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Sunday, September 25, 2011


At the beginning of this month, Holland inflicted a heavy defeat on San Marino by 11 goals to 0, which will now be registered as the all-time record victory for Het Oranje, surpassing Holland's previous record 9:0 wins, which came against Finland (Olympic Games, 1912) and Norway (1972). San Marino's dismal record of never having won a competitive international match continues, and shows no sign of changing any time in the near future. There will be those, of course, who will demand an answer to the question of why countries such as San Marino, Tonga, American Samoa, Maldives and Andorra should be permitted to compete in continental and World Cup qualifying competitions.

On one level, the answer is easy: such countries have been admitted to membership of FIFA and their relevant continental organisations, after fulfilling all of the conditions needed to obtain membership. However, many commentators and journalists have alleged, and will continue to do so, that many of the smaller associations have been admitted to FIFA, etc. down the years in order to help keep some continental/world football leader in power.

On another, it could also be argued that such small countries could be admitted in an attempt to actually better the standard of football available in that country and has, indeed, happened to each of those countries mentioned above. And, of course, to countries such as Liechtenstein, who, at the beginning of this month, earned a respectable 0:0 draw away to Lithuania. The principality have won only a few competitive games since they began to participate in continental competition at the beginning of the 1990s, but have progressed well even so. 

Then there were the Faroes, who won with some comfort at home to Estonia in June, and were tremendously unlucky to lose 1:0 against Italy on the same evening as Liechtenstein's success, having struck both bar and post (although Italy, to be fair, also struck the woodwork). Liechtenstein have proved themselves to be no mugs in recent years, while the Faroes are also more than capable of making life difficult for the best of teams, especially at home.

The perenially game, if unsuccessful, Luxembourg side are, more often than not, still finding themselves at the bottom of their qualifying groups - they, together with Ireland and Portugal, are the only European countries who have taken part in every World Cup qualifying tournament - but, although they are stil finding points hard to come by, results have steadily been improving over the last few years (with the exception of an utterly horrible qualifying series for Euro 2008). With one game to go in their qualifying group, the Lions Rouges are bottom with four points, with their sole victory coming only a couple of weeks ago when they defeated Albania 2:1 at home, but they have suffered no heavy defeats this time round.

The same could be said of Malta, who finally got off the mark in their group with a 1:1 home draw against Georgia at the Ta'Qali last week. The Maltese are bottom with just that solitary point, but have been unlucky not to have picked up a couple more points, especially at home, and have not been on the wrong end of a thrashing so far in the group whilst scoring a few goals themselves.

Andorra are also entrenched at the bottom of their group, but have also proved to be stubborn opponents so far. However, their last two games are scheduled for the beginning of October, with the Irish team coming to town before the Andorrans themselves head for Moscow to face Russia. Ireland will want to pick up three points to keep their Euro 2012 qualification campaign alive, whereas Russia will be looking to round off what should be a routine qualification in some style, so the Andorran defence may well be working overtime. The Andorrans' gritty style has won them few matches and even fewer friends, but they are nothing if not determined.

Iceland and Cyprus have found themselves together at the bottom of Group 8, which is not entirely unsurprising given that they are in the same group as Portugal, Denmark and Norway. Iceland have taken 4 points out of a possible 6 against Cyprus, who startled Europe by drawing 4:4 away to Portugal at the start of the qualifiers. However, the campaign has been extremely disappointing for the Cypriots, who have improved in leaps and bounds during the last few years.

Many small footballing nations have suffered heavy defeats recently, but does that give anyone the reason to opine that they should all be cast out into the footballing wilderness, alongside non-FIFA nations such as Greenland, Monaco and Gibraltar (who themselves would like to be welcomed into the FIFA/UEFA family, but, due to various reasons, find themselves outside the perimeter of FIFA-sanctioned competition)?

In an article published in the edition of the Dutch newspaper Dagblad de Limburger which was published a couple of days before the San Marino game, the usual quote from Marco van Basten regarding the participation of the smallest of the small in international football competition - "folklore football" -appeared; van Basten was, and remains, implaccably opposed to, their appearing in international football competitions - he is far from alone in this.  

The article also stated that Luxembourg brought on a gardener as a substitute in  a game in 1976. But, van Basten and the rest of those calling for the exclusion of countries such as San Marino, whilst commentating on the current state of Dutch and European football, are ignoring their own country's footballing history. Professional football was only introduced in Holland in November 1954; before that, the game in the country was strictly amateur, with students and even tobacconists appearing for the country in international action. In fact, Holland's record defeat in an international match was by 12 goals to 2 against an England Amateur selection in Darlington in 1907.

The Dutch have a reputaton for forgetting their history - and this article refers only to football - but their press are quick to pour scorn on the shortcomings of others. For example, after the first game in San Marino last September, the following quote appeared in several newspapers, etc:

"The name Stadio Olimpico sounds wonderful and represents classic beauty, but a fourth-class [seventh-division side in England] amateur side would laugh at the accommodation here. There are no stands behind the goals, there is an old cinder track, dilapadated dressing rooms, the field is poor and there is no scoreboard." If the Dutch press, football fraternity etc. are so concerned with the state of football in San Marino, why don't they do something constructive to help the country's footballing authorities and its football infrastructure?

One example of what could be achieved with a little action was when the former Dutch Under-21 coach Foppe de Haan coached Tuvalu to a creditable fourth place in their Pacific Games group a fortnight or so ago, finishing ahead of Guam and American Samoa; he was there in a voluntary capacity as part of Dutch Support Tuvalu, a project aimed at propelling Tuvalu toward FIFA-member status. The Pacific Games ended a fortnight ago; Dutch Support Tuvalu's involvement with football in the islands ends very shortly, and there are doubts as to whether the Tuvaluans will be able to press on and achieve their aim of FIFA membership without some outside help.  

