NEXT year's football World Cup will decide which country has the globe's greatest team, but discovering the worst has proved simpler: it is surely the Maldives.
The Maldivian eleven walked triumphantly off the field last week, despite a 9-0 thrashing by Iran in Teheran. They lost by a World Cup record of 17-0 to the same team a week earlier.
Not too many people know that they play football in the Maldives, although whether that is the right description may be an open question after the setbacks of the last fortnight in their World Cup Asian qualifying group. They also lost 12-0 to Syria - twice. Their scoreline so far: played six, lost six, goals for nil, goals against 59.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the 238,000 population of the republic, which consists of 1,200 coral islands off Sri Lanka, has problems with the beautiful game: 99.6 per cent of its territory is water.
The islanders were also, on average, six inches shorter than their opponents. For most of this week's match the Iranians reduced them to mere bystanders by keeping the ball in the air as much as possible.
Ten of the goals in the first game came from headers. That ratio was sustained in Teheran's Azadi Stadium. Ali Asghar Manoussi, head of International Affairs for the Iranian Football Federation, says he told his team at half-time to take it easy on the opposition, "otherwise our fans will expect us to win 17-0 every time we play".
Romulo Cortez, the increasingly beleaguered Bolivian coach to the Maldives, had selection problems after the first match. He said: "Half my team wanted to quit. They were fearful of the reception they would receive when they returned to the islands." Cortez said the situation was "not only unfair but irrational. We are not ready for this kind of competition. I haven't the slightest idea why Fifa organised the Asian section this way."
The game's world governing body, however, is not about to go easy on the likes of the Maldives. Andreas Herren, a spokesman, said: "We have never had so many countries playing in the qualifying competition - 170 this time compared with 148 in 1994 - and we've got so many countries playing for the first time. Some, like the Maldives, are having to pay a high price for the experience."