James Lawton: Surely it's time San Marino had to qualify against a dot in the Pacific
This was a fantasy which told England of their ability when free of real pressure
Something quite astonishing happened soon after Wayne Rooney set up Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain to score a goal that in a more compassionate world would have drawn the attention of the League Against Cruel Sports.
It was that the joint-bottom ranked nation in the world completed a sequence of not two or three but four completed passes. San Marino were not of course going anywhere outside their own bizarre dreams that presumably come to them occasionally when they are doing their other jobs, but for a few moments there was the fleeting impression of a football match.
Joe Hart for a moment or two gave a passable impersonation of someone who might be drawn into something resembling casual employment.
At the time we were still counting goals rather than merely being reminded that however much we deride our super-rich professionals and all their foibles, they do, when compared with the rest of humanity – and no international football team ever qualified for that latter status more thoroughly than the makeweights of an otherwise proud little pocket principality – possess some remarkable skills.
How well they will be integrated next Tuesday night against the appreciably more rugged characters of Montenegro was the issue long before England completed the kind of destruction that might draw someone’s attention while walking their dog on Hackney Marshes.
It was a pressing question England manager Roy Hodgson seemed to have put to one side when he, too, seemed to be caught up by some of the richer passages of his team’s play. On one occasion he appeared to be almost exultant. This was when Ashley Young, still in the throes of a season which has no doubt been a disappointment as much to himself as his club and international managers, rifled home another goal with a quite perfect delivery.
After the serious angst created by the Rio Ferdinand affair, Hodgson was probably entitled to enjoy something that might have been categorised as a near-perfect training session in other circumstances. But how useful is such formality? Rooney sent in a perfectly judged free-kick for England’s sixth goal, Daniel Sturridge came on to add another when seizing on an exquisitely judged cross by the now rampant Young, and there was almost giddy excitement when San Marino produced the stunning riposte of a corner kick.
But you can take escapism only so far and Hodgson, who has already talked about the possibility that England may have to take the play-off route to the World Cup finals in Rio next summer, was hauled back from it with the news from Moldova: group leaders Montenegro had, despite going down to 10 men, won another three points. England will face more than a heightening of competitive pressure in a gritty corner of the Balkans next week. They encounter not so much a higher hurdle but a profoundly different culture.
This, we know, can give England serious problems and it is maybe something Ferdinand, who has been in such outstanding form recently, might have wanted to have reflected upon in his TV studio in Qatar last night.
Fifa surely also had plenty to think about before the end of a game which was essentially ridiculous, however regularly it was punctuated by impressive if utterly unchallenged professional skill. When Jermain Defoe, who like Young was eagerly embracing this chance to put behind him some less than encouraging days, knocked in his second and England’s eighth goal, the world authority was squarely in the dock again for not insisting on minimum standards in the competition-proper stage of international football’s most prestigious event.
This was perhaps a most crushing case in the second decade of the 21st century for some culling at a qualifying stage. San Marino should have been scrapping with some football force assembled on a dot in the Pacific or some Himalayan enclave, not one which still likes to think of itself as a front-rank nation.
One casualty would be the kind of memory which Davide Gualtieri still nurses fondly on the worst of his days. Rather poignantly, the computer salesman who scored the fastest goal in World Cup history (8.3 seconds) against England on a cold night in Bologna in 1993, reports that he occasionally digs out the film of the moment he pounced on a rare slip by the formidable full-back Stuart Pearce. “You know,” says Gualtieri, “sometimes when I feel a bit down I re-run the video. It makes me feel a whole lot better.”
However, England are hardly in a position to seek out such easy comfort. They scored their biggest victory in 26 years but they should bury the movie without delay. This was a fantasy which told them only that they are in possession of some enviable ability when free of anything resembling authentic pressure. Real life will be resumed very soon.
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