England’s World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and San Marino have raised questions in this country about the value these fixtures provide for either side; a run out and a few extra caps for the England team’s fringe players and a further drubbing for the San Marino squad.
But it is not only England who has argued the futility in playing the continents smallest footballing nations. The opening game for Germany in qualifying for Euro 2008 saw them defeat the tiny nation 13-0, a feat almost matched by the Netherlands in the qualifying game for Euro 2012 when they defeated the San Marinese 11-0.
Those are records matched by three other footballing nations who are recently coming under scrutiny for their participation in European football; Moldova, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. Moldova boasts a record defeat at the hands of Sweden by 6-0 in 2001, Liechtenstein lost 11-1 to Macedonia in 1996 and Luxembourg’s biggest demolition were both at the hands of England in two 9-0 capitulations.
Between these four teams they have played 383 competitive games in the European Championship and World Cup qualifiers, won 22 of them, scored 151 and conceded 1,229. That leaves this foursome with a win rate just below 6% and a goal difference of -1078.
Apart from the belief that it is a pointless fixture that clogs up an already bloated international fixture schedule by pitting multimillionaire professional footballers from England, France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands who all enjoy state-of-the-art facilities, excellent coaching and playing regularly for professional clubs in competitive fixtures, against bankers, accountants, shop keepers, builders and teachers, it is also not conducive to those nations who are striving to establish a footballing heritage of their own.
Moldova, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg only snatch results when they play an ultra-defensive set up which tries to hit on the break or score from set pieces; they spend 90% all in their own half and rarely string collective passes together because of the unrelenting attacks from the opposition.
They never have a chance to try anything new or play with a preferred style or enforce some tactics because they spend ninety minutes clearing balls up to a lone striker who quickly has the ball taken off his foot before the whole process starts again. If these are the only competitive games you play you will never develop.
FIFA has a programme called Goal which is supposed to enable its member countries to develop football through funding and initiatives such as building football pitches in Grenada and sending coaches to Panama. Our small European nations are part of that family and yet because they belong on a rich, modern continent they are not deemed in a dire enough situation to enable help. But as the statistics have shown, something substantial is needed to help their football culture.
An idea I had is taken from a similar move that was implemented in the World Cup qualifying region of Oceania. It is a region which contains the FIFA nations of American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu (New Zealand is the high FIFA ranking member at 92, the rest ranking between 113 and 196).
They compete in a tournament called the OFC Nations Cup which determines which nation competes for a place in the World Cup (in their case via a play off with a CONCACAF nation). For these island nations it is a rare opportunity for them to play a number of competitive fixtures against teams of a similar caliber and actually win a tournament (this year Tahiti won for the first time in their history).
Why couldn’t this be translated into a European format? Moldova, San Marino, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein could hold a small tournament where every team plays each other, with the top two competing in a final with the reward of a place in European or World Cup qualifying, and the bottom two fighting it out for third and fourth place.
Each team would them be playing at least four games every two years where they were being competitive, playing a more relaxed style of football, developing tactics, enjoy possible success and winning silverware no matter how small.
When Brian Clough was manager of Nottingham Forest in 1977 his team won the Anglo-Scottish Cup, a tournament that wasn’t deemed worth participating in for the larger teams. However, Clough said that it was what kick started Forest’s European Cup glories because there were men in his team who didn’t know what winning anything was like, and the experience incentivised them to strive for future glories. The same could be said for the European minnows.
UEFA and FIFA need to look into the situation and form some sort of solution soon before generations of Moldovans and San Marinese give up entirely on the sport due to a history of demolitions and humiliation, instead of embracing the sport which this country so enthusiastically took to its hearts.
image: © whereareyousimon