San Marino and Gibraltar might be spanked like an errant stepchild by the world’s elite, but to declare them unworthy is arrogant. Why should anyone take their moments away?
San Marino scored a goal on Tuesday night. You may well have seen it. It was the first away goal they’ve managed in 14 years. It was the first goal of any description they’ve scored in two years. It was their 15th competitive goal ever. Matteo Vitaioli was the man to get it, fairly blooting home a free-kick against Lithuania from the edge of the area.
On Monday, Gibraltar also scored. They have only had an official football team for 22 years, they have been turned down numerous times for Fifa membership and this is the first time they have been recognised by Uefa. Thus, if you don’t include tournaments like the Island Games, they have only played eight competitive games. This was their second ever goal, slotted home rather neatly by Bristol Rovers winger Jake Gosling.
San Marino and Gibraltar are rubbish. Obviously they are, the restrictions of population, resources and plain ability meaning the chances of them ever actually stringing two or three wins together, let alone qualifying for a major tournament, are remote. Therefore, during every international qualification tournament someone will always pipe up and decree them unworthy, to declare that they’re not doing anyone any good and they should be shuffled out to some auxiliary tournament where they’re not bothering anyone, like sending an illegitimate child next door in the 1940s.
Of course, there are any number of logical arguments for teams like San Marino to be allowed into European Championship and World Cup qualifying tournaments, not least the notion that teams do not stay rubbish forever, and it is healthy to have a wide-range of countries involved in these tournaments. Mediawatch on Tuesday outlined a few of those, so there’s no need to go over them too much again here.
Beyond logic though, to exclude these countries would be an entirely arrogant act by those of us in the more established nations, based on the pompous notion that football is only for us. We can’t have these little people having fun and cluttering up our game now, can we?
People who wish the likes of San Marino to be excluded from international football breezily dismiss them as irrelevant, specks of humans on the vastness of the game who have no place being in the same stadium as Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling and pals. It’s an astonishingly insular point of view, but surely it should be celebrated that football, for all its many, many faults, welcomes the biggest and smallest nations into the fold as one. They might be spanked like an errant stepchild when they get there, but at least they’re there.
There’s a brilliant documentary out at the moment about Test cricket called ‘Death Of A Gentleman’, which charts the gradual demise of the game and the carve-up employed by the ‘big three’ – India, Australia and England. Those three countries have engineered things so the majority of the money generated by international cricket goes to them, obviously meaning the smaller nations get less and less. The next Cricket World Cup is currently planned to feature only ten teams, as opposed to the 14 that competed in Australia next year. It’s about the only global sport that is contracting in front of our very eyes, rather than expanding as it should and could. Football isn’t like that, and it shouldn’t be either.
But even that isn’t the primary reason for keeping the likes of San Marino and Gibraltar. All you need to do is watch the celebrations for their goals, wild and uncoordinated, pure expressions of joy. It’s the extension of fans like us trudging up and down the country to watch dispiriting result after dispiriting result, but then that one game or moment comes along and makes it all worthwhile. Just like supporting a terrible team defies logic, cheerfully showing up to play for one all the time does too, but we still do it, and so do they. It means that much to them, so why take that away?
And if you want words to explain it, consider this interview from last year with Aldo Simoncini, the San Marino goalkeeper who was between the sticks when England played them last weekend. Simoncini spent four months in hospital after being involved in a car accident a few years ago, but came back to play against Germany. San Marino lost 13-0.
“My life was in danger,” he said. “I was told I might not be able to play football ever again…Even though I had to pick the ball out of the net 13 times, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I put behind me 18 months of agony. After being told I might not play again, to be part of such a game was simply unforgettable.”
Football, and football teams, are a series of folk stories. Everything else is transient, so this is what we have and who’s to say that the folk stories of teams like San Marino are any more or less important than ours?
San Marino ended up losing 2-1 to Lithuania thanks to a 92nd minute goal and Gibraltar were beaten 8-1 by Poland. But they had those moments. And in the end, that’s what matters.