Since the first World Cup took place 73 years ago in Uruguay, there have been 76 nations that have played at the tournament (77 after Bosnia-Herzegovina plays a minimum three group stage games). In most World Cups, teams play three group stage games, but some manage to lose all three games
Many teams looking for respect get overwhelmed, whether it is due to new and tougher competition, or what worked in qualifying goes missing in the tournament.
The first Caribbean nation to play in the World Cup since Cuba in 1938, Haiti qualified for the 1974 World Cup thanks its home advantage. At the 1973 CONCACAF Tournament, Haiti won four of five matches, including a 2-1 victory over Guatemala that clinched a berth for Haiti. At the World Cup, Haiti managed to even lead 1-0 in the 46th minute against Italy, only to collapse from there forward, eventually losing to Italy, Poland and Argentina, being outscored 14-2 in the three matches.
Another nation to make its debut in 1974 also lost all three games in the World Cup, but Zaire had a different route to become the first sub-Saharan nation to play in the World Cup. Zaire needed a one-game playoff to defeat Cameroon before knocking out Morocco and Zambia to reach the tournament. Goals proved hard to come by for Zaire against Scotland, Yugoslavia and Brazil, but Zaire did have a hand in who advanced to the second group stage, as Scotland would find out. In three games, Zaire lost 2-0 to Scotland, suffered a 9-0 demolition against Yugoslavia and was defeated 3-0 by Brazil.
Four years later, Mexico returned back to the World Cup, hoping to match its success in reaching the quarterfinals on home soil in 1970. As was the case with Haiti four years earlier, Mexico won the 1977 CONCACAF Championship on home soil, but this time winning all five games and outscoring its opponents 20-5. Mexico’s first World Cup match proved historic – for all the wrong reasons. Despite taking the lead, Mexico los 3-1 to Tunisia, an African nation who was playing its first ever World Cup match. The losing continued as Mexico were thumped 6-0 to West Germany and 3-1 to Poland.
No team had a more arduous journey or felt more relieved more than New Zealand at the 1982 World Cup. A 55,000-mile journey that featured a signature 2-0 victory at Sydney against Australia, New Zealand also had a streak where its goalkeeper did not allow a goal in 921 minutes. Yet, New Zealand won 5-0 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in its final qualifier just to force a one-game playoff against China PR; eventually, New Zealand won 2-1 in Singapore to qualify for the 1982 World Cup. In the tournament, however, New Zealand fell early 3-0 against Scotland, only to get it back to 3-2 after 65 minutes. However, those two goals would be the only goals New Zealand scored in three matches, as New Zealand lost 5-2 to Scotland, 3-0 to the Soviet Union and 4-0 to Brazil.
Eight years later, the 1990 World Cup would mark the debut for the United Arab Emirates, who overcame Kuwait on goal difference before surviving in Singapore, culminating in the 1-1 draw against South Korea that clinched a berth on Oct. 29, 1989. The opposition for the United Arab Emirates proved to be too much. Despite a good first half in its opening game, the United Arab Emirates struggled against Colombia, West Germany and Yugoslavia, losing all three matches and being outscored 11-2.
Another nation that lost all three group stage in its debut came in the 1994 World Cup. In fact, Greece benefited from a smaller qualifying campaign, as Yugoslavia would have been in its groups, only for Yugoslavia to be banned from the tournament due to United Nations sanctions stemming from the Yugoslav Wars. Thanks to timely goals from Nikos Machlas, Stratos Apostolakis and Tasos Mitropoulos, Greece finished ahead of Russia to win its group. At the 1994 World Cup, however, Greece could not find goals, and its defense, which only allowed two goals in eight qualifiers, struggled, as Greece lost 4-0 to both Argentina and Greece and 2-0 to Nigeria.
Although three teams lost all three games in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, Slovenia’s struggles were more legitimate and not as bad. Rather, it was the performances of Saudi Arabia and China PR that proved worrisome.
Ahead of the 2002 World Cup, Saudi Arabia stormed through qualifying early, amassing 47 goals in 14 qualifiers. However, Saudi Arabia, despite winning 4-1 against Thailand, only qualified when Iran lost at Bahrain 3-1, overtaking Iran for one of two automatic berths from Asia. However, Saudi Arabia was not like the teams they fielded at major tournaments since 1992, even under its captain Sami Al-Jaber. The number of goals Saudi Arabia gave up in qualifying would was eight: that would be the same number or goals Saudi Arabia gave up against Germany, as Saudi Arabia failed to score and allowed 12 goals, while also losing to Cameroon and the Republic of Ireland.
Just as bad as Saudi Arabia was China PR, playing in the World Cup for the first time. China, led by its talismanic Hao Haidong, benefited when Japan and South Korea were awarded hosting duties and in the process stormed through qualifying by outscoring its opposition 38-5. Unfamiliarity played a factor in China PR’s demise, as the 2002 World Cup marked the nation’s first ever meetings against Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey. China PR failed to score in its maiden appearance, giving up nine goals in three games.
One of the biggest surprises to qualify for the 2006 World Cup did so thanks to its defense: Serbia and Montenegro, who only allowed one goal in its 10 qualifiers. Serbia and Montenegro had key players scoring as well, including Zvonimir Vukic and Mateja Kezman, the latter whose goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Oct. 12, 2005, sent Serbia and Montenegro to the 2006 World Cup.
Serbia & Montenegro got drawn into the “Group of Death,” where its defense collapsed, accentuated by its 6-0 humbling against Argentina in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. That match was sandwiched between a 1-0 loss against the Netherlands and a 3-2 loss to Ivory Coast, the latter where they led 2-0 after 20 minutes.
But no nation had performed worse than El Salvador, and to make it more embarrassing, they did so twice, in 1970 and 1982, losing all six games it played in both World Cups, being outscored 22-1 in six games.
En route to qualifying for the 1970 edition, El Salvador needed two playoffs to advance. The first playoff featured a match that would later start the “Football War,” as El Salvador and Honduras met at Mexico City. El Salvador managed to get two late goals to eliminate Honduras 3-2. Just over three months later, Kingston, Jamaica would be the site of another playoff, but this time it would be El Salvador defeating Haiti 1-0 to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca would be the site of El Salvador’s three games at the World Cup, but left the tournament without a goal, losing 3-0 to Belgium, 4-0 to Mexico and 2-0 to the Soviet Union.
Twelve years later, Tegucigalpa, Honduras would be the site of El Salvador’s second qualification, and as was the case 12 years earlier, Honduras defeated Haiti 1-0 and got help from Honduras, as they had a scoreless draw against Mexico, to send El Salvador to the 1982 World Cup. In its first match at the 1982 World Cup, El Salvador broke records for all the wrong reasons in a 10-1 loss to Hungary. Not only did it allow more goals in a World Cup match, but El Salvador allowed more goals that it allowed previously in three matches in Mexico. El Salvador even allowed Hungary’s Laszlo Kiss not only to score a hat trick, but become the first person to do so as a substitute and doing so in the briefest time. El Salvador lost again to Belgium 1-0 and Argentina 2-0 to finish as the worst team in the World Cup again.
Over the years, it does happen that teams do struggle, and what made them bad was the magic and the success that they had in qualifying did not come when it mattered the most: in the FIFA World Cup. This is what these 10 worst teams in the World Cup had to endure: From the luck and success in several qualifiers to ignominy in three group stage games.