The 2018 FIFA World Cup came to a close Sunday when France secured a 4-2 victory at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium with a strike from outside the penalty box by the Golden Boy Award winner Kylian Mbappé. Les Bleus had impressed en route to the final, with two-thirds of their matches finishing as shutouts. But perhaps more impressive is who made it to that final match as their opponent, a country which only recently gained their independence in 1991 and whose population is only 4.29 million.
Croatia, that young country, needed to overcome soccer powerhouses such as Argentina and England to secure their place in the final. They beat Russia—a nation of over 142 million—in penalties in the quarterfinals, and persevered over England, who boasts a population of around 53 million, in extra time in the semifinals. And although they ultimately came up short against France, Croatia had played a full 90 minutes more than their opponent coming into the final due to three extra time games, and their entire country’s population was merely one-fifteenth of France’s.
Despite these stark contrasts, Croatia is not the smallest country to make a World Cup final. That honor belongs to Uruguay, who won in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 1930 (while hosting) and again in 1950, the first time with a population of only 1.7 million people.
Yet Croatia’s remarkable run makes a convincing case for the most unlikely World Cup finalist ever. First of all, Croatia entered the tournament as the 20th-ranked team in the world, becoming the lowest-ranked team to ever play in a World Cup final. Oddsmakers had favored them as a dark horse for a deep run in the tournament, powered by their world-class midfielders Golden Ball Award winner Luka Modric (of Real Madrid) and Ivan Rakitic (of FC Barcelona), but few expected them to make it as far as they did. Second, 1.7 million people in 1930 corresponds to many more people today. Uruguay’s population is currently double what is was when they won the first ever World Cup, putting them on a similar level of country size in their era as Croatia today. Third, the tournament only consisted of 13 teams back then, and they mainly came from the nearest countries, without regard to skill (only four teams came from outside of the Americas). With that smaller sample size and reduced competition, there is less of a chance for more experienced teams to prove their quality, giving underdogs a sizable advantage compared with the modern tournament. And lastly, Uruguay benefitted in 1930 from being the host country. You can read about the significant advantages hosts have enjoyed historically at the World Cup here.
Croatia is not the only small country to recently impress on the world stage, though. Iceland, with a population of just 335,000, became the smallest country to ever qualify for the tournament. They shocked Europe by winning their World Cup qualification group and finishing as a quarterfinalist in the 2016 European Championships. Previously, Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 had been the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup, when they had a population of 1.3 million.
Faced with more and more small countries overperforming, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a British professional services company with a focus on accounting, published a comprehensive study in June 2014 that attempted to determine what factors most affected World Cup performance. As opposed to the Olympics, where the size of a country’s economy was found to have a strong correlation with their medal count, PwC found in their study that money can’t buy success in the World Cup. The wealthiest countries didn’t receive any discernable advantages, and even huge investments in nationwide programs, such as in Saudi Arabia, Hungary, and China, have yet to produce any significant results. For example, President Xi Jinping of China is funding 20,000 new training centers, including a $185 million one in Guangzhou. Yet they failed to even reach the World Cup, despite the relatively easy qualifying field in Asia.
Instead, PwC concluded that several soccer-related variables account for teams’ World Cup performances, including their FIFA ranking, quantity of soccer players, tradition of soccer, and average interest in the sport. These findings indicate that a country’s population size is not the be-all and end-all at the World Cup, but rather correlates with other factors that influence success. A huge country like Russia will have many more soccer players than a small country like Denmark, giving them an advantage, but small countries devoted to the sport, such as Uruguay, Iceland, and Croatia, can make up the difference by overperforming in other categories. Croatia has a strong soccer tradition, playing in 5 of the 6 World Cups since their independence and finishing in the top 3 in 2 of them. Iceland has a strong nationwide commitment to soccer, with 10% of the country’s population coming out to a parade in the capital of Reykjavik to welcome home the conquering heroes of the national team after their quarterfinal finish at the 2016 Euros.
The United States has a large population but a relatively small interest and tradition in soccer, leading them to be more of a middling team on the world stage. In fact, they missed out on qualifying for the World Cup this year, and risk doing so in the future, considering that their youth participation in the sport has dropped 14% over the past 3 years.
And although Croatia did not end up on top in this World Cup, their strong performance highlights the importance of factors other than population, putting the onus on countries such as the United States to increase soccer interest and participation if they want to be able to compete in 2022 and the future. Defeats at the hands of small countries like Trinidad and Tobago have shown that they can’t rely on their size to get them through qualifying, not to mention World Cup success. After all, if population was the only metric to judge a team’s World Cup performance, every four years would see a China-India rematch.
The World Cup is over, but in under a month’s time enough club teams around the world will begin competing again, and the best way to watch them is with FanWide. FanWide can help you find a local bar or restaurant where you can watch the game with other soccer fans, no matter where you are, allowing you to enjoy the sport as it is meant to be—with other people.