Come on FIFA, give teams a chance

There was a moment where I felt terrible for San Marino. It was when one of their defenders (I think) raised his hand to signal to the officials that they should call an offside and instead of getting the offside call, the official decided (on VAR review) that the ball had knicked his finger and that England should be awarded a penalty.

It was one of the harshest calls I’ve seen in a football match. The erstwhile shot was going out for a goal kick and if there was any contact by the player’s hand it was so minimal that it didn’t even change the flight of the ball. Sure, by the letter of the law it was a penalty but I guarantee that the referee doesn’t give that penalty at 10-0 up.

I’m guessing someone is going to get all fired up and say that refs should award every penalty, for every contact, exactly the same way that they award fouls outside the box. And they are right. We want a full non-stop, never ending consistency, applied with perfect rigour, like a boot smashing a face forever. But I’m not interested in that question, not really, because this whole match just seemed wrong.

One of the great things about sport is that small sides can occasionally beat a big side. The whole underdog story is wonderful, when it happens to come true. And for San Marino that has happened exactly once, in 186 matches. In their officially sanctioned FIFA matches they have conceded 787 goals and scored 26. Which is why they are the worst ranked team in FIFA.

The bottom 20 teams of the FIFA rankings are countries you might expect. They are mostly small countries, poor countries, and/or countries who don’t have strong ties to (soccer) football. For example, Samoa is a small country with ~200,000 people and they are 193rd in FIFA rankings but they are 13th in World Rugby rankings. They just clearly prefer rugby to soccer.

There’s another problem which is often unspoken about these smaller European countries, and I would also say to an extent the countries in the UK. That is that if their country produces a top tier talent, that player is likely to get scooped up by another – let’s face it, more prestigious – country. This happens often because players will have citizenship eligibility in many countries. And who could really blame a player if he chose to forgo a lifetime of international defeats at San Marino and instead played for the Italian national side?

There is a famous case of that NOT happening, Massimo Bonini turned down Italy because to play for them would have meant taking Italian citizenship. That was a different time, however. FIFA’s rules are relaxed and players are more likely to switch to a different national team if it suits them. And honestly, I imagine if Bonini did play for Italy, his countrymen would have been cheering for him to win the World Cup and celebrating every one of his hard tackles as a win for San Marino.

They would cheer because a country like San Marino has a 0% chance of winning the World Cup. They will likely never even qualify for a World Cup final. It’s kind of fucked up if you think about it. We often ask “what’s the point” of a club that sits mid-table in the Premiership, but think about San Marino and spare Everton for a minute. The point of a team like San Marino seems to be to get routinely crushed by every other country in UEFA. To pad out stats for strikers like Harry Kane.

There was a discussion on the Football Weekly pod about whether Kane’s 48 goals should get an asterix. The podcasters generally agreed that there have always been bad teams but I’m not entirely sure that’s a fair assessment. Kane has scored 5 goals against San Marino, which wasn’t even formed until after Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton stopped playing international football. He has an additional 6 goals against Montenegro and Andorra, two more teams who have only come on the scene recently. I’m sure he will go on to top the England goals record but there’s no doubt in my mind that 11 of those goals came in matches of very low quality opposition. Opposition far worse than anything Bobby Charlton ever played.

But what is FIFA/UEFA supposed to do about this problem? They want every country to be a member because every member has the same number of votes and appealing to the small countries is how they stay in power at the top. They want matches played between the big countries and the small ones because those matches generate significant revenue.

But it’s incredibly unsporting. The looks on the players faces for San Marino as they conceded 10 goals (and it could have been more) was a bit unsettling. And think about playing for the side, I’m sure that they are proud and want to do well, but if you’ve played football then you know what it feels like to play on a hugely underdog side and get stomped on. It’s no fun. And to do that 10 times a year? With maybe one or two close matches?

FIFA are considering having a 2nd World Cup, one every two years. They suggest that this will “increase participation”. They have also expanded the number of teams in the tournament and I think it will be 48 when they bring the World Cup home to the USA in 2026. They could expand to 200 teams and have a World Cup every year and San Marino would probably not qualify. San Marino can’t even qualify for the World Cup by hosting it like Qatar has done because the country is basically the size of a city and their national pitch is in a stadium the size of an Isthmian League stadium!

It seems to me like what needs to happen is divide the world cup into two. Teams who don’t qualify for the World Cup play against each other instead of playing against big guys like England. They then use those matches to decide who qualifies for a 24 team World (Bowl? Plate?) which is played on the off years from the World Cup. Badabing, you give teams like Andorra and San Marino at least a fighting chance. And you inject some sport back into the game. Team who make it into the finals, then get to play the big teams in World Cup qualifiers and the team who wins the World Bowl (or you could take the top 4) automatically qualifies for the next World Cup.

