We enter into the second round of Euro 2012 qualifiers and across the world international teams are facing each other in friendlies, so I too have turned to international football. I didn’t want to list my Top Ten international teams, it would be boring, you probably know the ten already and it has been that ten (give or take the odd country) for the last 50 years. So instead I’m looking at those countries who have been punching above their weight on the world stage, or more accurately punching above their population size. Below is my Top Ten Small International Teams – I’ve defined small by the country having under 5 millions inhabitants (which includes just under half the world’s sovereign states). Feel I’ve missed somebody out unfairly? Tell me below!
10. Bosnia and Herzegovina – Population: 3.760.000, best result 2010 World Cup Qualifiers playoffs
Yet to qualify for a major tournament, the Golden Lillies are on this list for the great strides they have taken in under 20 years of existence. In September 1996 as they began qualification for their first major tournament, the 1998 World Cup, the Bosnian team was ranked 173rd in the world. Drawn in a potentially explosive group with other former Yugoslav republics Croatia and Slovenia they surpassed expectations beating the Slovenians home and away to add to a famous 3-0 victory over Denmark to earn credibility on the international stage. Just over 10 years later during the Euro 2008 qualifiers the team reached a FIFA ranking of 25th and although finishing 4th in the group they pulled off some great results, beating Norway in Oslo and Turkey at home. They currently boast one of Europe’s top strikers in Edin Dzeko and brightest talents in Lyon’s Miralem Pjanic.
9. Iceland – Population: 317.900, best result Euro 2004 Qualifiers 3rd place
More famous for Volcanoes and unpaid debt, it is worth noting that Iceland have a decent football team as well. They have never qualified for a major tournament but they have come close several times, most notably the Euro 2004 qualifiers when they finished just 1 point short of a place in the playoffs. Previously they beat Russia and drew with France in the Euro 2000 qualifiers to finish 5 points short. Their most recent squad had 16 players representing foreign clubs and in top goalscorer Eidur Gudjohnsen they have a Champions League winner (not to mention the 2 Premier League titles, La Liga and Eredivisie). Not bad considering they have less habitants than Manchester!
8. Jamaica – Population: 2.730.000, best result World Cup appearance (1998)
Until 1966 the Reggae Boyz hadn’t even entered the World Cup. The amateurish behaviour of the team and lack of funds saw them withdraw from qualification in 1973 and 1985 for the following year’s tournament, they didn’t even bother entering for the 1982 edition. In the 1990s they managed to secure funding, a Brazilian manager and used their Commonwealth heritage to tap up players born in England. They became the first ever English-speaking Caribbean nation to qualify for the World Cup in 1998. They even finished with one win, over Japan, to prove that they weren’t just there to party.
7. Costa Rica – Population: 4.640.000, best result CONCACAF Champions (1963, 1960, 1989)
CONCACAF has long been dominated by Mexico and is now often joined by USA but that hasn’t stopped Costa Rica winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup three times and appearing in the World Cup on as many occasions. In 2001 and 2004 they were even Quarter Finalists in the Copa América progressing at the expense of Bolivia and Chile respectively, no wonder CONMEBOL have stopped inviting them! Paulo Wanchope is best-known to English football fans for his spell at Derby County but their all-time top scorer is Rolando Fonseca, still going at 36 with Guatemalan outfit Comunicaciones.
6. Trinidad & Tobago – Population: 1.344.000, best result World Cup appearance (2006)
The small islands in the southern Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is most famous for producing one of the world’s greatest ever cricketers. But in 2005 the Soca Warriors became the smallest ever nation (in terms of population) to qualify for the World Cup beating Bahrain in a playoff over two legs. Their team included Champions League winner Dwight Yorke who along with compatriot Russell Latapy (and Pat Jennings) hold the record for the most World Cup qualifying campaigns to have participated in (six in total). Outside of the World Cup they also managed to reach the CONCACAF Gold Cup semi finals in 2000, losing out to eventual winners Canada by one goal to nil. All this by a country the size of Norfolk.
5. New Zealand – Population: 4.386.900, best result 2 World Cup appearances (1982, 2010)
The islanders were the only team at the 2010 World Cup to remain unbeaten, which isn’t bad when you look at the calibre of the opposition. Drawing with Quarter Finalists Paraguay and defending World Champions Italy they earned lots of friends for their attitude on the pitch. Primarily playing in the lower tiers of European football, captain Ryan Nelsen stands apart like a commanding beacon. The Blackburn regular is still going strong and now Australia have left the confederation we may see more of the All-Whites on centre stage.
4. Slovenia – Population: 2.063.760, best result 2 World Cup appearances (2002, 2010)
A 1-1 draw with Estonia in their very first international in 1992 led us to expect little from the smallest of the former Yugoslav Republics (until Montenegro’s independence). But with time they have adjusted to international football and are enjoying their golden period. A late Clint Dempsey goal saw them miss out of qualification for the knock out stages at the World Cup and they are currently sitting at 19th in the FIFA rankings, their highest ever placement. Their current squad includes players from across Europe and midfielder Valter Birsa will be playing in the Champions League with Auxerre.
3. Republic of Ireland – Population: 4.456.000, best result World Cup Quarter Final (1990)
Possibly helped by their close ties to English football and most recently the Premier League, Ireland experienced their first major tournament in 1964 and reached the Quarter Finals, inspired by goalscoring full-back (and international cricketer) Noel Cantwell and forward Ambrose Fogarty. In 1993 they were ranked the sixth best team in the world, therefore a second-round finish in USA ’94 was considered an underachievement even if they did beat eventual finalists Italy in the group stage. Last year they were unjustly beaten by France with the famous Hand of Henry yet another glaringly obvious example of why video technology is so necessary in the modern game. If fair play prevails in the current qualifying campaign we should see them in Poland and Ukraine.
2 .Croatia – Population: 4.435.056, best result World Cup 3rd place (1998)
Croatia, like Bosnia (see above), was only formed after the Balkans war, unlike Bosnia they had formed a golden team by 1998. A spine of Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker shocked the world and were one inspired Lilian Thuram away from the World Cup Final. Now coached by Bilic, the Croats unforgettably beat England at a washed out Wembley to qualify at their expense for Euro 2008. In that tournament they had a new production line of quality players, Modric, Kranjcar, Olic are all playing in the Champions League. They are the strongest small (by my definition) European country at the moment and it would not be a surprise to see them emulate the 1998 squad at the forthcoming European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
1. Uruguay – Population: 3.372.000, best result World Cup Winners (1930, 1950)
By far the smallest nation to have won the World Cup by population size (the nearest country is neighbour Argentina with over 10 times as many people) Uruguay has a rich footballing history. They won the gold medal at the 1928 Olympics thereby being nominated as the host nation for the inaugural World Cup. Sure enough they triumphed in Montevideo to add the Jules Rimet to the Copa América trophies they had already picked up. At the most recent World Cup they finished 4th and in Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan they have two of Europe’s (club football) most prolific strikers. Their next target is to win the 2011 Copa América next June in Argentina.
So that is it for the small teams, on Friday we look at Brazilian superstars!