The FIFA World Cup remains the most popular event on our planet, as everything stops once the competition begins. In almost a century since its first edition, over 80 nations have qualified for it at least once. However, many still dream about seeing their team on the biggest scene. So, this is the story about these unlucky underdogs, as we rank the top ten teams that missed World Cup.
During the decades spent in the Soviet Union, Belarus teams won a single title (Dinamo Minsk in 1982), which best illustrates their lack of impact. Since the nineties, the nation has competed in FIFA World Cup qualification, but its record remains shameful. The situation isn't any better at the continental level, as Belarus is one of the few countries never to qualify for the UEFA EURO. Yet, briefly, it felt like they may become a respectable side.
After a horrific 1998 World Cup campaign (eight losses in ten games!), Belarus was ranked among the ten worst European sides. Yet, they suffered a single defeat in their first seven qualifying games for the 2002 FIFA World Cup! Belarus could have taken second place if they beat Wales, with Poland defeating Ukraine. However, none of that happened, and they finished third, needing only two points to progress. Belarus wasn't nearly as good since then!
Since it was a part of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan started competing only at the end of the 20th century. However, while their record remained positive, the team never challenged regional forces, including Japan, South Korea, or Iran. Nevertheless, that all changed in 2011. That year, Uzbekistan played in their first AFC Asian Cup semifinals, and excellent performances continued throughout World Cup qualifiers.
After gliding through the first two rounds with seven wins and one draw, Uzbekistan needed to be at least second in the next one to directly qualify for the World Cup in 2014. Yet, after some good results, the team lost to South Korea, even though the draw was all they needed. The agony continued in the last round, as they beat Qatar 5-1. However, that wasn't enough, as they required two more goals to finish in front of South Korea. Finally, all their hopes were gone after Jordan eliminated them in the next round.
Mali gave us some terrific players in the 21st century, including Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita or Frédéric Kanouté. Such talent made them a continental force, as between 1994 and 2013, they reached the African Cup of Nations semifinals five times. Yet, their World Cup qualification debut came only for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. However, not until the 2022 FIFA World Cup campaign did they play an important role.
While Mali was only the 11th favorite, they easily won their group without a single goal allowed! Following that, they were paired against perfectly beatable Tunisia in the final round. Yet, the team scored only once, but unfortunately, in their own net. As a result, Tunisia took their World Cup ticket without doing much. So while Mali never allowed their opponents to score in eight games, it still wasn't enough!
Zambia was always among the better African football nations, with an impressive performance on the continental stage. Furthermore, in 2012 they became the CAF champions after losing two finals, in 1974 and 1994. That's why it's hard to believe that the team never qualified for the World Cup and was rarely among contenders. While they went to the final qualification stages several times, nothing compares to what they did in the 1994 campaign.
By taking first place in their first-round group, Zambia qualified to play against Morocco and Senegal. As they continued performing well, the team led the table before the last match in Morocco. Zambia needed a draw at that moment, but in front of 150,000 fans, the home nation scored a single goal and broke their dreams.
Venezuela is historically the worst South American (CONMEBOL) team since they are the only ones never to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. Actually, every other team did it at least three times, including Bolivia and Ecuador! Venezuela participated in their first World Cup qualifiers in 1966, serving as cannon fodder since. However, things started to change in the current millennium. Hence, in the 2002 qualifiers, Venezuela won five games, massive for the nation with only two previous victories!
After five more triumphs four years later, the 2010 campaign looked historical! Only two rounds before the end, Venezuela was competing for fifth place, which would send them to inter-confederation play-offs against Costa Rica. With four points in the last two games, they were certain to do it! However, a tragic home loss to Paraguay meant that they had to win in Brazil to stand any chance. Despite the heroic performance, they only managed a goalless draw. In the end, they finished eighth, but only two points behind fifth-placed Uruguay. Interestingly, four years later, Venezuela ended sixth in the group. Still, they were five points behind Uruguay this time and never stood a chance.
It's hard to imagine it, but Sudan was once among the best in African football. Their national team had a string of successes, as they were continental champions in 1970 and runners-up in 1959 and 1963. Yet, Sudan was a massive underachiever in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, which it didn't enter until the 1958 edition. As one of the dominant forces in Africa, it looked like the team would go to the World Cup in Sweden and maybe face young Pele, but a string of bizarre events followed.