These are just ideas. There are a lot of ways that you could structure this. But the important thing is that you need to give these smaller teams and principalities the chance to play against other teams that are at their level. I think it would be well received to have a World Bowl played between some of the smaller teams. It would hugely increase player’s profiles and give those countries something to cheer for, rather than just watch their teams get tonked 10-0.

It’s simply unsporting the way it works right now. And frankly, watching Harry Kane ask the referee to award him two penalties for handball and then do a fist pump to celebrate scoring is pretty uncomfortable viewing.

At least Smith Rowe had the decency to score from open play and have a muted celebration after.



  1. Painful as it is to admit, I give Kane a little bit of positive credit for being the first person over to congratulate ESR after scoring on his England debut.
    Beyond that, he’s A. Scored a lot of goals against crap international competition, and B. Scored a lot of penalties. So yeah, asterisk deserved.

    As far as the minnows go, some sort of play-in tournament for small/very low ranked teams would seem to be the way to go. Winning by 5-10 goals does no-one any good.

  2. Agree with every single word. I like your prequalification idea.

    The game was hard to watch. I really wanted to see the Arsenal boys in the three lions shirt, but I busied myself doing something else in the second half. In the end, I think I missed all of their goals live, but rushed back to the TV to watch the replay when the volume went up after Emile scored. Switched off for real after that.

    The match taught us nothing, except Harry Kane’s greed. Not only did he insist on playing against 5th division opposition (as we understood from the commentators), he came out for the second half with England 6 goals up. wtf, Harry!

    Saka played left wing back first half, right wing second half. I hope we keep the kid in cotton wool. He’s special.

    1. Yeah, Harry coming out for the 2nd half, when he’d already scored 4, was a special level of douchebaggery.

  3. My feeling is that the Vatican should be made to compete in World Cup qualifiers and other international competitions or its nationhood should be revoked.

    1. Great idea. The team should wear all white except the goalie who should wear all back with a red sash, to evoke the Da Vinci code.

    2. I think they have the means and the $$ to make it happen if forced to.

      They are small doesn’t mean they are paupers.

  4. So your proposal is an alternate tournament for (only) the smaller teams that functions as a play in system for the main event of the World Cup, like an expansion of the “First Four” for the NCAA basketball tournament?

  5. I love this sort of stuff. I agree with much of what you said and then I laughed because this is exactly what leads to the ever expanding list of tournaments organised by Uefa, which too, fans complain about.

    Speaking of which, I actually liked the Nations League format because it did just this. Divide European nations into 4 groups and have them play against teams at their level with promotion and relegation for the next edition. Not sure why it didn’t catch on with the public.

    The first time I came across a cup/bowl/plate format was in a futsal tournament. Initially I hated the idea. But as the tournament progressed, I realised it gives both players and fans something to look forward to till the end. I’d favour it, maybe even held alongside the World Cup. Mostly so players and fans can get some of the experience of making it to the big show. Hold their matches on the practice fields outside stadiums with kickoff an hour before World Cup games, and on rest days.

    1. We’ve all played (if we played the game) against an opponent which just outclasses you and it’s not fun. Here in Tacoma we were part of a larger league and my little pub team played a match against semi-professional players and it was an absolute joke. We probably would have lost 10-0 had it not been for our keeper (who was a walk-on volunteer from another team who was looking for a workout). It was absurd, I think I had 1 touch in 90 minutes. There was just no reason for those two teams to face each other.

      1. Oh for sure. I agree with you. I used to play with and against people who were a bit better than me but could hold my own. One day, a guy walked on and from the first touch you could tell he was just streets ahead. It was ridiculous. I wouldn’t want to face a team full of players like that.

        That dude got picked up by a professional club academy 2 weeks later, and then went on to play for the Indian national team.

  6. Greg

    Thank you for your comment on the previous post. Of course I’m fine with you responding to me. Things got a little out of hand last time and I’m sorry for my part in that. I’ve found you to be fair and considered for the most part and that still is how I view you.

    Your comment on Ozil and Arteta was also in the same spirit. I don’t completely disagree. I actually had sympathy for Mikel on this too because Ozil’s time at the club was always coming to an end. Still, I think both he and the club went about this the wrong way. Ozil would probably have been better served cutting his losses too but I think it’s underestimated how much of a fighter he is.

