The top football nations are typically the ones with large population. Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Argentina among them. At the same time, enormous number of inhabitants does not grant a good choice of quality players, just take a look at Pakistan, India, Ethiopia or Philippines. What about countries with small population? Do they have a chance to grow a generation of players that would be able to qualify for the World Cup? Do they have football tradition? Let’s check the smallest countries by population that are taking part in 2018 World Cup in Russia.
After qualifying for the tournament in Russia, Iceland have become the smallest country by population to ever play in the World Cup. The 350,000 nation were considered as football underdogs for the largest part of last century before they finally managed to reach the 2014 World Cup Qualification play-off but lost to Croatia. However, that laid the foundation for the team’s successful stint as Iceland managed to reach the 2016 European Championship and show character at their first major tournament, making it past the group and beating England in the round of 16. The small northern nation was only stopped by the tournament’s runners-up France in the quarterfinals. Iceland’s impressive form continued in the Qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup as they finished atop of Group I, leaving some established football nations behind, including Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. At their debut World Cup Iceland were drawn to arguably the toughest group possible with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in it. It is truly unbelievable for a country that small to produce a team, competing at the highest level.
It is hard to think of Uruguay as a small nation when we talk about football. The team proved their worth at the very first World Cup in 1930 by winning the title and repeated that success in 1950. Ever since Uruguay have been among the elite of football and have won a total of 15 Copa America titles. However, the country only has a population of 3.5 million people, which makes Uruguay the second smallest nation at the World Cup. Yet somehow they manage to produce players as big as Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin or Maxi Pereira. The team put in solid performance in the last two World Cups, reaching the semifinals in 2010 and the round of 16 four years ago, beating Italy and England on the way. This time around they were drawn against nations with populations of at least 10 times bigger, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the hosts.
The 4-million nation’s route to the debut World Cup was not easy as they snatched the golden ticket away from United States and Honduras in the final match day of CONCACAF Qualification campaign. A number of unlikely results had to happen for Panama to jump in to the third place in the group. Quite unbelievably, the United States lost a crucial game to underdogs Trinidad and Tobago, while Panama beat favorites Costa Rica at home, scoring the winner in the final minutes of the game after being awarded a phantom goal earlier on. Anyway, they surpassed the United States and were placed above Honduras on goal difference. Panama did not have an easy draw for the World Cup with England, Belgium and Tunisia to face in Russia and finished bottom of the group. However, nobody asked too much from the small football nation from Central America.
Another football nation that has never been considered an easy opponent despite only having the population of around 4 million. Croatia have demonstrated dominating performance since the country’s independence at the beginning of 1990’s. The small Balkan country produced an incredible World Cup debut in 1998, finishing third. They failed to make it past the group stage in any of the following tournaments but brought an impressing squad to Russia, including the likes of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and many others. Croatians are hoping for this group of players to emulate the golden 1998 generation and show successful performance in Russia. Anyway, it is amazing how the 4-million nation managed to produce outstanding players, performing for Europe’s top clubs, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan or Juventus.
Costa Rica played in several World Cup tournaments in the past decades but it was in Brazil four years ago that the 5-million nation completed a remarkable breakthrough, finishing above three former champions, including Italy, England and Uruguay in the group. In the round of 16 Costa Rica outperformed Greece courtesy of Keylor Navas’ heroics in penalty shootout and reached the quarterfinals. They were close to making it to the last four but were beaten by the Netherlands in another penalty shootout. Underdogs before that tournament, Costa Rica were later highly praised for their spirit and dedication.
As you can see, some small countries like Uruguay or Croatia have established themselves as big football nations and are always considered as favorites or, at least, contenders. Others, like Panama or Iceland, deserve huge credit for making it to the World Cup. The army of their supporters is probably larger than the entire population of these countries. But as we witnessed four years ago, even small nations like Costa Rica can make miracles happen, beat the giants and get to the final stages of the tournament.