How Unpredictable is the World Cup?

How reviewing the biggest upsets in World Cup history highlights the teams that could actually help England win.

Lower-ranked nations often face an impossible task when navigating the brutal waters of international knockout football - but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Everyone remembers the ‘upset’ games where lower seeds triumph over the big boys - from Senegal beating France in 2002 to South Korea sticking it to Italy in 2002, these unpredicted upsets often go down in the World Cup Hall of Fame as much as the big wins do.

We’ve looked back at the games for the last six World Cups to see how unpredictable each one was, assessing the occasions where lower-ranked teams toppled higher seeds. We’ve dived into the most unpredictable tournament where nearly a third of games were upsets (spoiler alert: it was Germany 2006), pulled out the details of the shock results and taken a look at what upsets could help pave the way for England glory in Russia.

Which World Cup was the most unpredictable?

FIFA introduced their world ranking and seeding systems for international tournaments back in 1992. So, by using data from six World Cups beginning at USA 94, we have been able to determine the most unpredictable World Cup of recent memory by reviewing the wins by lower-seeded teams.

Germany 2006

The most unpredictable World Cup of recent memory was hosted by Germany in 2006. The tournament saw 20 upsets by lower-seeded teams, equivalent to almost a third of the 64 matches in total.

The tournament saw reigning world champions and number one seed Brazil bow out to France in only the quarter-finals, while Ghana (30) made their World Cup debut and threw out the form book to see off both the Czech Republic (16) and the USA (9) in the group stage.

It also included the only occasion where England have been beaten by a lower-ranked side in recent World Cups. As the No.2 seed, they were unceremoniously knocked out on penalties by Portugal (17) in the quarter-finals in a match better-known for Wayne Rooney’s red card and Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous wink.

And if the 2006 World Cup is to be remembered for one thing it would be ill-discipline, even ultimately helping to sway the final away from the favourites. Zinedine Zidane’s remarkable altercation with Marco Materazzi saw France (6) defeated by the lower seeded Italy (7), and that red card put a footnote on a World Cup record – 345 yellow cards and 28 red cards in the tournament. Let’s not also forget that England’s Graham Poll had to give Croatia’s Josip Šimunić three yellow cards before sending him off.

All the upsets from 2006 can be explored in depth below alongside every tournament since USA ’94:

Swipe to see more groups.

USA 1994

It’s always a shock when the favourite gets shipped out of a tournament, but Bulgaria (20) delivered one of the shocks of the 20th century when they dumped Germany (1) out of the 1994 World Cup at the querter-final stage.

Goals from former Barcelona striker Hristo Stoichkov and Yordan Letchkov overturned a one-nil deficit and led them to the semi-final. They went on to be knocked out by Italy and the Divine Ponytail, Roberto Baggio and have not appeared at a World Cup Finals since.

France 1998

A golden generation of French talent came to the fore in 1998, with the 8th seed French national side overcoming tournament favourites and holders Brazil.

However, before their triumph, the story of the tournament was developing as Croatia – a country just seven years young – overcame nations supposedly superior to themselves. Spearheaded by tournament top scorer Davor Šuker, Croatia conquered their group and Romania (6) in the round of 16, before dispatching Germany (1) 3-0.

Japan & South Korea 2002

Results in Japan and South Korea were far from ordinary – while joint host South Korea (25) made waves on their way to the semi-finals, defeating Spain (6), Portugal (15) and Italy (3), it was Senegal who overcame the odds most often.

On their way to the quarter-finals, Senegal (32) qualified from their group, beating France (5) in the opening game of the tournament and going onto eliminate Sweden (12) in the last 16.

You might remember Turkey’s (23) unlikely run to a 4th place finish. However, they didn’t have to cause an upset to do so. They beat China PR (31), Japan (26) and Senegal (32) before losing to Brazil (1) 1-0 in the semi-final.

South Africa 2010

The first World Cup on the African continent wasn’t short on surprises, with hosts South Africa (31) beat France (8) 2-1 in a tournament perhaps more memorable for its vuvuzelas than its football. Despite the springbok’s heroic upset, they went on to become the first host nation to be knocked out at the group stage in World Cup history.

Brazil 2014

The World Cup went back to the home of Joga Bonito in 2014, and Brazil brought a samba of unprecedented results. Not forgetting Germany’s 7-1 thumping of hosts Brazil, the wreckage of which is still being poured over, there were two stories that dominated the group stages.

Reigning champions Spain (1) were eliminated at the group stage after being soundly beaten 5-1 by the Netherlands (8). But while the champions were getting knocked out, the tiny nation of Costa Rica and Bryan Ruiz were writing their own history, as they beat sixth-seeded Uruguay 3-1 and ninth-seeded Italy 1-0 on their way to the quarter-finals for the first time.

Which upsets could help England win the World Cup?

Looking at all the potential scenarios in Russia, England need just eight upsets by lower-ranked nations to clear a path to World Cup glory, with the focus being on the fortunes of Denmark, Costa Rica and Uruguay.

Given that England have only ever been beaten by a lower-seeded team once, their ability to avoid upsets would stand them in good stead if a scenario arose that would see them need to overcome just one higher-ranked side en-route to winning the World Cup.

In a scenario where all other matches went with seed, just eight games would need to fall the way of lower-ranked nations:

Having cleared the way, England, seeded 11th and finishing second in their group, would beat lower-ranked Colombia (12) and Costa Rica (18) before causing their own upset of Portugal (3) in the semi-final and a World Cup final victory over 14th-seeded Uruguay.

So just how unpredictable could Russia 2018 turn out?

In England’s ideal scenario, just eight games would need to fall the way of lower-ranked sides, and while they’d have to fall in a very particular fashion, eight is a relatively low number in recent years. 2006 saw 20, while the average since 1994 is 15.

This year sees a number of nations potentially primed to upset the order of things. Egypt, currently seeded 21 but powered by Liverpool talisman Mo Salah, could make relatively easy work of Russia and Saudi Arabia in the group stages, before moving on to Portugal or Spain in the last 16.

Costa Rica, who triumphed from a group including Uruguay, Italy and England in 2014, will face Brazil this time round, but could upset Switzerland to make it through Group E. That would set up a potential last 16 clash with Germany, who shouldn’t underestimate a team ranked 22nd in the world.

But Group D could prove the most testing for France (7), with Peru (9) and Christian Eriksen’s Ireland-conquering Denmark (16) not far away in the world rankings. Given France’s track-record at the receiving end of giant killings, will it be Les Bleus who are the first big name dumped out of Russia 2018?

(UPDATE) World Cup 2018 Group Stage

Russia 2018 has already been a fantastic spectacle so far; the group stages were filled with goals and VAR is all giving us something new to think about. This year we’ve seen 27% of games result in an upset, only Brazil 2014 has seen more upsets in recent years.

Amazingly Russia has overcome the odds again and again – they’re the lowest seeded team, and the lowest ranked side to ever play at a World Cup (Russia are 70th in the official FIFA rankings). However, they beat both Egypt (21) and Saudi Arabia (31), scoring eight goals and qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time ever.

As the knockout stage progresses, we’ve seen even more unpredictable results. We’ve already seen Argentina (4) knocked out by France (7), while Uruguay (14) eliminated European champions Portugal (3) with the help of a brace from mercurial striker Cavani.

And in case you missed it, Russia overthrew Spain (8) 4-3 on penalties – just how far can the hosts go, their football has got a nation of 144 million people dreaming of World Cup glory.