As the World Cup has expanded, first from 16 to 24 teams, then from 24 to 32, and soon from 32 to 48, high-profile qualifying failures have become increasingly rare. Nine nations have qualified for every 32-team World Cup.
The history of the competition, however, is littered with such failures. Only one nation (Brazil) has participated in all 21 World Cups. Everybody else has, for one reason or another, missed out on at least one.
With several notable absences at the upcoming 2018 World Cup, we set out to compile a comprehensive list of the most notable ones in the tournament’s post-war history. That’s a very difficult task, for several reasons. It’s tough to compare, say, Italy’s 1958 miss to its 2018 miss, because international soccer is much different now than it was 60 years ago, and because the World Cup is twice as inclusive. The margins of qualification back then were razor thin; nowadays, you can afford slip-ups.
There are also all kinds of peculiar circumstances – often political ones – that contributed to World Cup absences. Among the obvious: Germany was banned in 1950, the only edition it has missed since it lacked the financial means to travel to Uruguay in 1930. Among the less obvious: the Soviet Union refused to travel to Chile for the second leg of a decisive intercontinental playoff in 1974 after Augusto Pinochet’s military coup. Pinochet’s dictatorship had detained and tortured citizens at Chile’s national stadium, where the second leg was set to take place. FIFA, nonetheless, awarded Chile a forfeit victory, and the favored Soviets missed out.
We’ve decided to discount those instances, and others of their ilk. We’ve also excluded any team that withdrew on their own volition. And we’ve tried to account for the relative difficulties of qualifying for 16-, 24- and 32-team World Cups, and out of the various confederations.
That leaves us with the following ranking, in descending order, of biggest World Cup qualifying failures from 1950-2018:
20. Chile 2018 — There are only two South American sides on this list, because below Brazil and Argentina, the balance of power in the region has fluctuated over the years. It’s also the most unforgiving region of the six. But this Chile team, led by the golden generation of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, had been to the knockout rounds of the last two World Cups, and had won the last two Copa Americas. Its sixth-place CONMEBOL finish, made possible by three losses in the final four qualifiers, was a massive letdown.
19. Hungary 1970 — It wasn’t the famous Hungarian side of the 1950s, but Hungary had reach the quarterfinals of the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. It had won the 1964 and 1968 Olympic gold medals, and would go on to the semifinals of Euro 1972. But it missed out on the 1970 World Cup via a playoff loss to Czechoslovakia.
18. Nigeria 2006 — No African nation has had enough sustained success over the years to make a single failure to qualify that shocking. But if any has, it’s probably Nigeria. The Super Eagles have qualified for six of the past seven finals tournaments. But in 2006, they lost to Angola, drew with Rwanda and Gabon, and missed out on the finals in Germany.
17. Yugoslavia 1966 — When it entered the 1966 cycle, Yugoslavia had qualified for every post-war World Cup, and had reached the semifinals in 1962. It would eventually go on to reach the final of Euro 1968. But to reach the 1966 World Cup in England, it needed to finish top of a qualification group that included France and Norway. The French won it, and the Yugoslavs missed out.
16. Netherlands 2018 — It’s shocking to see the 2010 finalists and 2014 semifinalists miss out on a 32-team World Cup. But when you consider their (more embarrassing) failure to qualify for the 24-team Euros two years earlier, and their World Cup qualification group, which featured France and Sweden, it’s more understandable. That’s why the present-day Dutch aren’t higher up – or, technically, further down – this list. Their predecessors will appear again, though.
15. Mexico 1974 — CONCACAF was only allotted one spot at the 16-team 1974 World Cup in West Germany. That said, Mexico absolutely should have claimed it. But it somehow finished third at the 1973 CONCACAF Championships, which doubled as the 1970s version of the Hex. Haiti qualified in its stead.
14. United States 2018 — Solely based on international soccer stature, the current U.S. team probably doesn’t belong on this list. But when you consider the size of the country relative to its regional foes, the relative ease of qualifying for a 32-team tournament, and the forgiving nature of CONCACAF’s Hex, this was a stunning failure.
13. 1994 England — England has failed to qualify for the World Cup three times in its history, and 1994 might not be the most surprising of the three. But it’s the only one the Three Lions have missed since the tournament expanded to 24 teams. All they had to do was finish in the top two of a six-team qualifying group that featured Holland, Norway, Poland, Turkey and San Marino. They had a squad that featured Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Paul Gascoigne, David Platt, Paul Ince, Stuart Pearce and Les Ferdinand. But they took just one point from their two games against Norway and one from their two games against the Dutch. They finished third, and missed out.
12. France 1990 — France finished fourth at the 1982 World Cup and third in 1986. There was always a knowledge that the following decade would be one of transition, but the downswing was steeper than predicted. A 1-1 draw on Matchday 2 of the qualifying campaign provoked a managerial change, but Michel Platini, brought in to replace Henri Michel, didn’t fair much better. In his first four competitive matches, the French lost at Yugoslavia and Scotland, then drew the Yugoslavs and Norway, effectively squashing their dreams of Italia ’90. They finished third in the five-team group.
