This weekend is “international qualifying” weekend in the world of international soccer, when the players leave their club teams and return home to play in qualifying matches for their countries for the next World Cup. In Europe, as elsewhere, you’re entitled to participate in this pre-World Cup qualifying tournament if (a) you’re a country, and (b) you can field a squad of some kind. So, along with the colossi of Spain, Germany, Italy, England, the Netherlands, and the like, you’ve got San Marino, Andorra, and the Faroe Islands (total population for all three around 150,000).
What’s pretty interesting is that these teams actually often give the superstars they’re facing a decent game of it. With squads composed of part-timers and amateurs who are a good 3 or 4 notches below the superstars of England, Italy and the rest on the highly logarithmic scale of skill – I’d estimate (from having watched some of these games this weekend), about equivalent to a good US Division 3 squad — they manage, time and time again, to make a game of it. Some recent scores: England 5 San Marino 0; Italy 2 Malta 0; Sweden 2 the Faroe Islands 1 (!), and Netherlands 3 – 0 over Andorra.
The odd fact is that in soccer, if you have decent skill, and you’re really, really determined, you can keep a team full of international superstars who are a LOT better than you from trampling you in the dust. [And if you're wondering whether those English or Dutch players are really trying hard, the answer is - they are. Qualifying for the World Cup is a really big deal, and really difficult, in Europe, and the number of goals you score can end up determining whether you make it or not; so yes, they're trying to trample them in the dust 12-0 if possible].
It’s interesting to think of how different sports fare on this scale. I can’t think of another sport where a decent D-III squad gives an All-Star professional team nearly as good a game. My guess for the average score by sport (assuming the pros are working hard, trying their best):
Basketball NBA All-Stars 242 – decent D III squad 30
Baseball MLB All-Stars 34 – decent D III squad 2
Hockey NHL All-Stars 27, decent D III squad 1
And football? Too scary to think about. The NFL Pro Bowlers vs. say Williams College, where the pros are playing the way they do on any given Sunday, is not a game I’d like to watch, even in my mind’s eye . . .