With International breaks from the regular domestic season continually slammed by fans up and down the country, the return of competitive international football would usually involve a plethora of inspirational messages and recounting of better days gone by. The first round of the World Cup qualifying campaign for England took place in prime time on Thursday 25th March with a 7.45pm start.
Instead, fans were treated to a 5-0 thrashing of San Marino, ranked 210th in the world, at Wembley in which the home side enjoyed an astonishing 85% possession. Whilst the old adage, of ‘you can only beat the team that is put in front of you’ seems pertinent, the immediate question of why they were put there in the first place seems equally relevant.
England v San Marino
San Marino have enjoyed victory in an international match just one time in their history. That moment came 17 years ago in a friendly match against Lichtenstein. As a result, San Marino carries the weight of FIFA’s worst international ranking in the entire world. Needless to say that the odds of them beating England at Wembley, currently ranked 4th in the world, was a a long-shot, namely 1,000/1.
In Gareth Southgate’s 50th game in charge of his country, he praised the fact that his players were “hungry to play” and identified a number of key opportunities in which his players can impress in the build up their European Championship opener against Croatia on June 14th.
Captained by Raheem Sterling, England bombarded the San Marino goal with 20 shots in the first half in what can largely be described as a training ground exercise of breaking down a set defence. England’s centre halves of Manchester City’s John Stones and Wolves’ Conor Coady seemed to be permanently camped in or very close to San Marino territory as the home side sustained their pressure throughout the entire 45 minutes.
Goals for James Ward-Prowse, Sterling and the in-form Dominic Calvert Lewin put the game to bed as a competitive contest before the break before Calvert-Lewin’s second and a debut goal for Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins wrapped up the scoring.
World Cup Qualifying
Whilst it is true that anything can happen on the football pitch, the gulf of quality in teams at the international stage can be staggering. During a qualifying campaign that sees England needing to top the group for automatic qualification, 10 fixtures will determine their fate as they look to secure their place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Following on from their fourth-placed finish in Russia 2018, England are overwhelming favourites to secure their automatic qualification to World Cup in a group that sees them face San Marino (ranked 210th), Andorra (ranked 151st), Albania (ranked 66th), Hungary (ranked 40th) and Poland (ranked 19th).
Whilst the second placed team within each qualifying group must navigate a potentially tricky playoff, the provisional seedings of teams that helped to structure the groups could well be taken further into an automatic qualification birth without the requirement of mundane, training ground exercises such as England’s opening fixture against San Marino. Even with a vastly changed team from that which Southgate will be calling on at next years’ competition, the Three Lions cruised to an emphatic and one-sided victory before wins away at Albania and at home to Poland have ensured a perfect start to their campaign.
The sporadic FIFA rankings that have been merged into a single group are not restricted to the Three Lions’ qualifying campaign. Wales (ranked 18th), have been drawn alongside Belgium (ranked 1st) and Czech Republic (ranked 42nd) with Belarus (88th) and Estonia (108th) competing at the bottom of the group.
With the UEFA Nations League providing competitive fixtures between Europe’s top sides, the opportunity for FIFA ranking points has the possibility of being extended across continents. A tiered system that subsequently ensures that countries are facing similarly ranked opposition will ensure a higher quality of progression opportunities for all involved as well as ensuring a higher quality of matches available on a more regular basis for fans.
55 UEFA nations are competing for just 13 places at the Qatar 2022 World Cup and with 10 groups, the provisional seedings must be extremely accurate to ensure that the best ranked sides have a good prospect of securing their place at the competition. To this end, could these places not be guaranteed from the previously established ranking points on offer through the UEFA Nations League and other tournaments?
As a result, this will ensure that the very best teams, and subsequently players, will secure their place at the World Cup. Equally, utilising the European Championships later this year to determine the 10 automatic qualification places available provides a methodical and accurate way of finding the teams best suited to represent the continent at the global competition next year. As a result, competitive fixtures are still the determining factor however with only 24 teams in attendance, only the very best teams in the continent will earn their place in a far more efficient and streamlined manner.
Stars of the Game
Whilst an underdog story always carries significant relevance in the moment, the truth remains that stars are the ultimate attraction at an event such as the World Cup. The very best players in world football have the opportunity for national and international glory in an event that occurs only once every four years. As a result, the very best teams in the world receiving an automatic birth at the biggest competition in the sport does not seem too unreasonable, as well as minimising the necessity of routine fixtures such as that witnessed on Thursday 25th March. A tournament without the likes of reigning world champions Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe or Brazil’s Neymar would undoubtedly have far less of a draw if they were to be placed by countries ranked outside of the world’s top 40 sides.
As a result, play-in tournaments involving the lower seedings within the continent can provide competitive fixtures at comparative standards whilst ensuring the very best nations and players are secure of a place at the sports’ most lucrative event.