The World Cup probably isn't the most accurate way to decide the best soccer-playing nation in the world. Three games isn't nearly enough to determine the best two teams from each group, and a single game that might end in penalty kicks isn't nearly enough to determine the team that deserves to advance. But it works, because it creates such beautiful moments, instants, successes that can create a nationwide burst of joy or failures that can make everybody bitter as hell for four years. Several billion people agree that the World Cup is the best.
However, as a professional jerk, my mind shoots to one place: we spend so much time determining the world's best team, but absolutely none determining the world's worst teams. 32 teams qualified for the World Cup. 175 did not. The difference between the best team in the world and the worst at the World Cup is vast, but the difference between the worst team at the World Cup and the worst team in the world is vaster. There are magnitudes of quality between even the 150th best team in the world and the 207th.
Sure, we could simply scan the bottom of the FIFA World Rankings, which lists Turks and Caicos, San Marino, and Bhutan as tied for last place. However, this would be a lot like simply awarding the World Cup to Spain because they're No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings. These rankings are mathematical, and since none of these teams has won in a while, they all have zero points. But Bhutan didn't even attempt to qualify for the World Cup, and thus didn't even have many opportunities to win any games, while San Marino went through a 10-game UEFA qualifying schedule. Are these two teams even?
Unfortunately, nobody is going to hold a tournament to see which of the world's worst teams, scattered across tiny, soccer-indifferent nations across the planet, would lose every game. In 2002, someone sponsored a game between Bhutan and Montserrat, then the world's two worst teams, on the day of the Germany-Brazil final, but nobody is doing that this time around.
So we have to peruse the evidence. We looked through the qualification results of the 207 teams that attempted to make it to Brazil and picked five we felt were worth discussing, each from a different region. Here are their stories, and may you decide the worst.
Region: UEFA (Europe)
FIFA ranking: 207
World Cup Qualifying record: zero wins, zero draws, 10 losses
World Cup Qualifying goal differential: -53
Worst loss: 9-0 to Ukraine
Looking at statistics alone, it's hard to argue San Marino isn't the world's worst soccer team. Since forming a team in 1986, the Sanmarinese have played 121 international matches. They have won one, drawn three, and lost 117. That one win was a friendly against Liechtenstein -- a similarly tiny country that struggles in soccer -- in 2004. They have never won a competitive soccer game, and in the ten years since beating Liechtenstein, they have not managed a win or draw, even in a friendly. Their 2014 qualifying goal differential of -53 is the worst of any of the 207 teams attempting to make it to Brazil.
But considering the incredibly steep odds against the team representing the world's oldest sovereign nation, we actually don't think they acquitted themselves *that* poorly.
Europe is the world's most difficult region, which is why they get 13 spots in the World Cup, more than twice as many as any other region. And while most other regions stagger their qualification processes to avoid matchups between minnows and giants, UEFA throws everybody into a round robin pool.
San Marino had to play 10 games against some of the world's best teams. They had to go to Wembley and play against a crowd of 85,000, about 2.5 times the size of their entire nation. (Wayne Rooney scored twice.) And then they had to host that same Olympic team in a 7,000 seat stadium in San Marino. (Wayne Rooney only scored once, but so did five of his teammates, along with one San Marino own goal.)
They also had to play Ukraine twice (Ukraine scored 17 goals, San Marino zero.) And while Poland and Montenegro and Moldova aren't giants, their teams are still comprised of professional players, San Marino is entirely amateur. (There is a team in the third tier of Italian soccer based in San Marino, but only one player from the national team is good enough to play there.)
With the odds against them, a goal differential of -53 isn't horrific. They never allowed 10 goals in a game, which as you shall see in the rest of this post, is actually somewhat of a feat, especially when you consider the high level of play they faced. In fact, they even scored a goal, their first in competitive play since 2008:
They deserved the celebration.
Although we're obligated to include San Marino on this list of the world's worst soccer teams by dint of their lopsided losses, we firmly do not believe they are the worst team in the world.
It would be cool if every town of 30,000 people got to have a national soccer team that played the world's best teams. It would mean instead of just being a backup on your high school soccer team, you could've gotten free trips to play in the world's best stadiums. However, this is not the case: pretty much only San Marino gets to have this happen. We salute you, San Marino, and would like to gain citizenship so could try being the best in the country at something and then go to the Olympics.
Region: OFC (Oceania)
FIFA ranking: 182
World Cup Qualifying record: two wins, one draw, three losses
World Cup Qualifying goal differential: -21
Worst loss: 10-1 to Tahiti
Let us tell you a story of transitive properties.
You might remember the brilliant appearance of Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup. That tournament features the winner of every confederation -- whoever wins North America's Gold Cup, South America's Copa America, Europe's UEFA Tournament, and so forth. Each continent has one, including Oceania. However, Australia decided they would rather play against teams in Asia, so it is essentially New Zealand and a bunch of tiny islands. By all rights, New Zealand should win this tournament violently every time.. However, at the 2012 OFC Tournament, they lost in the semifinals to New Caledonia, who in turn lost to Tahiti.
World Cup 2014
World Cup 2014
The Tahitians got to go to Brazil and play Spain and others. We wrote a longform on the strangeness of a ragtag bunch of semi-employed amateur soccer players facing off against the world's best. They scored against Nigeria, and celebrated gloriously and wonderfully in front of an entire stadium rooting for them, but were generally shellacked, being outscored 24-1 in their three games.
In the tournament that allowed Tahiti to go to Brazil, Samoa finished in last place. They were outscored 24-1, the exact same margin by which Tahiti lost to the world's best teams. The world's best team is better than Tahiti by roughly the same margin that Tahiti is better than Samoa.
