Although many Premier League managers may view international friendlies with much distain, especially just a few days before the new campaign starts, the matches this week provided much entertainment for fans all over the world and especially Europe.
The Paraguayan squad twice led Germany, one of the favourites for next year’s World Cup, before eventually settling for an impressive 3-3 draw. England put on an extremely entertaining game (if not technically blessed) against Scotland, in which they triumphed 3-2. And the minnows of Europe, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, had spectacular nights and achieved a 3-2 loss to Croatia and a 2-1 victory over Lithuania respectively.
Coverage of these two games was sparse in almost all of the newspapers the next morning, which isn’t surprising when you consider the rage among most European nations to oust these “minnows” from international competition, only willing to grant them their “precious” time if they battle each other to the death in a pre-qualifying tournament.
However, Europe is hardly the only continent in which the future of these smaller nations is under threat. Many areas of the press and most television pundits questioned Tahiti’s place at the Confederations Cup this summer – eventually cooling their wrath after they won many hearts with their admirable attitude and abundance of ambition of the pitch. They have perhaps won a brief respite for their other competitors in the Oceania region (where nine of the 11 members are ranked below 150th in the FIFA rankings) that many fans would seemingly like to see wiped from international football.
The noises coming out of UEFA recently suggest that they may back down on a promise not to introduce a pre-qualifying tournament for Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, San Marino, Andorra and Moldova. But one of the many issues with this is where do they draw the line?
It’s becoming clear that the top football nations would prefer a much smaller competition calendar, and only matches against those they feel worthy. So shall we cut loose every country below 150th in the rankings? Or how about 100? Or why not just keep the best of Europe and South America in the World Cup? Or shall we just cherry pick Brazil and Argentina? And how about booting out Eastern Europe and the Scandinavians? Because they will surely never achieve or improve will they?
Those who want to side line the smaller countries seem incapable of believing that a nation’s football team can ever improve. By excluding them they are making sure that never happens, and take away any joy the inhabitants from those countries may experience. Fair enough Tahiti’s goal against Nigeria may not equate to a World Cup, European Championship or Confederations Cup trophy, but the Tahitians will certainly not forget it.
Closer to home we’ve got perfect examples of nations improving, and not just from this week. Northern Ireland achieved a fantastic win over Russia and draw with Portugal during this campaign, and yet as recently as 2003 were ranked 122th in the world. Wales currently sit at 46th in the FIFA rankings thanks to the exploits of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams, but just three years ago were a lowly 112th. British football fans would be reluctant to exclude those two nations, but much happier to cut loose Lithuania who in 2010 were 55th in the rankings.
Rather than trying to exclude poorly performing countries we should be using the ever-increasing wealth in the sport to boost their infrastructure and resources. If England thinks qualifying against Moldova and San Marino is a waste of their time, why don’t they build them up into an opponent who would really test them? Every region should be working together to boost their own standards and create the inclusive footballing family that every fan would want to see.