In every World Cup, there are winners, and there are those who fail to score. This article explores the less glorified side of the competition, turning the spotlight on the teams that have struggled the most on football's greatest stage. It will illuminate their struggles, provide insight into their performance, and delve into the interesting history of the prestigious tournament. Reading this will offer a comprehensive understanding of both sides of the game.
🌍🏆 Every four years, the FIFA World Cup reignites epic tales
From Brazil's golden era to Maradona's 'Hand of God,' this tournament stands as the zenith of sports. ⚽️🥅 We remember the giants, but now let's delve into the stories of nations who dared to dream big but found the reality far tougher. 💫🌠
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Worst Performing World Cup Nations
When it comes to the FIFA World Cup, many stories are bought back to life every four years. Brazil’s dominance across the 1950’s to 1970’s, England in 1966, Maradona’s Hand of God, the invention of the Cruyff Turn and so on.
A list of remarkable feats or moments that make this tournament the pinnacle of world football and arguably the pinnacle of world sport. However, these stories only shine a light on those who have captured the imagination of supporters across the globe.
Since the World Cup’s first edition in 1930, a total of 80 nations have attempted to dominate the footballing globe and some of those 80 have only managed to mix it with the big boys on a single occasion.
Which is where our focus lies within this article, instead of looking at those dominant forces at the World Cup, we are going instead look at those nations who had a dream but it ultimately ended up a nightmare.
1st DR Congo 1974
Shipping an impressive 14 goals without return, Zaire as it was formally known rank as officially the worst World Cup finals team in history.
2nd Haiti 1974
Haiti avoid the ignomy of the title by keeping just 2 fewer goals from the scoresheet but impressively managed it in the same year as Zaire - they lost all three games they played, conceding the same 14 goal tally, but stay off the bottom with a goal against both Italy and Argentina.
3rd China 2002
China take the honour of the worst show, most recently with their 2002 appearance in Japan and South Korea, This is, to date, their only appearance in the World Cup finals in which they lost all three games, shipping 9 goals without return.
Special Mention - El Salvador and Canada
Whilst the top three secure positions with just one World Cup Finals appearance apiece without a win, and substantially worse goal difference than others with a sole visit, Canada and El Salvador can at least boast a second show at the Finals - Unfortunately, neither have managed to avoid defeat in their 6 games a piece.
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The Complete list of Countries at the World Cup from Worst to Best
As mentioned there are 80 nations that have featured in a World Cup (this includes nations that have evolved from one to another. For example, West Germany morphing into Germany or the Soviet Union becoming Russia) and if we were to rank them on a points basis, this is how things would look.
With two points for a win being the previous standard before two became three, the table above has been standardised. This means every World Cup game whether it be a group or knockout stage fixture has been treated as a league fixture.
Any game that eventually went to extra time and/or penalties would have seen a share of the points awarded and unsurprisingly we can see that Brazil find themselves top of the table with 247 points to their name.
Then again, such a finding would stand to reason after the South American nation have not only played in every edition of the World Cup from 1930 to 2022 but they have also played the most games overall.
In this table that is reversed to show the worst teams at the World Cup, it is clearly a case of the more games you play, the lower down the table you will be. The Bottom four nations in the table have played the most matches – the streak would be extended to seven if England and France had switched places and Spain stayed as they are.
While at the top of the table, we can see that it is El Salvador. However, the Central American nation have appeared in two separate World Cups. They did not crash and burn on one separate occasion; they repeated the disaster for good measure.
Worst World Cup Team by Points per Game (PPG)
While the measure can be balanced out if we look at things from a Points Per Game (PPG) perspective instead:
Brazil are once againare bottom of the proceedings, but the big winners here are Turkey. Ranked 40th in the first table, their PPG actually takes them as ninth and their run to the 2002 semi-finals can be attributed as a key reason for such a lofty jump.
However, all this does is highlight the potential success stories that have taken place at the World Cup. Now we are going to look at the performance of those nations that had just one taste of the football high life.
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Countries that have appeared only once at World Cup Finals
To do so, we have filtered out the nations from the first table and the criteria is that they must have only made one World Cup appearance. Now with this filter in place, we can see who the best of the worst is and who is in the hall of shame:
Of the 80 nations that have competed at the World Cup, 20 have made one single tournament appearance. 25% of the field have failed to reach this tournament a second time, East Germany never will.
Which is unfortunate for the former outpost of communism, as they had a rather impressive showing at the 1974 World Cup when they made it through to the Second Round Group Stage and also beat hosts and neighbours West Germany in the previous.
Using the three points for a win model, the East German’s picked up eight across the 1974 tournament and have the honour of being the best of the one-time nations – a record that is likely to never be beaten,
The reason for this is due to the format constant evolution and across the 1970’s and 80’s, qualification out of the opening group stage used to guarantee you three more mini-league matches. Now though, it is knockout football from the Round of 16 onwards.
