Many argue that the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 will kill the tournament’s drama. Only time will tell if that will actually be the case, but if it is, we always have these six gripping World Cup matches to look back on that were full of shocking upsets, controversial calls, and unforgettable finishes.
2014: Brazil 1-7 Germany
Almost three years later and the Mineirazo is nearly as incomprehensible now as it was that fateful day in Belo Horizonte. Yet for a match that got so out of hand so quickly, it was impossible to turn off. Thomas Müller scored early off a corner, followed by one from Miroslav Klose. Then by Toni Kroos, twice. And then Sami Khedira. At half-time the score was 5-0, and eventually the Brazilian implosion ended 7-1. It was so commanding a result that the home fans applauded the German players and booed their own off the pitch.
2006: Italy 2-0 Germany
It was 119 minutes of raw tension before a goal was scored in Italy and Germany’s epic semi-final encounter in 2006. The engrossing tie looked destined for penalties as neither side could see clear chances through to fruition both during regulation and in extra time.
But in the final minutes, the usually defensc-minded Italians switched to a more attack-minded approach. The move paid off handsomely in the 119th when Fabio Grosso put away a brilliant Andrea Pirlo pass. An insurance goal from Alessandro Del Piero sent the eventual-champions through to their sixth World Cup final.
2002: Spain 0-0 South Korea (3-5 after penalties)
It was gripping for all the wrong reasons if you’re Spanish, but unforgettable if you’re South Korean (or a fan of another AFC nation). Played in Gwangju, the match was highlighted by the Spaniards having two goals called back amid several other controversial refereeing decisions that went against them.
Despite playing seemingly against 15 men, young Spain hung tough and managed to take the co-hosts to penalties. South Korea, who was a huge 4.40 underdog at several sportsbooks online, eventually pulled off the upset, 5-3. Over 15 years later, the match is still being investigated on corruption allegations.
1998: Argentina 2-2 England (4-3 after penalties)
As good a first half of any World Cup match that’s ever been played. Even though no one scored after Gabriel Batistuta, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Javier Zanetti all did in the first 45 minutes, the match had everything else you could ask for.
Few World Cup matches have been more tense than Argentina-England in 1992
After a disallowed England goal and David Beckham got sent off, the game went on to penalties. There, Carlos Roa made two saves to advance Argentina to the quarter-finals.
1990: Cameroon 1-0 Argentina
One of the biggest storylines to come out of the 1990 World Cup was the arrival of African football on the world stage. Cameroon’s shocking defeat of defending champions Argentina in the opening match, despite finishing with only nine players, had fans everywhere glued to their TVs.
The Cameroonians, whose squad was mostly lower French league players, completely shut down Maradona with their physical defence. François Omam-Biyik gave the Indomitable Lions the lead in the 61st, which they would hold onto in what is now known as the ‘Miracle of Milan’.
1970: Italy 4-3 West Germany (aet)
If you’re over a certain age, this is probably the first match you thought of when you read the title. Nearing full time in the 1970 semis, the result looked like it was going to be a simple 1-0 Italian victory. But after Karl-Heinz Schnellinger equalised in the 90th, the game exploded with five extra time goals, still a World Cup record.
After the re-start, the score went from 1-1 to 3-3 quickly. While the broadcast was still replaying Gerd Müller’s equalising goal, Italy and Gianna Rivera answered with the decisive goal in the 111th minute.