An amazing feat for a small country
By Ozren Podnar
Iceland came within inches of becoming the smallest country by population
ever represented at a World Cup final tournament when they were drawn
against Croatia in the European zone playoffs. With 320,000 citizens, the
insular nation in the North Atlantic is three times less populous than the
current champions - Trinidad and Tobago.
But, it was not to be for the descendants of the Viking explorers. Croatia
edged Iceland with a 2-0 home win in Zagreb after a goalless draw in
Reykjavik. The newly appointed manager Niko Kovac (ex-Hertha, HSV and Bayern
midfielder) outsmarted his ultra-experienced counterpart on the Icelandic
bench, Lars Lagerback.
Instead of Iceland, travelling to Brazil will be Croatia, another of the
small nations, but with a respectable international record.
Croatia, with 4.3 million inhabitants a giant compared to Iceland, will
appear in its 8th final tournament, counting both World Cups and Euros.
Taking into account the country's size, population, number of registered
players and its GNP, Croatia is in fact one of the most successful soccer
According to an analysis published on the Zagreb-based www.tportal.hr web
site, a total of 60 teams, 28 of which are European, have qualified for the
last five World Cups, including Brazil 2014. The analysis covered the
period since 1994, when the red-and-whites were first allowed to take part
in a qualifying stage, which happened to be for Euro 1996 in England.
David among Goliaths
Only eleven teams, five of which are European, have reached all five
tournaments. France and Germany qualified automatically for the tournament
each of them hosted, while England, Italy and Spain qualified every time by
playing in the qualifiers.
Six countries have made it to four out of five tournaments, three coming
from Europe: Holland, Portugal and Croatia. Compared to the other seven
countries that have qualified for at least four out of five latest World
Cups, Croatia is by far smallest in size, population and GNP.
Only four other European nations have taken part in three out of the last
five World Cups - Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Serbia (including Serbia-Montenegro and FR Yugoslavia, as Serbia's legal predecessors).
Judging by the number of participations at the World Cups since 1998,
Croatia is among the eight most successful European countries, in spite of
its numerical and financial inferiority with respect to many countries with
But, there's also the European championship. All in all, 27 teams have taken
part at the five most recent editions. Seven teams have been present at all
five final tournaments: Spain, France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic,
Holland and Portugal, but the latter two received a bye for the tournaments
Croatia is in the second group of five nations which have participated at
four of the past five Euros. The others are Russia, Sweden, Denmark and
England, who missed out on Euro 2008 due to an embarrassing 2-3 loss to Croatia at Wembley. Therefore, Croatia is among the eleven European
countries with the most participations, ahead of Greece, Turkey, Belgium or
Considering both competitions, only four teams have qualified for all ten of the most recent tournaments - Italy, Spain, France and Germany. Three more have
reached nine out of ten final tournaments - England, Holland and Portugal,
but all three received a bye for the Euros they organized.
Croatia are the only team represented at eight out of ten big events, and
one of the four who qualified for eight events by actually playing,
alongside England, Holland and Portugal. Compared to the seven countries
that have fared better regarding participations, Croatia is by far the least
populous. Its population is just two fifths that of the closest rival,
Portugal, whose GNP is by 17 percent higher than Croatia's.
Many wealthier, larger and more populous countries have remained behind
Croatia in this analysis; not one which is inferior by the criteria used in
this analysis has achieved more participations. And the Croats are
apparently very proud of this achievement, as the fans' euphoria and the
manager Niko Kovac's tears demonstrated on the night Iceland was beaten.
Least populous countries ever to feature at a World Cup
1. Trinidad and Tobago (2006) - 1 million 2. Northern Ireland (1958, 1982,
1986) - 1,8 million 3. Slovenia (2002, 2010) - 2 million 4. Kuwait (1982) -
2,5 million 5. Jamaica (1998) - 2,9 million
In brackets: featured World Cup(s)
Top teams by participation in last 10 big events
1-4. France* - 10/10
5-7. England* - 9/10
8. Croatia - 8/10
Note: the teams marked with an asterisk qualified automatically for one