The World Cup qualifiers are upon us once more, and it seems that with every passing campaign it becomes increasingly difficult for top international sides to book their place at the biggest tournament of them all.
The emergence of smaller nations has meant the adage that there are no easy fixtures in international football once again holds some logic.
On occasion there is a result that throws form, finesse and pedigree out of the window, and attempting to qualify for FIFA's showpiece event has manufactured some truly incredible score-lines.
Here are just some of the results in recent times that literally shocked the world.
France 1-2 Bulgaria (17 November 1993, Parc des Princes, Paris)
Qualification for World Cup USA 1994
A last minute stunner by Emil Kostadinov gave Bulgaria an incredible 2-1 win over an illustrious French team in front of a packed Parc des Princes, in a result that astounded world football and left a nation in mourning.
Gerard Houllier had overseen a squad that included David Ginola, Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin, and their attempt to reach America appeared to be going smoothly, with the French requiring just one point from their final two fixtures to secure a place at the finals.
However, somehow Houllier’s side contrived to lose 3-2 to Israel in their penultimate game, but even until the last minute of the clash with Bulgaria they appeared to have done just enough.
However, they reckoned without the power of Kostadinov, who unleashed an exocet off Bernard Lama’s crossbar and into the net to leave the stadium breathless and the Bulgarians joyous.
They took the place of the French at the tournament in America, and only a Roberto Baggio-inspired Italy halted their charge to the final itself.
Republic of Ireland 1-0 Holland (1 September 2001, Landsdowne Road, Dublin)
Qualification for World Cup South Korea & Japan 2002
Roy Keane was inspirational for Ireland as they produced a dogged display to see off Loius Van Gaal’s star-studded Holland team in a result that ultimately eliminated the Dutch from the World Cup in the Far East.
There was a special atmosphere across the small nation on that day, and there was a sense of inevitability that a special result was about to take place. And eventually the home side secured the most coveted of breakthroughs.
Jason McAteer swept the ball into the roof of the net past a helpless Edwin van der Sar in the second half and Mick McCarthy’s unfancied side had qualified from a group that contained both Holland and Portugal, an incredible achievement for such a miniscule population.
In the tournament itself, it took the lottery of penalties for Spain to see them off, and they gained many admirers on the way.
Switzerland 1-2 Luxembourg (10 September 2008, Letzigrund, Zurich)
Qualification for World Cup South Africa 2010
Lowly Luxembourg had only managed a solitary victory in competitive football in 13 years before travelling to Switzerland for what should have been a straightforward three points for the home side who were still buoyant from co-hosting Euro 2008 just months before.
In Ottmar Hitzfeld they had a manager with world-class pedigree, but on the evening Switzerland were well below par and the minnows took full advantage.
Jeff Strasser curled in a stunning free-kick to open the scoring before Blaise N’Kufo brought the Swiss level. However, with minutes remaining, a quickly taken set-piece sent Alphonse Leweck clear and he drilled the ball home to leave the Swiss as red-faced as their shirts, and the Red Lions with the rarest of World Cup victories.
Indeed, in a group containing both Greece and Israel, the result has left Switzerland battling to qualify even at this early stage.
Chile 3-0 Brazil (15 August 2000, Santiago, Chile)
Qualification for World Cup Japan & South Korea 2002
Five-time World Cup winners Brazil are the only nation to have taken part in every single World Cup competition since its inception in 1930, but they have never come closer to elimination from the South American section than en route to Asia in 2002.
Ronaldo was recuperating from his horrific knee injury suffered when playing for Internazionale and sat out the entire campaign, and how his nation missed his goals. Brazil’s results stumbled from bad to worse, but in Chile they were completely and utterly outclassed by the dynamic strike-force of Ivan Zamarano and Marcelo Salas.
Both forwards along with Estay got on the score-sheet amid some alarming Brazilian defending to leave the Samba stars teetering on the brink of a premature exit. However, Rivaldo rallied his side to a 3-0 win in their final match against Venezuela to guide his nation to the finals, albeit through the back door.
