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MARC WILLIAMS: Minnows relish Nations League and chase bigger stages

Mapperley-based sports writer Marc Williams shares his own opinions and thoughts on national footballing topics.

Jadon Sancho had just scored his second goal of the night – England’s fifth of a commanding first half – against Kosovo at Southampton’s St. Mary’s stadium on September 10 when I started having doubts.

The Borussia Dortmund starlet, signed for around £8m from Manchester City in 2017, slotted home from close-range after frightening work down the left by Raheem Sterling.

However, as he wheeled away in celebration, positively gesturing toward the Three Lions badge and thanking former club-mate Sterling for his contribution, I could not help think about the torment that the visiting Kosovans were experiencing every time England streamed forward.

In hindsight the game did not end up as bad as the half-time score suggested.

Eccentric Swiss manager Bernard Challandes and his men arrived on the south coast unbeaten, and had notably dismissed the Czech Republic 2-1 three days prior as they made the journey from capital Pristina sitting second in the group.

Second half strikes from Valon Berisha, adding to his earlier effort to give his side a shock lead after only 34 seconds, and a penalty from Vedat Muriqi brought Kosovo within two but they ultimately succumbed to a relentless, yet extremely gifting, England.

Nevertheless, despite the minor comeback, and certainly making for an entertaining game for the neutral, they were always second best against Gareth Southgate’s World Cup semi-finalists who tallied their nineteenth goal (prior to games against the Czechs and Bulgarians later on) in just four European qualifiers.

Since they played their first competitive international football match in September 2016, Kosovo have gone on an unbeaten run of fifteen games, with their most significant result coming against the Czechs. Impressive.  

They are, at the time of writing, currently 120th in the World Rankings according to FIFA and lie in and around countries such as Tajikistan (119th), Namibia (121st) and, the closest other European nation, Lithuania (130th).

However, whilst I have no have no fear about them propelling themselves up through the rankings given their performances to date and undoubted ability, other teams in that so-called bracket of minnows don’t, and never will, have that luxury.

Therein lies my doubts.

Kosovo may be an anomaly, but I look at similar teams at the lower-end of things, San Marino, Andorra, the Faroe Islands, amongst many others, and question whether they actually enjoy it. Enjoy being placed in a group with two or three of Europe’s elite and getting beat, quite comprehensively, most, if not all, of the time.

With no disrespect to the aforementioned, they are never going to reach the glitz and the glamour of a European Championship or a World Cup at this rate, so should they even try? Should they even bother?

My answer is yes, but I really think the governing bodies of football ought to really look at the format in which is currently being implemented throughout qualification. Whether it does actually benefit the so-called ‘lesser’ nations, or if it’s simply just a ploy to ensure the big boys secure a guaranteed six points as they stick five, six, seven and more past a self-employed window cleaner or a postman before sealing their qualification under often non-combative circumstances.

Whilst the big dogs of world football rub their hands in glee after seeing their names drawn alongside the microstates, you would be forgiven for thinking that the unknown, (often) part-timers would be demoralised and embarrassed following a customary drubbing against the celebrities. Or would they?

The argument is two-fold. I have proposed this question in the past and the outcome remains inconclusive, though I really think one should ask themselves the same question should they ever get to that position.

One the one hand, some of these players may look forward to their qualifying games against the major nations; irrespective of the result. They get to come toe-to-toe with the world’s best every year. Who cares if they lose? Anything else is a bonus.

However, some may think the opposite and would want the shot of competing at the final of a World Cup or European Championships. Surely, as international footballers, they aspire to play on the biggest stage – not to just make up qualifying numbers as cannon fodder.

Representing your country is an honour, and I know a lot of people, playing in and around the non-league and professional circuit, who have proudly turned out for their country – whatever their level.

Previously, I’ve played with a Zimbabwean international and defended against a striker who travelled to the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat, a tiny Caribbean island, to compete in World Cup qualification in 2011 and who remains their top scorer to this day.

An old school friend currently plays for Sheffield United and was recently called up for Ryan Giggs’ Wales squad and made his debut in a friendly away in Albania a month later.

But what is the common theme between the three examples above, and the tens of thousands of players turning out in a similar capacity?

