“What is the point of San Marino?” quizzed Gareth Southgate, during the half-time analysis of last Friday night’s England game.
Actually Gareth, San Marino is a beautiful mountainous country with a rich culture and a high standard of living. Besides, you can’t just go around declaring countries to be pointless. That’s how wars get started!
He certainly did himself no favours in his bid to become Britain’s next foreign secretary. Imagine him at the EU summit: “Seriously, what’s the point of Greece? They bring nothing to the table.”
I am, of course, being a little unfair on the finely preened ITV pundit – after all, that’s not quite how he meant it.
San Marino visited Wembley last Friday night and literally kept all ten outfield players behind the ball for the entire game. Could they have gotten away with it, they’d probably have pitched tents and lit a bonfire in their own penalty box.
Their plan worked for an eyeball-gratingly dull thirty-five minutes, before England were awarded a penalty. Five goals later and San Marino still had their proverbial team bus parked directly under the crossbar.
In essence, what Southgate meant was “What is the point of this fixture?” Many share these sentiments.
When one team turns up with no intention of scoring a goal, let alone winning the game, the encounter is sure to be a very poor spectacle. But what exactly were San Marino supposed to do? Anyone with even a fraction of football knowledge knows that had any other tactic been employed, England would have completely pulverised them. In reality, 5-0 was a decent result for a nation that has only been victorious once in its 26 year football history.
Only a handful of their squad are full-time professionals. With their midfield made up of a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker, how can they be expected to compete against our millionaire superstars?
Their entire population would only just fill the seats at the City Ground and a decade of football investment in San Marino wouldn’t cover the cost of Ashley Cole’s ivory back scratcher. To put it in more quantifiable terms, England against San Marino is equivalent to an elephant fighting a peanut.
So, should the likes of San Marino even be competing with the top countries in Europe?
Southgate, and many others in the football world, would argue not. There have, over recent times, been calls for the football minnows to be somehow lifted out of the qualification process.
The main proposal, which stems from football journalists and industry experts, rather than the game’s governing body, is to give countries like San Marino and The Faroe Islands their own special tournament. The winner of this tournament would be awarded the privilege of being allowed to compete against the rest of Europe.
I have only one question. Could we be any more patronising?
What is the problem with us Englishmen? We spend all summer bemoaning the fact that we are technically inferior to the rest of Europe, then when we find a team who we are significantly better than, we put all our efforts into making them extinct!
San Marino’s footballers deserve their opportunity to wear the national shirt with pride, competing against all the teams in Europe; not just those of similar size and collective ability.
If I was of San Marinese descendancy, and I pray that some day I discover I am, then I would shudder at the thought of being hidden away from the rest of Europe, like some embarrassing fungal infection.
One of the main reasons football people advocate the phasing out of these ‘smaller footballing countries’ is the hope that it might alleviate the terrible evils of fixture congestion. Frankly, I think people over-estimate the difference that taking the ‘international whipping boys’ out of European qualification would make to the football calendar.
There are only four European countries that fit the specification laid out by those wishing to rid football of its perennial underdogs. Andorra, The Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino all have tiny populations and consistently finish bottom of their qualifying group, with few or no points. Beyond that there aren’t such tangible gaps between nations, in terms of either size or ability.
Clearly, taking only four countries out of the equation would make no impact on the congested fixture list. If there is to be a pre-qualification round that truly shakes up the international scene it would have to include countries such as Moldova, Kazakhstan, Cyprus and probably Northern Ireland too.
To avoid international relegation, Scotland might even need to start winning some games … and that goes against everything they stand for!
A further concern is how football’s governing bodies could possibly calculate which teams warrant dropping into international obscurity … and which teams don’t. They can hardly rely on the FIFA rankings; we’d probably get more accurate results using Pythagoras’ theorem. If England are the fifth best football team in the world then I am the fifth best Bhangra dancer this side of the Arctic circle.
Luckily the dark lord himself, Sepp Blatter, has shown no sign of indulging Gareth Southgate and the band wagon of jingoistic journalists who paint these nations as such a terrible inconvenience to the international game.
Football is supposed to bring the world together and I, for one, won’t stand idly by while the ‘inconvenient countries’ are cut adrift.
Long live the minnows of the footballing world – those who flounder on in spite of inevitable defeat. The Faroe Islands, Andorra, Derby County … and, of course, San Marino.
Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss