You know the soccer superpowers—the likes of Brazil, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. When those teams get out of the group stage, no one bats an eye. But every four years, there's at least one country that explodes onto the scene. Sometimes, they become soccer's version of Gonzaga—a forceful upstart with the potential to break through to the next level. And sometimes, they streak across the field like Cleveland State on a bender.
With every team at this year's World Cup having played at least one game, we're beginning to get a feel for who might make a Cinderella run (is it too late to get on the bandwagon to Costa Rica?). Here's a look at who has worn the glass slipper at previous World Cups, going all the way back to the very beginning.
It's hard to imagine, but the Yanks were the original soccer Cinderellas. In the inaugural World Cup, they tore through their competition, astonishing observers with the quality of their play. In their first game, they beat Belgium 3-0; four days later, American Bert Patenaude scored the first hat trick in World Cup history in a 3-0 win over Paraguay. That victory saw them qualify for the semifinals.
There, they played Argentina. Ten minutes into the match, they lost midfielder Raphael Tracy to a broken leg as the game devolved into violence. Despite playing a man down (substitutes weren't permitted back then), they went into halftime down 1-0. However, they couldn't hold out forever, and eventually the speed of the Argentine attack wore down the U.S. in a 6-1. The Americans wound up finishing third—still their best finish ever.
1950 saw what's probably the most stunning 'upset' in World Cup history. No, son, not U.S. 1, England 0—let's talk about the Maracanazo. Brazil, the hosts, played Uruguay in the final, needing only a draw due to the way the tournament was structured back then.
A tie. That's it. The Brazilians were such locks to win their first World Cup that O Mundo's front page had a picture of the team with the headline "These are the world champions." The response of Obdulio Varela, Uruguay's captain, was legendary: he bought all the copies he could get his hands on, brought them back to his bathroom floor, and had his teammates urinate on them.
Instead, 210,000 people saw Alcides Ghiggia score with just 11 minutes left to give Uruguay an absolutely shocking 2-1 victory and their second World Cup. (The fact that a former World Cup champ is on this list tells you how major of an upset this was). Despite going on to win five World Cups, more than any other nation, Brazil has been haunted by that loss ever since.
In 1954, West Germany shocked Hungary, then considered the world's best team, 3-2 in a final popularly known as the 'Miracle of Bern.' This is the game that made Germany the implacable soccer machine it is today. Going into the tournament, Hungary was unbeaten in 32 straight matches, had become the first non-British team to top England at Wembley, and had beaten Brazil and Uruguay (the previous World Cup runners-up and champions) in the quarters and semis without their best player, Ferenc Puskás. In fact, Hungary played the West Germans in the group stage and beat them 8-3.
But that 8-3 beatdown wasn't what it seemed. West Germany's coach, Sepp Herberger, had chosen to play a reserve team against the Hungarians, thus disguising how good his team really was. And that showed in the final, as West Germany clawed back a 2-0 deficit to win their first World Cup, in a victory widely regarded as a turning point in post-war Germany history.
1966 would see the biggest, unlikeliest contenders ever. Yes, I'm talking about North Korea. It's exceedingly strange to think about this, but the North Koreans were fairly widely embraced by neutrals, particularly in northeast England, where they were playing their games. They were the only Asian team at the World Cup, and thanks to North Korea's self-imposed isolation, no one knew anything about them. This led to writers penning wildly hilarious previews, like this one by the Times of London:
Unless the Koreans turn out to be jugglers, with some unexpected ploy like running with the ball cushioned in the crook of their necks, it looks as though Italy and Russia should have the run of the place.
As it turned out, the Hermit Kingdom had no such tricks up their sleeves. What they did have, though, was near-inhuman levels of physical fitness thanks to their training regimen. They started their World Cup campaign slowly, losing 3-0 to the Soviet Union and drawing 2-2 with Chile. In their third game, they played Italy, who was expected to contend for a third World Cup trophy. Instead, Pak Doo Ik scored in the 42nd minute to give North Korea a wildly improbable 1-0 win. That victory made them the first team outside of Europe and the Americas to qualify for the second round of a World Cup.
They carried the momentum of that win into their quarterfinal matchup against Portugal, which was also making its World Cup debut. Twenty-three minutes in, they led 3-0. And then Eusebio, Portugal's greatest-ever player, took over, scoring four times in 32 minutes to help Portugal to a 5-3 win.
The 1990 World Cup was one of the dreariest in memory, marred by negative play, fouls galore, a then-record 16 red cards, and the lowest number of goals per game. Argentina made the final despite only scoring five goals in total.
