Cinderella stories are special in the world of sports. An underdog going the distance is one of the main reasons sports can be so appealing; the emotions generated can have people hooked. The world of soccer sees its fair share of upsets, or Cinderella runs, as well… How could we forget how electric Leicester City made all football fans feel just two seasons ago?
That’s why people love an underdog; it makes people feel electric. Although they still have a tough task ahead, the Columbus Crew SC has impressed so far by knocking out fan-favorite Atlanta United FC in the knockout round, and then stifling David Villa and New York City FC over two legs in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
So, in honor of a potential Columbus Crew SC Cinderella story, Impact Media looked at 10 of the biggest upsets in soccer across the world.
10. Atlético Madrid
Since 2004, when Valencia won the title in Spain’s top flight, La Liga was dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona –until 2014. Atléti, led by Diego Simeone, stunned the world of football and won their first league title since 1996.
The title run was as exciting as they get; Atlético faced Barcelona in the final game of the season, needing just a win or a tie to become champions. After Alexis Sánchez put Barcelona up in the first half, and Diego Costa and Arda Turan were forced off due to injury, it seemed like it was going to take a miracle to lift the “other” Madrid team. That miracle came in the form of Diego Godín, whose header brought glory to Atlético for the first time in 18 years.
That championship raised Atlético Madrid’s profile throughout Europe’s elite, and helped them build a team that could truly compete with the two titans of Spanish football. Atléti would reach two Champions League finals as well, losing out both times to their city rivals, Real Madrid.
9. Colorado Rapids
Do you remember the 2010 MLS Cup? It was a very forgetful one. On a cold, rainy day in Toronto, the Colorado Rapids faced FC Dallas, the latter coming off an impressive 3-0 win in the semifinals against the Supporters’ Shield winners, LA Galaxy.
Colorado had an average year, squeaking into the postseason with the fifth seed, in what used to be a very different way of deciding who made the MLS playoffs in 2010; the two top teams of each Conference would qualify, with the remaining spots to be filled by the next best four teams, all which ended up being in the Western Conference that year – which is why the Eastern Conference Final was played between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Colorado Rapids.
With the score tied at 1-1 through 90 minutes, extra time was needed to settle this one. What happened next was remarkable. Macoumba Kandji created his own opportunity by forcing his way through a pair of defenders on the edge of the box and poked the ball as he was falling. It deflected off a Dallas defender, past the ‘keeper and into the net.
But that wasn’t what was so special about the play. Yes, it was an own goal, but Kandji also ripped his ACL. Now a man down, Colorado resisted the final barrage of opportunities to lift their first and only MLS Cup.
8. Calais RUFC
Coupe de France final
Domestic cups are a wonderful opportunity for lower-tier teams to play against opponents they wouldn’t usually get to face. In 2000, during the Coupe de France, Calais RUFC did a little bit more than that. We’re warning you though, this doesn’t have a happy ending.
Calais RUFC was formed as an amateur club in 1974 after the merger of two local clubs. It was unknown before the year 2000, that is, until a team made up of dock workers and office clerks that played in France’s fourth division reached the final against first-division side FC Nantes. On their way to the final, Calais RUFC did their bit of giant killing, beating Lille LOSC and AS Cannes from Ligue 2, which is impressive in itself. In the quarter-final, they would knock out Ligue 1 side RC Strasbourg Alsace, before facing reigning champions FC Girondins de Bordeaux in the semifinals and beating them decisively 3-1.
The final was heartbreaking for all of France, expect for Nantes fans of course. Despite scoring early, Calais RUFC would falter in the second half, Nantes winning on a controversial last-minute penalty and ending the Cinderella run.
7. Real Salt Lake
If Real Salt Lake had one of the best teams in 2010, finishing second in the Western Conference despite a first round playoff exit, 2009 was a different story. Qualifying with the last available playoff spot, RSL had an uphill battle to reach the final. Because of the old payoff format mentioned above, RSL’s first test would be against the Supporters’ Shield winning Columbus Crew SC. They then advanced to face second-seeded Chicago Fire, to set up a final against LA Galaxy and their star David Beckham, who was still looking for his first MLS Cup.
Bruce Arena and his star-studded side that included Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Mike Magee, were heavy favorites coming into this final after finishing first in the Western Conference. The Galaxy started strong, getting on the board early after a cross was finished easily by Magee. But RSL stayed tenacious and put in a scrappy goal with 30 minutes remaining. They would go the distance and finish the match in penalties, the highlight being Landon Donovan rocketing his shot over the bar, after having dispatched his previous 12 penalties. Real Salt Lake would take advantage to lift their first-ever MLS Cup.
