Why Europe's minnows should be cherished

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Last weekend, many millions up and down the country gathered in pubs or sat in the comfort of their own homes to witness England canter to a 6-0 victory away to the tiny nation of San Marino. This win, despite its wide margin of victory, was not accompanied with the usual feelings of pleasure or relief, but more a notion along the lines of “what was the point of that?”

San Marino does not have the facilities or population to trouble England on the football field. It is a country of just 30,000 people enclosed in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Their squad boasts just one professional footballer; Mirko Palazzi, who currently plays for San Marino Calcio in Serie D, Italy’s fourth tier. The rest of the squad consists of a mixture of shop workers, lawyers, accountants and even a right-winger who works for an olive oil company. But does that mean they have no right to play England? Does that mean that these players should miss out on the chance to represent their country because they are too small? No. That is not what international football stands for.

One of the greatest differences between international football and club football is the lack of divisions between the sides, no matter how big or small the nation. After each tournament, every two years, each nation gets a clean slate of zero points and equal opportunity to qualify for the next major tournament. When the 2016 Euros are completed and World Cup qualifying for Russia kicks off, San Marino and Andorra theoretically have the same chance as Italy or Spain to make it to the pinnacle of world football. Dividing these smaller nations up into preliminary competitions would take away the essence of equality that makes international football so great.

A great example of why it is important that minnows are given an equal chance to qualify is the recent success of Iceland. A nation more famous for volcanoes, geysers and plane-grounding ash clouds, Iceland, with a population of just over 300,000, have risen rapidly from one of UEFA’s whipping boys to one of the best teams in the continent. After narrowly missing out on World Cup qualification to Croatia in the play-offs, Iceland have come through a group including the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Turkey to secure qualification for France with two games to spare. The success of Iceland shows that traditional minnows with tiny populations can transform into a team that qualifies for major tournaments.

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Iceland’s tiny population may put them in the category of ‘minnows’, but in comparison to the Faroe Islands, they have a gargantuan pool of talent to choose from. The Faroe Islands, owned by Denmark and found far to the north of Scotland, have a population of less than 50,000 people, putting them in the same bracket as San Marino, Andorra and Gibraltar in terms of population.

Despite this lack of population, FIFA rank the Faroe Islands as the 75th best team in the world, and they have beaten 2004 European champions Greece both home and away in the last year. This should, according to population, be almost impossible. Yet because they have had a number of years to compete with better teams, learn from them, and improve, they’ve shown that minnows can be competitive.

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The same improvements are happening in San Marino, Andorra and Gibraltar, it is just taking longer. Gibraltar, in their first ever qualifying campaign, have struggled for results, but have managed to score twice in qualification, much to the satisfaction of almost every neutral paying attention.

Andorra, whilst still struggling away from home, have made the Estadi Nacional a tricky place to visit, scoring in three of their four matches there in European qualification, even taking group leaders Wales to within ten minutes of an unlikely point.

San Marino, who for a long time were stuck with the unenviable label of the worst international team in the world, have improved enough to hold out for a 0-0 draw with Estonia and almost taking a draw from an away match with Lithuania in midweek.; only an injury time winner denied San Marino in a 2-1 defeat.

Even that loss carried many positives though. Not only did it show an increased level of competition from the microstate, but they also scored their first goal away from home for twelve years. The sheer joy on the faces of the players after Matteo Vitaioli rifled home a free-kick was clear for all to see, and this incredible feat brought smiles to the faces of many football fans across Europe. The celebrations from the players and all of the staff on the bench were so raucous that it’s hard to imagine the winners of next summer’s Championships greeting victory with such emotion. The minnows bring unrivalled effort in the absence of skill and expensive facilities. One of the most charmingly unique qualities you can find in the game.

In short, the tiny teams of Europe deserve to be cherished and respected as much as any other international side. Not only have we seen big improvements from the likes of Andorra and San Marino in recent years, but the Faroe Islands have made massive strides and Iceland have developed from no hopers into a truly quality side. With the right manager, and one or two of the right players, any international side can come from nowhere and make it to a major tournament; Wales and Iceland have shown that this is possible, and it adds to the magic of international football. Every week we see quality players face each other in the Premier League, giving us a wonderful spectacle; but it is much more special to see the joy of San Marino scoring against Lithuania, or the Faroe Islands coming home from Greece with three hard earned points. It is what football is all about.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Helgi Halldórsson

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