Taking into account all the football World Cups that have taken place from the inaugural competition in 1930 in Uruguay to the 21st tournament in Russia in 2018, only one side has qualified for them all: Brazil. Germany are next in line having qualified for all 19 World Cups for which they entered, with Italy, Argentina and Mexico having qualified for 18, 17 and 16 tournaments respectively. Most nations of the world can only dream of being able to cruise through their qualification with such confidence and ease. But in this article, we’ll outline the many unfortunate sides who have failed to ever qualify for a single World Cup… and not for the want of trying!
Of the 210 football nations that are currently included in the FIFA World Rankings, more than half of them have never made it to a World Cup. But before we go through all the unlucky sides in question, let’s first briefly explain how teams qualify for the World Cup. Given that the processes have been tweaked several times over the years, we’ll base the information on the qualification for Qatar 2022.
How Do Teams Qualify For The World Cup?
Arguably the easiest way to qualify for the World Cup is to host it. This is just as well for Qatar because they had never qualified for the World Cup before being confirmed as hosts of the 2022 tournament. In some tournaments in the past, the winners of the preceding tournament would qualify automatically as well as the hosts, but this rule has been dropped and 2018 champions France had to go through the normal qualifying process.
The remaining slots at the World Cup are allocated between the six FIFA confederations as follows:
- Asian Football Confederation (AFC) – Four or five places (46 members and one associate)
- Confederation of African Football (CAF) – Five places (54 members and two associates)
- Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) – Three or four places (35 members and six associates)
- South American Football Confederation [Spanish: Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol] (CONMEBOL) – Four or five places (10 members)
- Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) – Zero or one (11 members and three associates)
- Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) – 13 places (55 members)
The reason some confederations don’t have a set number of places in the tournament proper is that there are a number of inter-confederation playoffs between the fourth round playoff winner from the AFC, the third round fourth-place side from the CONCACAF, the round-robin fifth-place side from the CONMEBOL and the second round winner from the OFC. Simple isn’t it?!
For the 2026 World (and presumably after that too), the play-offs will determine the final two World Cup places and will involve six teams rather than four, one from each confederation (except for UEFA) plus an extra team from the confederation of the country (or countries) hosting the tournament.
Most of the standard qualifying takes place in groups in which teams from the same confederation play one another in a round-robin format. Often there are automatic qualification places for group winners and some second places, with further places up for grabs through playoffs or subsequent qualifying rounds. The exact nature of qualifying varies between confederations. Check out the FIFA site for more information.
Teams That Have Tried But Failed To Qualify?
Now we’ve got a brief overview of how teams try and qualify for the World Cup, we will give you a full rundown of sides that have never made it to the FIFA World Cup, despite having attempted to qualify. Given that over 100 sides have never qualified for the World Cup, the table will include only those sides that have tried and failed at least 10 times over the years, with the rest listed below.
Note this information is based on all World Cups from 1930 to 2018 inclusive and does not include the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the qualification for which is underway at the time of writing. If teams were disqualified during qualification or withdrew after commencing their qualification we have counted that as an attempt to qualify.
Teams who have failed 10+ times to qualify for the World Cup
|Antigua and Barbuda||10||CONCACAF|
The Other Sides Who Have Failed To Qualify For The World Cup:
Here is a list of other national teams that have never qualified for a the World Cup Finals:
- American Samoa
- Faroe Islands
- San Marino
- Dominican Republic
- Yemen/North Yemen
- Sri Lanka
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- New Caledonia
- Puerto Rico
- Papua New Guinea
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Equatorial Guinea
- Saint Lucia
- Cayman Islands
- Vietnam/South Vietnam
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Solomon Islands
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Burkina Faso
- South Sudan
- Cook Islands
- Turks and Caicos Islands
- British Virgin Islands
- U.S. Virgin Islands
Why Do Some Countries Fail To Qualify?
There are numerous reasons sides might traditionally not be overly successful at football on the international stage and hence have been unable to qualify for the World Cup. Here we’ll outline some of the main barriers that have prevented sides from making it to the World Cup over the years.