6. Dundee United
Scottish Premier League
For those who are unfamiliar with the Scottish Premier League, it would be exaggerative to say that it’s a little lopsided; Celtic FC and Rangers FC have been utterly dominant in Scotland’s first division, claiming every single title since 1980, expect for a three-year period where other teams managed to lift the trophy.
The first season of that three-year period was 1982-1983. Dundee United, having never finished higher than third and with Scotland’s top dogs barring the top of the table, was expecting a year like all others. It went down to the last game of the season, United needing a win away from home against rivals Dundee at Dens Park. With a 3-1 win, Dundee United won the league and began a three-year spell where the trophy stayed away from Glasgow.
5. Nottingham Forest
Football League First Division
Nottingham Forest’s story is a special one; similar, if not more spectacular, than Leicester shocking the world and lifting the Premier League trophy in 2016. The saga starts in January of 1975. Nottingham Forest was sitting in 13th in England’s second division, when Brian Clough was hired midseason to take over as head coach. Immediately, the momentum started to shift, and they would finish eighth that season. Next year, they would finish third, earning the last promotion spot into the first division.
As a newly promoted team with an evident lack of talented players, at least compared to other teams in the top flight, Forest wasn’t expected to do much in the First Division, but sport can be a little quirky sometimes. They got off to a wonderful start, winning their first three games and were first in early October after a 4-0 win against Ipswich Town. It was at this point that people argued that Forest simply wouldn’t keep this up, and that the “bubble would burst” as BBC pundit Bob Wilson said on October of 1977. Nottingham Forest would remain first for the rest of the season, becoming the first and only newly promoted team to win the first division title in their first year of promotion.
UEFA European Championship
Before Greece shocked the world football in 2004 by winning the Euros, Denmark won the tournament in the same fashion in 1992: wildly unexpectedly. What makes Denmark’s journey so interesting is that they had not qualified for the Euro that year.
Due to mounting civil unrest in Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, they were banned from participating from the tournament, their vacant spot to be filled by Denmark, who had less than a week to string together a team that could participate in the 1992 European Championship. One month later, they would be crowned champions. The biggest shock came in the final, when the Danes brushed aside the Germans. Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel made a huge difference in the end, immortalizing himself as one of the best goalkeepers of all time.
3. Chicago Fire
Atlanta United impressed many in MLS this year as an expansion club, many claiming that they’re one of the best expansion sides to ever debut in MLS, although their early exit in the playoffs at the hands of the Columbus Crew SC left much more to be desired. But before Atlanta United, the Chicago Fire still held the reigns to one of the best Cinderella stories in MLS.
The Fire took the league by storm in 1998, joining LA Galaxy and D.C. United in the league’s elite, beating them in the semifinals and MLS Cup final respectively on route to their first ever championship, all that in their first year. They would complete the double a few days later by lifting the U.S. Open Cup, thanks to an extra time goal from Frank Klopas. The team featured another former Impact coach in Jesse Marsch. Chicago remains the only team to beat D.C. United in an MLS Cup final.
UEFA European Championship
There are upsets, and then, there are UPSETS. Greece had never won a title before, and frankly, had never even come close. But German coach Otto Rehhagel instilled a discipline so intense in his side that the Greek team became a defensive juggernaut that was extremely efficient at scoring off corners. In three elimination games (quarterfinals, semifinals, and final), the Greeks allowed no goals, and scored one goal in each off a header against France, Czech Republic and Portugal respectively.
What’s most impressive is that Greece beat hosts Portugal in the opening game of the tournament, and then again in the final. A young Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t hold back his tears when the final whistle finally came…
1. Leicester City
English Premier League
5,000-to-1. If you were to bet, at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League season, that the Foxes were going to win it all, those were the odds you would’ve gotten. Leicester City had narrowly avoided relegation just the previous season, and were hoping for a slightly better finish that year.
It seems unfair to call what Leicester did an upset, or a Cinderella story, or to call them underdogs, because it feels like so much more than that. Since the Premier League was founded in 1992, only five teams have won the title; four of them are financially limitless in Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, the other being the Blackburn Rovers, who won their first and only title three years after the league was inaugurated. In every instance, the team that did win the title finished at least third the year before.
Leicester captured the imagination of all soccer fans when they lifted the trophy in 2016. It seemed so utterly incredible that no one truly believed it until it was mathematically impossible for it not to happen. Striker Jamie Vardy was electric, scoring 24 goals to lead Leicester, while Riyad Mahrez garnered attention from the biggest clubs for his dazzling footwork and understanding of the game.
And finally, who can forget Claudio Ranieri, the Italian who took over the managerial reigns in July of 2015, despite skeptic critics. It was an unforgettable season for Leicester and the world of football, and earns the number one spot on our list of greatest Cinderella stories in the beautiful game. Dilly ding, dilly dong.