England’s 20-0 hammering of Latvia was indicative of a trend in international games and pre-qualifiers can be part of a solution
In the past three months 29 European Women’s World Cup qualifying games have concluded with a winning margin of seven goals or more. England’s 20-0 hammering of Latvia broke a record set by Belgium’s 19-0 defeat of Armenia last Thursday to become the highest-scoring Women’s World Cup qualifier ever. These results are not the exception that they are in the men’s game; when the haves and have-nots meet they are increasingly the rule.
The gap is getting bigger and it is not a result of some countries investing and some not (although that is a factor in a minority of countries) but of the rapid but uneven development of international women’s football – of some countries investing at a much faster rate and to a greater extent than others are willing or able to.
The recent run of mind-boggling scorelines has prompted many to question the format that has allowed these potentially morale-crushing results to happen all too frequently.
Scoring 20 goals in a game to take your goal difference to +53 across six matches, having not conceded, should be cause for celebration but England’s head coach, Sarina Wiegman, was among the dissenting voices on Tuesday night, calling for a rethink on a set-up that enables disparities to be so brutally exposed.
“You want competitive games and these are not competitive games,” Wiegman said. “You want to develop the well-developed countries and the countries that are not that far along. In every country, you want to develop the women’s game, but I don’t think it’s good that the scores now are so high.
“I know that has the attention of the federations and Uefa and Fifa, and I think that’s good because I don’t think a 20-0 is good for the development of anyone.”
The idea of pre-qualifiers for major international competitions is not new or unique to the women’s game. After England men’s 5-0 defeat of San Marino in March, Gary Lineker prompted a backlash when he tweeted: “Surely we’ve reached the stage where the lowest ranked nations should play amongst themselves to qualify for the right to play at this level. It’s become absurd.”
Many were unhappy at the implication that England’s men were above playing lower-ranked nations. That England had drawn Andorra, the lowest-ranked nation in pot five, and San Marino, the lowest-ranked team in pot six, was also a statistically unlikely and unlucky occurrence.
The difference between lower-ranked women’s and men’s nations, though, is vast. Yes, lower-ranked men’s teams can include part-time players but the resources available, size of the talent pool and quality of coaching on offer to small and under-funded men’s nations are hugely superior to what is on offer to equivalent level teams in women’s international football.
One Guardian reader commenting below the line after Tuesday’s game, who said their daughter received a first cap for Latvia, reported: “There are lots of terrific people in Latvian football doing their best (I am thinking of one coach who would collect players who lived in the sticks to get them to training – used to take him nearly 3 hours: wonderful gent). But, at the end of the day, there are only about 200 women playing – and this team were missing their best players too.”
The desire to let lower-ranked sides, in this context, compete against the best has to be balanced both against the effects of humiliating defeats and to what extent these games actually help develop the weakest and strongest nations.
In the current format nobody wins. England do not benefit from 64 shots without reply as the team prepare for much sterner tests and do not deserve to be criticised for celebrating goals, particular record-breakers and first senior international goals. Latvia do not benefit from being pummelled and barely touching the ball (14% possession).
There can be a legitimate argument to say that the result might not have been as large had the game not been played on a weekday evening when a number of Latvia players were unable to get out of work or school to travel. Taking these types of limitations into account should be the minimum reply.
But pre-qualifiers and increased centralised funding and coaching support for lower-ranked nations have to be discussed.
Uefa has said it is something it is looking at, with its head of women’s football, Nadine Kessler, telling the Associated Press in October: “The qualification systems for the World Cup and Euro, which Uefa organises and not Fifa, are already going to be examined very closely and we will see an improvement in the future.
“I think we need to really take a look closely to have more evenly matched matches, but also to have some opportunities to still see where’s the bar and to compete against the very best.”
The sooner something is done, though, the better.