No easy games? Well, here come Andorra and McClaren still can't win

Even this England side should comfortably beat a team not good enough for international football, writes Andy Hunter

Tuesday 27 March 2007 00:00

Contrary to the time-honoured refrain of the desperate, there are easy games left in international football as Andorra versus England will, surely to God and the highest heavens, illustrate in all of its one-sided glory tomorrow night. Though it is typical of Steve McClaren's current fortune that in Barcelona he will confront an opponent who can provide no answers to the questions surrounding his ability as England manager.

Landlocked by France and Spain, sandwiched between the Solomon Islands and India at 163rd in Fifa's world rankings, Andorra do not make the short trip through Catalonia in fear of a humiliation that befits a nation with only one competitive victory in its 11-year international history, they expect one. "If we don't get massacred it will be a victory for us," admits the 36-year-old defender Tony Lima, one of the 1200 footballers - of all ages - registered to play in Andorra.

The senior pool of talent available to coach David Rodrigo, who supplements his wage from the Andorra FA by managing the national women's team, is estimated at 100 with only a third of the tax-haven's population possessing Andorran passports, and his task at the Estadio Olimpico de Montjuic has not been helped by the suspension of 50 per cent of the full-time professionals at his disposal. That statistic belongs to leading goalscorer Ildefons Lima, who was also banned for September's 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford for spitting at an opponent.

Lima, younger brother of Tony, plies his trade in Italy's Serie B with Triestina and the remainder of Andorra's professional contingent is represented by midfielder Marco Bernaus, whose goal in a World Cup qualifier against Macedonia in 2004 secured the nation's first international victory but who also missed the first meeting with England on account of the contract he signed with Spanish second division outfit Elche. It states club fixtures must take precedence over Andorra's internationals. Tomorrow, Bernaus returns, his goalscoring threat invaluable among a 22-man squad with a sum total of 10 international goals to its name.

The rest of Rodrigo's squad consists of young amateurs and ageing part-timers, players such as veteran goalkeeper Jesus Luis Alvarez, who was once of Real Madrid and now combines operating for FC Andorra in the Catalan regional leagues with coaching the Under-21s team, 37-year-old captain Justo Ruiz and the elder Lima brother, who is one of four men from the Pyrenean principality to play for Ibiza where he also doubles as the club's technical director.

It was Lima who railed against the English press for fixating on his team-mates' alternative occupations as gardeners and postmen after the defeat in Manchester when, given the paucity of their performance that day, there was little else to congratulate Andorra on other than their proud record of zero unemployment.

Tomorrow's contest merits the description only in the sense there is nothing to gain and so much to lose for England, as is often the case, with little to be learned about either team at the home of Espanyol other than neither of them should be there. England, even this England, should not have to add to an already congested calendar against a team whose only valuable contribution at Old Trafford was to turn up without a kit.

Back in the day when McClaren's men scored five goals in one game, as opposed to one goal in five games, there was an initial goodwill that stretched beyond the manager's competitive debut and on to the collection of part-timers whose years of toil in the semi-professional league of Andorra, or the lowest rungs of the professional ladder in Italy and Spain, had delivered a day out they could regale down the generations. Then Peter Crouch scored in the fifth minute, and thereafter there was some justification for the faraway look that regularly features on an England international as their opponents failed to muster a meaningful attack, resorted to elaborate theatrics to slow the play and finally vented their mounting frustrations on expensive ankles.

It was a display that produced only a powerful argument in favour of a pre-qualifying round for the European Championships and, though the diplomacy of the England armband prevented him entering that debate, John Terry encapsulated the lack of meaningful competition nevertheless when he described McClaren's preparation for the game. "We had watched a few videos of them and there wasn't even a shot on goal we could study. They scored from one cross-shot in the clips we watched," revealed the captain following the quietest afternoon of his professional career.

Such deficiencies cannot be blamed solely on Andorra, however, whose entire population could have fitted into the 76,000-capacity Old Trafford and still left 5,000 seats spare. They have merely accepted the invitation offered when Uefa opted to swell the qualifying campaign (and revenue) by treating all European Union members equally. Even those states that are not full members of the EU (Andorra) or not even members at all (Israel).

Uefa defend their open-door policy with the argument that the Andorras of this continent can only improve their technique and resources through exposure to high-level competition, although the development of England's next opponents has also extended to the bleaker side of the game. Embarrassing theatrics in Manchester aside, Andorran football has witnessed its first encounters with racism and hooliganism in the past seven months with coach Rodrigo accused of abusing Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun as the West Ham midfielder took a throw-in during his side's 4-1 win in September.

"He said, 'You're a country of murderers. You're criminals. You fire rockets at civilians and kill children'," claimed Benayoun after a game played in the Netherlands as a consequence of Israel's conflict with Lebanon, and which resulted in an official complaint to Uefa from their football association.

Domestically too there have been tremors this season, with a league game between CE Principat and Lusitanos abandoned following crowd violence that involved several players. Such was the shock at the first outbreak of football hooliganism in Andorra a review was ordered on security at all league games, and the subsequent recommendations reinforce the divide that exists in Barcelona tomorrow. Matches deemed "high risk", it concluded, must now be attended by four police patrols.

Their finest hour and a half: running world champs so close

Andorra's greatest moment as an international team probably came in June 1999 when they came tantalisingly close to embarrassing the reigning world champions. France arrived at Espanyol's Montjuic stadium in Barcelona, where England play tomorrow, on the back of a 3-2 Euro 2000 qualifying defeat at home to Russia four days earlier.

They were expecting to get back on the rails by thrashing Andorra's taxi-drivers, postmen and waiters. The principality at the time had only 50 registered players.

However Christophe Dugarry was sent off in the 26th minute as France's elite of Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Christian Karembeu, Nicolas Anelka, and Sylvain Wiltord struggled for 85 minutes. But with their dream draw in sight, Andorra's Antoni Lima handled the ball in the area and a penalty by Franck Leboeuf (left) saved the World Cup winners.

France went on to top their group and almost 13 months after their close shave against Andorra were crowned European champions after beating Italy 2-1 in Rotterdam.

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