DAVID SHONFIELD: The year whipping boys hit back

Michel Platini

It was said that the euros would be devalued. Not the currency, the football.

Yet now it looks as though Michel Platini may have been right. the expansion of the european championships allows space for more outsiders to shine. you might even call 2014 the year of the minnow.

true enough, one or two of the groups have been feeble. england’s group probably deserves investigation by the advertising standards people.

but no one anticipated that slovakia would be top of their pile with maximum points, having beaten spain; nor that poland would be out in front of the world champions in group d; nor that the dutch side that narrowly failed to reach the final in brazil would be in a contest for third place with iceland. the leading nations are having to scrap for points.

world cup hangovers no doubt have something to do with it and we can probably expect the natural order to reassert itself when the contest resumes in march.

but the big boys had fewer wobbles after the world cup four years ago.

germany and spain both took maximum points in the qualifiers for euro 2012. the dutch lost one game, and that was their final match when they had already won the group.

back then, poland didn’t have to qualify, perhaps just as well, considering their form. slovakia managed a total of 15 points from their 10 games, finishing fourth behind russia, ireland and armenia. austria, currently top of group g with 10 points, only managed to collect 12 in 10 games in 2010-11. russia, who have just five points from their four games in this campaign, finished with 23 last time.

there has been a turnaround in form, while also rans have become dark horses and some of the yearlings can now keep up with the pack.

before this tournament started there was a widespread opinion that certain small countries would be better off with their own separate competition, with the winner earning a place among the elite.

perhaps this condescension was well-intentioned, from some quarters anyway. it would help such countries if they avoided ritual thrashings and competed against opponents of their own size. but there were others, mainly retired players, arguing that the likes of malta and the faroe islands had no right to be in the competition at all.

this scoreline this week reads minnows 4 pundits 0.

malta and liechtenstein picked up points away from home, san marino managed a clean sheet for only the second time ever, and the men from the faroes went to athens and won.

granted, greece had been in disarray since appointing claudio ranieri as manager. it’s hard to think of a less suitable choice for a national side. his dismissal was inevitable.

the other sides were up against modest opposition. nevertheless greece are former european champions and bulgaria, held by malta, have a great football tradition.

six of the minnows who collected a total of 11 points in the last qualifying tournament currently have 15 between them, and we’re not yet at the halfway stage. it may not be a revolution but the old order has shifted.

what has changed?

the expansion of the tournament provides more incentive for smaller teams, both players and managers. there are more points available and a better learning curve. some countries, notably slovakia, are obviously benefiting.

another factor is that success at club level has an effect on the performance of the national side. cyprus are an example. in the deep past, they managed the occasional sensational result, but in the last set of qualifiers they managed just two draws.

now they have six points and could even be contenders for the play-offs. their leading clubs such as apoel have steadily improved in europe and thus encouraged belief and improved standards in the national team.

remarkably nearly all the cypriot players are based at home. it is not a top league, but it is definitely competitive. the slovakia team, like ireland, appear to be totally different. almost all their players have gone abroad. but look at their u21 squad: 15 of them are with local clubs. if it works for them, maybe it could elsewhere.


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