I Just Can’t Copa
Every four years, something truly special happens in the world of sport: one group of Americans gathers together to make fun of another group of Americans on the internet for liking soccer.
Yes, it’s World Cup time once again, and while even the laziest poseur can bring himself up to speed about the history, mascots, and field formation of the likes of Argentina and South Korea with a quick glance at ESPN.com, he will still be pitifully short of knowledge of the deep cuts of this beautiful game. Only 32 teams a year actually qualify for the Cup, and fewer than 100 countries have qualified in the tournament’s entire history; but there’s more to international football than Team USA and El Tri. Every sovereign nation on the planet Earth — even countries like Andorra, whose entire population could fit into a single Church’s Chicken — fields a World Cup team. But there are dozens that, for a variety of reasons (poverty, small population, geographical isolation, not giving a shit), will probably never actually appear in World Cup competition.
Although soccer has its own unique culture and quirks, one can fairly say of it what one can say of all other sports: every team’s success or failure can by predicted by its choice of mascot. Today, we present a schedule of perennial World Cup losers, and speculate about how their team names may be barring them from greater glory.
GROUP A : UNFLATTERING ANIMALS
Benin: The Squirrels. Group A is represented by teams who rightly eschew such played-out super-predators as sharks, lions, and bears, but err perhaps too much on the side of caution. Benin, for example, best known as “the country next to Togo”, has chosen to represent their nation’s finest athletes with the symbol of a harmless, park-dwelling rodent that runs off with the potato chip fragments that fall out of your mouth when your’re on your lunch break.
The Solomon Islands: The Bonitos. Oceania has never done particularly well in international competition; even hapless Australia is too good for them and gets to play in the Asian Football Conference against powerhouse teams like Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. This small island confederation, conversely, once an important military base during WWII and then never heard from again, has named its national team after a small, flat mackerel that the Japanese convert into flakes and use to flavor soup.
Guinea-Bissau: Djurtus. Look, I understand, when you’re one of the Guinea countries, you have to do something to stand out, just to get people to stop confusing you with Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Papua New Guinea, and Guyana. And the last thing I want to do is get all colonial and judge someone else’s cultural self-expression. But this word — referring to African wild dogs — sounds less menacing than it does, well, kinda racist. Still, it’s not as bad as:
The Philippines: Azcals. There’s also something to be said for reclaiming a name with negative connotation, as the Filipino national team did here with “Azcals”, or “street dogs”. But the word is closely related to an straight-up ethnic slur that means, basically, “mongrel dog” and is used to describe the Visayan ethnic minority, and even if it wasn’t, it’s still basically the equivalent of calling your greatest athletes “the Bunch of Mutts”.
GROUP B: BIZARRE ANIMALS
The Maldives: Red Snappers. Look, don’t get me wrong: red snapper is delicious. It’s just not, well, fearsome. You don’t see a lot of countries naming their national teams after food animals, and there’s a reason for that; you’d much rather have your opponents thinking you’re going to eat them than the other way around. The Maldives! We are delicious pan-seared with a soy-ginger reduction!
Madagascar: Barea. Speaking of being named after something people eat, you’d think that a country with as much biodiversity as Madagascar could come up with something more intimidating than a bulky, slow-moving cattle breed of zebu. I know the thing is on their coat of arms and has regal connotations and all that, but your national team shouldn’t be named after anything that can be turned into a cheeseburger.
Ethiopia: The Walias. The perpetually underachieving Ethiopian men’s soccer team is called the “Walias”. What, you may ask, is a walia? Well, according to Wikipedia, it is either an endangered type of ibex that eats lichens and creepers and “rests in the sun on rock ledges”, or it is a member of the family of former Miss India Sonu Walia, star of such films as Swarg Jaisaa Ghar and Khoon Bhari Maang. Either way, go get ’em, boys!
Comoros: Coelacanths. Maybe it’s part of an inferiority complex thanks to being a tiny little country on a spit of volcanic rock off the coast of Africa, but Comoros has pretty much guaranteed that they will never make headway in international competition by naming their team after a gross, ugly prehistoric lungfish. But hey, at least you can’t eat them.
GROUP C: INCOMPREHENSIBLE ANIMALS
Papua New Guinea: Kapuls. Another Guinea, another weird animal. You’d think a country that still has actual cannibals could come up with a more fearsome team name than this, but no. Eat a Rockefeller, and instead of being called the Billionaire Hearts, you get named after a “kapul”, whatever that is. (It’s actually another word for a “cuscus”, whatever that is. Wikipedia says it’s either a weird-looking Australian possum or something related to the slow loris.)
