World Cup Snobs Miss The Point About ‘Lesser’ Nations

The best moment of a lopsided encounter between England and Panama came not from Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, or John Stones. But from a 37-year-old defender with over a hundred caps for his national team.


The seventh goal of the game, a mere consolation, a meaningless occurrence in a match long settled by then.

Try telling that to Felipe Baloy, who will go down in history as the first ever Panamanian to put the ball in the back of the net at a World Cup.

Try telling that to the Panamaniacs (that’s a thing, right?) in the stadium and watching at home, going absolutely apeshit at seeing one of their own score against the bloody creators of this beautiful game at the World bloody Cup. Seeing the crowd throwing all sorts of shapes, losing their minds at that moment, is one of the most charming, delightful moments we’ll see this month.

And yet there are those who rail against the inclusion of these so-called weaker countries in FIFA’s premier competition.

Jimmy Bullard isn’t the only one to hold an opinion like this, so I don’t mean to pick on him, but his tweet Sunday was typical of much of the reaction to Panama’s appearance at this tournament.

The problems with such a take are manifold. No country has a divine right to be at the World Cup. Italy and Netherlands knew the score when the qualification process started almost two years ago. As did the USA, who finished two places behind Panama in the CONCACAF group, failing to even make the playoff spot.

Other World Cup regulars, such as Ghana, did not make it. Neither did Copa America champions Chile, or Afcon winners Cameroon. Sometimes big teams miss out, that’s the name of the game.

This is emblematic of an invisible tension that exists in competitions like this. We consider the World Cup to be the zenith of the sport, where the best of the best duke it out to determine the true number one.

The reality is, in a sporting sense, that’s not completely true. Arguably the 32 best sides in the world are not present in Russia right now. Panama, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are all weaker than the aforementioned national teams.

But does that make their qualification for the World Cup any less worthy? One can argue the relative strengths of the respective confederations, of the difficulty their qualification processes require from their member nations. Yet if we start taking away spots from these confederations, as suggested by Miguel Delaney, when does it stop being the ‘World’ Cup and start becoming the “Cup Of European Nations And Others”?

The group stages of the World Cup will always feature weak teams. Panama are perhaps one of the weakest to ever feature, up there with El Salvador. The Central American nation have appeared at two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1982, exiting without a single point on both occasions. Their last finals appearance included a record defeat, losing 10-1 to Hungary in Elche, Spain.

Did their performance really sour anyone’s experience, aside from their own?

There are many, many reasons to be cynical about the World Cup, and there are legitimate reasons to worry about the expansion of it to 48 teams come 2026. It does however, embody one of the great things about football, in that it is a truly global game. It creates the possibility for amazing moments and memories for nations who otherwise rarely feature on the world stage in any way shape or form.

Few competitions grant the smallest nations the chance to compete with the very best in the sport; where else would you get a country with a population of 300,000 putting it up to a side containing the greatest player in the history of the game? Where tiny island nations can eliminate two states with a combined five World Cups, as Costa Rica did to Italy and England in 2014.

Quality is not guaranteed at the World Cup by any stretch, but that’s not even what makes it so good; it’s the stakes of a short tournament, the national fervour it manages to drum up, and the narrative — so often derided in club football — that it creates from game to game.

If we decide that the World Cup is to be comprised of the ‘actual’ best teams, we would be sacrificing inclusiveness for exclusivity. Although we might gain a greater quality in football terms across the board, we would lose something fundamental as to why it is just so special.

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#8: Celebrating England’s Glorious History Of Failure

There’s just something about cheering on whoever the English is playing against at a major tournament that adds to the enjoyment of it all. Everyone loves an underdog, but everyone loves to hate the villain even more. For many countries, but especially Ireland (and to a similar extent Scotland and Wales), that villain is England.

LISTEN To Podcast #8 — Celebrating England’s Glorious Failures At Major Tournaments:

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It’s pretty much a national pastime at this stage, especially when Ireland aren’t at the World Cup themselves. So what is it about the Old Enemy that we get so much joy out of their oft-repeated demise?

england world cup
via Wayne Mulligan/Ireland Simpsons Memes

Well, for one, they are known as the Old Enemy for a reason. Centuries of colonialism and imperialism have not won them too many fans, not least in this country. The legacy of bastardry doesn’t really dissipate much over time.

In fact, it still influences how the English view their football team today. As a former conqueror of the world, many of their fans feel they should be on top of the pile more often than not.