As there were only 12 entries, FIFA decided to join African and Asian qualifiers, making things chaotic. Both Ethiopia and South Korea weren't allowed to compete, while the Republic of China withdrew, as they didn't want to play against China PR. Cyprus and Turkey soon did the same, which meant that only seven teams were! However, Sudan was among them, as they beat Syria and went to the final round. Yet, their dreams were crushed as their government banned them from playing against Israel. From today's perspective, this decision must look very stupid to everyone in Sudan.
Many countries came close to qualifying for the World Cup, but Syria is among the few who did it multiple times! That sounds pretty incredible, knowing that the side lacks any success at the continental level. Their AFC Asian Cup record is forgettable, as they rarely qualify for the event. Furthermore, when they do, they can't pass the first round, just like Scotland in EURO! Syria first entered FIFA World Cup qualification for the 1950 Brazil tournament but had to wait until 1986 to become a contender in Asia.
After easily topping their group in 1985, they went to the semifinals and eliminated Bahrain. This meant that only Iraq stood on their way to the World Cup finals, which turned Maradona into a legend! Things looked even better for Syria, as Iraq was forced to host the second leg out of the country, as they often did. However, after a poor 0-0 showing in Damascus, Syria lost the second game 3-1 and was eliminated. Unfortunately for them, a similar thing happened in 2018 when they took third place in the final group stage before Australia dispatched them, with a goal in extra time.
3. Burkina Faso
Formerly known as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso rarely entered World Cup qualification until the France 1998 tournament. When they finally became regulars, they were still among average sides that no one took seriously. Even at the continental level, the nation had only reached the semifinals in 1998, when they were hosting it. However, their 2014 campaign was a different story.
During this cycle, Burkina Faso was among the best African teams, proving that by losing the Africa Cup of Nations finals in 2013. After winning their group in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification, they faced Algeria in the final round. Following their first game 3-2 win, Burkina Faso needed to stay undefeated in the rematch. However, Algeria won 1-0 with a goal in the second half, qualifying on the away goals rule. Burkina Faso tried to overturn the result by complaining that Algeria fielded an ineligible player, but it was in vain.
It may sound harsh, but some individuals are born in the wrong country. George Weah was among the best footballers during the nineties, but his Liberian national team had an appalling record. Therefore, they struggled to qualify for the African Cup of Nations. At the same time, Liberia's World Cup ambitions were non-existent. However, the 2002 campaign looked like a dream that may come true.
Already 34 once the qualifiers began, Weah still played a level above everyone else as Liberia reached the final round. Still, no one gave them a chance since they needed to win the group. As their rivals were four other teams, including Ghana and Nigeria, that sounded sensible. Yet, despite a defeat in the first match, Liberia beat Nigeria and Ghana and took the lead after dispatching Sierra Leone and Sudan. Even after losing to Nigeria, the team stayed at the top, needing a win against Ghana at home. However, the already-eliminated guests triumphed 2-1 and crushed all Liberian hopes. To this day, George Weah remains one of the best players never to participate in the World Cup.
As it was a part of the United Kingdom for a long time, Bahrain stepped on the world scene for the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Unsurprisingly, they weren't very competitive even at the continental level, as they qualified for the Asian Cup only once in the 20th century. However, their luck began to change after reaching the semifinals in 2004. Encouraged by the strong performance, their 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign looked promising.
After easily coming through the first rounds, Bahrain reached the final group stage with Japan, Iran, and North Korea. Despite winning only four points in six games, they locked third place, which took them to the next round, where they beat Uzbekistan on away goals. Finally, what followed was an inter-confederation play-off against Trinidad and Tobago, with Bahrain managing a 1-1 away draw in the first match. Although a goalless draw would take them to the World Cup, Bahrain lost at home, having their dreams crushed. Four years later, they once again took third place in the final group stage. Still, Saudi Arabia eliminated them in the following round.
As the 2026 FIFA World Cup will host 48 teams, all these sides will have a much better chance to reach the competition for the first time. This is especially the case with African and Asian teams, as they will almost double their slots in the finals!
Which of these teams in our top ten list would you like to see at the FIFA World Cup? What do you think is the biggest association football nation that never managed to reach the final tournament? Let's kick the conversation in our comments section!
Cover photo: Fachry Zella Devandra/Unsplash