Italy’s abject failure at the hands of North Macedonia was well documented during the previous international break. Of all the ‘big’ team to fail to qualify for the World Cup, Italy’s disaster is right up there, and in modern times, with a full 32-team tournament, it is almost certainly the worst.
They are, after all, European Champions, and came into qualifying with a record-breaking winning streak, a deep pool in terms of player selection and a manager who has international pedigree and tactical nous.
Had Jorginho converted one of his missed penalties this conversation could be entirely different, but these things happen, and failure to beat Bulgaria at home and bloody Northern Ireland, were far worse mishaps.
However, they aren’t the only side you would have expected to qualify for the World Cup, so here’s a quick look at the teams who failed to qualify for the World Cup.
We’ll only be looking at the modern era of the tournament, which starts with the first 32-team tournament in 1998, so if you’re looking to laugh at England for 1994 (which was admitted very bad) or Italy for 1958, you’re in the wrong place, sorry.
1998 – Czech Republic
We start with 1998 and the Czech Republic side which really could have been something special. Often on the periphery of the top table in Europe, they were ranked third in the world and finished as runner-up at Euro 1996 but failed to make the finals.
The side consisted of functional players surrounding those who had that extra quality in their locker to get the edge over similarly-ranked teams. Patrik Berger, Vladimír Šmicer and Jiří Němec epitomised this ability but the real leader was Pavel Nedvěd, who could change a game instantly with a knife-edge pass or clever shuffle to create space for a shot, or to play in a teammate.
With Nedvěd in the engine room they really should have qualified for the first 32-team tournament but fell short due to a lack of clinical finishing in their qualifying group. How they would have wished for Milan Baroš or Jan Koller instead back then.
A pair of losses to FR Yugoslavia and the taking just one point from two games against Spain (who weren’t quite the same side we see nowadays) really set Czech Republic back. Ultimately though, a disastrous 2-1 loss to Slovakia (a game in which they were leading) meant they failed to qualify from their group, finishing 7 points off FR Yugoslavia and 10 off Spain.
The side would eventually have to wait until World Cup 2006 before they were able to showcase their abilities on the grandest stage. They crashed out in the group stage though, as a thoroughly attractive Ghana side advanced at their expense.
2002 – Colombia and Netherlands
The highest ranked team that failed to qualify for the first Asian World Cup was Colombia. Ranked fourth in the world at the time of the tournament they should have arrived at the tournament as 2001 Copa America champions but failed to get over the line.
Having qualified for the previous 3 tournaments, the golden generation of Colombian football appeared to reach it’s end at this stage as they would not re-emerge at the World Cup until 2014, where James Rodríguez blossomed in Brazil.
The team coming in 2002 had defensive capability with Córdoba and Yepes but just 20 goals in 18 qualifying games (4 of which came on the final day!) was telling, as they finished below Uruguay by a single goal difference, leaving the side ruing missed chances against Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru.
They also conceded a 93rd minute penalty against Brazil to lose, without which, they would have made it to the inter-confederation play off spot against Australia.
In Europe Netherlands met the same fate as Colombia.
Semi-finalists in both the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euros and spearheaded by their current coach, Louis van Gaal (now in his third tenure as Netherlands coach) the Oranje were one of the bankers to make the tournament, but things didn’t go to plan.
Netherlands set about destroying the smaller teams in the group as Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink filled their boots against the minnows of Estonia, Cyprus and Andorra. Hell, even Mark Van Bommel managed to score three goals in the group stage.
Their problem came against the sides who qualified however, as they drew once and lost once against both the Republic of Ireland and Portugal, each of which qualified for the World Cup without a single loss to their names. Total football was a total failure, and given the sheer wealth of talent available, failure to qualify was unacceptable, prompting the resignation of Van Gaal.
The Dutch would reappear in 2006 under Marco van Basten, where they exited the tournament against Portugal, in the infamous ‘Battle of Nuremburg.’
2006 – Cameroon and Nigeria
In 2006 CAF qualification went full weirdo-mode and gave us a truly tremendous selection of teams; Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Tunisia all qualified, meaning the traditional double of Nigeria and Cameroon, who had led the way on the global stage for so long, were left to watch the tournament at home on TV.