To say that only the Dutch press (maybe also some of the players and supporters) are a bit condescending towards countries which possess a less imposing footballing pedigree would be incorrect in the the extreme, but the English press have been just as bad down the years when things haven't quite worked out against countries such as Turkey (the 1980s variety) and, more recently, Montenegro, who have impressed in this qualifying campaign, and also in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup.

Montenegro, who profited form being part of the Yugoslav football pyramid first of all, and then that of Serbia before gaining independence, are in with a shout for a play-off place for Euro 2012, and countries such as England, Italy and Ireland can testify to the fact that they are becoming a formidable bunch to play against.

Meanwhile, in Africa, the Seychelles won the Indian Ocean Island Games on home soil last month, beating off the likes of the Maldives and, on penalties in the final in Victoria, Mauritius to collect the country's first honour on the football field.

In Asia, the involvement of countries such as Mongolia, Macau, Taiwan and East Timor in World Cup qualifying didn't last long, not least because, like many of those countries mentioned above, they don't often get the chance to play in international competition and so lack the experience - and, sometimes, the talent, not to mention the financial clout which would help to bring in good-quality foreign coaches - to progress. But, should that matter? Is it so bad that these small countries are in FIFA and participating, albeit irregularly, in international competition?

Quite simply, no. Too many followers of football are blinkered to the fact that the sport exists outside the confines of the Champions league; for many fans the world over, football begins with the Premier League and stops with the Champions League, with the World Cup thrown in every four years as an exciting diversion. One gets the feeling that many football fans would be hard-pressed to name half-a-dozen teams in their native country's top division, let alone the names of those players featured in their national XI. How many of them would regularly go to a game featuring their local club?

There are pubs in Singapore, for example, which would be full to the brim at some unearthly hour with punters watching Arsenal take on Manchester United  at the Emirates Stadium or Barcelona face Real Madrid at the Nou Camp, and the number sitting there watching the game on the big-screen would most likely surpass that watching Geylang United take on Gombak United in the local S-League during the last programme of league matches, played a almost fortnight ago (Gombak recently beat Geylang 2:0 at home, by the way - Tampines Rovers currently head the S-League by a point from Home United).

So, in a climate where ever-increasing amounts of money are going to the richer clubs and federations, while their poorer, smaller, more inferior counterparts are being increasingly marginalised, it is indeed a wonder that countries such as San Marino, Andorra, both Samoas, Montserrat (with around 6000 inhabitants, the smallest FIFA member of them all) and Anguilla can regularly turn out teams for international competition. Guam would also have got a mention, but the GFA did not enter the qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup as they reckoned that their national stadium was not up to FIFA standard..and they couldn't afford to enter anyway.

Oh, for the days of the open draw right from the start of European competition, when there were 3 competitions instead of the lop-sided 2, and a semi-professional club from Northern Ireland could be paired with one of Germany's top teams, and when solely the TV rights earned from the tie could keep the semi-professional team in the black for that season and maybe the next. Now, the minnows have to face each other in 3 or 4 preliminary rounds before they can qualify for the group stages - if they get past the bigger clubs who didn't automatically qualify for the group stages first - and most of them will have gone by then, taking with them debts incurred from their brief European sojourns. Further afield, the leading clubs from the smallest Asian nations don't even get a look-in when it comes to continental club competitions any more; entry to Asia's Champions League competition is only granted to clubs from the continent's top 32 nations. 

It is a pity that football has gone the way it has in the last 30-40 years, from hooliganism becoming - and remaining - a problem in world football to FIFA turning a blind eye to how the Argentine junta behaved itself before, during and after the 1978 World Cup, from the advent of pay-per-view TV and organisations such as the Premier League, to FIFA and UEFA's rejecting membership applications from Gibraltar, more or less at the insistence of the Spanish FA, for fear that Spain would leave both organisations if Gib's applications were to be accepted. (And all that, of course, is only the half of it..)

It is also a pity that football luminaries such as van Basten, Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge have tut-tutted the involvement of the smaller nations in international competition in recent years. One might ask whether these individuals have ever sat down with somebody from, say, the Icelandic FA and asked them what they thought about what is happening to European/world football (most probably not), and whether they should become more involved in the continental and global game, instead of perhaps thinking how much money the richer clubs and associations could glean from countries as diverse as Iceland and Armenia.

Regardless of the size or population of the country, as soon as they become a FIFA member, they should be given the chance to compete on an equal footing on the international stage with larger, more established footballing nations. At the end of the day, it matters not whether we are discussing Germany defeating San Marino by 13 goals to 0, or how clubs from Luxembourg will perform in European competition, it is far more important that teams from the smallest countries are able to participate and, for the most part, improve.

Gibraltar, Greenland and Zanzibar are, sadly, through the machinations of others, already excluded from competing internationally in FIFA-sanctioned tournaments; it would be a shame if the likes of La Serenissima (San Marino) and the Lions Rouges (Luxembourg) would be forbidden from playing the major European nations because of their size, ability to put out a decent international team, or how much money could be gleaned from clubs and organisations in such places.

Again, it is to the credit of the small associations that they are able to have a go in international competition, and long may it continue. There may be more moments of dismay than those of joy for the so-called minnows, but they are giving it a shot and doing their best; they do not expect to qualify for the World Cup Finals, for one, but that should not lead to them being excluded from the competition. It is their opportunity to strut their stuff with the best of them and hopefully learn and improve, one which should not be denied them, and it can only be of benefit to those countries, who play football for all the right reasons - hurray for the likes of San Marino, indeed!

1 comment:

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