Gareth Flitcroft ponders the involvement of footballing minnows in direct qualification, using San Marino, Lichtenstein, Iceland and previously, Turkey as key examples.

Gareth Flitcroft ponders the involvement of footballing minnows in direct qualification, using San Marino, Lichtenstein, Iceland and previously, Turkey as key examples.

No doubt, Jon Champion’s commentary notes last week would have included such anecdotes as the historic 2004 victory over Liechtenstein or Davide Gualtieri’s 7 second goal in Bologna, and maybe, as what typically happens in these sort of contests, the debate as to whether San Marino and their fellow minnows Andorra, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg deserve the right to participate against Europe’s elite.

The argument normally gathers momentum after such results as the one at Wembley or England´s 8-0 win over the same opposition in Serravalle 18 months before. Some sections of the media question the integrity of such matches, calling for a restructure of the qualifying system with a pre-qualifying stage to be incorporated before the bigger, or perhaps, better teams enter the fray. In probably more harsher, yet simpler, words ‘to eliminate the worst of the worse’.

A round-robin set of games could be implemented during the early June period before the long-haul groups start in September, pitting the lowest ranked sides against each other in a 2-legged meeting. These potential fixtures are proclaimed to be much more practical for them, a chance for an alteration of system instead of the ugly ultra-defensive National Express-parked bus, a chance for competing against similar-quality opponents, a worthwhile chance, most importantly, to win.

Yet those who it would affect most, ‘the Pot 6 club‘, strongly disapprove of the whole idea. San Marino coach Pierangelo Manzioli certainly disagreed with the proposition in his press conference before the England game, “If the international schedule is too dense and they want to take some matches away that is up to UEFA. But we are a member [of UEFA] and we think we have as much right as anyone else to play against the big teams.”

Perhaps the most important thing that should be considered before any change happens would be how it could be of more interest to the minnows more than the current approach? Would a Faroe Islands-Estonia fixture on a sun-kissed summer’s night in Torshavn actually benefit both teams?

Critics look to the Asian World Cup qualifying process as the ideal example to follow to improve the quality of the European system. With the previous edition’s qualifiers to the tournament all receiving a bye to the 3rd round, the lower ranked countries must succeed through 2 rounds before they can meet the continent giants like Japan and South Korea. This entails that countries such as Yemen or Tajikistan have that opportunity to participate in winnable matches, and also eliminating those match-ups classed as unfair – depending on which side of the debate you’re on – of the top teams against the ones at the bottom of the footballing-ladder.

Pre-qualifiers, though, are more of a prerequisite for the AFC. The disparity in quality tends to be more bottom-heavy in Asia when compared to Europe. This point can be proven by the fact that from the current FIFA rankings (as of September 2014) only 12 Asian nations find themselves in the top 100 whereas only 11 UEFA members are lower than 101st. Thus, there is accordingly a more genuine cause to trim the number of participants down to improve the standard for the final stages of qualifying when Australia and co. join in.

As a further matter, when there are winners, there must always be losers. So while some countries will experience the euphoria of that aggregate victory and entry to the next stage, some will exit the competition at the very first hurdle and therefore endure a grim 2-year period without a competitive fixture. Not really the framework needed for a football manager to improve his faltering team. Of course, that is one of the strongest claims made by the minnows; that for the development of their international game they must continue to mix it up with the top seeds. It is a stance that Glenn Hoddle agrees with “I remember playing against Turkey and Greece many moons ago … They were whipping boys but now look at them. Turkey have got to the semi-final of the World Cup and Greece have won the Euros. I’m not saying Andorra are going to do that but they will improve if they continue to play the top teams over the next 15 years.”

Though, if anyone had watched San Marino’s qualifier last week, Aldo Simoncini’s mistake in the 1st half where the goalkeeper dropped the ball to the ground, only to pick it up again, sparking a social-media frenzy, didn’t do much to help ‘La Serravalle’s reputation. The phrase ‘meaningless game’ seemed to also creep high up on the Twitter trending lists and in the after-match reports.

