England-San Marino: finding motivation against minnows
"There are no easy games in international football," according the old adage. That is, of course, a fallacy, and if teams prepare and execute plans appropriately for matches against minnows then no problems are forthcoming. When teams are underestimated, there can be a problem.
England go into Saturday's match against San Marino facing that very scenario. According to the FIFA World Rankings, only the Turks and Caicos Islands and Bhutan can match the underachievement of this weekend's opponents, San Marino. The footballing powerhouses of Timor-Leste and Mauritania would, statistically at least, provide tougher opposition for Roy Hodgson's team.
In almost 22 years as a recognised international side, San Marino have won a grand total of one game. And that was a friendly against fellow minuscule European nation Liechtenstein in 2004. Coached by Giampaolo Mazza, a physical education teacher, since 1998, the Sanmarinese have avoided defeat in only six matches. Their record scorer is Andy Selva with a relatively impressive eight goals. His closest rival, Manuel Marani, has just two. No other player has scored more than once.
On paper, England should obviously romp to victory at Wembley. But against such limited opponents, how can footballers ensure their performance does not slip too much?
England coach Gary Neville, who had to face several fixtures of this kind during his 1-year England career, has warned the England players to scare themselves over the consequences of an unlikely result. He said: "My mentality when I played in games of this nature was always to scare myself. It was a preparation tool. I thought of what might happen, and believe the world would collapse if I didn't win this game.
"That is what I used to do when people tell you it is a certainty. I can't stand here as an England coach and say England shouldn't do anything but win on Friday. Nobody can."
But England have suffered in this situation before. During qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, England played San Marino in Bologna. A convincing victory was demanded rather than expected, because it could still give Graham Taylor's side hope of making the World Cup in the United States.
However, after just 14 seconds, Davide Gualtieri capitalised on a mistake by Stuart Pearce to poke the home team in front. San Marino were jubilant; England bewildered. It hardly seemed to matter that the visitors went on to put seven into Pierluigi Benedettini's goal. The minnows had had their moment and the tabloid headlines focused on England's disastrous start, giving Gualtieri his fifteen minutes of fame.
And in many ways, that says it all. Matches like this are no-win games, as such, for the likes of England. If they win 10-0, the press will lament the quality of opposition and claim any well-drilled school team could have come away with three points. If they win by the odd goal - or even, heaven forbid, conceded - there will be an inquest into the state of English football.
Anything else is surely unthinkable but teams have struggled before against the Sanmarinese. Ireland needed a last minute winner to beat them in 2007 while Gary Johnson resigned as Latvia manager after failing to crack through a well-organised defence.
Despite the potential pitfalls, it is difficult to see anything other than a convincing victory for Hodgson's men. As far as easy games at international level go, they do not come much easier. That is, unless, the Turks and Caicos Islands qualify for a World Cup anytime soon.