Why must the bigger fish gorge on small fry?

Football politics is to blame for the increase in mismatches on the international calendar, writes <i><b>Glenn Moore </b></i>
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The Independent Online

It is hardly a gripping prospect. England, fresh from piling up four goals against Northern Ireland on Saturday, will tonight seek to match the eight Poland achieved against Azerbaijan the same day. Meanwhile, in Warsaw, the Northern Irish will try to avoid being humiliated like the Azeris.

It is hardly a gripping prospect. England, fresh from piling up four goals against Northern Ireland on Saturday, will tonight seek to match the eight Poland achieved against Azerbaijan the same day. Meanwhile, in Warsaw, the Northern Irish will try to avoid being humiliated like the Azeris.

The question must be asked: Why are these mismatches, for which the traditional Easter weekend has been sacrificed, taking place? The Old Trafford tie may have had historical resonance, and been a vital boost to the coffers and profile of the Irish Football Association, but as a competitive event it was a waste of time. Before England scored the match resembled a training exercise: attack v defence. After Joe Cole broke the deadlock it became another exercise: shooting practice.

The pattern was repeated across Europe, as it has been throughout the World Cup qualifying programme. Taking the Fifa rankings at the start of August 2004, when the campaign began, there have been 36 ties which pitted teams ranked outside the top 100 against teams inside the top 50. The minnows have drawn six and lost 30, scored 12 goals and conceded 112. For every "heroic" draw, the most notable of which have been Liechtenstein's 2-2 against Portugal, and Lithuania's stalemate with Spain, there have been results like Poland's drubbing of Azerbaijan, Sweden's 7-0 win in Malta, and Switzerland's 6-0 demolition of the Faroe Islands.

Even more damning is that, despite 54 attempts, the nations ranked outside Fifa's top 100 are yet to defeat any team ranked inside the top 90. In these days of fixture congestion it seems ridiculous to clog up the international calendar with so many meaningless matches.

As usual the reasons are political. There are 51 European countries engaged in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. For the 1990 World Cup in Italy, there were 32. Much of this increase is due to the creation of many new independent countries since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but part of it is a result of Uefa, the governing body of European football, encouraging the likes of San Marino and Andorra to join the international football community. This is because every new member of Uefa increases the continent's power in the game's world governing body, Fifa, a one-member, one-vote body where Vanuatu carry the same weight, in theory, as Italy.

It is an issue which may soon be addressed. Franz Beckenbauer, the most influential figure in German football, is about to launch his candidacy to take over from Lennart Johansson as president of Uefa, which determines the region's qualifying system for the World Cup and the European Championship. Beckenbauer is on record as suggesting minor nations should play off for the right to mix it with the big boys. This already happens in every other qualifying zone except for the 10-nation South American section. It also occurs in sports such as rugby and cricket. It would provide nations like Northern Ireland with more meaningful opposition. However, unless they qualified it would deny them the chance to play, and make money from, glamour opposition such as England.

England have suffered the occasional embarrassing moment against minor opposition, not least in going behind to 120th-ranked San Marino in Graham Taylor's last match in 1993, but since the rankings began that year they have never dropped qualifying points to a country ranked outside the top 100. The worst result was against Macedonia who were ranked 90th when they drew at St Mary's in November 2002. They are unlikely to surpass that ignominy against 116th-ranked Azerbaijan.

WHEN THE MINNOWS BIT BACK - RARE UPSETS ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE

1950

USA defeated England 1-0, eliminating them from the World Cup. Some newspapers believed the score it was an error and published the score as England 10 USA 1.

1966

North Korea beat Italy 1-0 in the World Cup in 1966. The returning Italians were pelted with tomatoes; N Korea were 3-0 up against Portugal in the quarters before losing 5-3.

1982

West Germany lost 2-1 to Algeria in their World Cup group then conspired to put the Algerians out. Needing a win against Austria, the Germans scored early on, then both sides stopped competing in the knowledge they would reach the next stage.

1990

Faroe Islands, with a population of only 48,000, defeated Austria 1-0 in a 1990 European Championship qualifier, the country's first full international.

2004

Liechtenstein, population 34,000, drew 2-2 with Portugal in a World Cup qualifier.

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