What is the point of the San Marino football team? Excuse the bluntness but any Sunday league side with a record as bad as theirs would have disbanded years ago.
Since the tiny republic near Rimini in north-eastern Italy started playing international football in 1990 it has lost 108 of its 114 games. The side has conceded 473 goals and scored 19. They have won just a single game, against Liechtenstein in 2004. Their Fifa ranking points tally is zero and they are 53rd, last of the European nations. They are joint last on the global list.
On Friday, the best England team that Roy Hodgson can muster – with or without Ashley Cole – will line up against San Marino's one-in-114 boys in a World Cup qualifier and it is testament to the devotion of football fans in this country that Wembley could well be sold out.
San Marino is, of course, entitled to have a football team. If you can find a bonafide Sammarinese – and there are only 30,000 of them, not enough to fill Ewood Park – they will tell you that it is the oldest sovereign state in the world. It belongs to the United Nations although not the European Union. It can certainly have a team; just not one with an automatic entitlement to waste the time of Europe's top international sides.
The introduction by Uefa of pre-qualification for Europe's weakest football nations is long overdue. There are currently nine European nations who have amassed fewer than 300 Fifa ranking points – Faroe Islands, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Malta, Andorra and San Marino. Collectively, this group have played 16 games so far in World Cup qualification and amassed just four points between them, three of those from Cyprus's surprise 1-0 win over Iceland last month.
That result suggests even in this group of nine there is a wide range of ability. To fine those nine down to two who could go forward into the group stages would be a rough working plan. There are currently nine Uefa World Cup 2014 qualifying groups – eight of six teams and one of five. It would not be much of a change to make that eight of five and one of six.
Unfortunately, the will is not there. At Uefa congress, where every nation has equal voting rights, there is no political capital in raising the standard of tournament qualification from the turkey shoot that will ensue at Wembley on Friday. Wayne Rooney and co will take on a team whose most famous player is Andy Selva, who has played most of his career in Italian football's third tier.
International football is a cherished, fundamental part of our game. It should be defended at all costs and it is under attack from the powerful club lobby, represented by the European Clubs' Association (ECA) who, in February, negotiated with Uefa a drastic re-organisation of the international calendar. There was no question who won the day in that deal.
If international football is to protect its future it has to play to its strengths. It has to give us competitive, exhilarating football – not a team of lower leaguers enjoying the ultimate lads' day out at Wembley. For the top clubs in this country, the prospect of their best players being obliged to spend 90 minutes disposing of San Marino will only serve to strengthen beliefs that international football needs to be reined in further.
Naturally, San Marino should have a vote at Uefa Congress and they can play the likes of Andorra and, possibly at some point in the future, Gibraltar who, it would now seem, are close to being given full Uefa membership. Their application has been fraught with political wrangling. For obvious reasons, Spain have offered staunch opposition while support for Gibraltar has come from the Home Nations football associations.
What no one seems to be asking is how the quality of European qualification for major tournaments is going to be raised by the inclusion of another country with a population of 30,000 and about as much chance of giving the serious football nations a decent game as Igglepiggle has of presenting Newsnight.
Ever since San Marino played England in the 1994 World Cup qualification campaign and Davide Gualtieri scored against Graham Taylor's team in Bologna, I have wondered what possesses a group of lower league footballers to travel around Europe being soundly beaten by some of the best players in the world. Why do it?
Last week I spoke to Alan Gasperoni, San Marino's friendly press officer who told me that the national team competed for pride and patriotism and to be part of "the Uefa movement". "Our victory is different to your victory," he said. "If people can see that San Marino is on the same pitch as England we have 'won' our match."
Which is all very nice, but national teams such as England, Germany, Italy and Spain, do not exist to give the occasional morale boost to small countries. With the greatest respect, pretty much any institution, from the local school to the office of this newspaper can raise 11 players to play in a team. That in itself is not an achievement. Achievement, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, lies in what a team can accomplish.
You would be hard-pressed to make the case that San Marino, the nation, is in love with its own domestic football. For the home leg of the Champions League qualifier this season between San Marino's domestic champions Tre Penne and Luxembourg's F91 Dudelange there was a crowd of just 450 in a 7,000-capacity stadium. Tre Penne lost the tie 11-0 on aggregate, a case of "Dudelange, where's my defence?"
The troubling impression gathered from talking to Gasperoni was that playing for the San Marino team, or simply being involved with it, was prized because it conferred status upon the individuals concerned within Sammarinese society. Again, that is certainly not the purpose of international football.
There are opportunities when elite sportsmen and women rub shoulders with the rank amateurs of much less famous sporting nations, and the Olympics provides that in an inspirational and egalitarian fashion. But then there is no danger that a sprinter from San Marino or Andorra in lane eight is going to damage Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce as the latter disappear into the distance.
The concern on Friday for England, as it is for the other top-ranked nations, is that the limited opponents of the lowest-ranked teams, with their 11 men behind the ball, might do some lasting damage. Injuries can occur between any kind of opponent but watching England play Andorra in qualification for Euro 2008 and the last World Cup there was no doubt that the latter went out to kick their opponents. It was unpleasant and reflected by the reluctance of the England players to dish out shirts and autographs afterwards.
On Friday, San Marino and their fans (ticket allocation, 100) will come to Wembley, take their pictures and collect autographs. Of course, there could be one of the greatest upsets in history, although the bookies have an England win at 100-1 on. Chances are it will end in the 109th defeat of San Marino's history and a lot of people wondering why we bothered. Still at least the visitors enjoyed themselves, eh?Reuse content