Is it Time for a Shakeup in the International Football Circuit?

England ended their 2022 World Cup Qualifiers with an emphatic, albeit expected, 10-0 victory over minnows San Marino. The win means that the Three Lions topped their group, therefore heading to Qatar for the tournament next Winter. By looking at the football betting odds 888 Sport had the odds outrageously in England’s favour, with Gareth Southgate’s men heading into the match as 1/500 favourites.

(England dominated San Marino from start to finish)

It didn’t take long for the gap in class to become apparent, when Harry Maguire nodded in Phil Foden’s free kick in the sixth minute to put England ahead. An own goal from Filippo Fabbri followed by our goals from captain Harry Kane meant England finished the second half 6-0 to the good. Goals from Emile Smith-Rowe, Tyrone Mings, Tammy Abraham and Bukayo Saka in the second half put the visitors into double figures for the first time since beating the United States in 1964.

San Marino have long been the whipping boys of every group they have set foot in, having never won a single qualifying game. In fact, in their entire history, they have won only once; a 1-0 friendly victory over Lichtenstein in 2004. Ranked 210th in the world by FIFA (out of 210), they have long been recognised as ‘the worst team in the world’.

It is for these reasons that fixtures like these have garnered so much controversy in international football. There is critique from fans and pundits alike, that these sorts of whitewashes are an unnecessary spectacle. The results are so often a foregone conclusion that they are almost a free three-points for many teams.

A topic to debate

That is not to say that San Marino, along with teams of their ilk, should not have the chance to qualify. Qualification in the Uefa confederation works on a meritocracy which has allowed the sport to grow in countries where it may not have otherwise. It was only a short while ago that Wales reached the Semi-Finals of the Euros after qualifying for the first time in their history. They went on to qualify for the following tournament and this year will enter the playoffs for a place at next year’s world cup.

There are positives off the field as well, with home fixtures bringing in revenue for smaller countries through tourism. And off course, you do get upsets. It was only recently that giants Germany lost to North Macedonia, however even they sit at 67th in FIFA’s rankings, 143 places above San Marino.

The idea that these lowly ranked teams should have to ‘pre-qualify’ is rooted in a kind of sporting elitism a lot of the time. It is often perpetuated by the same level of thinking that encouraged the likes of Ed Woodward and Florentino Perez to pursue the inception of the much-maligned European Super League. This is a shame because a pre-qualifying tournament/group stage could actually be beneficial to a lot of teams.

A 10-0 drubbing will do very little for teams like San Marino in a competitive sense, even more so with it happening in near on every game. Playing teams so far out of their reach will not teach them anything apart from “This team is so far out of our reach.” And the game plan for these games is most always “What is the most number of goals we can concede and leave with our dignity intact?”

A pre-qualifying tournament may change this. Right now, it seems futile for Andorra or San Marino to even attempt to attack, but by pitting them against fellow-strugglers there is finally something to play for. It would help these teams improve a lot more than picking the ball out of the net seven, eight, nine times has and whilst it wouldn’t be immediate, a slow and steady upward trajectory could transform some of these teams in the future.

There is a worry that this would delegitimise the game in the respective country. A lot of the time, their fans are there to see the stars who play on the opposing team just as much as they are for their own. However, it could be argued that the effect it would have on interest in the game would go the other way, as some fans will have gone from watching their nation lose essentially every game to actually winning.

If there ever is a change to be made, the decision by Uefa must be made with complete confidence that it will not have an adverse effect on state of the sport in the respective nations. Minnows do not deserve to be pushed further into the shadows simply because the fixtures are formulaic, and that kind of elitism has no place in football. The beautiful game relies on upsets, underdogs and love stories and in an age where the integrity of the sport is constantly being pushed beyond its boundaries, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of that.

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