Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Praise of the Little Countries

Generally speaking, the bigger your population, the bigger the pool of world-class athletes, the better your chances of qualifying for the World Cup finals.

Makes sense, yes?

But raw population is by no means an indicator of world-level soccer success. If it were, China would have made more than one World Cup. India would have made one. Any one.

Many countries with a tiny fraction of China's population -- or the United States or Indonesia, for that matter -- are prime contenders to be in South Africa next June.

Using FIFA qualifying standings and wikipedia world population statistics, let's determine at the 10 smallest countries -- from lightly populated to least-populated -- who have clinched a berth at South Africa 2010 or remain solidly in contention to do so.

The little contenders, with population and (in parantheses) their global population rank:

10. Paraguay, 6,350,000 (103). We don't need to talk about Paraguay's chances, because Paraguay is one of only 11 countries already qualified for South Africa 2010. And, of course, the smallest in population in the tournament. So far.

9. Slovakia, 5,413,000 (111). What was once the lower half of Czechslovakia is now holding the upper hand in Europe's Group 3. All Slovakia needs is a tie at home, Oct. 10, vs. Slovenia, to clinch first place and punch its ticket to South Africa -- and gain its first World Cup finals as an indepedent country.

8. Costa Rica, 4,435,000 (118). Two weeks ago, the Ticos looked likely to secure one of the three guaranteed World Cup berths out of Concacaf, but a pair of defeats dropped them to fourth in the regional standings. That's disturbing in the little Central American country, considering that the Ticos were in first place before Sept. 5. But even a fourth-place finish is enough to keep them alive for a place in South Africa -- via a home-and-home playoff with South America's No. 5 team. Note: Costa Rica has no military, perhaps freeing up more guys to play soccer.

7. Croatia, 4,435,000 (119). The semifinalist from France 1998 is second in Europe Group 6, and can clinch second place -- and almost a certain slot in the playoffs for Europe's final four berths at South Africa -- with a victory at Kazakhstan on Oct. 14.

6. Ireland, 4,422,000 (120). The Emerald Isle (well, minus Northern Ireland, which competes on its own) is a World Cup overachiever, having made three of the past five finals. Ireland can clinch second place in Europe Group 8 with a victory at home vs. Italy (unlikely) on Oct. 10, or vs. Montenegro (quite likely) on Oct. 14. FYI: Ireland's current population is roughly equal to the number of immigrants it has sent to the United States, alone.

5. Uruguay, 3,361,000 (132). Historically, the most successful of the Little People, with two World Cup championships (1930, 1950) on its resume -- despite having less than 10 percent of the population of the U.S. state of California. Uruguay is one point behind Argentina for fifth place in the South America standings, which would yield a playoff with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf, and two points behind Ecuador for fourth place and a guaranteed slot at South Africa. Uruguay controls its destiny; it plays at Ecuador on Oct. 10 and is home to Argentina on Oct. 14.

4. Latvia, 2,257,000 (141). The smallest of the Baltic countries, both in size and population, is very much alive in Europe Group 2, tied with Greece for second place. The Letts would lead the group had they been able to hold either of two leads in a home match against Switzerland on Sept. 9. It finished 2-2. Latvia needs a point from a road match at Greece on Oct. 10 to finish second and get in the Europe second-place playoffs.

3. Slovenia, 2,045,000 (145). The smallest splinter to emerge from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia is well-positioned to finish at least second in Europe Group 3. The Slovenes could even win the group with a victory at Slovakia, and a victory at San Marino (as close to a certainty as there is in FIFA) together with a loss by the Slovaks at Poland. At the least, the three points from the San Marino match should get Slovenia second place and probably a berth in the four home-and-home pairings to determine the final four European teams that go to South Africa.

2. Gabon, 1,475,000 (149). A small West African country best known for lush scenery and exotic wild life, until this qualifying cycle. Two weeks ago, Gabon looked in good shape to make the Word Cup, but successive losses to Cameroon (pop. 19.5 million) have damaged Gabon's hopes of winning Africa Group A (and qualifying). It remains doable, but it's not the way to bet.

1. Bahrain, 791,000 (159). Bahrain is an oil-rich island in The Gulf, just offshore from the Arabian Peninsula, with a population about 2 percent as large as the city of Tokyo. And Bahrain is 180 minutes away from being the smallest country -- in area as well as population -- to qualify for a World Cup finals. Bahrain has been punching above its weight all along, finishing fifth in Asia qualifying. Now it has a home-and-home with New Zealand, Oceania champion, to see who goes to South Africa 2010, and rates as a slight favorite. If you root for the littlest guy, Bahrain is your ultimate side.

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