The minnows of the world.


England put eight goals past San Marino during last week’s World Cup qualification match in Group H. To say that the result was a foregone conclusion is an understatement; we needed to know how many Roy Hodgson’s men would score, not whether they would be victorious. Ranked in joint 207th place, alongside Bhutan and Turks & Caicos Islands, San Marino are right at the very bottom of FIFA’s list and look like staying there for some time. Should teams such as this continue to participate in qualification group stages and what, if any, benefit are they gaining from doing so?


FIFA is always keen to emphasise the lack of barriers that exist for individuals wishing to take part in football and actively encourages the spirit of teamwork. As a way of demonstrating that all international teams have equal opportunities to reach the World Cup, regardless of history, expectation, or other factors, the qualification phase is open to every international team on the planet. Only the country that is due to host the competition is exempt from this process, and many traditional superpowers have in the past missed out on the opportunity to appear at a World Cup Finals due to a poor qualifying phase. 

This method is seen as the fairest way of allocating places in a tournament and a seeding system is used so that traditionally stronger teams are separated from the beginning. This is done to prevent a scenario whereby a group could contain Spain, Germany, Italy, England and Portugal, whilst another group contains Latvia, Romania, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Finland. This is only an example, but it serves to highlight a potential situation where, according to the rules of qualification, many of the better teams from the first group wouldn’t qualify, despite the fact that they are probably better than every team in the second group. However, the current format does allow for several strong teams to collide and potentially knock each other out; France are currently trailing Spain in Group I and England and Portugal are also behind their respective group leaders at this moment in time.

The rankings also shed some light on the plight of countries that either have little football infrastructure, due to lack of financial resources, or limited selection options, due to the size of population. Compare the top 10 with the bottom 10 and there are some obvious differences between the two groups.









































          South Sudan






          Cook Islands


















          San Marino



          Turks & Caicos Islands



What then is the point of a team like San Marino taking part in the qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil? FIFA will argue that each team has the right to compete and attempt to qualify, despite how difficult that may be. Realistically, a country of their size and ability is not going to collect any points, let alone enough to qualify, and a look at their international record explains why. Of the 118 matches that they have participated in, they have managed a solitary win, five draws and 112 losses. They have scored 19 goals and conceded 487 and understandably have finished bottom of every qualification group they have ever entered. Most of the first team players have second jobs as well as a career playing football, and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that a well organised semi-pro team could probably beat them. Imagine how it must be for their players to line up opposite stars such as Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and others and know that they are about to be humiliated.


The spirit of competition encouraged by FIFA is also shared by the Olympics. A key difference though is that smaller nations tend to rely upon talented athletes to compete in individual events; if an opponent performs badly on the day of competition then an upset is possible. However, football is a team game and it is much more unlikely that an entire starting eleven such as England’s is going to play badly at the same time that San Marino’s players perform like world beaters. The conditions are different and opportunity for success much smaller, as verified by the fact that the bottom three teams have no ranking points at all in the FIFA table.

Would it not be better for much lower ranked teams to be put together in several groups of pre-qualifiers, where they can battle it out amongst similar ability sides for the right to then take on the more established status quo of Europe? A country such as San Marino may then have the opportunity to actually win a few games, or at least not have to worry about how many they are going to concede. Development can only take place if teams regularly have the chance to implement their training ground practices in a competitive game environment, as well as by facing opponents of a similar standard. The minnows of Europe are surely not able to progress either technically or tactically as they desperately attempt to keep the goals against column to single figures. Confidence is also a key element required for players to improve, as they need to have the belief to try new things and not worry about the consequences if mistakes are made. However, this is quite clearly lacking with smaller sides because they are well aware that any errors at this level are likely to be punished by ruthlessly superior opponents.

Is it time for the football authorities to make changes to the current format for qualification to tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships, or is it fine the way it is? It would be interesting to know what the ‘minnows’ think about this…

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