”.

Uruguay’s record after two games (one point, goal difference -5) is the worst of any team to subsequently qualify from the group stage. Plenty of others had one point but a less bruising goal difference. The list includes Argentina in 1974, England in 1986 (0-1 v Portugal, 0-0 v Morocco, 3-0 v Poland with a life-changing Gary Lineker hat-trick), Paraguay and Turkey in 2002, Slovakia in 2010, Greece in 2014 and Argentina again in 2018. Turkey went on reach the semi-finals 20 years ago, making them the highest achievers of this peculiar group.

But the most famous example comes from 1966. North Korea started their first World Cup inauspiciously with a 3-0 defeat by the Soviet Union. Then they drew 1-1 with Chile in what most people assumed was a wooden-spoon match. Wrong! In their final game, North Korea produced an upset for the ages, beating Italy 1-0 at Ayresome Park to reach the quarter-finals.

North Korea celebrate their astonishing victory over Italy in 1966
North Korea celebrate their astonishing victory over Italy in 1966. Illustration: PA Photos/PA Archive

Do you remember the first time?

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Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish all scored their first World Cup goals against Iran. It was certainly a record for England at the World Cup – the previous best was two – but not overall.

Before we get to sixes and sevens, there are a handful of other teams with five new scorers in a World Cup game.

  • Uruguay 8-0 Bolivia (1954)

  • Hungary 9-0 South Korea (1954)

  • Germany 8-0 Saudi Arabia (2002)

Germany’s win included a hat-trick for Miroslav Klose, who would go on to become the World Cup’s all-time leading goalscorer with 16.

Miroslav Klose
Miroslav Klose celebrates after scoring against Saudi Arabia in 2002. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Two teams have had six players scoring their first World Cup goal in the same match: Hungary, when they beat El Salvador 10-1 in 1982, and Spain when they eviscerated Costa Rica 7-0 last Wednesday. Dani Olmo, Marco Asensio, Ferran Torres, Gavi, Carlos Soler and Álvaro Morata all achieved a lifetime ambition, and we don’t mean scoring past Keylor Navas.

But this particular record belongs to Yugoslavia, who had seven different scorers – all of them World Cup virgins – in their 9-0 win over Zaire in 1974: Dusan Bajevic – who scored a hat-trick – Dragan Dzajic, Ivica Surjak, Josip Katalinski, Vladislav Bogicevic, Branko Oblak and Ilija Petkovic. Good luck beating that against a low block.

Dusan Bajevic scores in Yugoslavia’s 9-0 win over Zaire at the 1974 World Cup
Dusan Bajevic scores in Yugoslavia’s 9-0 win over Zaire at the 1974 World Cup. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Lower-league players at the World Cup (2)

In last week’s Knowledge, we looked at people who went to the World Cup while playing in the lower leagues. Here are some more …

Cameroon 1982
Ibrahim Aoudou and Paul Bahoken played for second-tier Bastia in France. Michel Kaham was at Stade Quimperois, who had just been relegated to the third tier, though he then joined Cleveland Force in the Major Indoor Soccer League.

Northern Ireland 1982
Not technically lower league, but worth a mention. “Northern Ireland had four Irish League players in their squad: Johnny Jameson (Glentoran), Felix Healy (Coleraine), Jim Cleary (Glentoran) and George Dunlop (Linfield),” writes Simon Topping. “Healy came on as a late sub in our second game against Honduras becoming the first (and probably last) Irish League player to feature in a World Cup game.”

Cameroon 1990
Benjamin Massing (US Creteil), Francois Omam-Biyik (Stade Lavallois), Eugene Ekeke (Valenciennes) and Jean-Claude Pagal (La Roche Vendee) all played in the second tier of French football.

Republic of Ireland 1990
Alan McLoughlin (Swindon), Bernie Slaven (Middlesbrough), Mick McCarthy (Millwall), David Kelly (Leicester City), Kevin Moran and Frank Stapleton (both Blackburn Rovers) and John Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday) were all in the English second tier. Gerry Peyton (Bournemouth) had just been relegated to the third.

Norway 1994
Gunnar Halle (Oldham), Jostein Flo and Roger Nilsen (both Sheffield United) and Jan Aage Fjortoft (Swindon) were all relegated to the second tier just before the World Cup.

Jan Aage Fjortoft in action for Swindon in August 1993.
Jan Aage Fjortoft in action for Swindon in August 1993. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Republic of Ireland 1994
As well as John Aldridge, who we mentioned last week, Alan McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Jason McAteer (Bolton), David Kelly (Wolves) and Alan Kelly (Sheffield United) were all at second-tier clubs.

Morocco 2018
Wahbi Khazri technically played for Sunderland, who had just been relegated to the third tier, though he had spent the season on loan at Rennes and joined Saint-Etienne after the World Cup.

Next up …

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The overlap

“Andrés Guardado and Lionel Messi featured in Argentina v Mexico at the 2006 World Cup and 2022 – fixtures that were 5,999 days apart,” mails James McWilliam Woods. “Are there examples of players featuring for the same opposing teams in fixtures with a larger gap between them?”

Although they weren’t actually on the pitch at the same time in 2006 – Guardado came off in the 66th minute, 18 minutes before Messi replaced Javier Saviola – it’s still a very good question. We’re 99.94% sure it’s a record for the World Cup, because the other players who have appeared at five tournaments either didn’t overlap or their teams didn’t meet each other. They are Antonio Carbajal (Mexico, 1950-66), Lothar Matthaus (West Germany/Germany, 1982-98), Rafael Márquez (Mexico, 2002-18) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, 2006-22).

Andrés Guardado and Lionel Messi in action at Qatar 2022.
Andrés Guardado and Lionel Messi in action at Qatar 2022. Photograph: Dave Shopland/Rex/Shutterstock

Knowledge archive

“Is it true that Chilean players drank vodka during the 1962 World Cup because they thought it would help their chances of beating the USSR?” asked Steven Davison in 2006.

Incredibly, Steven, it is. During the group stage, the hosts employed an interesting new tactic of pre-game stereotypical eating: before the opening 3-1 win over Switzerland, they ate cheese, followed by a preparatory meal of spaghetti before the 2-0 success against Italy. Once in the quarter-finals, the Chileans prepared for their game with the mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by downing a couple of Smirnoffs. The ploy actually worked and Chile went on to win 2-1. Coffee was the order of the day before the semi-final with Brazil, but although it perked them up no end in the morning, it couldn’t stop the Brazilians from winning 4-2 and going on to lift the trophy. Eduardo Galeano wrote in Soccer in Sun and Shadow that Chile “gobbled down spaghetti, chocolate, and vodka, but choked on the coffee”.

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Can you help?

“Dia, Diedhiou and Dieng scored for Senegal against Qatar. Has there ever been a game with three or more goals from a team with scorers more closely grouped in alphabetical (and temporal) order? Phone-book football …” writes Mike King.

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“Serbia (and its predecesssor Yugoslavia) haven’t beaten Brazil since 1934. Is this 88-year wait the longest for any international team against the same opponent?” asks Bogdan Kotarlic.

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“Five of the captains at this World Cup have played for Spurs: Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Hugo Lloris, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. What’s the record for one club at a single World Cup?” wonders Owen Powell.

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