Top 10 Teams That Were Closest to Qualify for the World Cup But They Never Did

Tags: #Soccer ,   #Football ,   #WorldCup ,   #footballislife

Michael Wendom

Michael Wendom

Last updated:  2022-05-11 18:02:21

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, 82 nations qualified for it at least once. However, so many still dream about seeing their team at the biggest scene. So, this is the story about these unlucky underdogs, as we rank the top ten nations closest to participating in the FIFA World Cup. 

10. Lithuania

If Lithuania won this game, they would be a step away from the 1998 FIFA World Cup

Lithuanian football history is rather poor, as they never qualified for the major tournament. The team stayed at the bottom throughout its history, usually racking wins only against the smallest Euro nations. Yet, if you look at their abysmal World Cup qualification record, you'll notice one positive anomaly. This is because the nation stood a genuine chance to qualify for the World Cup in France in 1998.

Lithuania played at home against the Republic of Ireland in the penultimate round, as both teams had 14 points. Hence, the tiny nation would undoubtedly take second place in the group and advance to the final stage with the win. As the draw was open, Lithuania had a realistic chance of playing against beatable teams, including Ukraine or Hungary. However, the Republic of Ireland won 2-1, and Lithuanian football went back to obscurity.

9. Zambia

Zambia was unable to withstand pressure from 150,000 fans

Zambia was always among better African football nations, with an impressive performance at the continental stage. Furthermore, in 2012 they became the 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 was leading the table before the last match in Morocco. At that moment, Zambia needed a draw, but in front of 150,000 fans, the home nation scored a single goal and broke their dreams.

8. Belarus

No one improved from their previous World Cup campaign as Belarus, but that wasn't enough

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 their 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, for a brief moment, 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 games for the 2002 FIFA World Cup! Belarus could take second place if they beat Wales after a home loss to Ukraine, 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!

7. Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan just needed a draw to go to the World Cup

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 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.

6. Venezuela 

Venezuela had all in their hands before the game against Paraguay

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 victories in its history!

After five more triumphs four years later, the 2010 campaign looked like a historical one! 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 Uruguay. Interestingly, four years later, Venezuela ended sixth in the group. Still, this time, they were five points behind Uruguay and never stood a chance.

5. Syria

Syria was a favorite against "homeless" Iraq

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! Syria first entered FIFA World Cup qualification for the 1950 Brazil tournament, but they had to wait until 1986 to become serious contenders 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 that 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.

4. Burkina Faso

A single goal would take Burkina Faso to their first World Cup

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, as they qualified 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.

3. Sudan

It's no wonder that Israel is now playing in the UEFA confederation

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 on the continent, 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 left before the start! 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 and the rest of the world.

2. Liberia 

The defeat that still haunts the Liberian nation

It may sound harsh, but some people are born in the wrong country. During the nineties, George Weah was among the best footballers in the world, but his Liberian national team had an appalling record. Even at the continental level, Liberia struggled to qualify for the African Cup of Nations. At the same time, their 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 qualified for 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.  

1. Bahrain

Everything looked perfect for Bahrain, but they just fall apart

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 they reached the semifinals of this competition in 2004. Encouraged by the strong performance, their 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign looked very 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! Until then, let's see if any of these teams can go to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as some of them still have a chance to do so!

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 football nation that never managed to reach the final tournament? Let's kick the conversation in our comments section!

Photo: Fachry Zella Devandra/Unsplash

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