They’re all playing against those of a comparable level.

However, the same can’t be said for the Sammarinese, Andorrans or Faroe Islanders et al., and I believe that’s where the current process needs to be investigated and an alternative considered.

I understand that the domestic leagues in all those countries isn’t fantastic and is often played in front of 50 of the most dedicated locals and their pets, but can they really say that the most memorable time of their footballing lives would be to get thumped 13-0 (San Marino-Germany, 2006), 6-0 (Italy-Liechtenstein, March 2019) and 9-0 (Belgium-Gibraltar, October 2019)?

Whilst some of the above teams may be improving – slowly – and that making the trips to these countries would look good in their passports, my personal thoughts are that these players wouldn’t agree. I think they want the chance of reaching a major tournament and rightly so.

In a sport that is increasingly becoming dominated by psychology, mental health and everything else with it (for all the right reasons, may I add), I have the opinion that these players would fare far better, as people and domestic footballers, without the tradition of being sent for five goals plus. They’re just not going to learn anything being hammered, regardless of who they face.

I don’t often like comparing football with other sports, but I think Rugby Union is an exception and football, the game I’ve played since I was eight, really has a lot to learn from their oval-shaped ball counterparts.

Aside from the fact that Rugby’s well-known respect (for the game, players and officials), spirit and desire is undoubted, they also have a tournament qualifying system that football could really learn from.

I’m sure someone more experienced can go through the ins and outs of their qualification process, but the crux of it all is that it offers the lesser-known teams a chance to compete with the likes of perineal powerhouses New Zealand, South Africa and England. They may even go on and beat them.

How it works is that those automatic qualifiers from the 2015 World Cup (12), via a regional/geographic tournament (6) and via a play-off or repechage (2) ultimately make up the twenty team tournament every four years.

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The Rugby world rankings compose of 105 teams, with New Zealand leading the charge. However, their regionalised qualification allows the lower-quality teams to face each other, rather than rub shoulders with the tier one nations in a meaningless qualifying game that would eventually see them feel deflated, demoralised and pointless at the end of a mauling (excuse the pun).

There are fewer spaces at Rugby’s most prestigious tournament, yes. Though it still offers teams propping up the world rankings a realistic chance to qualify for, and have a chance of reaching, the main stage. They won’t win it (unless they have Claudio Ranieri in charge), but what an occasion for the country, players and their families. Just look at Japan’s upsetting the odds against Ireland and Scotland recently – what a tournament they had.

So what can be done? Lots. Can it work for football? Absolutely.

The UEFA Nations League was proposed in late-2013 and was finally introduced to Europe in 2018 when Portugal won the inaugural tournament following their 1-0 win over The Netherlands on some soil.

Just after preliminary discussions to set-up such a competition, then-UEFA general secretary and current FIFA president Gianni Infantino, backed by incumbent UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin, stated that one of the benefits of the Nations League would be to help the less glamorous associations arrange games and offered a back door to Euro 2020.

Right, it’s looking good for the minnows. Let’s progress.

Following England’s exciting run in the World Cup a year earlier, they competed the third place play-off slot with Switzerland and won 6-5 on penalties to claim third place. Not bad.

Though, if you’re anything like me, it was seemingly more difficult to stay awake in a game that was merely a formality but, bewilderingly, had manager Southgate rejecting that notion adding ‘it would be little more than a practice session’, citing how individuals have the ‘opportunity to impress’.

Rubbish. 

Yes, I agree, every single player should give blood, sweat and tears when representing their country. But come on, Gareth. Let us be realistic. No England player wanted to be there, the atmosphere was bleak and the outcome really was one of ‘great – now let’s move on’.

Throughout the entire tournament, it felt like everyone was playing a series of glorified friendlies. Stupid.

Afterwards, the consensus of the Nations League was mixed and mostly utmost confusion in regards to its format. Even as we near the second Nations League in 2020, most still can’t quite work it out. Why are teams being promoted and relegated again?

I initially doubted the Nations League of 2018-19 and, in fact more players from the England World Cup squad in Russia had questions hanging over them as a result of the meaningless third place game in front of just 16,000 people in Guimarães.