Despite all that, most people remember the 1990 World Cup for the emergence of Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions were led by the positively ancient Roger Milla, a 38-year-old forward who came out of international retirement at the personal request of Cameroon's president. Milla infused the tournament with energy, dancing with joy after every goal he scored.
Cameroon shocked the world by opening with a 1-0 defeat of the defending champions, Argentina. They followed that with a 2-1 victory over Romania, which helped them win a group that also included the European runners-up, the Soviet Union. In the Round of 16, they beat Colombia 2-1 in extra time, making them the first African team to make the quarterfinals. There, they lost to England 3-2 in another extra-time thriller.
Of the 24 teams playing in the 1994 World Cup, few people had their eyes on Bulgaria. In five previous appearances, the Bulgarians had never won a World Cup game. However, led by the flamboyant striker Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria won two of three group matches, beating Greece 4-0 and stunning Argentina 2-0 to finish second in the group.
In the Round of 16, they beat Mexico 3-1 in a penalty shootout, advancing to meet defending champion Germany. Despite falling 1-0 early in the second half, the Bulgarians scored twice in three minutes to shock Germany and advance to their first-ever semifinal. There, they lost 2-1 to Italy.
While lightly-regarded South Korea managed to make the semifinals as a host country and the U.S. beat Portugal and Mexico en route to the quarters, the really surprising teams in this World Cup were Turkey and Senegal.
The Turks opened their campaign by losing 2-1 to Brazil, then drew with Costa Rica and soundly beat China 3-0, which gave them enough of an edge to make the knockout stage. Meanwhile, the Senegalese stunned France 1-0 and drew 2-2 and 3-3 with Denmark and Uruguay, which also saw them qualify for the knockout stage.
Then, they really got going. Turkey beat co-host Japan 1-0, while Senegal squeaked by Sweden 2-1 on a sudden-death 'golden goal.' The two teams met in the quarterfinals, where Turkey ended the magical run of the Lions of Teranga 1-0 on another sudden-death goal.
Turkey would go on to lose 1-0 to Brazil in the semifinals before winning the bronze medal and finishing third over South Korea in a wildly entertaining 3-2 game that saw the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup (11 seconds in, by Hakan Şükür).
Ghana built on a sparkling 2006 performance—eliminating the United States to make the Round of 16 for the first time—by doing one better. In 2010, just like this year, they were drawn into the same group as Germany. They beat Serbia 1-0 to earn three precious points, before drawing 1-1 with Australia and playing Germany close in a 1-0 loss.
That saw them play the U.S. once again. In a taut, tense match, the Black Stars took an early 1-0 lead before giving up a penalty to let the U.S. draw level. Asamoah Gyan then broke American hearts with a goal in the 93rd minute to give Ghana a 2-1 win.
That set up an incredibly controversial quarterfinal game with Uruguay. Sulley Muntari scored an absolutely outrageous screamer of a goal to give Ghana a 1-0 halftime lead, before Diego Forlán, the eventual Golden Boot winner, scored with a peach of a free kick to draw Uruguay level. In extra time, both teams had chances to score before one of the most shocking events in World Cup history took place.*
With literally the last action of the game, Uruguay's Luis Suarez blatantly punched a certain Ghanaian goal out into safety. The only problem? Suarez was a forward, not a goalkeeper. That earned Suarez a red card, and Ghana a penalty.
A trip to the semifinals was on the line—and the dependable Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty, skying it off the crossbar. Suarez, who watched before going to the locker room, was seen celebrating wildly at the miss.
The game went into a penalty shootout. Gyan scored the first penalty, but Uruguay wound up winning the shootout 4-2 as Black Stars captain Jonathan Mensah and Dominic Adiyah flubbed their attempts.
This year? It certainly seems like Costa Rica is putting together a magical run with victories over Uruguay and Italy, but they aren't the only ones. Chile, having beaten the defending champions in Spain, could just as easily go deep in the tournament, as could Mexico, fresh off a heroic draw with Brazil.
And don't count out the United States. The last time the Americans won their opening game, in 2002, they made it all the way to the quarterfinals for their best finish in recent history. We know this much—in a World Cup where traditional powers seem to be falling left and right, anything is possible.
* Correction: post was updated to correctly show how the goals were scored in the Uruguay vs. Ghana quarterfinal game in 2010.
Raf Noboa y Rivera is a contributor to Howler. Follow him on Twitter, @Noboa.