However, replacing this ‘meaningless game’ for something different could smack of hypocrisy. If two fixtures were to be taken away from England’s schedule, that would free up two further dates, a perfect opportunity to host a ‘glamorised friendly’ (see the low attendance vs Norway) or a quick getaway for a match in the Far East (see Brazil and Argentina this week), hardly the sort of change to get the pulse racing.

Furthermore, though England were able to take a more comfortable route to victory, Chris Coleman’s Wales side found it a little bit more difficult against ‘little Andorra’ last month. It was only Gareth Bale’s late goal that were able to save the Welsh side from a Pyrenees-sized mountain of an upset. Italy, ranked 13th in the world and playing away in Malta this week, only survived with the 3 points due to a sole goal from Graziano Pelle on his international debut.

So when does a minnow actually stop being labelled as one? Can they progress up to the next level? A quick look at Turkey’s qualifying campaigns in the 80’s shows 8-0 and 6-0 defeats to Bobby Robson’s England side. The same nation went on to finish 3rd 20 years later at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

Recent progression can be found in the modern game’s current set of underdogs, Azerbaijan offering a promising example. In the 00′s, Milli, consistently finished bottom of their group, registering heavy losses like the 6-1 home defeat to Serbia or the 8-0 hammering in Poland. The side’s 2014 qualifying campaign was remarkably better, holding Russia to a 1-1 draw at home and finishing 4th above Northern Ireland. OK, not the cream of Europe but evidence of improvement and competitiveness.

In the Euro 2012 qualifying, Estonia went two better, abandoning reputations and stereotypes as perennial losers by finishing 2nd ahead of Serbia and Slovenia. And, of course, Iceland’s exploits must be given a mention.

While it can be fairly easier for these three nations to develop, through aspects for instance as money (Azerbaijan) or a strong ingrained football culture (Turkey), Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, two much smaller counties, carry on improving in spite of the barrier of a much littler talent pool.

Luxembourg, frequent whipping boys in the past, now pride themselves on being much more tougher opposition. At the start of the year, they embarked on an unlikely 3-game unbeaten run, including a 1-1 pre-World Cup friendly with Italy. Moreover, last year’s 3-2 win at home to Northern Ireland, where Luc Holtz, the team’s coach, employed a successfully high defensive line, demonstrated tactical flexibility, an awareness and an ability to change approach from the regular, 11-man deep brick wall associated with lower sides.

At one point on Saturday, Liechtenstein, 2-1 up away to Macedonia, were topping their group, only for a 2nd half comeback to shatter those dreams. The tiny principality, with a population of only 37,000, prove themselves to be the perfect model to follow for similar-sizes countries such as Andorra, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands, who suffer the problem of having to select from a miniscule selection of players.

FC Vaduz, the country’s biggest club, and the Liechtenstein Cup winners for the past 16 out of 17 tournaments actually play their football in the Swiss league system. Last season’s promotion to the top flight gives national team players like Daniel Kaufmann and Nicholas Hasler the chance to play regular football against top opposition, a much better environment for the development of the next generation of Liechtensteinian players.

San Marino, likewise have a club representative playing in Serie C in Italy, similarly named San Marino Calcio. Whether the positive effects of having more professional players can be repeated in the enclaved microstate is yet to be seen.

San Marino Calcio

San Marino Calcio

Still, it is quite ironic, that while individually they may be small and unimportant to the top of the European game, together it is the sum of its parts solution that makes the minnows much stronger. Because of this, Michel Platini realises the importance of keeping their vote if he wishes to be re elected as UEFA president in 2015. It was maybe partly political reasons for extending the number of teams at France 2016 to 24. That should be enough to earn the votes of the middle-ranked nations, those always on the cusp of the playoffs. Organising an earlier round of qualifying though would pretty much be threatening to upset 8 associations, likely throwing away precious support.

Consequently, for the foreseeable future, we should still see San Marino make those trips to Wembley, Paris and Berlin. And while it may be painful for some to watch, Manzioli’s men will continue to fight, and not just make up the numbers for those ‘meaningless games’.