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Top Five European Qualifier Upsets

As we prepare for Ireland to do battle with world champions Germany, Conor Heffernan looks back on the top five European qualifier upsets. Let’s hope we’ll be adding another upset tonight.

Last night Iceland beat Holland 2-0 at home. Limiting the Dutch to just four shots on target, the Icelandic team reminded us that football can be a fickle game. Favourites are often beaten by the underdogs, just ask Germany after Poland’s recent victory.

One of the greatest moments during the qualification process for the Euros is seeing the big teams upset by the smaller nations. Begun in 1960, the European Championship was slow off the ground with only four teams competing in its inaugural games. Since then the games have expanded, allowing more and more teams compete for the top prize in Europe.

With more teams, comes smaller nations. With smaller nations, come big surprises. Every qualification campaign provides at least one or two shocks. Today we look at some of the top five European Qualifier upsets. Who knows, maybe a few more games from this year’s qualifiers will be added to our list.


5) Luxembourg 2-1 Netherlands 30th October 1963

In homage to Iceland’s heroics last night, we’ll begin with another Dutch defeat. With the match level at 1-1 after a first round leg held in Amsterdam, many expected the Oranje to duly put Luxembourg to the sword in the return match in Rotterdam.

This was no ordinary Luxembourg team however. Luxembourg were spearheaded by the finest player of his generation, and perhaps the greatest Luxembourg player of all time, Louis Pilot.

Pilot proved vital in the second leg in Rotterdam. Taking hold of the game early on, Pilot was instrumental in both of Camille Dimmer’s goals either side of the half. When the referee blew his whistle for 90 minutes, the Luxembourg team had secured a historic upset. After the game Luxembourg goalie, Nico Schmitt, told shocked reporters:

“The Netherlands are not at their best at the moment and we had the will to win.”


4) Wales 1-0 Germany 05th June 1991

Perhaps a good omen for the Republic of Ireland tonight. This game saw a Welsh side containing the likes of Neville Southall, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes face off against the Germans just one year after Germany had won the World Cup.

Few backed the Welsh to do anything against Berti Vogts’s side. In fact after the game Gary Speed admitted:

“”We were written off by everybody.”

Despite the lack of faith shown in them, the Welsh managed to shock the World Champions thanks to an Ian Rush goal after sixty-six minutes.


3) Portugal 4-4 Cyprus 03rd September 2010

A personal favourite of mine for the sheer amount of goals. No one in their wildest dreams would have expected Cyprus to put four past the Portuguese and what’s more it was the opening game for the 2012 Euros Qualification process. Cyprus came out fighting and Portugal found themselves on the back foot on two occasions. In the second half it appeared that Portugal’s scare would be over when they found themselves ahead going into the dying minutes of the match.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. With 89 minutes on the board, Andres Avraam headed the ball past Portugal’s Eduardo to equalise for Cyprus. The game finished four all. Incredible stuff. Porutgal were dumbfounded. All captain, Richard Carvalho could say to the Press afterwards was

“We made mistake after mistake – it’s hard to say what happened.”

Cyprus finished bottom of their group in the end but it didn’t matter. They had shown the world what an underdog can do.


2) England 2-3 Croatia 21st November 2007

Perhaps this was only a shock to the English media but nonetheless was a seminal moment in European qualification history. England needed only a point to qualify as runners up from Group E but found themselves 2-0 down after 15 minutes when Niko Kranjčar and Ivica Olić found the net.

As the rain poured down, a despondent Steve McClaren watched on under the shelter of his umbrella. An image the English media latched on to in the aftermath of the defeat.

The second half saw England rally after the introduction of David Beckham from the bench and midway through the second period they were level. Just when it appeared that England would hold on, Mladen Petrić scored the winner for Croatia 13 minutes from time to ensure Slaven Bilić’s team’s qualification at the expense of England. Bilić told reporters in the aftermath

“This is my most precious victory in charge and I will talk about it for a long, long time”.


1) Northern Ireland 3-2 Spain 6th September 2006

We couldn’t forget about Northern Ireland could we? Yes Spain were yet to hit the glorious heights of tiki-taka football, but they were still a side packed with talent. No one expected Northern Ireland to put up much of a fight against the Spaniards.

Luis Aragonés’s team found themselves ahead twice through through Xavi Hernández and David Villa but on both occasions Norn Iron equalised through David Healy. With time dying out, Healy managed to notch a hat-trick against the Spanish and with it, secure an incredible upset.

Healy told reporters after the match:

“We wanted to put a bit of pride back in the Northern Ireland jersey.”

Mission accomplished.


So who knows maybe tonight will serve up even more upsets. Will Ireland beat the Germans? Will Gibraltar beat Georgia? What about the Faroes against Hungary? Time will tell. It’s be done before, and it’ll be done again. There’s nothing better than an upset.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena

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