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Top 5 greatest overachievers in World Cup history


It seems like it may be cheating to include a team that failed to progress past the group stage among the overachievers that make up the rest of this list, but New Zealand's fairytale efforts in 2010, combined with the impressive feat of just being there in the first place, make them more than worthy of mention.

With the Oceania qualification process requiring the top ranked team to play off against a side from another confederation, traditionally Oceanic clubs struggle to even gain entry into the World Cup finals. Australia pulled off a miracle in beating South American Uruguay in 2006 before leaving for Asia, but aside from that, the efforts of Oceanic nations have been largely fruitless. Drawn against Asian side Bahrain, New Zealand pulled off a gritty 1-0 result in the second leg to secure their unlikely spot in South Africa.

While they would not progress any further than the first stage of the World Cup finals, they went out with their pride well and truly intact. As the curtain drew on the 2010 tournament, New Zealand remained as the only side to finish undefeated, having been eliminated after securing three draws in their three group stage matches.

The one truly inspiring result was their draw against reigning world champions Italy, who boasted stars such as Fabio Cannovaro, Giorgio Chiellini, and Daniele De Rossi in their lineup. New Zealand, spearheaded by less recognisable names such as Shane Smeltz and Ryan Nelsen, not only put in a respectable performance against the reigning champions, they took the game right to them. An early strike from Shane Smeltz was enough for the All-Whites to secure an historic 1-1 draw.

The result was not enough to send New Zealand through to the Round of 16, but it was enough to see them finish third in their group, above defending winners Italy, a remarkable result for a New Zealand side that went home with their heads held high.

4. COSTA RICA 2014

When the draw took place to decide the 2014 World Cup groups, Costa Rican supporters could be forgiven for wondering what exactly they'd done wrong. Up against Uruguay, England, and Italy, three nations who have held the coveted trophy aloft in the past, Costa Rica looked as if they were in way over their heads going into the tournament in Brazil.

Not one person would have blamed the side for going out in the first stage of the competition. Few would have expected them to get any result at all from their group, and even less would have expected them to finish on top.

With perennially loaned out Arsenal forward Joel Campbell leading their line, Costa Rica kicked things off with a domineering performance against Uruguay. After going down early as a result of an Edinson Cavani penalty, Costa Rica struck three goals in the second half to take out top spot in the group, a position that would remain their own.

A gritty win over disappointing Italy and a 0-0 draw to England saw the overachievers finish as deserving group winners, and sent them through to the Round of 16 while England and Italy were unceremoniously dumped out.

From there things only got better. With a favourable opponent in Greece in their first knockout game, Costa Rica were able to grind out a deserved win on penalties to book their first ever quarter final berth in their history.

While a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to Netherlands would cut their run short before the semi finals, Costa Rica certainly did their nation proud by taking the previous tournament's finalists right to their limits. Finishing just a kick away from a semi final, the dream run is one of the most impressive in World Cup history.

3. Senegal 2002

It is little secret that to do well at the World Cup, you'd want to be a side from either South America or Europe. Every final has been contested by nations from these two confederations, but as the 21st century has come along, a few nations from outside of the ordinary continents have looked to shake things up.

While they may not have gone all the way to the big dance, Senegal certainly stirred the pot with their performance at the 2002 World Cup finals, shocking some of the world's biggest names on their way to the quarter finals.

The most impressive game from Senegal's run was their opening fixture against France, who came into the tournament as defending champions after their 1998 triumph. Although France went into the game Zinedine Zidane-less, they were still heavy favourites to win, but Senegal had other plans. They took the lead half an hour into the game through Papa Bouba Diop, and held on to secure an incredible 1-0 win.

Senegal went on to qualify for the Round of 16 undefeated after drawing their last two games of the group stage, and were matched against Sweden in their first knockout game. The game was level at 1-1 at full time, and with the golden goal rule in play, the game was desperate for a hero. Henri Camara was the man who stepped up for Senegal, securing a brace and the win with his 104th minute effort to take Senegal to the quarter finals.