São Tomé & Principe: The Falcons & True Parrots Team. Jesus, get over yourselves, São Tomé & Principe. Just because you have two names and two diacritics doesn’t mean you get to have two mascots, one of which is pretty fancy for a talking bird that lives on saltines and the goodwill of pirates.
Finland: The Eagle-Owls. Finland is one of the few Scandinavian countries — one of the few European countries, period, in fact — that isn’t really very good at football, largely because they have expended all their athletic young men for hockey and heavy metal. That may be why they’ve adopted this ridiculous Frankenstein hybrid as their mascot, which sounds like it was invented by a dull 11-year-old for his first D&D campaign.
The Central African Republic: The Wild Beasts. The country that couldn’t be bothered to name itself, beyond a vague descriptor of its geographical location and form of government, also couldn’t be bothered to name its football team beyond the fact that it is some sort of non-domesticated animal. A nutria? A tarrasque? A brine shrimp? The world may never know.
GROUP D: POP CULTURE
Sierra Leone: The Leone Stars. A number of national football teams, though they may not necessarily be avid consumers of Yankee pop culture, sound like they were given their monikers by a slow-witted intern for Entertainment Weekly. Take this one: while it’s possible that it’s a reference that only makes sense in Portuguese or Mende. this sounds exactly like the title of the movie Chuck Norris would make if he were assigned to do an action thriller about West African soccer.
Bhutan: Bhutan Eleven. Coming this summer: Bhutan’s Eleven! A ragtag group of schemers plots an elaborate caper to rob Chinese high-rollers of their roulette winnings at a Thimphu casino. If they succeed, they can retire to a tropical paradise and spend the rest of their lives explaining that they’re not Tibetan; if they fail, they must go back to their day jobs as a football team that can’t get past round 1 of the South Asian Football Federation Cup tournament.
Grenada: The Spice Boys. I’m sure this is a real, competitive international football team from the Caribbean that plays actual matches, and not a male a cappella group of aging 30-somethings in a barside cantina singing Creole versions of “Say You’ll Be There” for tourists. But you can see how one could get the wrong impression.
St. Vincent & the Grenadines: Vincy Heat. Voted least likely team in CONCACAF to win the World Cup, and most likely team in CONCACAF to become a spinoff of CSI: MIami starring Jim Belushi and Nicki Minaj.
GROUP E: NAMES BY COMMITTEE
Yemen: Yemen Team. A lot of national football teams aren’t really trying. While Kyrgyzstan may not actually be embarrassing themselves by referring to their team only as “Kyrgyzstan” (as opposed to “The Hoop Skirts” or “The Disgrace of Central Asia”), they aren’t doing themselves any favors, either. So you get a lot of sides, especially ones that arose in the post-Soviet era after everything had been named by a subcommittee of the Comintern in a Kremlin basement for the last 50 years, who figure it’s enough to just field a damn team, and never get as far as calling it anything more elaborate than, oh, say, “Yemen Team”.
Guinea: The National Elephants. Guinea’s team was formerly known as the Texaco Elephants until the federal government took control of the country’s elephant reserves in 1993.
Vatican City: Vatican. Yes, even the Vatican has a national football team, despite the fact that it is not a country but a single building, and that it is so tiny that the squad comprises about 40% of its entire population. (It’s also not a member of FIFA because, and this is true, it does not feel the organization lives up to the spiritual standards by which the Vatican team plays football.) The team just calls itself “Vatican”, which is pretty cocky for a side that must consist of a handful of youngish (say, late 50s) monsignors, file clerks, and that one striker from the janitorial staff.
Armenia: Collective Team. One of the most tragic remnants of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Armenia had to survive both a genocide at the hands of the Turks and decades of oppression by their cruel Russian overlords during the communist years. So they can certainly be forgiven for having the most bureaucratic-sounding team name in all of international football, and for their catchy but awkward team anthem, “Valiantly Strive to Overcome the Bourgeois Rejection of Your Advance-Guard Corner Kicks”.
GROUP F: FOR THE YOUNG PEOPLE
Iceland: Our Boys. A lot of football teams, especially in the Caribbean, have floridly “cool” team names, often ending in “Boys”, or, even better, “Boyz”. You would think Iceland would have something a bit more rugged and Viking-ish, but in keeping with the country’s latter-day laid-back demeanor, they have an easy-going, chummy team name that suggests they’re all going to meet for drinks at a chillwave disco afterwards.
