For international teams, there is no competition that has quite the same level of prestige as the FIFA World Cup. Whilst all of the various federations have their own competitions, such as the manner in which UEFA has the European Championship, it is the World Cup that sees them all come together in an attempt to decide which is the best country on the planet. The nature of qualification for the tournament is such that not all of the teams that make it to the World Cup are as good as all of the others.
Whilst FIFA might like to pretend otherwise, for example, the reality is that teams from Oceania just aren’t as good as those from Europe. This means that some of the hosts over the years, who usually gain automatic qualification, don’t perform particularly well. They haven’t had to prove that they’re good enough to be at the World Cup in the first place, so the worst of them often then perform poorly when they come up against superior teams in their group, facing defeat after defeat and going down in history as underachievers, as we’ll see now.
Qatar – 2022
It is fair to say that many people didn’t think the World Cup should even be hosted by Qatar, such is the extent to which the country’s appalling human rights record and treatment of LGBTQ+ people say uncomfortably for most. That is before you even begin to discuss the fact that the entire tournament had to be moved from the summer to the winter in order to ensure that the temperatures weren’t too high for the players. Thousands of migrant workers died building the stadiums that the matches were played in, with the exact number being unknown.
If things off the field were problematic, they weren’t much better on the pitch. The World Cup in 2022 kicked off with Qatar losing their opening match against Ecuador, failing to register a single shot on target across the duration of the 90 minutes of playing time. That wasn’t the best of starts, but other host nations have also failed to win their opening game. The main issue came in the second group game, when the AFCON champions Senegal defeated them and ensured that they had the worst start to a World Cup ever for a host nation. Even the goal in the 3-1 defeat couldn’t change that fact.
Their fate already sealed, Qatar then lose 2-0 to the Netherlands in the final group game. A first-half goal from in-form Cody Gakpo was followed up by a second from Frenkie de Jong, consigning Qatar’s World Cup bid to the dustbin of history. They became the first nation ever to go out in the group stage with zero points, finishing bottom courtesy of their three losses. In reality, the Dutch national side probably should’ve won by more. It was a humiliation for a country that never should have hosted the World Cup in the first place.
South Africa – 2010
The energy and enthusiasm of the South African fans meant that many people remember the World Cup hosted there in 2010 fondly. Those that didn’t enjoy the constant drone of the vuvuzelas that were popularised that year won’t look back on the tournament with all that much joy in their hearts and, truth be told, neither will the South African players. For a moment, it looked like things would be so different for the hosts when Siphiwe Tshabalala scored a stunning goal to open the World Cup, but all they could muster was a draw with Mexico.
After that, defeat to Uruguay meant that it was all but impossible for them to get out of the group, barring a final day miracle. Though that miracle never came, there was at least some vague sense of excitement for the team and their supporters. Many had all but written South Africa’s chances off, unaware that France, their final game opponents, had somehow contrived to implode after a 2-0 loss to Mexico. The dream was alive when South Africa went in 2-0 up at half-time, managing to cling on even after a 70th minute goal for Florent Malouda, finishing third in the group.
Spain – 1982
Having not made it past the first round of the World Cup since 1950, it’s fair to say that expectations were low for Spain when they hosted the tournament in 1982. The first group stage pitted them against Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and Honduras, so there was a general sense that they would be able to qualify relatively comfortably. When they drew 1-1 with Honduras in their opening game, however, that feeling began to evaporate for the majority of people watching on from the sidelines. That they had to play the superior Yugoslavia next didn’t help.
The good news for the home fans was that Spain managed to rally themselves against Yugoslavia, even though things couldn’t have gone worse when they conceded in the 10th minute. A 14th minute penalty was followed up with a winner after 66 minutes, seeing them progress to the second group stage. There they faced West Germany and England, which couldn’t have been much worse for them, drawing with England and losing to West Germany and heading home much sooner than they’d have hoped. Better than it could’ve been, worse than it should’ve.
Japan – 2002
If you look at the facts of the 2002 World Cup then you’ll see that Japan were actually the joint hosts of the tournament alongside South Korea. Whether they deserve to be on this list or not will obviously therefore be a matter of opinion, but it isn’t outrageous to say that they didn’t do as well as they should’ve. After all, South Korea made it all the way to the semi-finals, whereas Japan failed to make it past the round of 16. Things looked relatively good for the co-hosts when they finished top of their group, too.
A 2-2 draw with Belgium was followed by a 1-0 win over Russia and a 2-0 victory against Tunisia, meaning that the Samurai Blue ended up having a knockout game against Turkey. That didn’t go as well as many predicted, largely thanks to a header from Umit Davala giving the Turkish side a 1-0 win and allowing them to profess to the quarter-finals. For Japan, it wasn’t quite humiliation but it’s not outrageous to suggest that they should’ve done better. After all, it was the joint-worst performance by a host nation at the time.
