Over the 91-year history of the World Cup finals, we’ve had some sometimes unusual and often unexpected participants from a wide variety of nations. With Qatar guaranteed their first appearance at the 22nd edition of the competition, we’ll be seeing yet another debutant. And thanks to the inclusive nature of the World Cup, bringing together interpretations of the beautiful game from all over the world, all debutants make an impact in some significant way; from nations who have only appeared once, like Cuba and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1938, to nations that qualified and never showed up – India in 1950 – to wars started over qualification games (Honduras and El Salvador prior to the 1970 tournament). And then there may even be nations who interpret the rules differently, like the famous Zaire 1974 team.
With the emergence of the Nations League competition, the expansion of the Euros, and the World Cup to be expanded in 2026, we may well see more of these “unusual” participants, thanks to smaller nations getting more competitive experience and more places to fight for. So, keeping this in mind, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the smallest nations to compete in a World Cup finals tournament.
5. Kuwait (1.5 Million in 1982): World Cup of Minnows
Hosted in Spain, the 1982 World Cup saw the number of participants in the tournament increased from 16 to 24, allowing more participants from the African and Asian Federations. This meant that Algeria, Cameroon, Honduras, and New Zealand all qualified for the first time – but it was Kuwait that really stood out.
With a population of just 1.5 million, Kuwait managed to build a national team that not only qualified for their first World Cup ahead of nations like China, South Korea, and Australia, but also won the Asian Cup in 1980 and the biannual Arabian Gulf Cup 7 times between 1970 and 1990.
They gave a decent account of themselves, earning a point against Czechoslovakia and going down 1-0 to an England side containing Peter Shilton, Glenn Hoddle, and Trevor Francis – the first million-pound player the lone scorer – but, after exiting at the group stage in 1982, they have so far never managed to qualify for a second tournament appearance. After being placed under FIFA sanctions in the early 2000s, they’re now seeing the first green shoots of recovery and may well return to the global stage in the near future.
4. Northern Ireland (1.4 Million in 1958): Irish Join the Party
One small nation that has been on the up recently made their first appearance at the 1958 tournament in Sweden. It’s the only World Cup that all four Home Nations have qualified for and was the first of three qualifications for Northern Ireland. With a population of just 1.4 million in 1958, Northern Ireland had a fantastic run that saw them beat Czechoslovakia twice and draw with West Germany, before being knocked out by France in the second round. Added to the issue of having such a small talent pool to choose from, the political backdrop in Ireland for the past 100 years, and the fact that Northern Ireland weren’t a fully-fledged member of FIFA until 1951 makes this achievement even more incredible.
With that 1958 qualification, Northern Ireland became the second-least populous country to have qualified for the World Cup, a record that stood until 2006. But they are still the least populous country to have qualified for more than one World Cup finals tournament, to win a World Cup finals match, and to have progressed from the first round of the World Cup finals.
Apart from a purple patch in the early 80s, when they qualified for the 1982 and 1986 editions, it looked like the Northern Irish might never make the international stage again. However, after qualification for the 2016 European Championship in France, there is renewed hope that Northern Ireland can build on this success and make the cut for a World Cup sooner rather than later.
3. Trinidad and Tobago (1.3 Million in 2006): Soca Warriors Invasion
The 2006 World Cup saw Trinidad and Tobago made their first ever appearance after beating Bahrain in a playoff. Drawn in a group containing England, Paraguay, and Sweden, the “Soca Warriors”, representing a collection of islands with 1.3 million inhabitants, could only manage a point against the Swedes, spearheaded by Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovich, and finished bottom.
Despite the small population, however, T&T had some quality players to call upon, with their squad boasting the likes of Shaka Hislop, Stern John, Carlos Edwards, Kenwyne Jones, Jason Scotland, and legend Dwight Yorke. Since the end of this golden generation, Trinidad & Tobago have struggled, and even with the expansion of the competition in 2026 it looks like we’ll have to wait a long time before we see them at another World Cup finals.
2. Paraguay (c.925,000 in 1930): Small Nation, Big Entertainment
A favourite of 90s tournaments, Paraguay, was allegedly the smallest nation to compete at the World Cup from its inception in 1930 until 2018, but thanks to a failed 1930 census and war breaking out in 1932, we can’t be sure of the exact population data. However, based on censuses taken in 1924 and ’36, (showing the population increasing from 828,968 to 992,420), this is certainly one of the smallest countries to have ever taken part in the Finals.
While sources may differ as to the precise population of Paraguay in 1930, (when they went out in the first round of the very first edition of the competition in Uruguay), there is one thing we can be sure of – they’ve been entertaining us ever since. Paraguay’s golden generation qualified for the 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, but will be best remembered by many for their flamboyant, free-kick and penalty-taking goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert, who scored 8 goals for his country.
After a disappointing last decade, Paraguay are currently hanging on in the CONMEBOL qualification group and we may well be seeing La Albirroja at a World Cup again sooner rather than later.
1. Iceland (335,000 in 2018): Record Breakers
Iceland is the country with the smallest population (335,000) to ever take part in the World Cup Finals, when they qualified for the 2018 tournament in Russia. According to internet calculations, the only 11 men left on the island after accounting for doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, and so on, were the 11 that walked out onto the pitch in Russia.
Iceland arrived at the 2018 World Cup off the back of a hugely successful 2016 European Championship, during which they managed to knock out Roy Hodgson’s England. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t quite replicate the form they had shown in their previous international tournament appearance and only managed a solitary – but respectable – point against Argentina before bowing out after losses to Nigeria and eventual finalists Croatia.
For an island with a population around the same as that of Coventry, simply reaching the tournament was a massive achievement. They took full advantage of their experience, delivering the thunderclap to the world, although it might be a while before we see it in full force again thanks to the Icelandic Football Association being caught up in a scandal and in serious need of a complete overhaul.