This leads to the usual hype and hysteria that we see from England supporters every other year. Ireland are no strangers to over-estimating ourselves before performing meekly on a big stage (see: our blasted optimism heading into Euro 2012, or the recent drubbing at the hands of Denmark), but there’s something unbearably grating about the English attitude when it comes to international football.

england world cup

Yet there are many football fans in England who don’t actually support the national team. If you are a fan of one of the major clubs, your passion is likely sated by the drama and glory experienced on a yearly basis in the Premier League and Champions League. But there’s also the fact that so many of them just don’t identify with this team and never have, partly down to the record of violence and hooliganism displayed by certain sections of their travelling contingent.

That, and the never-ending cycle of failure.

For our latest podcast we decided to chronicle this unwanted record of their’s: England have only won two knockout games of football, against Denmark and Ecuador, in the last twenty years.

Why twenty years? Euro 96 was the last time that the English national team warranted any sense of true optimism. Not only was the side pretty decent, they were hosting the tournament during an era of unprecedented positivity for the island as a whole. It was the era of Britpop and New Labour, replacing post-punk and Margaret Thatcher as the signposts for a new generation. And best of all, a football song that didn’t make you want to burst your own eardrums.


One line at the start of that famous song that has always resonated with me: “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before.” Which is exactly how I’ve felt watching England fail to clear every hurdle put in their way over the past two decades. It’s the same thing happening over and over again.

Excluding 1966, England’s greatest moments have come in the near-misses of Italia 90 and Euro 96, where they reached the semi-finals on both occasions. The buoyancy gained from the latter tournament didn’t last much longer after France 98, however.

There was no shame in losing to a side like Argentina, and they were in fact quite impressive in taking them to penalties after drawing 2-2 while playing most of the match with 10 men. But it was the manner of David Beckham’s sending that sent fans and press alike into a frenzy.

Beckham became an easy target following their exit from the World Cup, assuming the role of national hate figure. One tabloid ran the subtle headline: “BECKHAM’S RUINED IT FOR US.” West Ham fans hung an effigy of the Man United star before the second game of the season. Curiously, the man himself calls it one of his top career moments, telling GQ this year that it “made me mature very quickly”.

In this writer’s opinion that tournament and the overblown reaction to it by the English broke something inside the psyche of the team. The football culture changed again, for the worse. Ever since then you can tell the players are playing under enormous pressure, fearing the worst instead of hoping for the best. After all, they know full well that one mistake could see them become the next pariah.

Frank Lampard said as much in a recent interview:

France 98 set in motion the series of events that has lead to England players repeatedly playing within themselves, often making fools of themselves while they’re at it.

Ronaldinho’s shot going over the head of David Seaman in 2002. Going out on penalties to Portugal (twice). Wayne Rooney’s stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. The Golden Generation not qualifying for Euro 2008. That would be enough for most nations to have nightmares for years, but it doesn’t stop there.

Looking back, South Africa 2010 feels like the cherry on top of a mediocre pie. Rob Green’s howler versus a United States team who should have been put to the sword. Drawing 0-0 with Algeria and Rooney saying straight to the camera, “it’s nice when your own fans boo you.” But the pièce de résistance was still to come.

Germany scored an embarrassingly simple goal to kick things off in the round of 16, before Lukas Podolski hit a cracking finish. Matthew Upson got one back, but it was to get worse for the English. Lampard had a shot come down off the bar and go over the line, which should have made it 2-2 but it bounced straight back out. The referee didn’t give it, in a reversal of fortunes from the 1966 meeting between the two countries.

Thomas Muller would go on to score two goals on the counter-attack, inflicting England’s biggest defeat at a major tournament. A particularly pleasing sight was that of Mesut Ozil absolutely roasting Gareth Barry for pace on the fourth and final goal. At that moment I understood the true meaning of Schadenfreude.

Andrea Pirlo panenka’d England out of Euro 2012, while they scarpered out of Brazil 2014 with a solitary point to their name. But nothing could ever hold a candle to 2010, surely.

england world cup

Then came Iceland. A small island nation with a population of 300,000 who had never qualified for anything before Euro 2016. And they beat the English, 2-1.

The delight in Iceland’s victory just about greater than the glee in seeing England lose to a so-called minnow of international football. As everyone’s second favourite team in France, was there anyone could be happier for the land of ice and fire to defeat more than the English? And to cap it all off, there was Steve McClaren.

It’s cruel to point and laugh, but we can’t help it. Here’s to another summer of watching Ingerland making a show of themselves.

Intro theme by The Shaker Hymn.