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Which means unless you are a debutant nation that wins all three of its Group Stage matches or even goes on to win the tournament outright, the likelihood of picking up nine points first time around is rather unlikely.
With that being said, Ukraine and Slovakia certainly made a good fist of things in 2006 and 2010 respectively. The former got all the way to the quarter-finals and picked up seven points in the process, the latter reached the Round of 16 four years later and six points for their troubles.
These are the three nations that can be considered a class apart from the other relative minnows. If you have played more than three matches, then you have made safe passage out of the first round – that is the general rule.
Unless your sole attempt at World Cup glory was in 1938. That was the year in which the tournament was a straight knockout bracket. One defeat and you were sent packing. Unfortunately for Indonesia, they as the Dutch East Indies lost 6-0 to Hungary.
That same year saw Cuba also attempt to strike it lucky and compared to Indonesia as they are now known, the at least fared better. After an initial draw and subsequent replay victory over Romania, their quarter-final with Sweden would see them sent packing after a hefty 8-0 reverse.
Therefore, if we take the bottom three of the table and the 1938 outliers out of the equation, we can see that 15 nations have been afforded three opportunities to win a World Cup Group Stage fixture. From these 15, only two have been successful.
The pair in question are Bosnia who got the better of Iran in 2014 and Jamaica who came out on top against Japan 16 years previously. This means only six of 20 one-time World Cup competitors have managed to win a competitive fixture.
Not a figure to be unexpected when we are looking at the minnows of world football and now it is time to look at those nations who have not been simply respectable on the biggest stage, but those who would have returned home with the heads far from high.
Footballs Biggest Flops
From this table of 20 nations, five failed to win any of their opening three matches. A quintet that is made up of Panama, United Arab Emirates, China, Haiti and DR Congo and a quintet that picked up zero points from the nine on offer.
The most recent of these is Panama after their failure in Russia five years ago, the Central American nation were blown away by a Harry Kane-led England, it was one of three defeats by the time their participation.
Two goals for, 11 against. A goal difference of -9 and one that was matched by the United Arab Emirates in 1990. The year of Gazza’s tears was also the year when the Arab nation suffered three successive World Cup defeats.
As bad as Panama and the United Arab Emirates were, they at least gave their travelling support something to celebrate. Two goals per nation will at least have given faint glimmers of delight, the same cannot be said for China in 2002.
With that year’s World Cup being held in Japan and South Korea, China could not blame jetlag for their poor performances. Their three defeats amassed a total of nine goals against and nothing but despondency for their fanbase that travelled not that far in terms of distance.
A 2002 World Cup to forget for China, a 1974 World Cup to forget for both Haiti and DR Congo. Haiti may have managed consolation goals in the defeats to Italy and Argentina, they offered up seven unanswered goals in the defeat to Poland.
In fairness to Haiti, the group they were handed was nothing short of a ‘Group of Death’. Former World Cup winners Italy, South American heavyweights Argentina and the strength of Poland was never going to be easy to deal with.
Then again, things could have been a lot worse and they were if you were the DR Congo or Zaire as it was known in 1974. Ask anyone their memory of Zaire at the tournament and it would be when Mwepu Ilunga rushed out of the defensive wall to boot the ball down the opposite end of the field.
Much to the chagrin of his Brazilian opponents, much to the chagrin of the referee who would go on to award Ilunga a yellow card for his trouble. If that was the relative highlight for Zaire, the nadir would have been the 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia that came before it.
Not only bad news for Zaire but also Scotland who only managed a 2-0 win in their opening outing of the 1974 World Cup. Due to the Yugoslav’s overwhelming win, it would mean that Scotland were denied further progress on goal difference.
On the topic of goal difference, the DR Congo as they are now known managed to ship 14 goals in 1974 and nothing in return. The most miserable of World Cup records for the most miserable trio of performances.
Although there could be hope for DR Congo around the corner and this comes in the guise of the 2026 World Cup. With it set to be the largest tournament entrant field with 48 nations, it suggests some new debutants could be added to the overall total of 80 competing nations.
Whether those new entrants go on to concede 15 goals or more in three matches remains to be seen, but if football fans in the former Zaire are watching the 2026 edition of the World Cup, they will hope the next set of debutants do.
Methodology and Author Info
This article was researched and fact-checked by Dan Tracey who also then added the words - Dan is a multi-talented writer, data analyst and podcaster whose six-year career in the sports data sphere has seen incredible successes. From helping UEFA create their annual technical reports to writing articles for Sports Betting Websites, including sites like TheLinesUS and Goal
Data correct as of October 20th 2023.
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