Now, I know that to all of you lot, with your Tottenham Hotspurs and your Birmingham Citys and what have you will probably sneer at this, but I am rather looking forward to Oxford United away in the Nationwide Conference this weekend. The only downer on it is that, due to the England match on Saturday afternoon, it’s been switched to Friday night. This makes my brain go into something of a meltdown. In the olden days, all international qualifying matches were played on midweek nights. There was no shift in this pattern. Very rarely, a match would, due to some insurmountable time-zone related issue, be played on a Wednesday afternoon, but other than that it was Wednesday night. All the time. Over the last few years though, doubtlessly due to the meddling of the big clubs, whole weekends have been conceded to international matches. Now, while this is no big issue to the majority of you, for those of us that prefer our football closer to the bottom of the food chain, it’s a monumental pain in the arse. Oxford would have been a nice day out – leave the house at twelve, back by eight or nine. As it is, though, I’ve had to take half a day off work and I’ll spend the whole day slightly concerned about missing the last train back from London to Brighton and having to spend the night amongst the tramps at Victoria Station.
Now, I would question Oxford’s decision to bring the match forward a whole day. Do they provide huge swathes of England’s support? Possibly, but I doubt it. Why didn’t they just bring the match forward, like other clubs concerned about a lower crowd on the weekend of an England match, to 1.00? Surely they’re not so bothered about 150-odd travelling St Albans supporters that they did it on purpose to dissuade us from travelling, did they? Doubtful. England’s match kicks off at 5.00, though. A 3.00 kick-off would surely have allowed those desperate enough to watch the match to find a pub in time for the start. A 1.00 kick-off would have made sure of this. But Friday night? I’m struggling to find a decent explanation.
Not, of course, that I hold Andorra in the slightest bit responsible for this. There has been some discussion in the press this week over whether countries like Andorra should even be allowed to face the likes of the “mighty” England without having to come through some sort of pre-qualifier, as happens in World Cup FIFA confederations. I disagree. These teams have as much of a right to be there, scrapping for their place, as we do. In qualifying for Euro 2000, France beat Andorra 2-0 at home, and then 1-0 away with a last minute penalty. We all remember the Faroe Islands beating Austria and holding Scotland to a hilarious 2-2 draw. These teams should be allowed to play on a level playing field with the rest of Europe, rather than being still further handicapped than they already are by their minute sizes and populations. Some of you might even argue that they are not “proper” countries. Well, I could could make the same case for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Why shouldn’t we have a Home International tournament with only two of those four being able to go onto the Euro 2008 qualifiers? You see my point.
The question, I guess, is this: do we want international qualifiers to end up like the European Cup, in which a complicated process of seeding means that only the self-elected “big” teams have a realistic chance of doing anything? Because that is what pre-qualifiers mean. Don’t think that it would be anything to do with meritocracy if it did come in, because it wouldn’t. TV money would rule the roost. The same old countries would be given all of the advantages because UEFA or FIFA would ultimately bow down before the countries that would be likely to be big box office at the finals. Euro 2004 was much enriched for the surprise involvement of Latvia. Let’s not make their chances of making the finals even more remote than they actually are. Turkey were amongst the also-rans of Europe. They would not have improved as dramatically as they did throughout the 1990s had they been limited to playing Azerbaijan and Liechenstein every couple of years for the last decade and a half. It’s very plausible to make a case that Northern Ireland (or perhaps Scotland) would have to be included amongst these teams. It’s just wrong. Don’t be fooled either by arguments about the congested fixture list. What would Manchester United or Chelsea be doing this weekend if they didn’t have a league match or internationals? I’d wager that they’d be off to the Far East or some other honeypot for a friendly match. Their argument is disingenuous and self-serving.
So… I’ll almost certainly struggle to make it to back to Brighton on Friday night. I have to take half a day’s holiday that I would prefer not to be taking. And the chances are that my train from Paddington to Oxford will coincide with the hideous Friday afternoon rush hour commute to the Thames Valley. But when all of these near inevitabilities mount up to such a level that I can feel a breakdown coming on, I will console myself with the knowledge that it’s all worth it if it means that Andorra are allowed to continue to be drawn against the likes of England in competitive international football matches.