England will win tonight.
It is not often you can be that certain, but they will. San Marino’s purpose in international football is to give the rest three points. That’s why they are there.
Ahead of tonight’s international, win bonuses are not something the San Marino FA need worry about. They are not about to be bankrupted by success. Instead, knocking the ball around unperturbed and untroubled, England’s players will pick up their bonus with the kind of ease normally associated with the removal of sweets from a sleeping infant.
Not that it will ultimately assist them on the road to Brazil. Since everyone else in the group will also be taking home from the northern Italian state maximum points, in competitive terms tonight’s game is meaningless.
Far more significant will be the fixture against Montenegro. Failure there and Roy Hodgson will have no need to fret about Rio Ferdinand making himself unavailable for next summer, the chances of any English player being needed for the World Cup will be thinner than David Beckham’s other half.
Unlike San Marino, Montenegro offer a real threat: after Tuesday’s game England could seriously be looking at the wrong end of the play-offs. And the speed with which the Montenegrins have established themselves as a force is extraordinary. The country has only been sending out its own football team into world competitions since 2006.
Before that they were simply an adjunct, first to Yugoslavia, then latterly to Serbia. Yet they are already real contenders; the FA has been around a 150 years and has only managed to look world beaters on a couple of occasions.
It makes you wonder, as Croatia and Serbia collide tonight, as Bosnia take on Greece to decide the leadership of Group G, as Macedonia sit above both Scotland and Wales in Group A, as Slovenia play Iceland, as Montenegro lie in wait to derail England, how good would Yugoslavia have been if it had not split asunder in the early 1990s?
The answer, in all likelihood, is not sweeping all before them. Yugoslavia was a footballing entity in which the constituent parts have subsequently turned out to be stronger than the collective.
Sure, it would be a mouth-watering prospect to see the Croat Luca Modric, the Serb Nemanja Vidic and the Bosnian Edin Dzeko all in the same national team shirt. The trouble is, given the politics that always plagued the Yugoslav national side, had it still been in existence, it probably means one or other of them would have found themselves a victim of selection prejudice.
And in any case, had they actually been gathered together, they would not have given their all for the Yugoslav cause. It was hard to commit yourself to an entity none of them ever believed in. A bit like the GB team at the Olympics.
Though there is a difference: none of Stuart Pearce’s squad wanted to kill their team mates (well, apart from Craig Bellamy, but that wasn’t because he’s Welsh).
In the Yugoslavia team they did. Igor Stimac and Sinisa Mihajlovic know all about that.Tonight they will be on the Croatian and Serbian benches as national coaches. But once they shared a dressing room as representatives of Yugoslavia. And they could never have been described as batting for the same side.
This was a pair who properly loathed one other and the communities from which they came. Football was the one territory in which nationalist sentiments could be expressed during the time of the republic, and it was from the terrace gangs of Belgrade and Split that the most aggressive – if not psychopathic – fighters in the civil war were recruited. Stimac and Mihajlovic were seen as symbols of their respective sides.
Their final collisions in club football, before the Yugoslav League collapsed, were characterised by blood-curdling threats. Stimac once whispered into his rival’s ear that he hoped his entire family died in the unrest, Mihajlovic has stated that Stimac is the one man he would like to kill with his bare hands, tearing him apart with his teeth if necessary. Nice.
These were not mates, united under a flag. Mihajlovic, for instance, was close to Arkan, the certifiable Red Star Belgrade hoolie who graduated to running his own unhinged militia during the war, a group which, at one point, rescued Mihajlovic’s parents from the advancing Croat army. Frankly the chances of them passing to each other were always minimal.
In contrast, Montenegro’s players will give their all for each other and their flag. Unlike the England players who are increasingly encouraged by their club managers to regard it as a secondary commitment, Juventus’s Mirko Vucinic, for instance, regards pulling on the national shirt as his ultimate footballing achievement.
On Tuesday England will be facing a force of nature, an unleashed whirlwind of nationalistic fervour. Plus some pretty useful footballers. With that ahead, you hope they will be able to enjoy their pleasant stroll around the park this evening.
- Sports & Recreation