Every single World Cup has seen at least 1 team appearing at the tournament for the first time. Some of the most exotic football nations, including Cuba, Dutch West Indies, North Korea or Angola have managed to make it through qualification campaigns and reach the finals. This time around Iceland and Panama are the two countries that are going to debut at the World Cup. While most of the first timers are typically labeled as underdogs, which teams managed to leave the tournament with their heads held high? Let’s only consider post-war era as most of the teams were debutants before that.
Croatia, 1998 (3rd)
Presently one of the most consistent and powerful football nations, Croatia only started to play as an independent country in the 1990s. Having qualified for their debut World Cup in 1998, Croatia managed to make a powerful squad and win bronze medals. They beat fellow debutants Jamaica and Japan on group stage, kept clean sheets against Romania and Germany in playoff matches and lost to future champions France in the semifinal. Croatia went on to beat the Netherlands and get the bronze medals, while their main forward Davor Suker became the tournament’s top striker with 6 goals.
Portugal, 1966 (3rd)
Portugal, led by legendary striker Eusebio, made their first World Cup appearance in 1966 in England and went all the way to the third place. The team faced little competition on group stage, scoring three goals against all three opponents, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Cup holders Brazil. They came back from three goals down and won 5-3 in the quarterfinal clash with another World Cup debutant North Korea. However, Portugal lost the semifinal to the tournament hosts, who were set to win the Cup. Bronze medals were earned in the match against the Soviet Union, while Eusebio became the tournament top striker with 9 goals.
Senegal, 2002 (1/4)
Senegal faced current champions France in their first ever World Cup match and sensationally won courtesy of Diop strike. They went on to draw their following games against Denmark and Uruguay and reached the playoffs. Senegal beat Sweden in extra time but were outlasted by Turkey in the quarterfinal. At the time Senegal became just the second African team to reach this stage of the tournament after Cameroon, while their sensational victory over star-spangled Cup holders France in the opening game of the tournament got to football history books.
Ukraine, 2006 (1/4)
Independent on football stage since 1992, Ukraine reached Qualification play-off ties on several occasions and debuted at the World Cup in 2006. It proved to be a success as they reached the quarterfinals following group victories over Tunisia and Saudi Arabia and a win over Switzerland in the round of 16. They were later beaten by Italy who would go on to win the tournament. Ukraine never made it to the World Cup finals again but the success in Germany would be always remembered.
Ireland, 1990 (1/4)
It probably wasn’t a vintage performance from the Republic of Ireland, but the World Cup debutants proved to be a tough nut to crack, drawing all three group matches against powerful England and Netherlands as well as Egypt. They later beat Romania in penalty shootout but lost to the host in the quarterfinal. Never a stellar selection, the Republic of Ireland only lost one out of five games at their debut World Cup in Italy.
History witnesses that World Cup debutants are capable of getting sensational results, beating Cup holders and winning the tournament medals. And this makes the World Cup all the more entertaining. Unfortunately, Iceland and Panama failed to make it past the group stage in Russia, although the Northern country drew with mighty Argentina in their first ever World Cup match!