Is There Room in World Football for the Rest of the World?

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Pre-qualifying is simply unfair. Those who can’t bear the fact San Marino get to play England simply shouldn’t watch.

David couldn’t have beaten Goliath had they not been allowed to fight. Recent assertions from some pundits that San Marino shouldn’t even be sharing a pitch with England felt all too familiar. English football hubris lives on, it turns out. Even after their humbling at the hands of Iceland in 2016 and their ability to reach just one major final in 27 attempts.

No one is doubting that England are in a wholly different league to San Marino, who they chewed up and spat out on Monday to the tune of ten goals. It is a nation dwarfed by the Yorkshire town of Selby. Gareth Southgate’s second-string line-up made predictably easy work of the minnows in March too, racking up five unanswered goals. But infamously, England’s goals against San Marino haven’t always been unanswered. When they met in 1993, amateur forward Davide Gualtieri capitalised on a Stuart Pearce error to give the microstate a shock lead. Davide had left his mark on Goliath… in the first nine seconds.

San Marino’s manager Franco Varrella told after the March meeting at Wembley that his team had “played better in managing the space” in the second half. Without a doubt they had. England struggled to break down the semi-professionals after the interval. Their goalkeeper denied Jesse Lingard a goalscoring return to England duty with seven admirable saves — the same Jesse Lingard who was having absolutely no trouble scoring in ‘the best league in the world’ each weekend for West Ham at the time. England goals in the second half at Wembley: just the two.

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Football’s 21st Century philosopher Arsène Wenger once called for the sport’s whipping boys to have to pre-qualify in order to face larger nations. You can’t learn anything from losing every match, he reasoned. But you can; improvement happens by analysing failure. And besides, no national team loses every game. Not even San Marino.

Wenger went on to describe 80 percent of international football as “without interest.” That’s been a stick used to beat international football with for many years — even by those who used to play it. Those who feel that way should just change the channel. It remains the pinnacle of a footballer’s career to represent their country. For England it means striving for World Cup and European Championship success. For San Marino it is the hope that one day perhaps they can catch a major nation on the break and send shockwaves through the football world that has doubted and ridiculed them for so long.

Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins scored on his England debut in the home win over San Marino. Youngster Emile Smith Rowe scored on his first start in the 10–0 win in Serravalle. Try telling them that playing San Marino doesn’t matter, that such a fixture is merely a hinderance to the relentlessly blockbuster club calendar.

Whether they prop up the FIFA world rankings or not, San Marino came into the March encounter having drawn two of their past three fixtures. Both draws had come in the UEFA Nations League. The new competition may be confusing for some, but pits sides against their nominal equals with promotion and relegation adding interest. No more meaningless friendlies for club managers to bemoan. The Nations League provides the Englands of this world invaluable tournament preparation; for San Marino, it offers a real opportunity to win their second-ever match. Two recent draws show they can’t be too far off. Given that this new competition now exists to provide teams games against similar-level opponents, there is no longer any need to fiddle around with an entirely fair qualifying system, just to protect Michael Owen’s eyes from the occasional 7–0 scoreline.

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For decades, Luxembourg got thumped in each and every qualifier. But football evolves; Luxembourg have evolved. Their model has been to select only a small pool of players, to coach them, and to build a cohesion and a chemistry between them. Their win over the Republic of Ireland in March was their first landmark result. The goal that killed the Irish late on came from the only Champions League player from either team. How times change. It was the first fruit of their labour. Now they’ve tasted it, they’ll no doubt want more — and so they should.

The Nations League divides Europe’s teams into four broadly evenly-matched leagues. Each league was guaranteed a participant at Euro 2020. North Macedonia were the cream that rose to the top, emerging as the best of the worst to qualify for this summer’s finals. Then, against a stale Joachim Löw’s uninspired Germany, they rocked up and stole all three points in a March World Cup qualifier. But there was nothing stolen about it. Football’s galácticos must realise that giant killings do happen. Could the FA Cup have lasted so long if they didn’t? This was North Macedonia’s day. The four-time world champions were well beaten.

North Macedonia have found their way out of overlooked obscurity. Luxembourg are well on the way. San Marino are waiting patiently to grasp their own such moment. What is left if we banish the strugglers to the hidden depths of pre-qualification? San Marino is a smaller nation than England, but no-one is to blame for that fact. If there is any beauty left in international football, is it not that everyone owns it — that everyone gets to wave their flag?

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