England: no sweat - literally
The best thing you could say about England’s 8-0 victory away to San Marino on Friday night was that no England player suffered an injury or received a yellow card. The worst thing you could say was that it was a football match. It wasn’t. It was a mismatch.
San Marino were lucky to score nil.
The debate will rage as to whether such matches should form part of World Cup qualifying rounds, but the England players seemed pleased enough: another international cap apiece, two goals for Jermain Defoe, and one goal each for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ashley Young, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, and Daniel Sturridge. The England defenders did not break sweat.
San Marino did well for 12 minutes until Alessandro Della Valle scored an own goal, and then they collapsed like a cheap wedding cake. What unfolded, before the eyes of 4,900 spectators, made a mockery of pre-match suggestions by Roy Hodgson, the England head coach, that it would not be easy. The problem was that it was too easy.
It was like one of those matches you play when you sign for your first proper youth team: attack versus defence, with no more than two touches per attacking player.
One should not expect too much. San Marino, a beautiful country full of friendly people, has a population of 50,000 – a little more than half the capacity of Wembley Stadium. Perhaps, given the contexts, they overachieve. If they do, it is painful to watch.
If this were a tennis match, it would have finished 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. It if it was a boxing match, this would have ended in a first-round knockout. If this were an American election, it would have been Lyndon Johnson’s victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964.
San Marino have now lost 58 qualifying matches in a row and have not scored in a competitive fixture since 2008. They have conceded double figures to Germany and to Holland. All they had to offer here was their enthusiasm, although, surprisingly, they did force a corner in the second half – to ironic cheers from the England supporters.
The visiting spectators were the talking point. Their verbal abuse of Rio Ferdinand, the England defender (who pulled out because international football did not fit in with his fitness regime), overshadowed the football. Ferdinand’s career with England, which reached 81 caps, is over.
Hodgson did not address the issue afterwards. “No comment,” he said, looking rather put out, but perhaps he should have said something. The matter is in danger of dominating the build-up to the England match against Montenegro on Tuesday, which is the last thing Hodgson wants. The Ferdinand issue has dogged him since he took over as England head coach and shows no sign of fading towards irrelevance.
For what it is worth, England did what they had to do. They were professional when it mattered, mature when it mattered, and adept when it mattered. They secured their highest victory since defeating Turkey 8-0 in 1987. Best of all, this affair enhanced England’s preparations for a more difficult match on Tuesday, after which predictions about the future will be easier to make.
Hodgson said: “It was nice to come away having won it comfortably, not having had any injuries or yellow cards and going to Podgorica with a lot of confidence because in the last couple of games the way we have played has been very good and we have done it against two teams as diverse as Brazil and San Marino.”
And that, surely, was the first time Brazil and San Marino appeared in the same sentence.