Jim White

San Marino match a total waste of time

Jim White

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Football and maths have been cosying up all week. First we learn that Alan Pardew has asked his players to mark Newcastle's shirt sponsorship deal with payday loan sharks Wonga.com by giving 4012% out on the park. Then the Daily Mirror tells us that it is as well that San Marino's goalkeeper is an accountant, because he'll need a head for figures to tot up the number of goals that will be fired past him at Wembley tonight.

As if. Frankly, as long as he can count up to six he should be okay. San Marino may be officially the worst international team in Europe, but as we will no doubt be hearing after the final whistle, there is no such thing as an easy game in international football. England — ranked fifth in the world — are no more likely to tot up a score in need of a calculator than Pardew is to require the services of his new financial backer.

Mind, even if San Marino escape with a loss of under double figures, that does not detract from the argument that this game is an utter waste of time. The truth is tonight's visitors should not be in the competition, their presence doing nothing more than squeezing pointless and potentially destructive additional fixtures into a programme already bursting at the seams.

Sure, the FA might well be able to employ the San Marino keeper to help it add up the takings from a full house at Wembley. But if Wayne Rooney gets injured ahead of the away game against Poland next Tuesday, any revenue bonus will be quickly dissipated.

It would be far easier all round if FIFA simply added six points to each of the other members of this World Cup group. Because whatever the final goals tally, we know one thing for sure: England will win this game. And when the outcome of a match is as predictable as this one, its purpose is fundamentally invalidated.

That is not to say the tiny mountain state does not deserve a national side. Of course it does. A football team is an essential rallying point for national pride. But just like Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Faroe Islands there is no excuse for simply serving them up as cannon fodder. San Marino's record in international football is so enfeebled, the Summertown Stars U-14s might as well be given a run out at Wembley tonight.

Far better for the tiny minnow nations to have their own competition, an international Championshipalike, from which a winner can emerge who can then progress to the main qualifying procedure. That is what they do in the rugby and cricket World Cups.

Sure, it would mean that San Marino's collection of schoolteachers, bus drivers and carpenters will thus be deprived of a once-in-a-lifetime run-out against the world's most celebrated players in a magnificent stadium. But since when was the function of international football to act as a sporting Jim'll Fix It (if we are allowed still to use such an analogy)?

No one is seriously suggesting Didcot Town should get a game against England at Wembley. And you can bet the Railwaymen's players would love it just as much as the San Marino boys.

Yet we know why the likeable visitors will be living the dream tonight and Didcot won't. It is because, like those of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and the Faroes, the San Marino football association has a vote in FIFA elections. Even if its role when it gets there is to act as a footstool to the rest, its open invitation to the top table keeps those votes rolling for whoever promises to maintain the current system.

And never mind minor things like the health of the players or the sporting integrity of the competition, the pressing concern for all FIFA executives is gathering sufficient votes to keep them in office.

On Tuesday in Poland England have a proper match against proper opposition, a suitable and worthy break in the domestic routine. Tonight, however, is an utterly pointless distraction, played out simply for reasons of FIFA politics. And no amount of goals will change that.

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