BY STEVIE GREEN
There are some questions that may never be answered. Who built Stonehenge? Who shot JFK? What really happened that night in Roswell? Some things about the wider world, we’ll just never know. But, as football fans, there should be one question that burns on he tips of everyone’s tongues: Just why are San Marino so shit at football?
Every two years being drawn in a qualifying group with the Sammarinese was seen as a charitable gold mine for a country’s goal difference, but now they represent a booby prize for an increasingly unloved format of the game, providing only a mere distraction from regular domestic service. And this month, it’s England’s turn to take them on.
San Marino are the worst international team in the world. Literally. They are rock bottom of the world rankings underneath a pile of 206 other countries with just Bhutan for company, and even they manage to stay off the bottom because of the alphabet.
There are some who believe that San Marino aren’t worth the effort of playing, and though fixtures with them inevitably end with a numerical shot in the arm of a side’s goal difference, perhaps there is a case.
After watching the excellent ‘Next Goal Wins’ in which the American Samoa national side goes about fixing their tarnished reputation following a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia some 14 years ago, it was interesting to see their transformation from an abominable team into just a terrible team.
By loaning a coach from Major League Soccer – the colourful Dutchman Thomas Rongen – they are put through their paces until they are at a standard where they can compete with other smaller island sides that also reside in the south Pacific to chalk up their first two victories after years of trying.
Admittedly, the story, though excellent, becomes more about the characters than it does about their technical development, but that’s fine, it’s probably more interesting that way; but it does prove that with some sort of structure and some professional guidance, even the small sides can get a rub of the green and now American Samoa are sitting pretty in 193rd place – a full 13 spots above San Marino.
So could San Marino rent a coach from the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (F.I.G.C.) and embark on a dramatic upturn in fortunes of their own? Maybe they should ask.
Football in San Marino is a strange fruit anyway. Under the FSGC (San Marino Football Federation) their premier division is split into two groups of eight and seven teams. In an American style playoff system the top three teams of each division come together at the end of the season and take part in a semi-knockout style championship, and in 2008, the winners were granted a spot in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League, with the runners up making their way into the Europa League.
There is also one side in the bowels of the Italian football league system, but they only fare marginally better than the national side.
Being put in a preliminary group with the likes of Liechtenstein, Malta and Andorra may see them up the rankings, but would it make any difference to whether they actually made it to the tournament? No, and it probably never would.
San Marino is a microstate of just 32,000 inhabitants and spans only 24 square miles, so naturally the talent pool is incredibly sparse, but what’s puzzling that even though it is smaller than a number of towns (not cities) in mainland Europe, it’s still big enough for at least one actually talented player to emerge from the dross. It IS Italy, after all, right?
But there is one big reason to point towards not excluding the smaller nations and it is this; if they are segregated into their own qualifying group it will be playing right into the already stinking rich hands of the owners of Premier League chairmen, amongst others.
It is never the players that complain about these fixtures, but always the entitled owners and managers of the large clubs that primarily supply the national teams of Europe with their players, and for once they should not be allowed to get what they want.
By cutting the smaller countries from the qualifying rounds proper, the campaign would be cut short by two games. But what would they do with the extra time? Continue the lucrative domestic season as normal, shaving a week or so off at the end of the term?
Or would they make two weeks available for a well earned break, a concept the Premier League has often rejected as the rest of Europe do nothing?
Or would they simply do nothing, and miss out on more revenue?
It’s hard to tell, but instead of complaining about it, perhaps the national team could select players on the fringes of the national team. If we are so worried about the lack of experience in the side then these are the games to blood them in. If international football really does differ that greatly from the domestic game, then it is better to have some minor experience under the belt than risk being thrown into the deep end at a crucial stage.
And to take away San Marino’s right to compete at a higher level is just outright spiteful. Would you take away Davide Gaultieri’s seven-second goal away from him? No, of course you wouldn’t, what’s wrong with you? And just last month, an equally lowly Andorra lead Wales for 75 minutes in a tense encounter before two moments of magic from the world class Gareth Bale swung it in the Dragons’ favour.
All it takes is one moment for their existence to be all worth it, but of course that’s easier said than done, and though there are plenty of problems and budgetary constraints, there is hope. Someone just needs to figure out how to channel it into something practical.