    It was a tough time for him with Germany, but he returned to Arsenal early and was really happy playing for the club. It was Raul, who was making enemies of all our players, who created the problem, in my view. That contract was less room for him to do more of his ‘wheeling dealing’. Arteta did bring him back into the fold, but since he identified himself with the pay cut, he took Ozil’s perfectly valid – and subsequently proven correct – stance, as disharmonious. (Sokratis too was left out even during a CB injury crisis. As was Saliba)

    Remember Arteta later remarked people within were trying to *harm* ‘the club’. So here we’ll disagree because I don’t buy the unity line from him. It was personal, and his ‘unity’ is essentially tyranny. And that has come at a cost.

    That really is the core of the argument ultimately. Whether ‘unity’ holds as a valid motivation and proves worth the cost (it would help evaluate this if the club and manager were prepared to mention targets, which I suspect is why they aren’t.)

    If it does, the things done to get there will possibly fade away into oblivion. If not, then it will be an issue for the club going forward.

  7. FIFA interested in the good of the game…has never been used in sensible conversation.

    Filthy Lucre is all they have been interested in.

    Arsene Wenger should bow his head in shame for being on FIFA’s payroll.

  8. Hi Tim,

    So I agree on the wincing it was painful.

    But playing devils advocate the system works both ways:
    Anecdotally a number of previous Irish, Welsh, Caribbean etc players are basically English but their grandmother’s cousins boyfriend was [Irish, Welsh etc] and they know they will never make the English team but want to have the chance to play in a World Cup etc.

    Also as an Englishman I well remember Iceland (population smaller than the average English town) knocking us out of the Euros in very recent times.

    Finally I’m curious why you picked Samoa as a nation to reference given that their nationals have been historically notoriously ravaged by the All Blacks for their rugby team, but more recently a few have actually switched allegiance back (in Sevens in particular). Just coincidence?!

    As to what the solution is I don’t know. I do know however that I would not be in favour of any more international competitions. What makes the Euros and the WC special are that they only happen every 4 years. That’s long enough for a National team’s squad to go from crap to amazing, and vice-versa. Even the 2 years between each alternate tournament allows a manager time to build a team to ‘peak’.

    I just don’t see the point of doing it more regularly, as essentially then it just becomes a replacement for the annual cycle of Club football. And far too disruptive to that.

    1. You’re right that players who don’t have a ton of hope to play for England go play for another nation but that’s exactly my point: the best players tend to go “up” to England, which increases the talent level for the “big” team and decreases the talent levels for the other nations. So, I would say it doesn’t really go both ways. Declan Rice for example, played for Republic of Ireland at the senior level and then went over to England.

      As for the Iceland example, I think my plan would increase the number of those upsets. I’m not suggesting permanently relegating Iceland to the 2nd tier, but instead, let’s get the smaller nations playing each other in more competitive matches, increase their profile among their countrymen, increase funding for their programs, and maybe even keep a few guys like Declan Rice in the smaller national programs (because they now have a chance to win something) which raises their overall level.

      1. Thanks for the reply and perhaps because I am blinkered being an English / ‘larger’ nation fan, but I don’t get your response.

        Declan Rice is exactly the example that illustrates my point. The guy is English. He was born and brought up in England. His parents were born and brought up in England. He’s more English than I am (my mum is Scottish). His dad’s parents were Irish. That’s two generations back, on one side of his family.

        If that’s the criteria for playing for a national team, then I would imagine that the USA probably would barely struggle to find 11 players to field in football team (obviously I jest, but you get my point).

        Most countries now have scouts actively looking for and trying to convince up and coming kids to play for ‘their’ country. Frankly rugby is probably worse than football at this – not just the Kiwis with the Pacific Islanders but the home nations have been just as bad – best example being that the former England captain was a kiwi.

        My point is that while the logical approach should be that you can’t play for a country unless you were e.g. born there or lived the majority of your life there, the reality is that the smaller nations have just as much incentive as the larger ones in keeping the current more fluid rules.

  9. Tim, not paid much attention to CONCACAF…. how’s USA qualification looking? Would love to see you do a piece on the state of game there, and the quality of the prospects, besides the usual suspects like Pulisic. Some of us still hope for a strong USA in football/soccer — a hope we’ve harboured since 1994.

    Seems ironic that the big powers, whether militarily or economically (China, Russia, USA) havent been that great on the football field, although Russia did OK in their home tournament a few years ago.

    1. Yeah but the big countries all crush at olympics. It’s really more about where countries allocate their resources.

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