Population Too Small
One of the most obvious comes down to the population size and the countries whose population is very small have far fewer players from which to choose when constructing their national side. It should come as no surprise that countries with tiny populations are amongst those having never made it to the World Cup, with Gibraltar, San Marino, Tonga, Cayman Islands, Andorra, American Samoa and the Faroe Islands all having never made it to the World Cup from their populations of fewer than 100,000 people.
In truth these nations have never even come close to qualifying and the sad reality is that it is hard to see how they ever could, even with planned expansion of the global showpiece to 48 teams. Things are especially tough for the likes of Gibraltar, San Marino and Andorra, who play in the fiercely competitive European zone. San Marino (population 33,900), for example, have only ever won one game in their entire history and have never won a World Cup or Euros qualifier.
The smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup is currently Iceland. In 2018 it was 13th time lucky for them as they made it to Russia after 12 failed attempts at qualification. Their population at the time was just over 350,000 which is more than 10 times that of San Marino. That said, for comparison it is worth noting that the population of Bradford in West Yorkshire is also around 350,000.
Tradition/Lack Of Interest
Of course, simply having a massive population doesn’t guarantee success on the football pitch. Remarkably, the world’s most populous nation, China, has only ever qualified for one World Cup, while the country with the second-largest population, India, has never qualified. Neither has the fifth (Pakistan), eighth (Bangladesh), or 12th (Ethiopia) most populous nations. At least some of this can come down to a lack of footballing tradition in some countries. For instance, in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan there are various sports that are ahead of football in terms of what the population play, most notably cricket.
Lack Of Resources
There is something of a correlation between the wealth of a country and how well it tends to perform in sport in general and many of the countries that have not managed to qualify for at least one World Cup are far from rich, economically speaking.
Again this is not a fool proof method of predicting which countries will do well at football on the world stage. There are notable exceptions at the top end of the nominal GDP scale: China and India are two of the richest countries in the world on that scale, but have managed just one World Cup qualification between them (although their GDP per capita is relatively much lower due to their huge populations). At the other end of the spectrum, Senegal and Bosnia and Herzegovina have both qualified for World Cups despite being around the midpoint of the GDP scale. But none of the poorest 50 countries in the world has ever qualified for the World Cup.
Clearly, if a country is struggling economically it will not be investing lots of money in the development of football players or creating plush training facilities and sports science institutes. It could be argued that sport in general is something of a luxury enjoyed by people who don’t need to concern themselves too much with day-to-day survival. Though of course the flip side of that is that football and sport in general are often a welcome diversion for many. Moreover, football in particular is a very cheap sport to play that requires little equipment.
Best Teams Never To Have Qualified For The World Cup
When it comes to the “best” teams to have never qualified for the World Cup it could be a toss-up between Finland and Venezuela. Having said that, Mali – who once finished as runners-up in the Africa Cup of Nations and finished third twice – could also have a claim to that rather unwanted title. All three sides tend to hover around 50th to 60th spot in the FIFA World Rankings, with Venezuela ranked 49th, Finland ranked 55th, and Mali ranked 61st at the time of writing. Montenegro (currently ranked 71st) could have a shout too, although as a relatively very new country, they haven’t had too many opportunities to make it to World Cups yet.
The FIFA rankings don’t tell the whole story, of course. There is something of a disparity in the number of teams able to qualify from each confederation, which clearly stacks the odds in favour of teams that happen to be in one geographical location rather than another. As mentioned earlier, UEFA – which has 55 members – has been allocated 13 places at the 2022 World Cup. Turn to Africa, however, and CAF have been given just five places at the tournament despite having around the same number of member teams (54 members plus two associates). The AFC, meanwhile, has been allocated four or five places to share amongst their 46 members.
We won’t go into the historical significance of the different allocations here, but suffice to say, from a mathematical perspective it is far easier to qualify for a World Cup from the UEFA qualifying competition than from the CAF or AFC. And with South America getting four or five places for their 10 members, it clearly gives you a fighting chance if you happen to be part of CONMEBOL… although you do have to play against Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Chile, so perhaps it’s not that easy after all.
