“That’s just the way it is; there’s no point in having regrets or feeling sad about it. I have a great respect for the competition and even more for all the players who’ve played in it. It’s no easy thing to qualify for the World Cup.”
The words, spoken in an interview with FIFA.com, belong to George Weah, one of the many great footballers never to have appeared at the FIFA World Cup™, due to their being born in a ‘small’ country. George Best, Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Jari Litmanen are all part of the same unfortunate club as the former African star.
However, size is not always what counts in the world of football. With roughly three billion inhabitants between them, China PR, India and Indonesia are among the most heavily populated countries on the planet, but they can boast just one qualification each for the final stages of the FIFA World Cup.
India were handed an unlikely ticket to Brazil 1950, but eventually refused to take part in the event; not being allowed to play barefoot was one of the reasons cited for their decision. Indonesia, playing under the banner of the Dutch East Indies, the name of the former colony of the Netherlands up until 1949, qualified at their first attempt in 1938, although they were helped considerably by the withdrawal of their play-off group opponents, Japan and the United States.
China PR can claim to have qualified for Korea/Japan 2002 through results on the pitch. Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic was the man behind this historic achievement. “China needs to place more importance on youth development, as they represent the country’s future. Chinese coaches work incredibly hard, but they lack the necessary experience to bring young players through to the top levels of the game,” he said when quizzed about China’s limitations.
China aside, the 2002 World Cup also awoke other sleeping giants in Asia. Thailand’s best performance in the qualifying tournament dates back to that campaign, when they surprised many by reaching the final round. Turkey took 48 years to re-emerge on to football’s biggest stage; their appearance at Korea/Japan 2002 was their first since 1954. The Turks made sure it would be a memorable return by finishing the tournament in third place.
Among the oldest and most populated countries of Africa, Mali and Sudan have never achieved a qualification for FIFA’s flagship event. Congo DR had better luck in 1974, when at the first time of asking they earned the right to take on the world’s best in Germany. But this maiden feat also remains their last to date, the Leopards having been eliminated in qualifying ever since.
Football allows a little country to become a big one.
Of all the sides in South America, Uruguay's accomplishments must rank amongst the remarkable in light of the number of citizens the country boasts. 15 continental championships and 11 FIFA World Cup appearances have been accomplished with a relatively tiny population of three and a half million.
“Uruguay is a very small country, but it has a tremendous passion for the game,” said defender Mauricio Victorino to FIFA.com when asked about the paradox of his country’s size and its international record. “When you’re from a place with a history and plenty of supporters, even if it only has three million people, there’s always a lot of pressure on you. You’re well aware that it’s a real football country that has a genuine passion for the game,” confirmed team-mate Diego Perez.
It may be a simple coincidence, but it was against another ‘small’ nation that CONMEBOL’s least-populated member secured their 2011 Copa America title: Paraguay. Despite a population of seven million, La Albirroja also have an excellent World Cup qualification record, having appeared at the final stages on eight occasions; seven times via their results on the pitch, and once as an invitee, at Uruguay 1930.
The subsequent edition of the world’s biggest sporting event in 1934 saw two more ‘small’ teams join up with the big boys. When the Netherlands and Switzerland travelled to Italy that year, they began a love affair with the tournament which continues to this day.
“In seven years, we’ve taken part in four major competitions, played in a World Cup Round of 16 match, beaten the future world champions at the World Cup, picked up a good point away to England – it’s quite a list of achievements for a little country like ours,” pointed out Swiss defender Stephane Grichting upon retiring from international football in 2011.
Denmark may have waited till Mexico 1986 to acquire their first experience of the World Cup, but they have since managed to maintain the high standards that they set in that impressive debut, making regular appearances at the global tournament, despite their modest size.
Danish forward Nicklas Bendtner, speaking at South Africa 2010, shared his thoughts on the population factor: “Our country is pretty small, and to win the World Cup, you really have to win seven matches against countries that are often much bigger. We’ve got a population of five million. Logically speaking, we should produce fewer talented players than a nation of 80 or 100 million people."
Finally, strong qualifying performances in recent times by nations such as Croatia and Norway tend to back up Cameroon legend Roger Milla’s conviction that “football allows a little country to become a big one.”