Euro 2016 – Are the minnows really getting better?

After each round of international matches, particularly with one where a major upset occurs, one often hears the phrase, “there are no minnows anymore.”

But is this really true? Can any team really beat any other? Does Andorra stand a chance in a match against Germany, or could Guam beat Argentina? Most likely this is no but it does raise the question – are these so-called footballing minnows really improving or is it simply good teams getting beaten on bad days?

 

Before we start examining minnows and their recent successes, we need to have an agreed idea of what qualifies a nation as a footballing minnow. In UEFA, I have classified any team that is in pot five or six for qualifying as a minnow.

Typically these are nations with little footballing history, or ones with small populations that would limit the talent they can find within their borders. However, there are times when more established nations have fallen on tough times and landed here after a bit of a free-fall.

To evaluate this, I compared the current Euro 2016 qualification attempts of the pot five and six nations to the efforts of their counterparts from World Cup 2014 and Euro 2012 qualification and listed their points and goal differential throughout each campaign. The grid lists the team based on the order of ranking within their pots.

2016 Euros                            2014 World Cup                       2012 Euros

Pot 5                  Pot 6                Pot 5             Pot 6                  Pot 5              Pot 6

Iceland

20 points

+11 GD (Qualified)

Luxembourg

4 points

-21 GD

Armenia

13 points

-1 GD

Wales

10 points

-11 GD

Liechtenstein

4 points

-14 GD

Azerbaijan

7 points

-16 GD

N. Ireland

21 points

+8 GD

(Qualified)

Kazakhstan

5 points

-11 GD

Finland

9 points

-4 GD

Liechtenstein

2 points

-21 GD

Kazakhstan

4 points

-18 GD

Luxembourg 4 points

-18 GD

Albania

14 points

+5 GD

(Qualified)

Liechtenstein

5 points

-24 GD

Estonia

7 points

-14 GD

Iceland

17 points

+2 GD

(2nd)

Armenia

17 points

+12 GD

(3rd)

Malta

1 point

-17 GD

Lithuania

10 points

-11 GD

Faroe Islands

6 points

-11 GD

Cyprus

4 points

-9 GD

Kazakhstan

5 points

-15 GD

Iceland

4 point

-8 GD

Faroe Islands

4 points

-20 GD

Moldova

2 points

-12 GD

Malta

2 points

-13 GD

Latvia

8 points

-10 GD

Luxembourg

6 points

-19 GD

Moldova

9 points

-4 GD

Andorra

0 points

-24 GD

Macedonia

4 points

-12 GD

Andorra

0 points

-32 GD

Moldova

11 points

-5 GD

Malta

3 points

-23 GD

Georgia

10 points

-2 GD

San Marino

0 points

-53 GD

Azerbaijan

6 points

-11 GD

San Marino 1 point

-35 GD

Macedonia

7 points

-9 GD

Andorra

0 points

-30 GD

Estonia

16 points

+1 GD (2nd)

Georgia

9 points

-6 GD

Gibraltar

0 points

-54 GD

Azerbaijan 9 points

-4 GD

San Marino 0 points

-53 GD

Albania

9 points

-7 GD

Cyprus

12 points

-1 GD

Faroe Islands

1 point

-25 GD

Montenegro 12 points

+0 GD (2nd)

Total:

98 Points

-29 GD

Total:

23 Points

-201 GD

Total:

69 Points

-81 GD

Total:

43 Points

-170 GD

Total:

85 Points

-40 GD

Total:

15 Points

-148 GD

 

To clear up some confusion, in 2012, there are two fewer teams in pot six because the Euros were hosted by two nations (Poland and Ukraine instead of just one) and in the 2016 qualifiers Gibraltar were admitted to UEFA and first allowed to qualify.

The discrepancy between the pot five teams and pot six teams seems to be growing, particularly for Euro qualifiers. In both Euro qualifications, pot five nations have earned more than four times as many points as their counterparts from pot six.

This strong improvement of results hasn’t just happened due to the expanded format. Pot five teams were reaching the playoff stage of the 2012 edition, admittedly though both Estonia and Montenegro lost.

The highest number of points from a pot five team was Armenia in that edition. But their endeavor went unrewarded, despite earning a total of 17 points. This combined with their excellent goal differential of +12 would have seen them finish second in five other qualifying groups, including ahead of two sides that reached the final tournament and advanced to the knockout stages (Czech Republic and Portugal).

 

The previous teams that came close to qualifying were not close to the top teams of the pot. However, in this round the top three Pot five sides, Iceland, Northern Ireland, and Albania have punched their ticket to France.

As many have already noted, Iceland have qualified for their first finals in their history and Albania created history of their own by doing the same, while Northern Ireland have reached their first finals in 30 years. This success has proved beneficial to all three.

Iceland has used this success to be placed for the 2018 World Cup qualification all the way up to pot two. Albania and Northern Ireland have both jumped up to pot three, meaning they should be edging closer to being considered favorites to continue qualifying for tournaments. This new success might lead to a different question of whether they would still be thought of as minnows going forward.

However, it is quite apparent that this improvement excludes pot six nations as these nations continue to struggle with getting off the bottom of their groups. Wins by these nations are still cherished and sides picking up a solitary win would consider their campaigns to be a success.

The lone example of success by a pot six side came during 2014 World Cup qualification with Iceland. Finishing second in their group behind Switzerland saw the island side head to the playoffs, which once again were cruel for minnows as Croatia saw them off in the second leg to reach Brazil.

Many would say that Iceland benefitted from a slightly weaker group, however, as a pot six side, one could argue that there are no easy matches. This was evidenced by the fact that one of their three losses in that qualifying stage came to Cyprus away, who finished bottom of the group with just one win in those ten matches.

 

Iceland also showed that the side possesses the ability to fight back, earning a total of seven points after falling behind. This quality is prized even for club sides, but for a nation long considered a minnow, that is likely quite use to defeat after years of finishing at the wrong end of the tables, a change of mentality like this is almost unheard of.

For teams in this situation, remaining organised defensively can be key and Albania’s success primarily came from their willingness to stay compact.

The Kuq e Zi scored just seven goals in their qualification group, with five of them coming against Armenia who finished bottom of the group. Defensively, however, they only conceded five goals and only once did they give up more than a solitary goal.

Many had anticipated that, with qualifying expanded to 24 teams, there would be an increased chance for lesser sides to qualify for France. However, few would have anticipated that there is a solid chance of having multiple pot five sides reach the final tournament.

While they aren’t going to be favorites to win the tournaments,, it will be good to get some new teams and fans to the big stage and some different sides for the neutrals to support.

Author Details

Andrew Smith

An American who lives overseas. I am an Everton and Bayer Leverkusen supporter who enjoys watching and writing about football out of the spotlight. If given the chance I will root for the underdog.

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