Even the celebrations of the winning Portuguese seemed subdued and unwanted, which makes me think that they can take it or leave it, quite honestly, if given the choice.

But I think it works. However, it should only continue to work for the weaker sides.

I believe the higher-ranked nations should be withdrawn and left out of it. They already have a chance at qualifying for major tournaments – why add a series of games for those already competing at the highest level and whom are already competing for tournament qualification?

How the players perceived their first Nations League remains to be seen, but, to me, it is wholeheartedly unnecessary as a fan, but to the plucky underdogs, it’s a more realistic chance of fulfilling most childhood dreams. So let’s leave it to them.  

There is already a huge ongoing argument that Premier League players that they’re ‘tired’ all of the time in the most competitive league worldwide. Unsurprising when they’ve travelled half way around Europe for games that lack any real purpose, no?

The Nations League is split up into 4 sections (Leagues A-D) with League D being for the less glamourous teams that Infantino referred to when justifying the competition’s introduction.

Based on rankings, the likes of San Marino, Gibraltar, Andorra and Armenia competed with other lower ranked teams ranging from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. A perfect scenario that backs up the idea of allowing the lowest 16 ranked UEFA members to compete for an illustrious place in European Football’s primary international competition.

Nations League

Source: Wikipedia – 2018-19 UEFA Nations League D

It gets even better when you realise that League D will be allocated one of the four remaining Euro 2020 places.

That being said, it remains horrendously confusing and, as things stand, teams have already been eliminated from the competition and cannot qualify directly to the main tournament or to the play-offs. These include San Marino, Andorra and Latvia, whilst Malta, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands may qualify directly but cannot advance to the play-offs. What, why?

Who knows? But what we do know is the usual suspects, whilst still getting beat quite comprehensively every time they face someone half-decent in the main World Cup and European Qualification pathways, are getting their fair crack and results are improving.

In the latest qualifiers for the 2020 European Championships, San Marino lost 9-0 away in Belgium (10 October) and even their game against an extremely mediocre Scotland side, easily swept aside by Russia in their first of two autumn qualifiers, failed to ease things as they lost by six at Hampden Park three days later.

The Faroe Islands lost again when they hosted Romania and Luxembourg succumbed to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 700th career goal in Lisbon as they went down, too. Malta were also humbled by Sweden in Valetta losing by four.

The only against-the-grain result from the weekend was Andorra’s win over 10-man Moldova. However, and without taking anything away from Koldo Alvarez’s men, even that was their first European Championship qualifying win in 21-years after losing their previous 56 – a run stretching back to 1998.

But in the Nations League, it offers a stark difference in stories.

With the possible exception of San Marino, Andorra have drawn games, Moldova and Faroe Islands have won games and the likes of Armenia and Gibraltar have a chance of qualifying for a major European competition. It’s how it should be.

I’m sure turning up against Cristiano Ronaldoand co., Spain’s very own galacticos and France’s Premier League-laden squad is an extremely exciting prospect, but when you find yourself down 6-0 down at half time against Belgium, these players must be tired turning up realising what lies ahead of them.  

Alas, something has to be done.

There has to be an intervention from the organisers to take a serious look at this and query whether it will be worth putting these sides in the same qualifying group as one another all of the time and actually give them a fathomable chance of making it to a major competition – and not just through a puzzling Nations League competition. It needs to be consistent across the board. World Cup and all.

To work in conjunction with that proposition, the bigger nations should then be grouped together, based on their world rankings, making for a more enthralling and exciting set of international fixtures. How many of us actually tune in to watch England romp home against a minnow where the outcome becomes a crystal clear after only half an hour? It’s uninteresting and pointless. Even their 6-0 win over Bulgaria in the most recent set of European Qualifiers was boring, despite being completely overshadowed by the latest in eastern-Europe’s racism saga.

It also makes you wonder whether Southgate’s boys would actually benefit from playing those of the same calibre, given how every time England reach a major tournament, they trip up against those of quality, simply because we’re not tested against them in a competitive setting – it’s a constant inevitability which we should be ashamed of.

Over to you, Messrs Infantino and Čeferin…

You can contact Marc on email (marcusa.williams5@hotmail.co.uk) or follow on Twitter @ichbinmarc_

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