While their run was cut short by Turkey, Senegal equalled the best ever result for an African nation in a World Cup with their run to the final eight, a feat only achieved by Cameroon before them in 1990.

Drawn into a tough but even group this year, and led by Liverpool superstar Sadio Mane, it certainly isn't off the cards that Senegal may match their heroic 2002 efforts in the tournament to come.

2. Ghana 2010

2010 saw the first ever World Cup hosted on African soil, with the tournament calling South Africa home. The push into a new frontier captured the hearts and minds of football fans across the African continent, with Ghana proving to be the nation that would carry the expectation of the confederation on their shoulders.

With hosts South Africa going out in the group stage along with Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast, it left Ghana as the only nation representing the host continent in the knockout stages.

Ghana, helped by a prolific Asamoah Gyan leading the line, made their way past a difficult group with Germany, Australia, and Serbia to book a Round of 16 date with the United States. The matchup was an even one, and Ghana only took out a win after extra time with another Asamoah Gyan goal.

By this point, Ghana had captured the imagination of the entire world, as they became most everybody's second team, or first had their team already been unceremoniously bundled out.

In reaching the quarter final they matched the best efforts of an African nation, and in their quarter final they found themselves up against Uruguay. What promised to be a tight and entertaining match certainly was all that and more. It was shocking. It was dramatic. It was one of the most controversial matches in World Cup history.

With scores level at 1-1, Ghana found themselves on the attack with seconds remaining, and had their goal bound shot saved brilliantly on the line, by striker Luis Suarez. With the goal to put them into an historic semi final denied by the hand of a forward, Ghana were handed another opportunity to claim the win with a penalty. In the ultimate twist of fate, Asamoah Gyan missed, and Ghana went on to lose the subsequent penalty shootout.

Only denied a spot in the final four by the cruellest and most devastating of circumstances, Ghana can rest easy knowing their performance was the best ever by an African nation. They were the hero team of the continent's first World Cup, and they have earned their place in the hearts of football romantics across the world.

1. South Korea 2002

As the first hosts of an Asian World Cup, South Korea entered the world's biggest sporting tournament with an unusual sense of expectation surrounding them. While Asia isn't a region known to thrive in the World Cup finals, the stage was set for South Korea to subvert expectations, and that they certainly did.

Managed by the ever pragmatic Guus Hiddink, the host nation kicked things off positively with a 2-0 win over Poland. Following that great result up with a 1-1 draw against the US, things really started to look good for the South Koreans after they upset the likes of Luis Figo with a stunning 1-0 victory over Portugal.

Finishing on top of their group, South Korea entered the knockout stages with the expectations of a nation weighing down on them. Despite the enormous amounts of pressure, the South Koreans did not crumble, continuing to work hard and get results against difficult opponents.

Things weren't easy for the host nation, as they were matched up against Italy in their first knockout game, but a late golden goal saw them knock out the football powerhouses and move on to the quarter finals. Shockingly, their miracle run did not end there, as their quarter final against Spain also went exactly to plan. Holding the Spaniards scoreless over 120 minutes, the South Koreans went on to claim victory in a tense penalty shootout to book a date with Germany in the semi finals.

In making it to the final four teams of the competition, South Korea confirmed their place in history by progressing further than any Asian team has ever progressed before, a record they still hold today.

While their journey was finally put to an end by Germany, the magnitude of South Korea's achievement cannot be understated. There are always discussions about the legitimacy of the host nation's performance given a number of questionable refereeing decisions throughout their games, but ultimately the efficient and effective brand of football brought by Guus Hiddink saw them as deserving semi finalists.

South Korea's performance could be a signal of great things to come for Asian footballing nations, with the sport growing rapidly in the region. For the time being however, the team's performance on home soil is the greatest by an Asian nation, an almighty and deserved achievement.

About the author

Brodie Cowburn

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