And the rest, as they say, is history; Ronaldo returned, emerged with the Golden Boot after scoring eight goals and Brazil were victorious once more.
Malawi 1-0 Egypt (14 June 2008, Blantyre, Malawi)
Qualification for World Cup South Africa 2010
African football’s World Cup heritage apparently grows with each passing tournament. From the exploits of Algeria in 1982 to Roger Milla’s twirling hips for Cameroon in 1990, there is invariably one side who cause an upset or two as well as making a few new friends.
Being back-to-back African Nations Champions in 2006 and 2008 and possessing players such as Amr Zaki and Mido, many observers expect Egypt to qualify for South Africa in 2010 and give a performance that the continent can be proud of.
However, their campaign, while still on track, suffered one of their most embarrassing results ever when tiny Malawi, who have never qualified for the World Cup, pulled off an incredible 1-0 win in June 2008 when substitute Chiukepo Msowoya popped up to score in the final minute to leave the Pharaohs cursing their luck and The Flames celebrating a wonderful win.
Norway 2-1 England (9 September 1981, Ullevaal Stadium, Norway)
Qualification for World Cup Spain 1982
In perhaps the most famous segment of commentary ever, Norwegian Bjorn Lillelien encapsulated the joy of his nation by cussing Maggie Thatcher, Winston Churchill and anything else English in his post-match rant.
A below-par Norway team emerged triumphant over Keegan, Francis, Hoddle et al in one of English football’s darkest hours. Hallvar Thoresen rammed home the all-important winner just before half-time in front of a partisan home crowd and sent England’s hopes of making Spain 1982 into disarray.
In fact they did eventually do enough to qualify, but with Trevor Brooking and Keegan not fit they massively underachieved and eventually exited with a whimper.
They did indeed take ‘one hell of a beating’.
For further reading on English mishaps, see Northern Ireland 1-0 England in 2005.
Australia 2-2 Iran (Agg 3-3: Iran win on away goals, November 29, 1997, MCG Arena, Australia)
Qualification for World Cup France 1998
While not a shock in terms of the standard of the teams involved, after Australia had gone to Iran and scraped a 1-1 draw in the play-offs for the World Cup in 1998, it was widely expected across the world and particularly within Australia that the Socceroos would have no trouble in seeing out the tie.
Harry Kewell and Tony Vidmar gave them a 2-0 lead in the second leg and it was party-time in Melbourne, as they celebrated, believing Terry Venables had guided them to their first major tournament since 1974.
But the party began too soon. Iran fought back and scored two quick-fire goals in the second half through Bagheri and Azizi to dramatically bring the Asian side level and shock the 85,000 crowd into silence.
In an atmosphere that has been referred to since as a ‘graveyard’, Australia attempted valiantly to secure a winner but it was not to be and the only noise in Melbourne that day was the Iranians celebrating their improbable passage to the biggest show in the world.
Slovenia 1-0 Italy (9 October 2004, Celje, Slovenia)
Qualification for World Cup Germany 2006
When it comes to making it through to major tournaments, few achieve it with the efficiency of the Italians.
The Azzurri have only missed out on the premier tournament twice, in 1930 and in 1958, and have lifted the trophy on four occasions.
However, in September 2004 their reputation was vulnerable after exiting the European Championships in Portugal at the group stages, and they received no sympathy as Slovenia outclassed them and sent them to their first defeat in a qualifying match for 11 years.
Bostjan Cesar scored the only goal in the 82nd minute, to give Marcello Lippi's side the worst possible start in their attempts to reach Germany 2006.
The Italians bounced back in style however, winning their section, and, of course, going on to lift the trophy after defeating France on penalties in the final.
On this night however, few could have predicted what lay ahead after lowly Slovenia secured one of the true shock score-lines.
Paul Macdonald, Goal.com