11. Italy 2018 — There are several ways to assess the scope of Italy’s failure. On one hand, it’s Italy. It had been to 14 consecutive World Cups. A country of its soccer pedigree should have no trouble qualifying for a 32-team tournament. On the other hand, 2018 Italy is not 2006 Italy. The Azzurri had crashed out of the group stage in 2010 and 2014. Put those reference points up against others on this list, and Italy doesn’t even belong on it. The Italians also were unlucky, in that they drew Spain in their qualifying group, and then Sweden in the playoff. But none of these are valid excuses. In a year of high-profile qualifying failures, Italy’s is the biggest.
10. Netherlands 2002 — Drawn out of Pot 1 into a group from which two teams could qualify, Holland was seemingly a sure bet for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. It had reached the semifinals four years earlier, and two years earlier at the Euros. It would go on to reach the semis at Euro 2004 as well. But a team of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Clarence Seedorf, Mark Van Bommel, Patrick Kluivert, Frank De Boer, Edwin Van Der Sar, Marc Overmars, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and others took one point from two matches against Ireland. They finished behind both the Irish and Portugal, and failed to qualify.
9. Mexico 1982 — All Mexico had to do to qualify for the first 24-team World Cup in Spain was finish top-two at the CONCACAF Championship the year before. CONCACAF, by the way, was still more or less a one-team region, and that team was Mexico. But El Tri shockingly won just one of their five games, and finished behind Honduras and El Salvador.
8. England 1974 — Eight years after its first (and still only) world championship, England was still led by World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey. Ramsey’s ideas had gone stale, but nobody expected England to struggle to qualify for the 1974 tournament in West Germany. The Three Lions won their qualification opener in Wales. However, they then failed to win again during the three-team, four-game round robin. A 2-0 defeat in Poland and a 1-1 draw in the return fixture condemned the nation that claims to have invented the game to its first qualification failure. (It didn’t attempt to qualify for the first three World Cups.)
7. Netherlands 1982 — The Dutch were finalists in both 1974 and 1978, and had left a lasting imprint on the sport across the globe. Their failure to qualify for the 24-team tournament in 1982, thus, was staggering. But the national team was in the middle of a rebuild, with the golden generation of the 70s on its last legs, and the qualifying draw offered up a murderous group: Holland, France, Belgium, Ireland and Cyprus. The Dutch placed fourth of five, with a top-two finish necessary. Incredibly, it wouldn’t be their only missed World Cup of the decade …
6. Netherlands 1986 — By the mid-1980s, the rebuild appeared to be complete. Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard were all in the mix. The same core that entered the 1986 qualifying cycle would go on to win Euro 1988. But the Dutch lost to Hungary and Austria, were forced to a playoff and Belgium, and lost on an 85th-minute away goal in the second leg. The next generation of Dutch stars would have to wait for their moment in the spotlight.
5. Spain 1958 — Spain had failed to qualify in 1954 as well, but the 1958 team would have been one of the favorites to lift the trophy. It was led by Alfredo Di Stefano – still the greatest footballer to never play at a World Cup – and a significant chunk of the Real Madrid side that won every European Cup between 1956 and 1960. But they couldn’t replicate that success on the international stage, and finished behind Scotland in a three-team group from which only one team could qualify.
4. Czechoslovakia 1978 — The Czechs triumphed at Euro 1976 and finished third four years later. Somehow, they couldn’t even qualify for the 1978 World Cup. They remain the only nation to win and reach the semifinals of back-to-back European Championships but fail to qualify for the World Cup in between.
3. France 1994 — The France team of the late 1990s was won of the greatest in the history of international soccer. It reached the semifinals of Euro 1996, won the 1998 World Cup on home soil and won Euro 2000 two years later. It featured Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps, Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, and so on. Before Zidane arrived on the scene, but with Eric Cantona still in the fold, the French were widely expected to erase the disappointment of the 1990 qualification campaign and ease to USA ’94.
With two matches remaining they were well on their way, topping the group, and likely needing only a point or two from their final two games against Israel and Bulgaria. Remarkably, they lost to Israel 3-2 on 83rd- and 90th-minute goals, then were knocked out by another 90th-minute Bulgarian winner on the final day.
2. Italy 1958 — Since 1934, the Italians have won four times as many World Cups as they’ve missed entirely. Their only failure was in 1958. All they need from their final game against Northern Ireland was a draw. Simple enough, right? Well, not really. Allow Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Wilson to explain:
The game was initially scheduled for December 4, 1957, but when Hungarian referee–Istvan Zsolt, the stage manager of the Budapest Opera House–was held up by heavy fog in London, it was rearranged for January 15, 1958. With the two sides already in Belfast, a friendly was arranged, a violent game ending 2-2 amid serious crowd trouble that might have been even worse had Northern Irish captain Danny Blanchflower not ordered his players to escort the Italians from the field while police dealt with the rioters. Northern Ireland then won the qualifier 2-1.
1. Argentina 1970 — Argentina and Brazil, between the two of them, have only ever failed to qualify for one World Cup. It took chaos within the Argentinean federation, four different managers in three years, and naivety in the buildup to their opening two games, in Peru and Bolivia. Argentina lost both. Yet it still went into the final day with a chance to qualify. Alas, a 2-2 draw at home against Peru kept it out of the World Cup in Mexico – a colossal failure that, despite the truncated nature of both the qualifying cycle and the final tournament, remains the biggest in the competition’s history.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.