There is just something about an underdog story that resonates with us and makes us feel compelled to cheer on regardless of our interest. You will find multiple underdog stories in every sport with a never-ending list. But what makes a true underdog story?
A true underdog will be written off early on, often not even considered a true opponent. They will be dismissed in every aspect and expected to lose without being given any hope. They are not expected to beat the so-called ‘favourites’ that are placed in front of them, instead, they are supposed to roll over and accept defeat. A true underdog will overcome these obstacles and defy the odds, shocking their doubters and making a name for themselves. They say anything is possible in football, but these teams really pushed their luck.
What makes football so great is that anything can happen at any minute. It is such an unpredictable sport because you just don’t know what could unfold within 90 minutes. We have seen teams come back from three goals down at half-time in finals, scoring two goals in injury time or winning the league with seconds remaining. This is what makes this sport so special, any team can win on their day and nothing is for granted, this is football. Who takes the crown for the ultimate underdogs in football?
We can’t just discuss one great underdog story, we need to have some honourable mentions. Although, one will stand out for the majority of people as it is probably the most recent in memory. To be regarded as the greatest underdog story in football, we need to see the other iconic underdogs and what they achieved to make us really appreciate the calibre of success that was achieved by the greatest. There are so many underdog stories in football, but these are the elite who achieved what no one believed they could. Their achievements made the world stand still and, to this day, people still question how they did it and how it was possible.
Nottingham Forest winning Division One
Let’s go all the way back to 1978, it’s the English First Division, Nottingham Forest have just been promoted and in their first season up, they go and win the league. This was unheard of at the time and is the equivalent of a Championship team getting promoted and winning the Premier League now. The legendary manager Brian Clough was able to achieve this with his team of stars that included the likes of Martin O’Neill, Peter Shilton and Kenny Burns. They didn’t even win the Second Division to go up, they came third, which makes the achievement even crazier.
Not only did they win the league, but they won it by seven points over arguably one of the best Liverpool sides we’ve ever seen that would win the European Cup that same season. They even beat this legendary Liverpool side again to win the League Cup. This side would go on to greater success by winning the European Cup in 1979 and 1980 to stamp their place in history. Unrepeatable.
Denmark winning Euro 1992
Euro 1992 threw up one of the biggest shocks in international football history when Denmark shocked the world to win the tournament. Not only were they huge underdogs going into this, but they shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. They gained entry after Yugoslavia were banned, talk about picking the winning ticket. They were runners up in Yugoslavia’s group and only found out they were playing 11 days prior to the start of the tournament. In the tournament, they came runners up in their group, then went on to beat the Netherlands in the semi-finals in a penalty shootout.
This set them up with a final against world champions Germany, no one gave them any chance, just like the rest of the tournament. They beat Germany 2-0 to win the Euros in what was their first major international competition, iconic. This achievement was one of the first underdog stories on the international stage, as it is a rarity due to the calibre of players representing their nations. Without this, we may never have had this next underdog.
Greece winning Euro 2004
Speaking of shocks in the Euros, we have another one in the form of Greece just 12 years after Denmark’s heroics. Greece winning Euro 2004 sent shockwaves through the world of football as they were the last team anyone thought would do it. The favourites were Portugal, who had their so-called ‘golden generation’, with players like Luís Figo, Rui Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line. Greece were 150/1 shots in a tournament that saw national teams at the peak of their powers, they weren’t given a hope.
They pulled off a shock win against favourites Portugal in the group stage as well as drawing with Spain, they were serious. They would then beat France in the quarter-finals and the Czech Republic in the semi-finals to set up a second meeting with Portugal in the final. It was written for Portugal to win, this was their tournament, their time, on home soil, but Greece didn’t read the script. They came away with a 1-0 win, beating Portugal twice in their back yard to pull off one of the biggest upsets in history.
These are the major underdog stories that could possibly compete with what is the greatest underdog story in football. Others that are slightly down the pecking order but none less miraculous include Montpellier’s Ligue 1 upset in the 2011-12 season. From having finished 14th the season before, they were more likely to go down than to challenge for the league. They shocked everyone, none more than Paris Saint-Germain, who were expected to win the league easily.
This wasn’t the first time the money powerhouses in Europe were left with egg on their face. AS Monaco pipped them to the title in the 2016-17 season. Monaco had a little known team at the time and it was in Europe where they really showed their brilliance by beating Tottenham, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund. The team included now superstars Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar.
Another league upset in Europe came in La Liga in 2014, when underdogs Atletico Madrid stunned giants Barcelona and Real Madrid to clinch their first title in 18 years. Diego Simeone was the manager who was the mastermind behind this and ended the dominance of Spain’s two biggest clubs in the domestic league. He was also a player the last time they won the league back in 1996, so this was an incredible achievement for him. This was a big deal at the time and what really kicked Atletico on to become one of the biggest clubs in Europe after years of despair.
Leicester City winning the Premier League
While these are some legendary underdog stories and will remain so in the history books for many years, they don’t come close to Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016. This is the biggest upset we have ever seen in football and the true definition of an underdog story in every sense. Due to the Premier League being the most competitive in the world, it was almost unthinkable for a bottom table club to compete, especially with the money that was taking over the game. With the ‘big six’ spending vast sums in the transfer market, the gap between the top clubs and the bottom clubs was widening and this was a worry. To show just how distant they were, Leicester started the season as 5,000/1 underdogs, making the odds of them pulling this off almost impossible, the figure was a joke.
No team since the start of the century was able to stamp their authority in the top half of the table due to the riches of the modern game amongst the top clubs. Leicester was lucky to stay up the season previous with them only managing a 14th place finish under Nigel Pearson, who was eventually sacked and replaced with Claudio Ranieri. They were written off immediately come the start of the 2015-16 season, having barely bolstered the squad with mere spending of just £26 million. Their starting eleven cost just £28.8 million. They even had the fourth-lowest wage bill in the league at just £64 million, truly insane.
Despite all of this, with all of the odds stacked against them and pundits writing them off, they started off the season on fire thanks to their star players Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté. By the time Christmas came around, they were top of the table to everyone’s surprise. It was like seeing an elephant in a tree, no one knew how it got there but everyone knew that it would fall at one point, how foolish they were.
Leicester hung in there and proved that they were more than capable of fighting it out with the big clubs, despite the gulf in squad costs. They showed the world that money wasn’t everything, and if you work hard together as a team, you can achieve anything. Every player gave 100%, Mahrez won the PFA Player of the Year, Kanté won Leicester’s Player of the Year and Jamie Vardy bagged 24 goals, breaking records along the way to mark off his own underdog story.
Leicester went on to win the Premier League with 81 points in 2016, leaving the football world stunned, yet they had every neutral fan cheering them on to do it because everyone loves an underdog. Opposition fans were just waiting for the bubble to burst so they could leapfrog them in the table, but it never happened. Nobody expected Leicester to finish in the top half of the table, let alone win the league, that was unthinkable. They beat the biggest clubs in England along the way and stood their ground when everyone expected them to fail. This was only their second season back in the Premier League and their first-ever league title.
They overcame all disbelief, all doubts, and defied the odds, which is why they are the greatest underdog story that football has ever seen. We may never see anything like it again, but there is always another underdog story waiting to be made. “Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong”.