Thursday 11 June ~
Following England's sound disposal of Andorra, a well rehearsed debate arises again: does the tiny nation deserve a place in UEFA's qualification tournament? With a population of only 68,000, the principality is yet to field anything approaching a competent side. Last night's game was, according to Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail, no more than “a training session dressed up as a football match... England scored as many as they could be bothered to.”
To redress this imbalance, it's been suggested that a lower tier competition is formed, where the lesser nations play for a spot in the next tournament's preliminaries – be it the World Cup or European Championship. This could place take during a non-tournament summer, or be spread out, staged parallel to either competition's qualification cycle.
Andorra, San Marino and the Faroe Islands would be obvious participants in the new format. Each is currently bottom of their group and has fewer than 70,000 residents. But to make the competition sizeable enough to matter, who else? Liechtenstein have earned one point in these qualifiers. Yet so have Azerbaijan and Armenia (population 3.3m and 7.7m respectively). Would it be fair to demote the former but not the latter two? Luxembourg lead Moldova in their group while Malta, with a similar number of residents, continue to struggle. But who's to say they wouldn't achieve what the comparably sized Iceland have – a higher position than Norway in their World Cup 2010 group – in the future?
If included in a new second tier, Iceland would likely provide the best team. They would then spend a few years competing before coming back down. Bottom tier returnees would inevitably come to dominate the postmen and mechanics fielded by the other teams, while Andorra and San Marino fell further behind.
Perhaps it would be unjust to banish any of these nations. As Kevin McCarra notes in the Guardian, Andorra have been a member of the United Nations for over 15 years. If they're good enough for the world's peacekeepers, shouldn't they be allowed to play with the other, better, members of FIFA? From a footballing perspective this argument is flimsy as in reality many qualifiers are little more than formalities – lots of sloppy goals, negative play and bored supporters (Ireland's narrow 2-1 victory in San Marino in 2007 being a rare recent exception).
Against Andorra, England could easily have managed more than their six goals, with star names including Gerrard, Beckham and Rooney all on form. But it's not as if a weaker side, for instance a group of Stuart Pearce's Under-21s, could be fielded instead. Last night the Wembley crowd, undeterred by the anticipated transport difficulties, had come to see country's best. Not, with respect, Lee Cattermole or Joe Hart.
Currently, all that can be expected of a team is that they perform against these lesser nations, take the expected three points and provide some entertainment, at least until FIFA and UEFA reappraise and alter the qualification format in Europe. Something which does not appear high on Sepp Blatter's long list of things to do. Tom Whitworth