There is a mitigating factor: Samoa had actually won a tournament to get to the tournament where they were outscored 24-1. American Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands. It would probably be more accurate to list the Cook Islands here, considering they emerged from that tournament without a win, but then we wouldn't have gotten to write about the transitive property and stuff.
Let us also take a moment to credit Samoa for having the ninth-ranked rugby team in the world, which probably explains their lack of soccer prowess. We have to also give them credit for not being American Samoa, whose 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001 is one of the reasons a lot of soccer federations stagger tournaments to avoid matches between really good teams and really bad teams.
Region: AFC (Asia)
FIFA World Ranking: 202
World Cup Qualifying record: Zero wins, two losses, zero draws
World Cup Qualifying goal differential: -12
Worst loss: 6-0, to Vietnam
Macau is one of the stranger things in the world. A peninsula on the South China Sea, the city was once owned by Portugal, but was turned over to the Chinese in 1999. Under its own governance, Macau has become the world's largest gambling hub, a haven of the most glamorous things capitalism has to offer. As China's economy has ballooned, so have the amount of Chinese people with tons of money to spend in Macau.
They did not, however, inherit soccer talent from the Portuguese. There are over 600,000 people in the city, the most densely populated region in the world, meaning there isn't a whole lot of space for things like soccer fields. There is a big stadium, where Manchester United, Barcelona, and Chelsea have rolled through on Asian tours, but not a whole ton of home-grown talent. As such, they lost by a 13-1 aggregate to Vietnam, who went on to lose to Qatar in the second round.
Region: CAF (Africa)
FIFA World Ranking: 204
World Cup Qualifying record: Zero wins, two losses, zero draws
World Cup Qualifying goal differential: -8
Worst loss: 4-0 to Namibia (twice)
Let's take a step back here.
I wrote this post because I thought it would be fun and harmless. San Marino is a minnow because it's incredibly tiny, but is essentially a well-off European village. Samoa's great at rugby, which explains them being bad at soccer.
However, when actually trying to find the worst soccer teams in the world, I was hesitant to discuss African nations. Even the strongest sides in Africa come from countries where life is difficult. Nigeria has popped into the news lately because of the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls, but that is only one of a multitude of problems. Nigeria has a high infant mortality rate, a government with a terrible human rights record, spotty access to sanitation and drinking water for millions, a population growing significantly faster than it can probably support, and a human trafficking problem, and much more. By first-world standards, Nigeria has a poor infrastructure for soccer, which is not a problem at all in comparison with the fact that it has a poor infrastructure for life in general. By African standards, Nigeria has a great soccer infrastructure. My point being: it is not enjoyable to me to note that Sudan and Somalia both have very poor soccer teams, because decades of violence render Sudan and Somalia having poor soccer teams virtually inevitable.
So I feel comfortable noting that after scanning the results, the worst team in Africa is probably Djibouti, the tiny port nation nestled above the Horn of Africa. You know them because their capital is Djibouti. Things aren't good in Djibouti, but all things told, they aren't *that* bad. The country has never really struggled with war, the country spent a long time being listed as "partly free" as opposed to "not free" by Freedom House, and the country's location and port make it a regional hub of commerce. Djibouti is primarily terrible at soccer because it's a small country and it isn't very good at soccer, rather than because of various atrocities.
As for the soccer: Djibouti lost both of its first round matches to Namibia by a score of 4-0, leading to the worst goal differential of any team eliminated in the first round, and Namibia went on to finish last in their group.
British Virgin Islands
Region: CONCACAF (North America)
FIFA ranking: 197
World Cup Qualifying Record: Zero wins, zero draws, two losses
World Cup Qualifying goal differential: -3 (We'll explain)
I am a proud American, especially when it comes to soccer. Having exerted our dominance over England in the Revolutionary War, I was hoping for that dominance to be revisited in the opening match of the 2010 World Cup. Instead, we got a draw, and America's only goal came on one of the worst goalkeeping blunders ever in a high-level match.
I will not let this tie rest. I think the tiebreaker should be "whose Virgin Islands are better at soccer?" And in this case, the answer is resoundingly America, the owner of the best soccer-playing Virgin Islands.
Out of the 207 nations who tried to qualify for the World Cup, the US Virgin Islands had the 206th-best goal differential, having been outscored by 35 goals in eight matches. Here is video of their 10-0 loss to Antigua and Barbuda:
Enjoy the overjoyed announcer trying to come up with new ways to describe Antiguan/Barbudan goals. Note the sadness of the goalie, who treats each concession like the loss of a beloved pet.
USVI would lose 8-1 at home to Antigua and Barbuda, as well as by a combined 13-0 in two matches against Haiti and even 7-1 to Curacao, the only two wins the Dutch dependency has since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles not against other former members of the Netherlands Antilles.
But as with Samoa, USVI's drubbings were the reward for a prior victory. CONCACAF had paired the US Virgin Islands with the British Virgin Islands in the first round, and the good ol' USA won 4-1 on aggregate. In fact, all three of USVI's international wins in their 37 total matches have come against their British counterparts.
THAT'S RIGHT, ENGLAND. OUR VIRGIN ISLANDS ARE BETTER THAN YOUR VIRGIN ISLANDS
THAT'S RIGHT ENGLAND, WE WHOOPED THAT VIRGIN ISLAND ASS.
US Virgin Islands, sure you got demolished in group play, outscored 40-2. But we're still proud of you for demolishing those dumb British Virgin Islands. You're winners at heart. (Also, thanks for letting Tim Duncan play for our basketball team instead of the US Virgin Islands basketball team. We're sorry we only played him during the stupid 2004 Olympics. Also, you can have Raja Bell.)