An even playing field – In defence of the World Cup minnows

For many, the international break represents, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, a complete waste of time.

In this age of glitz, glamour and sheikh-owned European superclubs with budgets matching those of small countries, it’s no wonder the emphasis placed on the importance of international football has declined in recent years.

With each round of international games bringing with it a weekend off from top-tier competitions, some fans would no doubt rather scrap international football altogether than miss out on any more domestic action.

As such, the discourse surrounding international football is often one of frustration and anger mixed with existential questioning.

Domestic managers are not the only ones to view international contests as being unwanted distractions from “real” football, and the apathy shown towards them seems to have grown in recent years.

This is particularly true when viewing the way the more major, established nations approach games against weaker, less “deserving” countries.

Contests involving these teams are often seen as being the most pointless of exercises the international calendar can throw up, nothing more than glorified training matches against undeserving amateurs.

Some managers – even international ones – are loath to let their main stars play in them for fear of getting injured, an understandable but nonetheless disappointing show of disrespect.

It seems the widespread apathy shown towards international football has created a stark divide between the way in which underdogs are viewed on the international and domestic stages.

For whilst even the most hard-hearted of supporters will crack a slight smile at the sight of lower league opposition triumphing against a Premier League team in, say, the FA Cup, the same cannot be said for games involving the likes of Andorra, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.

The latter sides’ image amongst those critical of international football perfectly illustrates the elitism that plagues the game.

A member of UEFA since May 2013 and FIFA for less than a year-and-a-half, Gibraltar have been widely viewed as an unnecessary nuisance by the bigger teams they’ve been drawn against. Currently ranked 206th in the world – technically last, but tied with five other nations – no one can deny that they are a very, very weak team.

Only four of the players called up for their recent World Cup qualifiers against Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina currently play outside of Gibraltar’s amateur league, with the most accomplished of those, Liam Walker, plying his trade at Notts County in League Two.

They are yet to avoid defeat in a single competitive game, whilst on only one occasion, against Malta in June 2014, were they able to win a friendly.

Gibraltar, like Andorra and Liechtenstein, head into almost every game expecting to lose, but as UEFA and FIFA members they have as much right as anyone else to take part in the same qualification process as their bigger and more illustrious rivals.

Clashes against them may be viewed as a waste of time by the likes of Belgium – who won 9-0 last week – and Bosnia and Herzegovina – who were 4-0 victors in their game – but football has no place for discrimination or elitism.

All opponents need to be treated with respect and decency, and each game must be approached in a professional manner.

Whilst Gibraltar are yet to claim a notable scalp, it is ironic that complacency from the bigger nations has started to increase the number of surprising results being pulled off by international minnows.

Luxembourg, ranked 136th in the world, rightly earned widespread praise for their solid performance in last weekend’s goalless draw away to France, whilst the Faroe Islands, now enjoying the dizzy heights of 89th place, are starting to get used to winning games thanks to an impressive three-year period.

The Nordic nation notably won back-to-back games against previous European Championship winners Greece during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, and have tasted victory five times in their last 19 outings. Before that, it took them 67 attempts to pick up as many wins.

There is no doubt that with time comes success. The Faroe Islands have been battling hard since gaining membership to FIFA and UEFA in 1988 and 1990, respectively, and patient hard work has seen them climb 109 places in FIFA’s rankings in just under nine years.

Being able to compete both in international qualifying campaigns and European domestic competitions has brought much-needed experience and, just as importantly, money, helping the national side to continually improve.

Money, as is always the case in football these days, plays a vital role in development, and it’s a key argument in explaining why it is imperative for smaller nations to continue battling with the big boys.

In their application to UEFA, the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) spoke of how “membership of UEFA will ensure that future players are given the necessary encouragement and exposure to develop and progress [football] on the Rock”, highlighting just how important it is for minnows to be part of the elite club, rather than stagnating – or even declining – on the outside.

Pre-UEFA, Gibraltar struggled to organise games with notable opponents, hindering their progress and negatively impacting domestic football in the British Overseas Territory.

But since gaining membership, they have been able to play against some of the world’s best players, and grants from both FIFA and UEFA have allowed the GFA to start renovating Victoria Park, the territory’s only football stadium, meaning that, for the first time, Gibraltar will soon be able to play competitive games on home soil rather than four hours away in southern Portugal.

With a population of only 32,000, Gibraltar’s chances of improving significantly are limited, but, as the likes of Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands have shown in recent years, continued participation against highly ranked teams only has a positive impact on the strength of minnows.

Elite superstars may feel such nations are below them, but football is for everyone, and we should take pride in being part of an all-inclusive, worldwide sport that seeks to strengthen the game in every corner of the globe.

The Author

Ben Cullimore

Freelance journalist and long-suffering non-league fan.

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