Is it time to rethink the role of international football minnows?


San Marino are officially the worst international football team in the world. It is not hard to understand why this is the case, as the total population of San Marino is a little over 30,000 citizens. Out of this population, the San Marino Football Federation acknowledges around 1,800 players who are registered to play competitive football.

The result of this minuscule player pool is a team that has only won once and drawn six times in thirty-one years. The singular win came in April of 2004 against Liechtenstein. It is unlikely that this record will improve significantly anytime soon.

Despite their bleak footballing history, minnows like San Marino and Lichtenstein still compete against some of the best international sides. These matches are usually nothing more than a formality for the favourites, and the games are usually dull for both fans and players.

Upsets do happen in the world of international football, a fact proven only recently as a North Macedonia team ranked 65th in the world beat former world champions Germany 2-1 in the fifth round of World Cup qualification.

The result was a shock and few expected Germany to fall to such a small team, but few expect Macedonia to qualify for the tournament despite this upset.

There is a difference, however, between the likes of North Macedonia and teams such as Gibraltar or San Marino. North Macedonia has some professional players and football is more important to the country as a whole.

The lowest-ranked team to ever qualify for the FIFA World Cup was Korea DPR, who played in the 2010 South Africa competition with a rank of 105th in the world, around the middle mark of all international teams. This ranking was, however, an anomaly. The second lowest-ranked team to ever play in a world cup also took part in the 2010 tournament, but South Africa, as the 83rd best team in the world, had to be involved as hosts.

Mismatched games are not fun for any spectator and do not improve or develop either side

The tediousness of the international break is something that is felt by many football fans who would rather watch their favourite domestic teams play in a more competitive environment. Totally mismatched games are not fun for any spectator and ultimately do not improve or develop either side.

The result is a foregone conclusion and matches turn into something more similar to an attack versus defence training drill rather than a competition.

A potential way around the boring and outdated qualification process is a new competition focused on the development of international sides in the lower half of the rankings. The tournament would act as a second-tier World Cup, featuring the bottom 100 teams in the FIFA world rankings.

The competition would be similar to the Rugby Europe International Championships which take place alongside the Six Nations and allows for the development of smaller sides and growth of the popularity of the sport across the globe.

To give all international teams the chance to compete with the likes of Belgium, France and Brazil, promotion could be introduced to the secondary tournament as well as the potential for relegation from the top tier.

Rather than asking a team like San Marino to go out and get beaten comprehensively by some of the best players in the world, if the teams in the bottom half of the played for qualification for a secondary tournament, then smaller nations may start to enjoy football more.

A second-tier World cup competition could be beneficial for teams across the world, predominantly because fans of top-tier nations would not have to sit through a 9-0 thrashing of a minor side while praying that their star players do not pick up an injury before a major competition.

Having two competitions may seem to leave nations with less football pedigree at a disadvantage as it is impossible for them to win the most prestigious tournament in world football, however, the prospect of victory and of genuine competition is surely more appealing than an inevitable thrashing on the biggest stage.

Image: Maria Jose Segovia via Flickr

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