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.

england_andorra

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

11 thoughts on “The Right to Play

  1. Joe W

    It’s ridiculous to think small teams should have to pre-qualify.

    The point of qualifying is to see who’s worth a place in the finals. Pre-qualifying would be passing an objective judgement on a team.

    A solution is to have it the other way round – ‘seeded’ teams should just make the finals automatically. Countries who qualified for the last 3 tournaments or highest FIFA ranking (though obviously flawed).

    FIFA win because no big teams would miss out, small countries win because they don’t get slaughtered and club teams win because there would be fewer international games.

  2. Michal

    I always used to think that that’s what qualifiers are for – to determine which country is where in the footballing world. I can remember Poland getting our record 10:0 in history against San Marino this year, but I also rememeber almost being held by the same San Marino and only winning after a shameful hand-goal some time ago. I can easily remember Faroe Islands almost holding Germany to a draw and getting beaten in extra time. Stories like these (well, not the one with Poland in it ;) ) make up for 50% of football’s beauty and whoever thinks different should think again. It’s not always going to be a captivating clash of titans, even if the everybody* would earn some extra cash. And thank God!

    * – meaning the rich getting richer at the smaller ones’ expense.

  3. Lenses

    They used to have the World Cup winner automatically qualify for the next World Cup, but stopped it when, in 2002, France (the 1998 WC champion, AND the Euro 2000 winner) couldn’t even score 1 goal in the tournament, and was eliminated in the group stages.

    The fairest way would be the way it is now :)

  4. Tom Dunmore

    Automatic qualifying for some teams is a tough one, as that build up of competitive matches two years ahead of time can be important to team-building compared to a stream of friendlies. Not to mention revenue for TV rights for the qualifiers — my guess is that played in Fifa’s thinking as much as France’s poor performance when they changed the rules for the reigning champion and forced them to qualify.

  5. LLD

    Another two arguments for the diddy teams to participate:

    1. They are often great places to visit (I’ve been to Liechtenstein and it’s great)
    2. With the exception of the Faroes they are all fully fledged sovereign states… unlike England (and the other home nations).

  6. boz-

    they should definitely have prequalification – it’s common in other confederations and makes the whole process more valid

    in the AFC they have a four stage qualiification process, with the stronger nations coming it at the third round and avoiding the smaller nations and the ridiculous scores

    it also makes the whole process more straighforward, with fewer groups at each stage with even numbers of teams and avoids strange playoff situations like the second round second place ranking thing that UEFA has

    if UEFA wants to free up the calender prequalification for smaller teams should be the first thing they do

  7. Micah

    There’s enough nations in Europe to have qualification stages like CONCACAF and Africa. But the time will come again, perhaps decades from now, when one of those minnows will pull off an upset against one the the more prosperous Euro sides. Perhaps those calling for pre-qualification just don’t want their country to be the one that is upset.

    Andorra 2 England 1 in 2033. Mark your calanders!

  8. Designer Sunglasses

    A solution is to have it the other way round – ’seeded’ teams should just make the finals automatically. Countries who qualified for the last 3 tournaments or highest FIFA ranking (though obviously flawed).

    FIFA win because no big teams would miss out, small countries win because they don’t get slaughtered and club teams win because there would be fewer international games.

  9. keerthi

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