san marino vs. thomas muller

Is There Any Developmental Value In Teams Like San Marino Playing World Cup Qualifiers?

With a tiff between Thomas Muller and San Marino currently making waves, it’s worth asking whether or not there’s any real value in international minnows playing teams like Germany.

by Will Magee
15 November 2016, 1:40pm

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In the aftermath of Germany's 8-0 thumping of San Marino last week, Thomas Muller was not a happy man. Having come in for what he felt were more than his fair share of raking tackles over the course of playing the full 90 minutes, he vented his frustrations in the aftermath of the match. "I do not understand the meaning of such uneven games as these, more so with such a busy schedule," he said. "I understand it for them, especially playing against the world champions, but I also understand that they can only defend with their physicality. Precisely for this reason, I wonder if these are not games that lead to unnecessary risks." His chief executive at Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, framed the situation rather more bluntly. "Matches like the one against San Marino have nothing to do with professional football."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those involved with San Marinese football are less than pleased by the attitude of their German counterparts. Indeed, their director of communications, Alan Gasperoni, has compiled a ten-point rebuttal of Muller's position and posted it on Facebook for the world to see. In amongst several barbs about Muller's failure to score against the San Marinese – not to mention some bizarre stereotypes about German people and their apparent penchant for wearing socks with sandals – he has made the fair point that, despite their generous pool of talent, Germany do not own football, and nor are they the arbiters of who should and should not be participating in international games. The dispute has now been picked up by world media and widely publicised, hence becoming something of a high-profile tiff.

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It's certainly tempting to back San Marino in this struggle, what with the inherent British inclination towards the underdog. In one sense, Gasperoni's spirited fightback has been a significant public relations victory, in that he has given a global platform to a footballing nation which so often lacks one. San Marino are the plucky minnows, standing up to the fearsome German shark that is circling them, and media outlets in Britain and beyond are more than happy to indulge the narrative. Muller and Rummenigge are footballing Goliaths, and Gasperoni is the Biblical David. The only thing is, despite his dauntlessness, it's hard to say whether or not he's actually in the right.

While Gasparoni's frustration at the perceived patronisation is understandable, San Marino's aggregate scoreline for World Cup qualifying is seriously unflattering. In their four qualifiers of the current campaign, they have shipped 17 goals, scoring one – against Norway – in reply. The point here is not that they should arbitrarily be removed from the international scene for being low on quality, but rather that the process of participating in qualifiers every couple of years is not necessarily helpful to their national team. How are San Marino's players ever meant to gain confidence, how are their fans ever meant to invest themselves in international football, if they are being regularly battered by teams like Germany during a qualifying process they have no hope of progressing from?

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None of this changes the fact that, as Gasparoni has passionately argued, San Marino are an international team who play for the love of the game, and should be respected as such. Arguably, however, they would be better served playing in a qualifying subdivision for the lowest-ranked sides, with the top side from said subdivision moving up to contest full World Cup and European qualifiers with everyone else. In Europe, for instance, that might see the San Marinese, ranked 201st in the FIFA world rankings, come up against teams like Gibraltar, Andorra, Malta and Liechtenstein, ranked 205th, 203rd, 178th and 183rd respectively. That way, they would have a good chance of actually winning competitive matches, as opposed to being slaughtered by the current World Cup holders and a team ranked 2nd on the planet as things stand.

Start winning matches, and the San Marinese national team might begin to blossom in earnest. The ambition for a youngster to graduate to the side would be that much greater, knowing that the ultimate goal might be something more than receiving a humiliating drubbing by a massive footballing nation, and failing to qualify for a major tournament once more. There are few other sports where a side four places off the bottom of the world rankings would be made to play a competitive qualifier against a team one place off the top; for San Marino, as much as Germany, last week's match up made little sense. Muller and Rummenigge might have been by turns dismissive and barbed in the way they went about criticising the fixture, but Muller's comment on "uneven games" rings undeniably true.

There is, of course, the issue of money to contend with. In his rebuttal of Muller and Rummenigge, Gasparoni made clear that the cash generated by the match against Germany would play an important part in developing San Marino's grassroots game. With the imbalance of wealth in international football pronounced to say the least, such fixtures are crucial in redistributing some of that revenue to the smallest nations, through broadcasting, image rights, merchandising and even takings on the night. San Marinese might not want to see their side get tonked 8-0, but the promise of seeing the likes of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Thomas Muller playing at their national stadium still provides a significant draw on matchday, with just under 4,000 in attendance to see Germany play in Serravalle.

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That's no explanation as to why the match has to be a competitive one, however. High-profile international friendlies against sides like Germany would still provide the necessary prestige, as they do whenever any federation organises a game against one of the world's top teams. Playing their competitive fixtures in a qualifying subdivision, with the opportunity to progress to the full qualifiers, would give teams like San Marino something to aim for, as well as the chance to impress their fans and win matches. Considering that the San Marinese football scene is inevitably quiet around major tournaments, it's not like there's considerable fixture congestion to get in the way.

On the subject of fixture congestion, one has to concede to Thomas Muller once again. The endemic injury crises that have hit some of the top leagues in Europe are evidence enough that, with domestic and international fixtures combined, elite footballers are playing too many games. Gasperoni might not have much sympathy with Muller – who he essentially accuses of wanting more time for sponsorship and endorsements, as opposed to rest and recuperation – but football is the Bayern man's livelihood. He is entitled to worry about the potential risks of coming up against teams who are obliged to defend for the full 90 minutes, and whose mixed fitness levels are likely to lead to heavy challenges late on in the game.

The BBC reports that San Marino have now called for an apology from Muller, which few can expect to be forthcoming. While last week's game was anything but meaningless for San Marino, the exercise was of questionable value to Germany, whether or not Muller was respectful in the way he sought to voice that concern. As to whether there is any developmental value in the San Marinese national team playing World Cup qualifiers, the answer clearly depends on perspective. For an outsider looking in, it seems a shame for the fans and players to suffer constant defeats in qualifying, as opposed to pairing up with nations of comparable ability, having something to aspire to, and learning what it is to win matches on the international stage.