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England 5-0 San Marino as Valid as Any Other World Cup Qualifier

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England 5-0 San Marino as Valid as Any Other World Cup Qualifier
Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Rarely has there been less enthusiasm for an England international among the members of the media than there was for Friday night's World Cup qualifier against San Marino at Wembley.

Plenty of column inches were devoted to how pointless the match was, how the tiny landlocked republic didn't deserve to be playing the fifth best team in the world. The ragtag bunch of semi-professionals, drawn from a population smaller than the capacity of Ewood Park, had no business clogging their way around such hallowed turf.

While it has to be admitted that playing the joint lowest-ranked team in the FIFA family is not exactly the most salubrious of fixtures, the main source of the press pack's annoyance is probably that they had to spend their Friday night at Wembley when they had better things to do.

Not that such party-pooping stopped more than 84,000 fans travelling to the national stadium, and they were rewarded with a 5-0 win that takes England to the top of Group H ahead of next Tuesday's far more taxing away fixture in Poland.

Those in attendance were made to wait longer than expected for the goals to start flowing, mind. Even as early as five minutes into the match, each misplaced pass was met with groans from the stands as England tried to play their way through the 10 men stationed behind the ball. Every time goalkeeper Joe Hart got a rare touch, it was greeted with ironic cheers.

Spread bets were ruined and drinking games fell flat as England took a full 35 minutes to score against a team which has only ever won one match in its history, a 1-0 victory over Liechtenstein back in 2004.

But quickfire goals from Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck had the hosts 2-0 up at the break, with each adding another in the second half before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rounded off the result 13 minutes from time.

It is hard to imagine manager Roy Hodgson learned anything new from watching his players have what was more like a training session than a competitive international fixture. He was probably just relieved that his side notched up a decent score after such a frustrating first third of the match.

But the match was not set up simply for their benefit.  San Marino have every right to play England just like anyone else. 

They are a group of footballers representing a European nation, just like England's players are. Therefore, together they are playing an international football match. 

It is not up to anyone to decide whether one team is worthy or not of playing another entered into the same competition simply because of a gap in quality, no matter how big. 

A solution which has been commonly mooted this week is that San Marino and teams like them—Andorra, the Faroe Islands and Liechtenstein, for example—should contest as play-off for the right to enter the main qualifying tournament. That way, the big boys will have less of their time wasted by playing inferior sides, while the losers of the play-offs are consigned to two years of playing fewer games, and the ones they do play are meaningless. 

If that were to happen, how long before the set of minnows one rung up the ladder are deemed unworthy too? The process would eventually end in the World Cup qualifiers being little more than a drawn-out European championship.

The concept of the FIFA rankings is routinely ridiculed upon each monthly update, and yet suddenly it is being held up as a valid measure of quality. If that is the case, than the 2014 World Cup should just be awarded to Spain and save everyone the expense of a trip to Brazil in two years' time.

Football is the most popular sport in the world, and everyone should be a part of it.

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It is hardly the first time a fixture has seen one side completely dominate. Wigan have visited Old Trafford eight times. In total, they have conceded 28 goals, scored just one and not earned a single point. Should the Premier League just deem the fixture a walkover, award Manchester United a 4-0 win and save everyone the bother?

Another argument against the match was that amateurs unused to playing elite footballers ran a greater risk of injuring the valuable assets of top clubs—a fear borne out when San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini staged his own Toni Schumacher tribute by clattering into Theo Walcott—as though the many serious injuries sustained while playing in one of Europe's top leagues are somehow more acceptable. 

San Marino are a very poor side, one which would most likely get turned over week after week in the Blue Square Premier League. But that does not mean they should be denied the chance to compete on the same terms as any other team. 

This elitist school of thought is in line with those who believe that a European Super League is the way of the future, that fans only want to see the best clubs play and the rest can hang. But the elite cannot exist without ordinary. There is no point being dubbed the best if there is no worst to which you can be compared. 

San Marino conceded five goals away against England, one goal fewer than they shipped at home against Montenegro last month. Given those results, perhaps England should just concede defeat now and spare themselves a trip to Podgorica next March.

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