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

Comments (6)
Comment by The Exploding Vole 2009-06-11 15:15:44

In qualification groups that are tight, goal difference often depends on how many teams can be "bothered" to put past the likes Andorra, rather than how many they managed against more challenging opposition.

Comment by dennis 2009-06-11 22:53:10

Results against the 6th-placed team are disregarded when separating teams that finsih level on points, and when determining which are the 8 highest-scoring runner-up across the nine groups. So a 1-0 victory last night, for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth it would doubtless have provoked, would ultimately have no less use than a 10-goal spanking.

I'd have more sympathy for Andorra' merits if they themselves appeared to give a monkey's about being involved. Would their people really take to the streets in protest if they were spared this charade every two years? Their life expectancy is amongst the longest on Earth so if nothing else, they seem to handle the constant disappointment admirably well.

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2009-06-12 11:39:27

Dennis: results against the sixth-placed team are only disregarded in the countaback to eliminate the weakest runner-up, not to separate other teams in the same group with the same points. The criteria then are goal difference, goals scored, results against each other where two or more teams are still tied.

This is relevant in the Czechia/ Northern Ireland group. NI ambled to two easy wins, aggregate 7-0. But we clearly won't beat Poland on goal difference as they managed 12-0.

In qualifying for Euro 2008, Liechtenstein (population ca. 30,000) beat Iceland who beat Northern Ireland who beat Spain, the eventual tournament winners. Just a thought.

Is Andorra really a sovereign country- as opposed to duty free hypermarket with ski slope attached? I thought the joint heads of state were still the French President and a local Spanish bishop?

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2009-06-12 11:40:14

PS NI and Poland's wins were against San Marino.

Comment by enzee199 2009-06-12 15:56:04

It's what makes international football such a turn off for me. There are so few competitive games. I can't help but feel sorry for some of the smaller teams, whilst it's undoubtably an honour to represent your country sometimes it must be a very long journey home.

Comment by dennis 2009-06-14 10:10:24

Sorry Duncan, my bad. I do hope no group ends up being decided on this basis. Am not sure whether this makes the Andorrans and their ilk more or less of an irrelevance than before.

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