Indeed, the allocations for each of the respective confederations do at least try and reflect the overall quality of the nations that comprise them. This is why the sport’s two powerhouse confederations in Europe and South America seemingly get a higher proportion of places. FIFA is trying to strike the right balance between a World Cup that features the best sides and also one that is truly global. Whilst they may not get that equation right every time, overall we feel the qualification structure does a good job.
|Confederation||Members||Places (2022)||Percentage Qualifying|
|AFC||47||4 or 5||8.5% or 10.6%|
|CONCACAF||41||3 or 4||7.3% or 9.8%|
|CONMEBOL||10||4 or 5||40% or 50%|
|OFC||14||0 or 1||0% or 7.1%|
World Cup Qualification Failures
Here we delve a little deeper into where it all went wrong so often for some of the leading teams that have tried and failed to make it to the World Cup on numerous occasions. And where better to start than the side with more failed attempts than any other.
Luxembourg – 20 Failed Attempts
You can’t fault Luxembourg when it comes to effort. They have attempted to qualify for every World Cup since 1934… and fallen short every single time. With 20 failed attempts to their name (ahead of the 2022 World Cup), Luxembourg top the table as the team that has failed to make the World Cup more than any other. They have also failed to make it to the Euros more than any other side, trying and coming up short 15 times.
It’s fair to say that Luxembourg are at least doing a little better in recent years; despite only winning two qualifying games between 1934 and 2006, Luxembourg won one and drew two when trying to make it to South Africa 2010, and won one and drew three in the qualifying campaigns for both Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018. Not a great record, but perhaps they are at least moving in the right direction.
Finland – 19 Failed Attempts
Hot on the heels of Luxembourg come Finland who have failed to qualify on 19 occasions. They might well have been level with Luxembourg had they entered the 1934 competition. They have certainly come a lot closer than Luxembourg over the years, however. Finland came closest to making it to South Africa 2010 when they won five of their 10 qualification games. Unfortunately, despite amassing 18 points, Finland finished in third place in the group behind group winners Germany (26 points) and second-placed Russia (22 points).
Unlike Luxembourg, Finland have at least made it to the Euros, doing so in 2020 where they beat Denmark and narrowly missed out on edging through to the knockout stage of the tournament. When it has come to the World Cup, however, Finland have always fallen short.
Venezuela – 13 Failed Attempts
Clearly being in the same qualifying group as five-time World Cup winners Brazil and two-time victors Argentina and Uruguay will mean you’re never going to get a free pass to the tournament proper. Add in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador, all of whom have qualified for the World Cup on at least three occasions, and the South American qualifying group is a tough one from which to emerge. And even if you do scrape through in fifth place, you still face the prospect of a potentially tricky playoff before making it to the tournament.
It is little surprise then that Venezuela have thus far failed to make it all the way to a World Cup. They weren’t far off the pace when trying to make it to the Brazil 2014 tournament when they finished in sixth place in the group on 20 points… though that was still five points behind fifth-placed Uruguay. Alas, Venezuela are the only side from the CONMEBOL confederation to never have made it to the World Cup… but they’ll always shake themselves down and give it another go.
Mali – 5 Failed Attempts
West African nation Mali either did not enter, or withdrew from qualification before kicking a ball, for every World Cup from 1930 to 1998. But they’ve had a pop at making it to every tournament since, albeit without success. They have produced some fine players over the years, notably former Barca player Seydou Keïta, but have always come up short.
They gave a good go of it when attempting to make it to the first World Cup on their continent, South Africa 2010. They made it through to the third round of qualification and were placed in a group with Ghana, Benin and Sudan. They amassed nine points from their six group games, but they were four adrift of group winners Ghana and one behind second-placed Benin (who also didn’t qualify) and had to settle for a place in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Better Luck Next Time?
There are many nations – more than half of all those competing in fact – that have never made it to the World Cup. The reasons teams repeatedly fall short are varied but generally speaking having a small population and/or a lack of economic resources certainly make things more difficult. Not having a traditional love of football and hence not playing the sport from a young age is also a factor.
But whatever the reasons and however many times the abovementioned teams fail, they keep coming back for another go every time a new qualification competition begins. And maybe one day Luxembourg will surprise everyone and finally make it to their first World Cup. Or maybe not!