While UEFA’s top ranked nations have been plotting a successful journey towards France after the Euro 2016 qualifying groups were announced this week, many of the continent’s smaller countries are also trying to plan campaigns in which they hope to earn a handful of points, win back the hearts of their supporters and get pundits off their back for having the temerity to even exist.
Much has been made of UEFA’s latest arrival, Gibraltar, and what it means for the European Championships if these smaller countries are allowed to compete, but that is to be completely ignorant of what these team’s actually mean to the country they represent.
Not that they need that to justify their existence anyway. Rather than create another financially abundant and exclusive VIP area in football, the continent should celebrate the fact that nations such as Andorra, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg are represented by individuals who are proud to pull on their national team shirt, and aren’t motivated by the monetary gains that rule the minds of too many footballers in the modern game.
Despite being the world’s ninth largest country with nearly 18 million inhabitants, Kazakhstan is one of UEFA’s weakest competitors. In World Cup qualifying for Brazil they only managed one win against the Faroe Islands throughout the whole campaign, and finished in fifth place (nine points behind the Republic of Ireland who only reached fourth place themselves).
Their Russian head coach Yuri Krasnozhan will be fearful of their Group A opponents, made up of the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Turkey and the World Cup playoff runners up, Iceland, but has to aim to take maximum points off lowly Latvia, who are ranked 17 places above Kazakhstan (in 111th place).
The national squad features players predominantly from the country’s domestic leagues but defender Konstantin Engel and midfielder Heinrich Schmidtgal are currently plying their trade in Bundesliga 2.
UEFA’s second lowest ranked nation are currently coached by their former international goalkeeper, Jesus Alvarez, who played his last game against England in a 2010 World Cup qualifier (Alvarez was voted Andorra’s best player of the last 50 years in 2003).
Anything will be an improvement on their previous campaign in which Andorra lost every single game, conceded 30 goals and scored none – but with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales and Cyprus in their group it will be difficult (even Cyprus managed a victory over Iceland and drew with Switzerland last time around).
Squeezed in between France and Spain, the players who aren’t competing in the Andorran Primera Divisio are found in the amateur regional leagues in Spain.
The tiny nation can boast the highest GDP per capita in the world, but their national team sits between Equatorial Guinea and Lebanon in the FIFA rankings in 120th place. Led by former international Luc Holtz, Luxembourg managed a famous 3-2 victory over Northern Ireland in the last World Cup qualifying campaign to complement their two draws with Azerbaijan and conclude a relatively successful campaign.
However, hopes aren’t so high for the forthcoming Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Joined by Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus and Macedonia, the national team would do best to use the experience to blood in young and promising players such as Chris Philipps, Lars Gerson and Yannick Bastos, who compete in Ligue 2, Allsvenskan and the Championship (with Metz, Norrkoping and Bolton Wanderers respectively).
UEFA’s newest member will be embarking on their maiden qualifying campaign against Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland and Georgia in Group D, which is sure to provide a steep learning curve. However, Allen Bula and his squad will feel confident after a 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands and a 0-0 draw with Slovakia, and will hope to take points of Georgia (ranked 103rd by FIFA) and get themselves some valuable UEFA ranking points.
Many miserable pundits are bemoaning their admittance into the European footballing community and will be looking launch abuse at any setbacks in Gibraltar’s campaign, but the ambitious and hardworking spirit shown by their manager and squad so far will leave many fans feeling enthusiastic about their prospects.
Now that the 15 year reign of former manager Giampaolo Mazza is over, San Marino are being led by former Under 21 manager Pierangelo Manzaroli (who managed the nation’s first competitive win at any level since 2002 when his squad beat Wales 1-0 last year).
When you are bottom of the FIFA rankings no opponent can be considered easy opposition but they have had a more accessible qualifying group this time around, having been pitted against England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania. A first win since 2004 may not be on the cards but the main aim will be to avoid the high score lines suffered in previous campaigns, particularly against Lithuania and Estonia.
Of all of UEFA’s smaller nations, San Marino particularly comes under fire for their playing style and many will hope to see a change of philosophy.
Led by Danish legend Lars Olsen, who earned 84 caps as a player and won the Danish Cup as a manager with Randers in 2006, the Faroe Islands will hope to hope to earn their manager his first win in charge – only a draw with Kazakhstan could be managed in the last campaign.
The country hasn’t won a qualifying game since 2011 against Estonia but will highlight Northern Ireland, out of a group containing Greece, Hungary, Romania and Finland, as a game in which they could take home three points. Most players feature in the nation’s Premier League but they do have former Manchester City and current Motherwell goalkeeper Gunner Nielsen at the back – the first player from the Faroe Islands to compete in the English Premier League.
Located between Switzerland and Austria, the tiny nation will hope to keep up their good form from 2013 and carry it into the forthcoming Euro 2016 campaign. Two draws against Latvia and Slovakia, along with a 3-2 loss to Croatia and 1-0 loss to Greece, will give head coach Rene Pauritsch hope that there are points to be found in their group containing Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Montenegro and Moldova (whom they have a 100% win record against).
The squad contains many seasoned veterans such as Thomas Beck, Peter Jehle, Martin Stocklasa and Mario Frick, although LFV President Matthias Voigt has said that youth development systems are being set up to find their future replacements and ensure a brighter future for Liechtenstein.
The tiny island of half a million people have been feeling highly optimistic about their national team the past couple of years thanks to defeats of the Faroe Islands, Armenia, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Luxembourg, a draw with Northern Ireland and close defeats to Italy, Denmark and Bulgaria.
Former Lazio and Fiorentina footballer Pietro Ghedin is leading the Malta national team, after coaching the Italian ladies’ national team, and will face his home nation in Group H, which contains Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan. Malta has beaten Azerbaijan every time they’ve faced them so will hope to bank on six points in the upcoming campaign if top goal scorer Michael Mifsud features regularly.