USA – 1994
In terms of Japan’s disappointing turn as hosts, it was level with the United States of America when it came to a lack of success. For those that know American sports, it is not outrageous to suggest that football is very far down the pecking order. From baseball to American football via ice hockey, ‘soccer’ just isn’t seen as a major sport in the US of A. When Diana Ross missed the penalty during the opening ceremony that was supposed to kick-start everything, that should have been a sign of what was to come as the tournament progressed.
For the team, the first match took place indoors at the Pontiac Silverdome and resulted in a draw with Switzerland. A win over Colombia was followed up with a loss to Romania, putting the hosts on four points and allowing them to progress to the next round as one of the best third-placed team. In that sense, they actually did worse than Japan, who at least managed to progress by finishing top of their group. The knockout stage brought a match against Brazil, who defeated them 1-0 on their way to lifting the trophy for the fourth time.
Switzerland – 1954
In some ways, it is unfair to write about World Cups from during the competition’s formative years. In 1954, just 16 teams competed in the final tournament, compared to double that that took part in the 2022 iteration. That the 1954 format was unique makes it even tougher to decide whether it’s far to criticise Switzerland’s performance that year. They were placed in a group with England, Italy and Belgium, so the fact that they managed to advance to the knockout stage is maybe something that is worthy of praise.
A win over Italy was followed up by a loss to England, resulting in the need for a play-off to decide which team would progress. Switzerland defeated Italy 4-1 in the play-off, earning themselves a knock-out match against neighbours Austria. That produced the sort of match that commentators crave nowadays, with 12 goals scored across 90 minutes. In the end, the Austrians just shaded it, winning 7-5, before they were knockout out by West Germany, the eventual winners. Not even close to the worst performance from a host nation, but far from the best.
Colombia – 1986
This one is a little bit of a cheat, if we’re being honest. Even so, a country that wins the right to host the World Cup but then doesn’t actually do so has to be one of the worst performing ever, surely? That is precisely what happened to Colombia, who won the right the host the 1986 World Cup in 1974. That gave the country 12 years to prepare, but it also gave every other country 12 years to wonder what the hell was going on there. As the years passed, Colombia’s government collapsed and guerrilla armies and drug cartels began to rule the roost.
With fewer than four years left before the World Cup was due to kick-off, Colombia conceded its right to host the World Cup. FIFA instead chose to award hosting duties to Mexico, in spite of the fact that the Mexicans had hosted the tournament just 16 years before. The only good thing to come out of it from a Colombian point of view was the construction of the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez, which would go on to be nation’s premier stadium and the home of Atletico Junior for decades to follow.
Uruguay – 1930
In some ways this is another slight cheat. After all, 1930 was the debut of the World Cup as a tournament and Uruguay, acting as hosts, actually made it all the way to the final. The thing that makes their performance one of the worst is the fact that they almost certainly cheated to get there. It is fair to say that the competition bore witness to some truly atrocious officiating, including the disallowing of four goals scored by Bolivia before they lost 4-0 to Yugoslavia. If the officials were on Yugoslavia’s side, however, it didn’t show.
The team that they had to face in the next round were the hosts, who were ‘fortunate’ when a Yugoslavian goal was disallowed for a reason no one could quite fathom. If that wasn’t bad enough, Uruguay then scored their opening goal after the ball had gone out of play but the referee allowed the match to continue when a policeman kicked it back onto the pitch. It shows, perhaps, that if you’re going to cheat to make the World Cup final, it doesn’t even matter if you’re particularly good at it. Still, that they didn’t win was an under-achievement.
Mexico – 1970
We’ll finish up by looking at another team that didn’t do anywhere near as badly as Qatar but that still should’ve done better, all things considered. One of only a few teams to host the World Cup more than once, Mexico was chosen over Argentina as hosts at the FIFA Congress in 1964. There were 16 teams in the final tournament, which saw Mexico put in a group with Belgium, El Salvador and the Soviet Union. The first match involved the hosts drawing 0-0 with the Soviet team, before they defeated El Salvador 4-0.
A 1-0 win over Belgium was enough to see Mexico advance to the knockout stage, where they took on Italy. Another four goals were scored here, but sadly it was the Italian side that managed to score them, seeing Mexico exit at the first point that it was possible for them to be knocked out in a single game. Italy did at least make it all the way to the final, where they lost by the same 4-1 scoreline that they had defeated the hosts by in their quarter-final match-up. A quarter-final exit is by no means the worst on our list, of course.