Croatia edges Iceland makes it eight out of ten appearances at big tournaments

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.

Iceland flag.

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 nations.

According to an analysis published on the Zagreb-based 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 fewer appearances.

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 they organized.

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 Poland.

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 Germany* Italy Spain 5-7. England* - 9/10 Holland* Portugal 8. Croatia - 8/10

Note: the teams marked with an asterisk qualified automatically for one tournament each


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