The Most Iconic Defeats in Football History

Thiago, Jordi Alba
Barcelona suffered an 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich | Pool/Getty Images

Two behemoths going toe-to-toe.

David coming up against Goliath.

Or maybe just two bang average sides who enjoy a bit of a feisty ding-dong.

Whatever the serving of teams may be, there’s nothing we enjoy more than seeing two sides going at it when it’s all on the line. There’s also nothing more appealing to the footballing masses than unexpected defeats and absolute hammerings – you know, the ones that nobody will ever forget.

So what’s the best way to celebrate footballing annihilation from years gone by? By reminding you of the most iconic defeats ever seen in our wonderful game, that’s how.

Brazil were red hot favourites to win the World Cup on their own turf in 1950. With a group stage-style format, Brazil just needed to avoid defeat in the final game of the tournament against Uruguay to be crowned world champions for the first time in their history.

Having scored 13 goals in their previous two matches, they were odds-on to do more than just play for a draw, with the adoring home crowd anticipating a thumping.

The hosts took the lead two minutes into the second half, but Uruguay scored twice in the space of 13 second half minutes to silence the Maracana. The fans were reduced to tears by full time, as underdogs Uruguay won the World Cup for the second time – in just their second appearance at the tournament. Don’t worry Brazil, I’m sure you’ll get your happy ending when you next host the World Cup.

Diego MaradonaDiego Maradona
A good leap for a little man | El Grafico/Getty Images

England have had their fair share of iconic defeats over the years, from Iceland humiliation, Frank Lampard’s ghost goal, Gazza’s tears and penalty shootout heartache. But if you want a truly iconic defeat, look no further than 1986.

Diego Maradona soon put pay to the Three Lions’ World Cup ambitions at the quarter-final stage with a sprinkling of quality and a dash of gamesmanship. Or cheating, as we say here in England.

The Argentinian forward opened the scoring with his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal, before doubling his country’s lead with a piece of individual magic. A defeat famed for injustice and brilliance in equal measure.

Arsenal snatched the title from under Liverpool's noseArsenal snatched the title from under Liverpool's nose
Arsenal snatched the title from under Liverpool’s nose | Getty Images/Getty Images

The final day of the 1988/89 Division One season boiled down to a title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal. The Reds led the Gunners by three points and two goals going into the encounter, meaning they could afford to lose 1-0 and would still be crowned champions of England.

The hosts were trailing 1-0 for much of the second half after Alan Smith gave Arsenal the lead in the 52nd minute, but the clock ticked down and with the Gunners unable to find a second it looked as if Liverpool were going to defend their league title.

But in the dying seconds, Michael Thomas found the net for Arsenal, giving the Gunners their first league crown for 18 years – dramatically clinching the title on goals scored from under Liverpool’s nose.

Portugal were the victims of Greece’s famous underdog triumph | ARIS MESSINIS/Getty Images

Hosts Portugal were strong favourites to win their first piece of silverware when they faced plucky underdogs Greece in the final of Euro 2004.

Despite losing to Greece in the group stages, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and co were expected to work their magic against their stubborn opponents to win the country’s first piece of silverware – and where better to do it than in Lisbon.

Unfortunately, the team of very well organised journeymen rigidly defended their way to European Championship glory, edging a 1-0 victory and leaving a 19-year-old Ronaldo in tears on the pitch at full time.

(FILES) - Picture taken 25 May 2005 of A(FILES) - Picture taken 25 May 2005 of A
Alessandro Nesta following Milan’s crushing Champions League loss | CARL DE SOUZA/Getty Images

Milan were cantering towards the Champions League title after taking a 3-0 half time lead in the 2005 final against Liverpool.

What proceeded to unfold is one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history – and it is quite rightly celebrated as such.

On one hand, Liverpool magnificently fought back from being dead and buried to spectacularly win the Champions League on penalties. But on the other, Milan blew a 3-0 half time lead in the space of six minutes. Ouch.

Barcelona's captain Carles Puyol (R) reaBarcelona's captain Carles Puyol (R) rea
Sergio Ramos saw red because of course he did | LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Things are pretty bleak right now in Spain’s second city, so we better give Barcelona fans a little something to cherish.

Remember when Barcelona were the best side in Europe and dealt Jose Mourinho’s ego a big old blow?

Defeat in El Clasico is never something to savour, but this 2010 loss for Real Madrid was particularly brutal. The gulf in class was extraordinary, as Mourinho suffered the heaviest defeat of his career.

Manchester City's Italian striker MarioManchester City's Italian striker Mario
A game iconic for all manner of reasons | ANDREW YATES/Getty Images

Manchester United’s noisy neighbours made an absolute racket in October 2011 as they hit six past their great rivals at Old Trafford – United’s worst defeat on home soil since 1955.

Mario Balotelli showed off his iconic ‘Why Always Me?’ shirt, and although United were reduced to 10 men in the second half with the score at 2-0, City were merciless and ruthless, never showing signs of taking their foot off the gas.

City would go on to win their inaugural Premier League title at the end of the season, beating United to the crown on goal difference – thanks in part to this crushing victory.

Robin van Persie, Iker CasillasRobin van Persie, Iker Casillas
The world champions were humiliated | David Ramos/Getty Images

When it comes to iconic defeats, the 2014 World Cup delivered. Spain had completed a clean sweep of European Championships and the World Cup as they revolutionised international football, remarkably winning three major tournaments on the bounce.

Spain began their defence of their title against the very same side they had defeated in the final four years earlier, and it appeared as if it would be business as usual after Xabi Alonso put them in front inside the opening 25 minutes.

Robin van Persie then scored a pretty good header and an Arjen Robben masterclass ensued, as the side who had limped to defeat in the 2010 World Cup final recorded an emphatic victory over one of the greatest ever international sides.

David LuizDavid Luiz
Brazil had a nightmare in the World Cup semi finals | Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

This World Cup fixture followed a very similar narrative to that of Bayern vs Barcelona in the 2020 Champions League (more to come on that in a second).

A once great side who are not as good as they used to be but have been successfully papering over cracks for some time and still carry an air of prestige about them get completely exposed and trounced. And Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller were present on both occasions.

Everything made this defeat iconic: it was the mighty, entertaining football juggernauts Brazil, on home soil in the World Cup semi final in front of a home crowd who were convinced that their side were going to stroll to World Cup glory.

Instead, they got completely, utterly and fully deservedly battered. Falls from grace don’t get much bigger.

Lionel MessiLionel Messi
Barcelona were taught the most shocking Champions League lesson | Pool/Getty Images

If somebody had told you that a Barcelona team containing Lionel Messi – a player widely considered to be alright at football – would be absolutely pumped in the quarter-final stage of European football’s premier club competition, you’d have probably been scoffed at.

But in 2020, normality went completely out the window. Things were so unusual that the usual two-legged knockout format was ditched in favour of an eight-team ‘mini tournament’ straight knockout showdown, held in the sterile environment of Lisbon.

Even more bizarre was Bayern Munich’s incredible resurgence under absolute unknown boss Hansi Flick; a resurgence that culminated in one of the most incredible nights in Champions League history.

Cutting a long story short, Bayern scored eight, Barcelona scored just two and the whole world gasped as the team revered as being the greatest club side of their generation were torn limb from limb.