Saturday, 13 October 2012

Tramp the dirt down

12 October 2012 - England 5 San Marino 0

So Gareth Southgate isn’t sure what San Marino are for.

It’s desperately, desperately hard not to start this with the obvious rejoinder.  I won’t; I’ll leave any passing Middlesbrough fans to make the connection.  But Southgate’s attitude typifies that of most of the pundits during yesterday’s England game, and indeed much of the Twitter reaction.  That this game was a waste of time for England, a formality to be frowned through and ultimately completed like some football equivalent of a tedious work social.  And that San Marino basically had no right to be involved.  They shouldn’t be playing England.  How dare they.  They should keep below stairs and play Liechtenstein, the Faroes and Andorra on permanent repeat.

I’ve got a kneejerk negative reaction to this point because it’s one that makes its proponent into a footballing Andrew Mitchell, advising the “plebs” that they’d “best know their place”.  And like most, I’ve a soft spot for the plucky underdog.  But I think there’s a more reasoned reaction than the immediately visceral.
The argument seems to be that we should shut the “lesser” European nations,  hill-states, islands, principalities etc into their own little competition in which they could have their own little wins and not bother the big boys.  OK, perhaps there could be some kind of playoff between the weakest elite teams and the best of the minnows, but otherwise let’s shut them out.  They’ve proved over the years that they don’t deserve to be in top-level international competition.

I find this a very troubling argument.  To start with, where do you draw the line, and why?  In order for this proposal to make any difference, you’d need a good number of teams in the second tier.  So as well as the ones I’ve mentioned you’d want maybe another half-dozen at least. 

My concern is that inclusion in this group would hold nations back.  Perhaps there’d be a small positive effect for the fostering of, if not a winning mentality, at least a not-getting-thumped mentality in the teams from genuinely tiny places.  But this would be badly outweighed by the damage this could do to football development in some countries.

If we’d been selecting a group like this in the 1970s, for instance, then surely Turkey, beaten 8-0 by England twice in that decade, would be amongst the obvious choices.  But Turkey didn’t spend the next 35 years getting beaten 8-0.  They kept at it.  They kept playing the big nations and their results steadily improved.  Their players were spotted by the wealthy clubs who improved their standard by giving them elite training.  They qualified for Euro ’96, they lost every game, they came back to the Euros in four years, they got to the quarter-finals.  Then in 2002 they finished third in the World Cup, only ultimate winners Brazil able to knock them out.

Turkey simply wouldn’t have made that progress on the thin-gruel diet we seem to be proposing for minor nations.  They needed solids, and they learnt to keep them down.  Nations like Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia have all made genuine progress over the years.  All might have been contenders for the minor league in the 1990s.  All have made a good case for being considered “proper” football nations in the 21st century.  None would have found 5-0 victories over San Marino particularly useful for doing so.  Indeed, a paradox is that our pundits despair that “we learnt nothing” from that game.  Yet they seem to believe that the least developed countries should gain the poorest education.

I know that most other confederations have a qualification system of (at least) two tiers.  Most other confederations, though, have issues that Europe doesn’t – size being one.  At just 10m square kilometres, Europe is a third the size of Africa, a fifth the size of Asia (once Australia is included, as for qualification purposes it is).  Most other continents simply aren’t as well-off as Europe, either, and their football associations certainly aren’t.  A few local trips per year probably seems a great deal more manageable for the FA of Burkina Faso, for instance, or Bangladesh.

The existence of two-tier qualification elsewhere, though, is handy in that it proves a case study of the lack of diversity it can cause.  At every World Cup we see the usual suspects from North America, from Africa, from Asia.  The US.  Mexico.  Nigeria.  Cameroon.  Iran.  Japan.  It’s incredibly difficult for bottom-tier countries to break through.  Of course in part this is a factor of these confederations being given so few qualification slots – but Europe’s panoply hasn’t meant an easy ride for the likes of Holland, England, Portugal or Russia, all of whom have missed World Cups in the last 20 years or so.

(South America, of course, has open qualification, everyone plays everyone.  And since 1994 only Venezuela from that continent haven’t made a World Cup.  They’re getting close this year and may well make Brazil 2014.) 

It’s a snobbish, backward, reactionary argument.  It arrogantly assumes that the rich will always get richer and the poor poorer, and seeks to entrench this even further.  This is of course the way of football since time immemorial – or “1992” as Sky Sports would have it – but in a world of Champions Leagues, parachute payments, and all the other ways football seeks to push gaps further and further open, let’s please keep this one little glimmer of egalitarianism alive.

If not for the England national team, at least for Davide Gualtieri.

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