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Wales and Iceland Add to Timeline of Underdogs at International Tournaments

Steve Wilson, the BBC commentator for the second Euro 2016 semi-final between France and Germany, used a memorable phrase to describe Didier Deschamps, the France manager. He called the diminutive Gaul a “tiny giant” for a playing career in which he not only won European Cups with Marseille and Juventus but led France to World Cup and European Championship victories.

The description could just as easily have been applied to Wales and Iceland. Semi-finalists and quarter-finalists respectively at Euro 2016, they overcame the apparent limitation of having only a small population (about three million and 350,000 respectively) to go further in the tournament than many much bigger and more populous nations, notably England and Russia.

Of course, a small population is only an “apparent” limitation. In football, particularly international football—the one remaining form of the game in which money does not hold complete sway—small countries like Wales and Iceland often achieve great things. As the old saying goes, “You only need eleven players” , and although that should now be adapted to, “You only need twenty-three players for a full tournament squad”, even the smallest nations are more than capable of amassing that number.

Here is a brief history of the greatest achievements in international football by small nations; nations with populations of less than 20 million, although some of them are much smaller than that.

Uruguay (1930 and 1950)

Uruguay are probably the greatest small nation in world football. Despite having only a tiny population of less than 4 million people, they have won the World Cup twice, first in 1930 at home and then in 1950 in Brazil. While they are unlikely ever to win a World Cup again, they reached the semi-final in South Africa in 2010 and the following year won the Copa America in Argentina for a record 15th time. No wonder it is said in Uruguay that “Other countries have history—we have football.”

Wales and Northern Ireland (1958)

Wales have previous experience of excelling in international tournaments. Their 1958 side reached a World Cup quarter-final against Brazil and, but for the injury of the great John Charles, might have won it. 1958 was a vintage year for British teams, as all four home countries reached the finals in Sweden. Northern Ireland, spearheaded by striker Peter McParland, joined Wales in the last eight (where they lost to France), a World Cup performance even finer than their defeat of hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup that took them into the last 16.

North Korea (1966)

If North Korea remains mysterious even now, how much more strange it must have seemed in 1966, when its footballers qualified for the World Cup for the first time? In the north-east of England, where they played their games, the locals greeted them warmly, especially when they astonished everyone by reaching the quarter-final ahead of Italy, whom they defeated 1-0 in one of the greatest ever World Cup upsets.

In the quarter-final they led Portugal 3-0 after less than 30 minutes, only to succumb to the great Eusebio, who scored four goals in what was eventually a 5-3 win. Nevertheless, to this day the name Pak Doo-ik, the scorer of North Korea’s unlikely winner against Italy, resonates in World Cup history alongside even the most illustrious names.

The Netherlands (1974-78 and 1988) 

In the 1970s, Holland’s total footballers were dubbed “the new Brazilians” or even “the European Brazilians”. A more accurate description would have been “the European Uruguayans” as Holland is another small country (its population is about 17 million) that has challenged far bigger countries and often beaten them.

Alas, none of those victories has ever come in a World Cup final. Johan Cruyff’s great 1974 side were beaten by West Germany 2-1. In Argentina in 1978, without Cruyff, who did not travel to Latin America, allegedly fearing another attempt to kidnap his children after an earlier attempt had failed, the Netherlands lost to the hosts. In the 2010 World Cup final, Bert van Marwijk‘s men lost to Spain to make it a hat-trick of last-game defeats on the global stage.

It is only Europe that Holland has completely conquered, with the great Rinus Michels finally achieving international success in 1988, with the Rikjaard-Gullit-Van Basten generation that triumphed at the European Championship in Germany.

Denmark (1992)

Denmark achieved perhaps the single most surprising victory by a small nation on the international stage when they won Euro 92 after only entering the tournament at the last minute, because of Yugoslavia’s late withdrawal due to the breakout of the Balkans war. Famously, Denmark rose from their sun-loungers to win the tournament, thus making a mockery forever of so-called “pre-tournament preparation”.

Like Holland in 1988, who finally won the major tournament that Cruyff, Neeskens et al had failed to win in the 1970s, Denmark’s 1992 side was not even regarded as the country’s best ever. That honour still resides with the “Danish Dynamite” side of the mid-1980s, led by strikers Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup, which reached the semi-final of Euro 84 and produced a spectacular 6-1 destruction of Uruguay at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

But Michael’s younger brother, Brian, succeeded where his big brother had failed by helping the 1992 side to defeat Germany 2-0 in the final, which seemingly brought Denmark’s entire population of less than five million people out onto the streets of Copenhagen, Aarhus and elsewhere to celebrate.

Greece (2004)

It is probably the greatest financial scandal of all time that Greece, a country of less than 12 million people, was able to rack up debts in the multi-billions before its creaky financial edifice collapsed, with grave consequences with which the Greek people are still trying to cope.

In 2004, however, the small size of Greece’s population was the major reason why the success of its international team, who won the European Championship that year in Portugal, was considered so surprising. That Greek side is rarely remembered fondly outside of Greece itself, as its ultra-defensive tactics prompted a succession of dull 1-0 wins in the knockout stages against France, the Czech Republic and hosts Portugal, who succumbed to Greece in the final for the second time in the tournament, having also lost the tournament opener against them.

Costa Rica (2014)

Costa Rica’s run to the World Cup quarter-final in Brazil two years ago was especially impressive given the country’s tiny population of less than five million people. Led by Joel Campbell up front and Bryan Ruiz, who shone when Costa Rica beat Italy in the first round, they made it to the last eight (beating fellow minnows Greece in the last 16), where they only lost to the Netherlands on penalties. This was not Costa Rica’s only foray into the last stages of the World Cup, as its 1990 side qualified for the last 16 ahead of Scotland and Sweden, eventually losing to Czechoslovakia.

And Portugal (2016?)

Portugal are probably the greatest underachievers in international football, and that is despite the country’s small population of about 10 million people. They have reached seven semi-finals in World Cups and European Championships but only one final and have never won a major tournament. They have the chance in the Euro 2016 final against France to put that right.

However, another dismal record – they have lost their last ten games against France, going back to the 1970s – offers little hope. But if Cristiano Ronaldo can at last trump Lionel Messi and win an international trophy for his country, Portugal will finally join the realms of the small footballing countries which have won the biggest international tournaments.

There is one other small footballing country that deserves a mention, even if its national side has never quite excelled on the international stage, unlike every other national side from the British and Irish isles, and that is Scotland. In the entire history of football, Scotland, more than any other small nation  have probably had the single greatest influence on how the game is played.

It was the Scots who took the passing-only game that the English invented in the mid-19th century and added what remains probably football’s most important ingredient – dribbling, or the ability to run with the ball – in a tactical breakthrough that was quickly adopted by all other footballing countries. For that alone, Scotland deserves a special mention in the history of football’s tiny giants.


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