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The stories of the 5 smallest countries to make the World Cup before Iceland

Iceland is by far the country with the smallest population to ever make the World Cup, but who held the record before them?


With their 2-0 win over Kosovo on Tuesday, Iceland became the smallest country to qualify for the men’s World Cup. By quite some distance, too — with a population of just 334,000, they’re roughly a quarter of the size of the country whose record they broke, Trinidad & Tobago.

Here, we look back at the other tiny countries that have qualified for the World Cup, and how they got there. But first, a word for ...

Paraguay, 1930

... who had, at the time of the first World Cup, a population of around 850,000. However, they’re not strictly eligible for comparison, as they didn’t have to qualify. Instead, FIFA just asked everybody if they fancied it. Since it was being held in Uruguay, most of South America said yes.

Small they may have been, but Paraguay went into the competition with a bit of a reputation. They’d finished second in the 1929 South American Championship, the precursor of the Copa América, and beaten a full-strength Uruguay in the process. However, when it came to the World Cup they ran into the surprise package of the tournament, the USA (pop. 123m), and lost their opening game 3-0.

Partial revenge for the little guy came in the next game against Belgium (pop. 8m). Tricky winger Luis Vargas Peña scored the only goal of the game, as both teams departed the competition. Incidentally the eventual winners, Uruguay, had a population of about 1.75m at the time. Which isn’t bad going.

Slovenia, 2002 (pop. 1.99m)

The fifth-smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup did so just 10 years after gaining independence from Yugoslavia. And they did so in fairly impressive fashion, progressing undefeated through a group containing not only the nation they’d just left, but also Switzerland (7.25m) and Russia (145.3m). Five wins and five draws put them through to a playoff against Romania, and a 3-2 aggregate win sent them to Japan-South Korea.

The early noughties was something of a golden age for Slovenian football, thanks in large part to the double act of manager Srečko Katanec and attacking midfielder Zlatko Zahovič. At Euro 2000 they finished bottom of their group, but they’d punched above their weight, most notably in a 3-3 draw against Yugoslavia. Sadly, in 2002 they could only repeat the position, not the performances.

The opening game against Spain (41.8m) ended with a 3-1 loss, and while there’s no shame in losing to Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Fernando Hierro and the rest, tempers frayed. Zahovič had been taken off after 63 minutes, and it’s fair to say he didn’t take it well:

“I can buy all of you, I can buy the whole association, I can buy Smarna Gora [Katanec's home town]. I can't stay in a team like this where you [Katanec] will substitute me in a game like this in the World Cup.”

He was sent home early, and Katanec announced that he would resign following the end of the tournament. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t take long: Slovenia lost 1-0 to South Africa (45.9m), 3-1 to Paraguay (5.5m), and left without a point to their names.

Kuwait, 1982 (pop. 1.5m)

There are several paths to footballing immortality. The most obvious is victory, ideally in some style and preferably against the odds. But the odds are the odds for a reason, and for a country as small as Kuwait, actually winning the World Cup isn’t always an option. So they chose another, perhaps more noble path: a permanent place in those 50 World Cup Funniest Moments, Ever!!! programs that crop up every four years.

Having qualified in convincing style, Kuwait were drawn into a tricky group with France (55.9m) and England (approx. 46m), They needed to make the most of their opening game against Czechoslovakia (approx. 10.3m), but they could only manage a draw after going behind to a dubious penalty. Perhaps dubious officiating was on their minds when they went into the next game against France.

Not that officiating was to blame for the result, as such. France’s brilliant midfield (Platini, Giresse, Six) dominated the game, and the Europeans were 3-0 up after just 48 minutes. Then they scored a fourth ... or did they? The Kuwait defence, rooted to the spot, claimed to have heard a whistle.

The ensuing argument grew so heated that Prince Fahad, then-president of the Kuwaiti FA, descended from the stands to pull his side from the game. Eventually, and much to the confusion of the French, the goal was ruled out and the game restarted with a drop ball. It made no difference in the end: France got their fourth, Kuwait couldn’t manage a comeback, and they went on to lose 1-0 to England.

For his part in the mess, Fahad was fined about £8,000. The referee, one Miroslav Stupar, never officiated at the World Cup again. Kuwait haven’t yet returned to the World Cup and are presently suspended from FIFA for governmental interference, which probably counts as irony. Still, the talking heads of British list television will always have the footage, and that’s what really matters.

Northern Ireland, 1958 (pop. 1.4m)

Now, here’s some top-class plucky-little-team-up-against-the-big-lads behaviour. Northern Ireland weren’t really supposed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup since they were in a group with double-world champions Italy (49.1m) and only one team would go through. But qualify they did, thanks to a draw in Portugal (8.7m) and the complete collapse of the Italians’ away form.

Then, having been drawn into a group with World Cup holders West Germany (54.2m), Argentina (19.9m), and a pretty decent Czechoslovakia (approx. 9m), they weren’t supposed to make much of an impact. But they won their opener against the Czechs, had chances against Argentina before eventually losing, and then nearly beat the Germans, eventually settling for a 2-2. They finished level with Czechoslovakia on points, and that meant a playoff. Goal difference hadn’t been invented yet.

An extra game was exactly what Northern Ireland didn’t need. Injuries were piling up, most notably first-choice goalkeeper Harry Gregg. Naturally his replacement, Norman Uprichard, broke a bone in his hand early in the game. The knocks kept coming — substitutes hadn’t been invented either — and by the time extra time rolled around, Ireland were effectively down to eight men. But in the 97th minute, Peter McParland poked home a Danny Blanchflower cross, and they somehow held on.

Yes, they got thrashed by France (44.6m) in the quarters, but come on. Gregg was back in goal, despite needing a walking stick to get around the team hotel. How many miracles do you want?

Trinidad & Tobago, 2006 (pop. 1.3m)

It’s a shame we have to end like this, but there’s no getting away from it. Perhaps Iceland’s qualification, as well as being a nice story in its own right, will help the footballing community finally achieve some closure. Because previously, the smallest country to attend the World Cup ended up victim of one of its greatest injustices.

Germany, 2006. Trinidad & Tobago, overseen by veteran Polish coach Leo Beenhakker, anchored by Dwight Yorke, and stocked with journeymen from the English lower leagues, have qualified for their nation’s first World Cup. Having come through a playoff against Bahrain (even smaller, at 960k), they take on a Sweden (9m) side featuring Henrik Larsson, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Freddie Ljungberg...and hold out for a draw.

Then, the big one. England (50.4m). John Terry and Rio Ferdinand; Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard; David Beckham. And once again, the Soca Warriors prove obdurate opponents. The minutes tick by — 60, 70, 80 — and still the game is stuck at 0-0. Then with 83 minutes gone, Beckham slings in a booming cross from the right, and the ignominious villain of the piece, Peter Crouch, takes hold of his marker’s dreadlocks and levers himself into the air to nod home the opening goal.

Were this fiction, one might almost find the symbolism overwhelming, even trite. The 6’7 Crouch, reduced to playground hair pulling. Resource-rich, population heavy England, indulging in such desperate chicanery. The defender in question, Brent Sancho, later described Crouch as “the most hated Englishman in the history of Trinidad and Tobago,” though naturally the imperialist mouthpiece that is the BBC claimed he was joking.

Anyway, Gerrard added a second late on, and then Trinidad & Tobago went on to lose to Paraguay (5.9m). Would they have won had Crouch, and England, not broken their hearts and soiled the competition? We’ll never know.

Iceland, 2018 (pop. 334,000)

There will be clapping.