x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In World Cup qualifying, Europe needs to make room for the football minnows

Europe's all-inclusive World Cup qualifying process should be restructured to trim the football disparity among countries.

Leighton Baines, centre, of England takes on the San Marino defence during a World Cup qualifier on Friday in Serravalle, San Marino. England rolled to a 8-0 win. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images
Leighton Baines, centre, of England takes on the San Marino defence during a World Cup qualifier on Friday in Serravalle, San Marino. England rolled to a 8-0 win. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

So, there are no easy games in international football anymore, are there? Tell that to poor San Marino. England put eight goals past their national side on Friday night in the latest round of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Every international break, the "no easy games" mantra is mindlessly recited by players and coaches of major footballing nations, shortly before going out and rifling five or six goals past some hapless local butcher or postman who moonlights as his country's goalkeeper every few months.

A new, more-honest slogan is needed. How about: only at international level are there easy games anymore.

The vast majority, clearly, are not; but the ones that are more resemble contractual obligations than competitive football matches. And year after year, it's the usual suspects who are at the end of these demoralising scores.

Last weekend's World Cup qualifying games provided the latest massacres. England 8 San Marino 0. Bulgaria 6 Malta 0. Austria 6 Faroe Islands 0. Somewhat less brutally, Holland beat Estonia 3-0 at home, and Germany won by the same score in Kazakhstan.

Lopsided results do not happen only in Europe. But, strangely, it is only there that no steps have been taken to deal with the issue.

In 2001, Australia's record international win of 31-0 against American Samoa led to the introduction of preliminary qualifying rounds in the Oceania Football Confederation for the 2006 World Cup. Following Germany 2006, Australia left the comfort of Oceania to join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), where the standard of football is significantly higher.

In the AFC, and North America's Concacaf zone, as well, preliminary play-offs and multiple group stages have been introduced to winnow the weaker nations. Uefa, European football's governing body, with more members, 53, has so far resisted such a move, despite the fact it has long-winded qualifying stages in its club competitions.

Disparity can be found between the best and the rest in the Uefa Champions League group stages, but blowouts tend to be rare, or come with caveats. The record score in the competition remains Liverpool's 8-0 home win over Besiktas in 2007; but that came only a few weeks after the Turkish side had themselves outplayed Liverpool in Istanbul to win 2-1. On the other hand, the day when San Marino beat England 2-1 will, sadly for them, never come.

Even domestic league football across Europe does not see the "easy games" that international football tolerates. League systems are intrinsically self-correcting, with teams who consistently are thrashed being relegated. Yet, on the international scene, they are simply thrown back into the ring. Hypothetically, it is possible for the world champions Spain, No 1 in Fifa's rankings, to meet San Marino, who are ranked 203, as equals. Which they are not.

The time has come for Europe's football minnows to compete in preliminary qualifying stages. Such a move would ensure fewer meaningless matches in the main qualifying groups and benefit the smaller countries. It might be fun to exchange shirts with Xavi or Andres Iniesta, but surely it is better for the little guys to play the occasional match they could win. A few victories and you get to play the big boys on merit - football Darwinism in action.

And how some of these countries could do with a few more wins. Andorra's record stands at played 109, lost 96, won three. For San Marino it is even worse: played 116, lost 112, with only one win. Malta's 46 wins and 213 defeats from 334 matches seems positively heroic in comparison.

The list of whipping boys does not end there. The likes of Liechtenstein, Kazakhstan and Luxembourg continue to be humiliated, with practically no hope of closing the quality gap on their opponents.

It gets worse. Tonight, Kazakhstan visit the three-time world champions Germany; Malta host Italy; and poor San Marino are up against Robert Lewandowski & Co in Poland. The results of these matches are not in doubt. But the scorelines could be anything.

On September 6, Kazakhstan will host Faroe Islands in a Group C qualifier. And then on October 11, the two face off in the return fixture. A win for either in these two dead rubbers will bring fleeting acclaim at home and a barely perceptible improvement of their international record. Two bald men fighting over a comb.

How much better would it be for such teams to meet at a preliminary stage, where there would be a genuine prize at stake? And no small measure of dignity and hope as well.


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