By Tom Simmonds
Last week’s reprisal of the bygone practice of taking the England team around the country coincided with Thursday night’s fish-shooting exercise against San Marino. 55,990 were present, making this the lowest attendance for a competitive international at the new Wembley. The argument that the FA would be better served farming games such as this one out to the provinces gained traction as a consequence. This hides a bigger question; should these games be played at all?
Firstly, colours to the mast: yes, I believe that the England team should play all over England. To say that a national team belongs to a nation and have them play exclusively at a London stadium that even Londoners have trouble getting to is muddled thinking, driven by financial imperative.
This was the wrong instance to raise this possibility though. The thought that England’s games against weaker opposition should move from Wembley was not made out of concern for fans in the regions.
The possibility of an NFL London ‘franchise’ that would play at Wembley was cited as the thing that would enable this to happen. Back to financial imperative again, seen in Club England chief executive Adrian Bevington’s stark recent statement on Twitter that, “Wembley has to be paid for…the FA has to put [an] events calendar on to do this.” In other words, if something more lucrative to pay down Wembley’s debt comes along, then the provinces can have the England team.
Relocating England would be a good short-term sticking plaster for England apathy, about which I wrote in the aftermath of September’s sparsely attended friendly against Norway. England as a travelling circus would better populate grounds in locations deprived of their presence since Wembley reopened in March 2007, even against the uninspiring opposition in England’s Euro 2016 qualifying group. The 64,931 who turned up at Old Trafford for a Euro 2004 qualifier against Liechtenstein and the 49,046 who attended a World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan in Newcastle in 2005 are proof of that.
A big but lurks. Both of those crowds from 11 and nine years ago were still under capacity for the host stadiums. This would suggest that, while England could still draw a crowd in the regions against whoever, there’s no guarantee their presence alone would ram provincial grounds to the rafters.
For good reason. Established footballing nations playing minnows in qualifying competitions is a pointless exercise whose only appeal lies in a morbid curiosity about the gulf in class, and how teams attempt to bridge it. Andorra’s attempts to injure as many of England’s players as possible in a qualifier in 2009 was an all too predictable outcome in one past example of such matches.
That joyless Andorran performance, and the ‘attack vs defence’ nature of the San Marino game also served as a counterweight to the argument that it is a career highlight for players of minnow nations to play at the cathedrals of world football. There is nothing enjoyable about being repeatedly hammered, and it serves only to demoralise the emerging nations. A constant diet of big defeats is as bad for them as a steady stream of valueless big wins which reveal nothing are bad for established nations.
The real point is that qualifying campaigns need a drastic rethink. FIFA have a recognised ranking system, why can this not be used this to create a league system for the smaller European nations to play a separate competition, with the prize of a place in the tournament qualifying competition for the top four? That way, you would introduce smaller teams who were used to winning to the fray, who had been allowed to develop in a much less harsh environment and who might be willing to do more than swim in a barrel with a big gun hovering around the rim.
Do you think that England should play at different venues around the country? How would you revamp the qualifying competitions to make them more competitive? Do you think the games against the minnows have value?
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