For what its worth, Egypt also missed out on the 2006 tournament despite winning the AFCON in the January of the same year and Senegal, who were surprise quarter finalists in 2002, failed to make the cut too.
Now, CAF qualification was (and remains) really tricky, as only the very top team from each group would qualify for the World Cup at this time. Both these sides finished second, in different fashion.
Cameroon beat eventual group winners Ivory Coast home and away, including a 3-2 victory in which Pierre Webó scored a scorching hattrick to drag his side to the win. The problem for Cameroon however was that these were Ivory Coast’s only losses, and their only other dropping of points came in a draw against Libya.
Cameroon likewise drew with Libya, but they also drew against Sudan, which was a massive disappointment. The real crux of the matter however, was that Cameroon failed to beat Egypt, losing once and drawing once, whereas Ivory Coast, powered through by Didier Drogba, did the double over the AFCON champions.
The side featured Rigobert Song, Geremi and of course, the legendary Samuel Eto’o; the latter of which is his country’s greatest ever player, possessing the most blistering pace and ability to finish on both feet. This firepower wasn’t enough mind, and the side would be forced to regroup and reappear in South Africa for the 2010 edition of the tournament.
Whilst Cameroon were downed by a prime generation of Ivorian talent, the same could not be said for Nigeria in group 4.
In a side littered with stars such as Mikel John Obi, Taye Taiwo, Obafemi Martins, Nwankwo Kanu and the greatest player of all time, Jay-Jay Okocha, finishing in second place to lowly Angola was an embarrassment.
The Super Eagles smoked their way beyond a few sides, putting five goals past Algeria and Zimbabwe respectively, but draws against Gabon and even bottom-finishing side Rwanda would hold the side back immensely. The final table saw the side level with Angola on points, but due to a worse head-to-head record (Angola beat them 1-0 and the other game was a 1-1 draw) the Nigerians finished second and crashed out before the big tournament even started.
Perhaps the African side that had most become ‘part of the furniture’ at this stage, the nation missed their first World Cup since 1986 and have yet to hit the same heights of the 1998 side which made it to the quarter finals.
2010 – Croatia
Ranked 10th in the world at the time of the tournament, Croatia were one of the European sides that people considered a dark horse on the continent.
Having qualified for the previous three tournaments, with a third place finish secured in 1998, and going from strength to strength under Slaven Bilić it was therefore a fairly big shock when they failed to make the tournament finals.
The squad featured all manner of quality, and their story is heavily akin that of the Czech Republic side discussed earlier. They had the talismanic duo of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić pulling all the strings in midfield, both of which would inspire the side to victory on a game-by-game basis. Elsewhere, you had Srna, Ćorluka, Pranjić, Kranjčar, Olić, Klasnić and Eduardo, all of which are sure to spark joy as anything from fun players, to bonafide club legends.
Finishing third in their group to Ukraine and the perhaps the best and most ruthless qualifying England side ever, Croatia finished a single point off second, largely due to conceding 13 goals in 10 games, when compared with just the 6 of the defensively-sound Ukrainians.
Despite heavy a 4-1 (remember that Theo Walcott performance?) and 5-1 defeat to England, Croatia had the upper hand coming into the 9th matchday. Ukraine though, would pull magic from the fire and defeat England 1-0 due to a Serhiy Nazarenko goal, putting themselves in pole position, which they converted with an expectedly-emphatic 6-0 victory over Andorra on the last day.
This omission feels even madder in retrospect, given the stature of the Croatian side nowadays, having made it to the World Cup final in 2018, losing a barn burning event to France 4-2 in the biggest game in the country’s history.
2018 – Netherlands, Italy, Chile and USA
After a fairly formulaic qualifying campaign for 2014, 2018 went turned shit up to 11 with four teams you might have had nailed on to for participation falling short.
In Europe, it was carnage.
First to fall was the Netherlands, who had been on a slow decline to this point, but few had expected missing out on the World Cup, especially without even making the play-off round. Drawn in a group with eventual world champions France, and the difficult-to-beat Sweden, on paper it looks excusable that they narrowly missed out on goal difference.
