When Underdogs Decide To Bite Back

27 February 2019
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Nothing in sport compares to seeing an outsider humble a seemingly unbeatable opponent

As Netflix prepares to release Losers, a documentary chronicling the tales of some of the most spectacular collapses in the history of professional sport, we decided to look at the flip side of the coin. Here are some of our favourite underdog acts of all time...

Miracle on ice (1970)

This was straight out of a Hollywood script, if the scriptwriter had no respect for prevailing sporting logic and evidence.

An all-conquering Soviet team that had won five of the most recent six Olympic golds. An amateur group of American players, the youngest Ice Hockey team at the 1970 Winter Olympics. A semi-final in Lake Placid. All bang in the midst of the Cold War.

There could only be one outcome, right?

Needless to say, the United States, led by coach Herb Brooks, played the game of their lives, beating the Soviets 4-3 in front of a hysterical, disbelieving crowd.

Underdog stories simply do not come more outrageous than that (and we include Rocky Balboa’s famous win over Ivan Drago in Moscow).

“Do you believe in miracles,” the commentator said memorably as the clock ticked down to the final buzzer.

Yes we do.


Algeria overcome mighty West Germany (1982)

One of the World Cup’s, if not football’s, greatest shocks. The fallout from this game continues to be felt to this day.

West Germany were reigning European champions and had won the World Cup only eight years earlier. They were, in hindsight, in the middle of one of world football’s most successful eras.

The Algerians, though a fine team appearing in their first ever World Cup, were seen as nothing but sacrificial opponents. The German coach Jupp Derwall promised to hop on the first train back home if his team lost, while one player said they would dedicate “the seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs".

Turned out Algeria were a little better than “fine”. Ninety minutes later in the heat of Gijon, the “Desert Warriors” had humbled the shell-shocked Germans 2-1, with the brilliant Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi writing their names in sporting folklore.

But that was not the end of the story. In the last round of group matches, West Germany and Austria conspired to play out a shameful 1-0 win to the former, a result that ensured the European neighbours progressed at the expense of the Algerians.

The match became known as the “Disgrace of Gijon” and led to FIFA scheduling all final group matches at the same time in the future.


Buster Douglas humbles Mike Tyson (1990)

The greatest upset in boxing history?

This was as sure a bet as there could be in sport. In Iron Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas – 42-1 underdog - was not fighting a man, a boxer, or a formidable undefeated champion. He was fighting a myth.

It is hard to overestimate just how feared Tyson was in those mid- to late-1980s days when opponents rarely lasted a round in his presence. The idea that he would ever lose a fight was laughable.

Then came that night in Tokyo. Having overcome the expected early onslaught from Tyson, Douglas took the champion to the 10th round, before knocking him out in front of a disbelieving world.

The sight of the previously indestructible Tyson stumbling to pick up his mouth-guard stripped him of his aura of invincibility in seconds. Seconds later he was stripped of his title, and he would never be the same fighter again.

Greatest upset in boxing history? Make that sporting history.


All Blacks left all blue by France (1999)

Aliens living in the outer reaches of our galaxy who know almost nothing of the history of human civilisation will still know one thing: if the New Zealand All Blacks are playing, you put your money on them.

And so it was at the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-final between the All Blacks and France at Twickenham.

The crowd, and rugby fans around the world, thought they knew what was coming. A stirring Haka, a Kiwi masterclass, and progression to the World Cup final. They were almost right; but so, so wrong.

The All Blacks, led by the unstoppable Jonah Lomu, led 24-10 early in the second half, and the match looked all but over. But inspired by the immaculate kicking of Christophe Lamaison, and some astonishing running by his teammates, France somehow pulled off a 43-31 win.

The underdog comeback to end all comebacks.