With England playing San Marino tonight, I had a few thoughts.
San Marino arguably has better claims to nationhood than many other European nations- while it’s smaller in terms of population than Falkirk and Craigavon, it’s been in existence since 300 AD, is the (self-proclaimed) oldest republic in the world, and is the only country to have democratically elected communists into government.
Their record in competitive football is not enviable- just two draws in 113 games since 1990. They have scored 15 goals in those games, conceding an average of 4.6 goals at a time. They have won one game, a friendly against fellow micro-state Liechtenstein by a goal to nil in 2004.
While it’s easy to put their poor record down to the country’s size and lack of experience, Liechtenstein, who are in a similar situation (and which indeed has no football league at all, with all their clubs participating in Swiss leagues), don’t seem to suffer from the same problems. While not world beaters themselves, they are capable of giving teams a hard time, a highlight being coming back from 2-0 down against Ronaldo and Portugal to recover a 2-2 draw.
When you see San Marino play (I have, on a couple of occasions when they’ve played Northern Ireland and England), it becomes clear. They seem to play a 9-0-1 formation by throwing their forward Andy Selva up front and essentially forming a human wall at the back. Bizarrely, according to UEFA’s stats, Selva is routinely the most fouled player in European Championship Qualifying. They know they’re bad, but don’t seem to have worked out that attack can be the best form of defence. Last year, they sacked their coach, and a 0-2 loss at the hands of Lithuania at the start of this campaign would seem to be an improvement.
The question, at least when it comes to games against “big” nations, is whether or not San Marino should be playing these games at all.
When it comes to qualifying for World Cups, Europe and South America are the only regions that don’t have some kind of pre-qualifying to knock out weak (or impoverished) teams. The same applies in the European Championship. When it comes to the likes of San Marino, there’s invariably a call for these countries to be made to go through pre-qualifying so they get knocked out and don’t waste the time and energy of bigger countries (who risk injury).
Whether or not this is “right” is a philosophical question. The idea of 11 people representing 32 000 people playing and potentially beating (say) Russia with 11 men representing 145 000 000 people is a romantic notion. But then again, internationals are supposed to be the peak of a player’s career- easy victories over opposition a League 2 team would comfortably beat kind of makes a mockery of that.
But it is what is, and complaining doesn’t win you football matches- you just need to get on with the job in hand.