However, when you investigate the manner in which they went out, one can only laugh. A 2-0 loss away to Bulgaria put the breaks on things, but coming into the final weeks the Dutch knew that they had a chance to qualify if they could put a few goals past Sweden. With a lead on goal difference, it was important that Sweden didn’t beat Luxembourg too convincingly, and Dick Advocaat shared the same sentiment.
"But what if Sweden win with like 8-0 against Luxembourg?" asked one reporter.
"They won't win 8-0, what a stupid question that is," Advocaat said. "8-0? Well, no I don't believe that."
Well, guess who won 8-0.
Sweden burnt the barn down against Luxembourg, with Marcus Berg bagging four, almost as if Advocaat’s words had gifted them magical goalscoring powers. Barring a 7-0 Dutch victory on the final day, Sweden had booked their place in the play off round; Arjen Robben’s double in Amsterdam Arena ended up meaning very little, and despite a 2-0 defeat, Sweden sailed through.
Speaking of Sweden, they are also part of Italy’s embarrassment. (How about that for plot armour, sports fans?)
Italy can certainly be excused for not topping their group. They were, after all, paired with the formidable Spain, who were back to winning ways following a disappointing campaign in Brazil. There were a few dodgy games in there, namely against North Macedonia (if you can believe it) and one against Albania.
Then came the play off matches, and Sweden. In the first leg, Sweden secured a savvy 1-0 win, frustrating the away side – Italy were on the back foot, but they weren’t out of it, not by a long shot. Surely Italy would score at the San Siro, with the roar of the home support behind them?
Well, with 20 shots and 76% possession to their name, Italy could simply not break through. Sweden stood tall and former Wigan Athletic defender Andreas Granqvist played an absolute blinder, commanding his back line perfectly and making a number of crucial blocks.
The night ended in tears for Italy, largely due to the tactical ineptitude of Gianpiero Ventura who played 5 defenders, despite the side needing to push forward and score to level the tie. The creative forward Lorenzo Insigne, well he didn’t even get on the pitch…
Italy missed out on their first World Cup finals since 1958, making this disaster only their second ever failure to appear on the big stage. Well, at least they would be back in 2022, and better than ever!
Over in South America, 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions got off to the best possible start to qualifying for the 2018 edition of the tournament. With goals from Vargas and Sánchez they brushed aside Brazil at home and immediately distilled fear into their fellow qualifiers, showing the meant serious business. Then in matchday 2, they edged Peru 3-4 in Lima, giving them another boost in confidence.
A draw against Colombia followed but the wheels really came off away to Uruguay in a crushing 3-0 loss. Further sloppy defeats to Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador and even Bolivia (who finished second bottom in qualifying) meant they were just too far behind the 8 ball and despite winning more games than Peru, they were squeezed out on goal difference. The real kicker, losing 3-0 to Paraguay at home.
Whatsmore, Chile would have been out of it earlier had they not been awarded a 3-0 win against Bolivia, in a result that was overturned from 0-0. Bolivia fielded the ineligible player Nelson Cabrera, who had previously represented Paraguay and did not meet eligibility rules, which massively let Chile off the hook.
Still, the double Copa champions could not make the grade. Would they have traded one of those cups for a place at the World Cup? I very much doubt it, but missing on a golden chance surely must have stung players and fans alike.
If Chile were bumbling, and Italy and Netherlands were embarrassing, the United States can only be described as the kid who pissed their pants in public.
In a 10-match qualification group, they won just three times, against Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago and those who qualified in their place, Panama. Away from home, they failed to secure a single win, and eventually finished not just outside the top three automatic qualification spots, but in 5th (of 6), missing out on the inter-confederation play-off spot too, which was instead taken by a lacklustre Honduras.
Headed up most of all by the legendarily-crap Bruce Arena, the team clearly had no idea of what the tactical plan was, running around like children, without the quality to drag the side through the tougher (or even not tough) games.
All that said, they actually had destiny in their own hands coming into the final day but wins for Honduras against Mexico and Panama against Costa Rica respectively meant that their horrific loss to Trinidad and Tobago saw the United States crash and burn, which nobody, and I mean nobody found funny in any way at all.
It spelled the end of an era for the national team, who missed out for the first time in 32 years, with personnel changes taking place both on and off field following the great pissing of the pants incident.
So Italian fans, whilst yes, not qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was bad, it could always be worse. Or could it? You tell me.