England welcome minnows San Marino to Wembley Stadium this Thursday in their latest Euro 2016 qualifier – but the question remains… why?
With a population of 30,000 people in a space just over half the size of Manchester, is there any surprise they have lost all 56 of their European Championship qualifiers?
Of the 54 Uefa recognised football nations only two of the 19 lowest ranked teams have ever qualified for the 14 previous showpiece finals.
Norway’s golden generation, including Manchester United treble winners Henning Berg and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, qualified for Euro 2000 while Latvia defied the odds to make the group stage at Euro 2004.
Roy Hodgson is already facing the brunt of a club versus country row, following the injury suffered by Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge during the last international break.
Now he will be praying for an injury free, and perhaps incident free, rout on Thursday night. Anything less and the manager will be left at the mercy of a media storm.
San Marino’s infamous opener after only eight seconds in a 1993 World Cup qualifier against England was enough to leave a stain on what ended up a 7-1 victory.
During qualifying for Brazil 2014, 16 European teams failed to win more than two matches.
Realistically then, even after the Euro 2016 Finals have been expanded to 24 teams, the chances of a team ranked below Northern Ireland, currently 36th in the Uefa rankings, qualifying are slim to none.
Michel Platini believes that expanding the European Championship and adopting a week of football, an indulgent spread of qualifying matches over six days from Thursday to Tuesday, will revive the international game.
However many have suggested that a pre-qualifying campaign may be better to serve the development of Europe’s lowest ranked nations.
This qualifying campaign will see two or three teams qualify from each group of six, causing the credibility of the competition to be called into question.
Splitting the 18 teams ranked below Northern Ireland in to three groups of six, with the top two from each group making the qualifying stages proper, might do a better job of enhancing the quality of the competition.
At present the eight lowest ranked teams have taken 97 points out of a possible 1284 in European qualifying fixtures at a ratio of 0.23 points per game or 2.3 points per qualifying campaign.
Gibraltar, Uefa’s latest addition to qualifying, opened their account with a 7-0 thumping at the hands of a Poland side including Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.
How can Uefa president Platini expect nations to improve when the gulf in class between them and their opposition is so permanently evident?
Surely the chance to face one another, and enter a game with a genuine possibility of victory, would better serve the development of football’s emerging nations.
In addition fewer teams entering the qualifying process would help reduce the already troublesome international fixture list, aiding national managers who are regularly heckled by clubs for risking their star players.
Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney scored in the last meeting between the two sides in 2013, when England demolished the tiny nation 8-0 away from home in a World Cup qualifier.
And if Thursday night plays out as expected, San Marino may have to wait a while longer for their first points.
Meanwhile the chances of Uefa acting to implement these seemingly sensible and beneficial steps remains as unlikely as qualification for those that would be affected.
Main image courtesy of CNN via YouTube, with thanks.