The only qualification at stake in San Marino was whether this could even be considered a football match.
Whatever it was, it felt a long way from the emotion and glory of the World Cup, even though England of course got the point they needed to reach Qatar with a 10-0 win over Europe’s worst minnows. Qualification was such a formality that it feels like it should barely even be mentioned, even though it was technically the main consequence of this game.
The greater consequence beyond the many records ratcheted up, as ever, should be whether matches like this are even taking place. The idea of pre-qualifying theoretically goes against the invigorating democracy of football… but then you have events like this, as England hit double-figures for the first time since 1964. It was actually only the third time that had happened since the second world war.
England have had much more dramatic ways to reach a World Cup. You only had to look elsewhere at what was happening in Europe, like in Belfast or Lucerne, or in Lisbon and Seville the night before.
Those games were what the final nights of qualification should be about. This was barely even a mismatch. San Marino, as an example, looked a level far below the Marine side that played Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup’s greatest ever gap between teams. What stood out more than the score was the immense difference in conditioning and physicality. There were moments when Bukayo Saka gave his marker a head start and still out-sprinted him within mere yards.
The differences were too great, which just made this a grand exercise in stat-padding.
Players like Phil Foden meanwhile looked to just be enjoying themselves by trying things, like the speculative bicycle kick that resulted in a handball for Harry Kane’s first penalty.
That was the other thing that made this game feel even less like a proper match. There were moments when the officiating seemed far too pedantic – and, well, too correct – given the extent of the beating. You shouldn’t be thinking that in a World Cup qualifier.
Dante Rossi, who had been responsible for the handball, was later sent off.
There were at least a number of records to make the game notable. Kane was responsible for most.
He hit four goals – two of them penalties – to go level with Gary Lineker on 48 goals in England’s all-time list, five behind Wayne Rooney. Four of them were by half-time, as he hit the third first-half hat-trick of his international career – and the second in successive games.
By that point, with England 6-0 up at half-time, there were questions over whether Gareth Southgate’s side could rack up the country’s highest ever win.
As it was, that stat still belongs to the 13-0 win over Ireland in 1882. That’s the kind of scale we’re talking here.
It is why even the fine details of this match felt a little lost amid a win of such gluttony.
For the record, Harry Maguire set things off with another header, to become the highest-scoring defender in the country’s history.
Both Emile Smith Rowe and Tyrone Mings meanwhile got their first international goals, before Tammy Abraham and Saka added to Filippo Fabbri’s early own goal.
These should be proud moments, but it was difficult to know what emotion to feel here. Maybe San Marino enjoy the challenge. Maybe the casual observer enjoys the novelty of such a beating, and the curious suspense over how high it can actually get. Perhaps it is better than worthy 2-0 wins over fourth-tier European nations such as Belarus or Slovenia.
It just didn’t feel like a qualifier. England didn’t look “ecstatic”, in the way Conor Coady said they would be beforehand. It was just a fixture to be fulfilled.
As if to foster the sense of going through the motions, “Sweet Caroline” immediately came on at full-time. It summed up how this was almost a pastiche of a football match.
That is partly because this England are of course the real deal, and real contenders for the World Cup.
It’s just that this match, which officially sealed qualification, belonged in a different world to that.
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