Mauritius: Club M. Similarly, the African nation of Mauritius (motto: “No, You’re Thinking of Mauritania”) seems to have named their team after one of those non-alcoholic nightclubs so prominently featured in 1990s teen dramas where the writers needed a place for all the characters to hang out in the evening, but weren’t allowed to show them drinking. The Hub, the Bronze, the Peach Pit After Dark…and Club M.
The Bahamas: The Rake ‘n’ Scrape Boyz. Perfectly in keeping with typical exXxtreme Caribbean naming conventions, this one combines the usual “Boyz” with a pair of physical activities not normally associated with the sport of football, making the team sound more like a street gang that you have hired to tidy up your front lawn.
(TIE!) Antigua & Barbuda: The Benna Boys/Fiji: The Bula Boys. Goodness knows what all this means in the local culture, but to American ears, this sounds like some kind of obnoxious megaphone slogan-hollering competition between two Ivy League fraternities in 1937. Which American sports fans would immediately take to the internet and defend as “less boring than soccer”.
GROUP G: GAME OF THRONES
Sudan: The Falcons of Jediane. Given its blend of self-mythologizing, rampant nationalism, and the delusion that any team could someday become champions of the world, it’s not surprising that many countries give their national team a name that sounds like it was lifted from a particularly turgid high fantasy, as with that of Sudan. By the way, did you know that South Sudan has a national football team? They’ve only been a country for four years, they have no stable government or economy or educational system, and their primary export is bullet wounds, but they have a damn football team.
Jordan: The Chivalrous. This is very noble and gentlemanly, but if you’re going to call your team an adjective that isn’t a color, is “chivalrous” really the word you want to use? It’s sort of…I don’t want to say “lacking aggression”, but there’s just something sort of uninspiring about it, like King Abdullah decided that if his team couldn’t be good, at least they’d be polite and follow the rules.
Swaziland: The King’s Shield. The King’s Shield, of course, is considered a major magical item, to be found only in hoards of Treasure Type F or higher. It adds +3 to Armor Class and an additional Reflex saving throw against missiles fired by orks and ork-like humanoids.
Uzbekistan: The White Wolves. One thing I think is funny about Game of Thrones is that fans are always trying to convince you it’s super-grown-up storytelling about politics and family intrigue and not magical fairy tale crap, even though there were zombies in the very first episode, and it has dragons and wizards and fire magic and potions and giants and a kid who can possess a werewolf in basically every show. Anyway, Uzbekistan’s team is called “The White Wolves”. I would have gone with “The Weak Links in the Great Chain of Socialism“, but whatever.
GROUP H: HUH?
Chad: Sao. Okay, I get it. I am an old man. My Google fu is weak. Whatever you want to say, I’m fine, I’ll be dead soon anyway and all your 2026 World Cup jokes will be about which team gets the precious sip of water after a victory. But the fact is, I have no idea what “Sao” means, and looking it up raised more questions than it answered, particularly with SafeSearch off.
The Dominican Republic: Los Quisqueyanos. Similarly, given my weak Googling skills and my already very shaky Spanish, I was completely unable to determine what on Earth “Los Quisqueyanos” means. I’m going to take the safe bet and assume it means “the only eleven guys in the country who aren’t currently playing Major League Baseball”.
Zambia: The Copper Bullets. Someday, when I get tired of rooting for powerhouse teams (the French) and crummy teams whose fans think they’re powerhouses (the Americans), I may throw my allegiance to Zambia. They’re sure to never give me false hope and they have one of the all-time great team names, combining the menacing (copper bullets were the first of what became known as full metal jacket rounds) with the whimsical (it sounds like a They Might Be Giants song, and translates as the burbly “Chipolopolo”).
San Marino: The Serene Ones. San Marino (pop. 32,576) has had a football team for twenty-four years, and its exploits are already legendary. Although it has played in every major UEFA competition and World Cup qualifier since its inception, it has failed to win even a single match. It is tied with the Turks & Caicos Islands and Bhutan for dead last in the FIFA rankings — #207 out of 207 national teams. The only team they have ever beaten in competition was Liechtenstein in a 2004 friendly — and Liechtenstein’s team is so notoriously bad that an entire book has been written about how bad they are. So, what could be more more in line with their national character than to pride the team on its placidity, its tranquility, its sedateness? They may lose every game they ever play — they may never even score a goal — but at least they’ll be cool about it.