By no means the first football grandee to assert that playing international cannon fodder such as San Marino ought to be beneath the England team, Gary Lineker was the most recent and high profile. During the Wembley rout on Thursday, the man who served his country with so much distinction mused aloud on social media, tweeting: “Surely we’ve reached the stage where the lowest ranked nations should play among themselves to qualify for the right to play at this level. It’s become absurd.”
While one suspects a younger Lineker would have happily looked past the absurdity of such a mismatch and seen instead an opportunity to fill his Adidas Copa Mundials, the current incarnation seemed unenthused by the spectacle of Inghilterra piling the hurt on a team who have never won an international match and boast a car salesman and graphic designer among their number. As with much of Lineker’s social media output, responses to his tweet were as plentiful as they were mixed.
Many concurred, with some suggesting with varying degrees of vehemence that San Marino were not worthy to breathe the same air as their exalted hosts, a team so famously successful that they have failed to reach let alone win the final of any of the 26 most recent major tournaments they have contested. Words such as “rubbish”, “abject” and “embarrassing” peppered the responses, adjectives readers of a certain age may recall being used to describe England’s effort when they were dumped out of Euro 2016 by Iceland.
Others, this column included, accused Lineker of condescension, a charge he denied, pointing out San Marino had every right to turn up and take their inevitable hiding. Their largely amateur status and a winter of Covid‑enforced dormancy meant their players had been forced to get the band back together at short notice. All things considered, including the wealth of talent at Gareth Southgate’s disposal, it could be argued it was not San Marino who ought to have been embarrassed by the 5-0 scoreline. Besides, this season alone in England, six top-flight teams have lost matches by five goals or more; one of whom sit second in the league table.
Of course any team can have a bad day at the office but it is the relentlessness of the slaughters to which countries such as San Marino, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and Moldova are subjected that have prompted calls for these minnows to be consigned to their own “pre-qualifying” groups. Rather than waste the time of Europe’s pre-eminent sides, they would duke it out among themselves, with only the strongest one or two winning the opportunity to compete with their betters.
It is an eminently sensible idea. At a time when the international football calendar is already too busy and increasingly legitimate concerns around the climate emergency dictate that we have no option but to play fewer football matches, any reduction in the number of qualifiers would be welcome. Furthermore, such change in format would significantly increase the number of competitive games played by Europe’s minnows, helping them to improve, enjoy the rare experience of playing on the front foot and increase their chances of taking a half-decent scalp should they qualify for the qualifiers proper.
Whether Europe’s lowest ranked teams would be open to such a scheme remains to be seen, but Uefa should make it its business to at least canvas the national associations in question and offer a financial inducement in the way of compensation for any drop in revenue they might encounter on the back of being relegated to the minor leagues. It is, tuttavia, imperative that any such plan should be put in place because it is in the best interests of all concerned and not just because countries such as England are tired of playing against them.
Such a system already exists in the Oceania Football Federation and the compelling documentary Next Goal Wins chronicles the commendable attempts of the utterly hapless American Samoa to make it through pre-qualifying for Brazil 2014. Still embarrassed by the famous 31-0 humiliation visited upon them by Australia in a qualifier for Japan and South Korea 2002, the team from the tiny US territory were almost comically inept when it came to the basics of football and went into the competition ranked joint bottom of Fifa’s world rankings after 30 consecutive defeats.
Unpaid amateurs, one of them a trans woman who went on to be the first of her gender to play in a men’s World Cup qualifier, American Samoa drafted in an abrasive Dutchman, Thomas Rongen, to give them some proper coaching. Their modest ambitions? To score a goal, win a game and perhaps emerge victorious from the round robin in which they were pitted against Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islands. Scheduling double training sessions around their day jobs, Rongen transformed his devoted charges into a passable impersonation of a football team who made international headlines upon ticking the first two boxes. Almost miraculously, they came within a lick of goalpost paint of achieving all three aims.
In a football environment increasingly mired in toxic abuse, snark, entitlement and cynicism, the uplifting Next Goal Wins ought to be mandatory viewing for anyone who would belittle the forlorn attempts of the American Samoas or San Marinos of this world to mix it with the big boys. These proud players neither need nor deserve the pity, scorn or derision of fans of more established teams suffering from delusions of grandeur. All they want is some encouragement and perhaps a little outside help.