International breaks should be a chance to showcase the best of world football. They should conjure memories of World Cups, Continental Championships, the giants of the international game slugging it out at the highest level. But of course there is another side, the minnows. San Marino, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Gibraltar and their ilk are in the qualifying draw along with true goliaths of Europe. When these teams meet, can it be called competitive? If not, what should be done?
Gibraltar has a population of just 30,000. The national team is trying for the first time to qualify for the Euros, and after 3 games have yet to score, but have conceded 17 goals. Not to worry though, their next game is against Germany. San Marino, who according to the FIFA rankings are literally the worst international team, have only one win to their name in history, a friendly against Liechtenstein. It’s a similar story with Andorra, Malta and Luxembourg. They just don’t win.
Obviously, David against Goliath games are part of the joy of being a football fan. I support a non-league club who, a few years ago, got to the third round of the FA Cup and played against Blackburn (back then they were in the Premier League). Those sorts of games change a season for lower level sides. For Gibraltar fans, a game against the World Champions will be amazing. Their national team was stuck for years playing unaffiliated “national” teams like Guernsey, Tibet and Madeira (unfortunately without Cristiano Ronaldo). Mismatched games can be so exciting.
And they have produced moments of magic, even at international level. San Marino’s goal against England in 1993 was as embarrassing as it was memorable. Just 8 seconds into the game, Davide Gualtieri took advantage of a defensive error to put his side ahead, and this remains the fastest goal in World Cup qualification history. Ignoring the final score, fans of small teams live for games against the big boys for the chance to see goals like that.
However, they shouldn’t occur on a regular basis. The whole point of these games is that they are a reward for playing well earlier on. There is a real sense of pride and achievement in having earned a match against a much bigger side. The likes of San Marino are always in a qualifying group with a top seed, and surely this detracts from the appeal. Constantly playing much stronger sides does nothing for national pride, confidence or ability to play football. If anything, it makes those big games less exciting: there’s one every year.
It’s not great for the big teams either, as Australian fans will tell you. Before 2006, they competed in Oceania’s qualification for the World Cup. Aside from Australia and New Zealand, the teams under OFC’s jurisdiction are of a similar quality to the weakest teams in Europe. This led to the now infamous score line Australia 31-0 American Samoa. After this result, a preliminary qualification round was added to the OFC’s system, and Australia later left for Asian football. There was a problem, and OFC fixed it.
So what can be done? Virtually every continental confederation uses some sort of qualifying system. Only Europe and South America have a single-stage process, and South America has only 10 teams. It is unique to Europe to have so many countries with no real chance of qualification competing in the final stage of the competition automatically. A staggered qualifying system where the weakest teams would have to earn their place in the later rounds would make a lot more sense.
But what would these minnows do if they didn’t make it? Well, in Asia, they used to put on a “Challenge Cup” every two years, where weaker footballing nations competed with similar opposition for a genuine prize. Tajikistan and Palestine have managed to win this trophy, whilst the likes of Sri Lanka and the Philippines have placed second. These are teams that normally wouldn’t have a hope against the big guns in Asia, but between them ensure competitive games, with every side having a chance of winning. Unfortunately, this competition has been abandoned this year as the Asian Cup was expanded and there was no room for a second tier tournament.
In Europe there is room for another competition, and perhaps the upcoming Nations League will provide just that. Even better, it could serve as the preliminary tournament for Euro or World Cup qualification. That way the weakest teams could play in genuinely important competitive games. Small teams will always be able to play big ones, so that aspect of the game wouldn’t be lost. Every game these sides play is basically a friendly, so why not let them choose their opposition? In a climate of growing discontent around international football, something has to be done.