Zaire (now DR Congo), the darling team of President Mobutu, became the first sub-Saharan African country to qualify in 1974, and actually began their Finals campaign in Gelsenkirchen with a creditable performance despite losing 0-2 to Scotland.
Things were to deteriorate swiftly however amid behind the scenes politicking and chaos. The remaining group games were lost 0-9 to Yugoslavia, and 0-3 to reigning World Champions, Brazil.
After being told their pay and bonuses were safe, no matter the result against the Scots, the squad weren’t paid, and threatened not to play against Yugoslavia. Another theory suggested that coach Blagoje Vidinic was trying to ensure a good result, boosting goal difference, for his native country.
That may not sound too ridiculous. Midfielder, ‘Goodyear’ Mayanga lauded for his display against the Scots was inexplicably dropped to the bench for an already injured replacement, and after the Leopards had conceded three goals in the first 20 mins, Vidinic withdrew goalkeeper Kazadi, another who earned praise in the first game, despite not being at fault for any of the Yugoslav goals.
AS Vita Club ‘keeper, Dimbi Tubilandu was the replacement. At a mere 5 ft 4 ins, he stood little chance against the much more ruggedly-formed Balkan opposition. He conceded a further six!
Mobutu reacted by telling the team they would not be welcomed home should they lose their last match, against Brazil, by more than three goals. This prompted one of the most bizarre moments in World Cup history.
With Brazil 2-0 in front, five minutes left and Jairzinho and Rivelino sizing up a free-kick, Mwepu Ilunga sprinted from the defending wall and put his foot through the ball sending it deep into the Brazilian half, while a shocked stadium looked on.
The player, sent-off for his actions, later revealed he was time-wasting in trying to prevent the 4-goal margin that would prevent him and his team-mates from returning home.
President Mobutu called the team’s performance, embarrassing and terminated funding for the national team thereafter. But at least they were able to return home.
El Salvador 1982 (with a little bit of 1970 thrown in) – Lost 3. Goal difference -12 (For 1, Against 13)
El Salvador’s two appearances at the Finals yielded no success whatsoever. One goal, six defeats, and 22 goals conceded.
The Spanish city of Elche was the scene of their worst nightmare in 1982. Amidst a complete lack of anything resembling decent preparation the squad arrived in Spain only three days before their opening match. There wasn’t enough training gear available at their base, so the squad, depleted by two players jettisoned at the eleventh hour in favour of two officials, had to make do.
They left war-torn El Salvador as heroes, but after being pummelled 10-1 by Hungary in their opening match, were shunned upon returning home. Their 36 year-old coach Mauricio ‘Pipo’ Rodriguez, a player in their previous 1970 WC participation, would never coach again, instead choosing to concentrate on running his engineering firm.
To rebuild confidence after the Hungarian horror show, they actually played a friendly, stuffing their Spanish hotel waiters. Perhaps this helped! They performed much better in their remaining games; (0-1) v Belgium and (0-2) v reigning World Champions, Argentina.
Never did have much luck, the Salvadorans. During their fruitless 1970 campaign (0 goals and as many points) there was an interesting and controversial incident in the match against hosts Mexico at the Azteca. As the game drifted to half-time still scoreless, Egyptian referee, Hussain Kandil, awarded a free-kick to the Salvadorans in their own half. As they readied to take the kick, a Mexican player actually took it, passing to a colleague who scored. Despite furious protests from the El Salvador team the goal was allowed to stand.
El Salvador re-started the game by kicking the ball directly into the crowd in protest. They went on to lose 0-4.
Saudi Arabia, 2002 – Lost 3. Goal difference -12 (For 0, Against 12)
Coach Nasser al-Johar had been assured his job was safe regardless of events. But after a horrendous 0-8 defeat to Germany In which Miroslav Klose’s treble laid the foundation for his Golden Boot, was compounded by defeats by Mick McCarthy’s, Roy Keane-less, Ireland (0-3) and Cameroon (0-1), Saudi assurances went out the window!
It was al-Johar’s first of two firings from the national team job. He also resigned once!
The Green Falcons were the first team sent packing from the tournament and departed without registering a goal.
In 1954 South Korea became the second Asian country to play at a World Cup Finals.
Getting to Switzerland for the Finals would prove no easy matter. With no direct flights from Seoul, the Koreans had to turn to the US Air Force for help, players and staff leaving on two flights.
The first, an American military plane sent from Japan, could only carry 11 players. Reportedly the aircraft configured for tall American soldiers, was a source of discomfort to the shorter Korean footballers. The 48 hour journey included refuelling stops in Manila, Hanoi, Calcutta, Karachi, Syria and finally Italy.
The second aircraft arrived in Switzerland just hours before their opening match. As if jet-lag wasn’t bad enough, the players had to sew white cloth numbers found in Zurich the previous evening, on the back of their red shirts. Quite simply, it was a shambles.
Lying in wait was Ferenc Puskas and his Magnificent Magyars, the Hungarian team hailed as tournament favourites, and they were in no mood for mercy.
The Korean players were clearly in no condition to play, some actually collapsing in exhaustion during the second half. The reigning Olympic champions scored nine without reply: Puskas claimed a brace, while Sandor Kocsis, the eventual tournament Golden Boot winner, netted 3. In his autobiography, Puskas rather unkindly wrote this about the Koreans:
“It was more than inexplicable how the Korean team had even been admitted. They were very weak and basically had no training.”
Three days later the Koreans played their second match, another heavy loss (0-7) to an ordinary Turkey. It really could have been worse! Eventual World champions, West Germany were the fourth team in the group, but in a strange format, the two non-seeded teams did not meet. One can only wonder how many goals the hapless Koreans would have shipped had the groups been completed in conventional round-robin fashion.
So four days after arriving in Zurich, the South Koreans were on their way back to Seoul via yet another gruelling itinerary of flights.
Haiti, 1974 – Lost 3. Goal difference -12 (For 2, Against 14)
Haiti didn’t exactly return home to Papa Doc as heroes in 1974, but one man did – Emanuel Sanon. Sanon who sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the premature age of 56, became an icon on the Carribean island nation as the only Haitian to score for his country at a World Cup. He scored both his country’s goals in ‘74.
It was the first of those that set tongues wagging. Italy were unbeaten in 19 internationals and the great Dino Zoff was in the process of setting a record number of consecutive minutes for not conceding a goal in international football. Sanon was the unlikely striker to break the spell at 1142 minutes (a record that still stands incidentally) latching onto a through ball, rounding Zoff, and sliding the ball into the unguarded net. Sensationally the Haitians held their lead into the second-half.
It would all soon go downhill with Rivera, Benetti and Anastasi scoring to give the Italians a 3-1 win, before further defeats at the hands of Poland (0-7) and Argentina (1-4), and the ignominy of having the first player in World Cup history, Ernst Jean-Joseph, banned and sent home for failing a drugs test.
Strangely, despite three heavy defeats Le Grenadiers returned home with their heads held high, and Sanon reaching levels of immortality in his homeland. The striker’s legacy remains through The Emanuel Sanon Soccer Park opened in 2010 to give young athletes and footballers a centre of excellence within which to hone their skills. His family were granted a perpetual posthumous pension by the Haitian government.
Other contenders -
Four others ultimately not making my list, although for which a case could be made, include Greece 1994, the only European nation in WC Finals-history to finish pointless and without a goal (goal difference 0-10) at the bottom of their group.
China 2002, also has a claim. In Korea/Japan, they failed to find the net, conceding nine, and losing all three games.
And finally, the Bolivian side in Brazil in 1950, played only one match, losing 0-8 to eventual winners and World Champions, Uruguay. The Bolivians qualified only by default, after three other South American qualifiers, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador all withdrew before the draw. Bolivia was placed in a group that contained only one other opponent, Uruguay.