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San Marino: lucky to score nil

By Hyder Jawad

So, now we know. The difference between the fourth-best team in the world and the joint-worst is just five goals. Moreover, it took 90 minutes of pure monotony at Wembley tonight to prove it.

At times, England’s 5-0 victory against San Marino was so dull that it would have been more fun watching dried paint trying to rehydrate, and perhaps only the goalscorers – Wayne Rooney (2), Danny Welbeck (2), and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – will remember the occasion with much affection. Rooney, the captain, felt so patriotic that he even sang the national anthem, and he now stands as England’s all-time fifth leading scorer. But he will have had tougher assignments shaving his face.

"Obviously it's a great honour for me," Rooney said, maintaining his life-long aversion to saying anything of interest. "There's some great players there and to be in the England top five goalscorers is something I'm extremely proud of."

Most of the 84,564 spectators at Wembley seemed more interested in the high drama in Cardiff, where Wales turned likely defeat into victory against Scotland, and in the low farce in Dublin, where the Republic of Ireland turned likely defeat into embarrassment against Germany.

One almost felt jealous of the Irish. At least they had something about which to be passionate. At Wembley, there was all the spontaneity of a metronome and the aura of indifference.

Constrained by the knowledge that no score, no matter how high, would assuage the cynics, England struggled to break down an opposition that arrived with one determinable tactic: to defend with ten men on the edge of their penalty area. What else could San Marino do? Had they come out to attack, England would have reached double figures. The visitors played as if moving into the England half of the pitch was a contravention of the rules. They lined-up with a 5-4-1 formation that quickly became 10-0-0.

Their nickname is La Serenissima – the most serene – and they lived up to it, for there was just a little too much serenity and not enough anxiety. When football is this trite and predictable, it has more in common with those Fifa computer games that socially awkward people play in tasteless amusement arcades on seaside piers.

The problem is not with San Marino but, rather, with a competition that puts such cheerfully inelegant teams into the same qualifying group as the miserably sophisticated. Fifa, the game's world governing body, insists on such an egalitarian strategy in the name of fairness, but, really, the only beneficiaries are the media, who seem to take a particular delight in reporting on the olive-oil-salesmen-turned-part-time-footballers preparing for Fifteen Minutes of Fame. The cry for a pre-qualifying group, with the weaker football nations fighting it out for the right to play in the main qualifying tournament, seems so apposite. After all, the odds of San Marino qualifying for the World Cup are roughly the same as finding Elvis Presley pushing a supermarket trolley in Chapel Saint Leonards.

Matches against San Marino should not matter, but this one did; especially for Theo Walcott, the Arsenal winger, who suffered a chest injury after an enterprising challenge by Aldo Simoncini, the San Marino goalkeeper, in the fourth minute. You did not have to be close to Roy Hodgson, the England head coach, to know he was furious. You could feel the vibes of his anger circulating Wembley like a Mexican wave. Somewhere in Europe, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was also gnashing his teeth in anguish.

"I don't believe for one minute there was any malice in it when he [Simoncini] went for the ball," Hodgson said, clearly watching his words lest he suppress inadvertently the import of olive oil from San Marino. "But irrespective of that, it was a very bad challenge and it's put Walcott in hospital. We have to wait now and find out the extent of his injury."

Simoncini became a significant figure. He gave away the penalty from which Rooney opened the scoring in the 35th minute, before he made a string of fine saves to keep the scoreline respectable. There was something of the Ramón Quiroga about him – the erratic goalkeeper with the hint of brilliance, but who arouses media attention for his idiosyncrasies.

Straight from the kick-off, the successful segregated themselves from the failures, but it was only in the second half that England seemed comfortable at dealing with the depth of San Marino’s defending. Given the circumstances, 5-0 was just about good enough to stave off criticism, but not enough to send people home in raptures.

The glazed-over eyes, which disfigured many thousands of human faces on the trains out of Wembley, confirmed that San Marino had performed far better than one might have expected from the worst team in the world. Achievement comes in different shapes and sizes. Here, the losers went home happier than the winners.