The Right to Play

Commentators groaned.  Minute-by-minute reporters fell asleep.  A man in Scotland put over a hundred thousand pounds on England to win and pocketed just over six hundred quid.  It was England versus Andorra, and by the time Peter Crouch jigged the ball past Andorran keeper Alvarez to make it 6-0, the old debate on whether the Andorras, the Lichtensteins, the Faroe Islands deserve a co-equal berth against larger nations in World Cup qualifying was raging once again.

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You know the ones: those tiny nations who sit at the bottom of Europe’s World Cup qualifying groups on big fat goose eggs, the nations whose local rags print front page headlines when the team scores a goal, the nations forced to draw upon contractors and truck drivers to fill the squad, or in the case of the Faroe Islands, to air-lift in Brazilians to play for one of two club sides and the national team, as detailed in Alex Bellos’ amazing book, Futbol: The Brazilian Way of Life. They won’t ever play at a World Cup (pending a devastating nuclear war), they won’t offer much in the way of entertaining football, and they deserve an equal chance alongside England, Holland and Germany to qualify for the World Cup.

Alan Green and ITV would disagree.  Neither wasted much time telling us how much of a waste of time it was for England to play Andorra seeing as the former were “scoring seemingly at will” (somehow forgetting Andorra held England to a respectable two goals in Spain back in September).  What is needed, they argued, is a separate group stage for the shit countries to duke it out off camera, out of sight, out of mind, for a sole winner to enter into the ‘regular’ European WCQs.

This is wrong for several reasons.  We all know where the Plinko chips of power drop in international football, but this is a posteriori knowledge.  Introducing separate tiers for smaller and bigger nations violates in principle the a priori right of any footballing nation to qualify for the World Cup in their regional federation.

Then there’s the issue, recently pointed out at When Saturday Comes, of how FIFA would determine which countries are “small.”  Would Lichtenstein count?  They beat Iceland 3-0.  The Faroe Islands beat Austria 1-0 in 1990.  Small nations are sometimes capable of doing big things, part of what makes football the beautiful game.

Yet the most important reason for allowing smaller nations to compete as equals in WCQs has nothing much to do with football: international exposure.  If you Google San Marino, or Andorra, or Lichtenstein, the link immediately following their Wikipedia entry is to their international football team.  Football is usually the only point of contact these nations have with the rest of the world.  Andorra, a nation of 88,000 people, played to stadium with 90,000 capacity, and their exposure to millions of viewers as equal competitors against one of football’s oldest international sides is of immense national importance.

Without international football, it’s doubtful most of us would even be aware of Andorra’s existence.  If you take that away, the smaller nations of the world will fall even further into obscurity, possibly even threatening their continued sovereignty.  It seems a small price to pay then to let them have their ninety minute run out against football’s big and powerful.

Richard Whittall writes the blog A More Splendid Life.

Photo credit: TonyBibby

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