One of the beauties of sport is championing the underdog. There is nothing more memorable or satisfying than when the little one has a chance of toppling the big one. So when Marine drew Tottenham in the FA Cup earlier this year there was frothing excitement on behalf of those who are keen to see the ‘Magic of the Cup’ preserved. It was a classic match-up pitching a club from the Northern Premier League Division One (North West), the eighth tier of English football’s pyramid, against one of the Premier League’s Big Six.
It was also a record-breaker, as never before in the 149 year-old history of the most venerable and the world’s oldest cup competition had there been such a massive gap between two clubs. The 160 places between the clubs in the league pyramid was a cause for celebration and commemoration. A ramshackle ground with the Premier League elite being forced to swap their swanky dressing rooms to changing in the club bar epitomised the gulf between the two clubs.
The game was portrayed as the have-nots against the ‘have-plentys’ and much of the media, certainly BT Sport and the BBC who just happened to be the main FA Cup broadcasters, lapped it up. It was a classic, playing to our love of the underdog and even though the chances of an upset were so tiny that they were negligible, this was the stuff that captures the public’s imagination. The resulting 5-0 win for Spurs was considered almost an irrelevance, it was all about the opportunity for the traditional mix of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers to rub shoulders with the elite.
Last week there was another utterly predictable 5-0 victory for a bigger team over a lesser one when England, ranked 4th by FIFA, waltzed past the 210th and bottom ranked San Marino. However, the reaction of the overwhelming majority to this particular lopsided fixture was completely different. Here the underdog was considered to be an encumbrance to the purity of the competition and should not have been allowed on the same pitch as their illustrious opponents. There was talk of a pre-qualifying tournament to weed out the weakest, the runts of the litter.
Gary Lineker joined in the condemnation by tweeting – “Surely we’ve reached the stage where the lowest ranked nations should play among themselves to qualify for the right to play at this level. It’s become absurd.” While there may be some merit in such a process surely denying the likes of San Marino or the Faroe Islands a chance to meet their superiors is a little excessive. The thrill of playing at Wembley or Hampden Park, albeit without any fans present, would have been one of the most exciting experiences of their footballing lives.
Just to emphasise the justification for unfancied nations being allowed to share the hallowed turf with their superiors, a few days after the San Marinese game, lowly Luxembourg beat Ireland in Dublin. In so doing they reminded us that minnows can grow and develop into sides capable of causing an upset. Luxembourg did not win a single game in World Cup qualifying for thirty-five years between 1974 and 2010 when they finally upset the odds by beating Switzerland in Zurich. Their recent triumph over Ireland in Dublin was their fourth in the last four qualifying tournaments. Little by little the Luxembourgese are establishing themselves on the world stage and are deserving of our respect.
Smaller national sides can even go a step further as was illustrated when a team picked from just over 350,000 inhabitants embarrassed a country with a population 155 times the size as well as being a previous winner of the World Cup. That was exactly what plucky Iceland did to the almighty England at the Euros back in 2016, their first ever major tournament after 23 consecutive failures to qualify. They then followed that up by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and narrowly missed out on their third consecutive major tournament when losing to two late Hungary goals in their playoff game. Iceland’s long-awaited success is proof positive of the value of smaller sides playing at the top level.
In Iceland’s current World Cup qualifying group on Wednesday, of all sides, Germany were humbled at home by North Macedonia, a country that only came into official existence two years ago. This was Germany’s first defeat at home in a World Cup qualifier for twenty years since England famously beat them 5-1 in Munich. All the focus centred on Germany’s shame and humiliation rather than North Macedonia’s accomplishment but that is the way of the world where Goliath being toppled means much more than any achievement by David.
So if North Macedonia, Iceland and Luxembourg can do it then why not others? After all these players are representing their country and while they may not be performing at the exalted level of their opponents, they do have pride in their own performances and their nation. So let them have their day in the sun by being allowed to test themselves against the best now and again. You never know, one day San Marino might just break their duck after over 150 competitive matches by winning a game and then who’ll be laughing?