The simple international break. Whether it’s because it breaks the early season momentum, or the matches simply aren’t interesting, there is usually something about an international break that attracts the ire of many football fans. It becomes quite easy to switch off from the world of football while they are in progress, however, this means that plenty of fascinating stories can go under the radar.
In this article, I’ve identified five of the most eye-catching stories from this round of internationals to be easily digested, and potentially give you some interesting stories to pass on to your mates!
Sometimes There May Be Joy
The European Qualifiers often pit some of the best teams in the world against a massively inferior opposition. Occasionally, the ‘worst team in international football’ – San Marino – will come into the firing line, traditionally the lowest ranking in the FIFA World Rankings of a UEFA team. The team has never won a competitive match, and their only victory was a 1-0 win against Liechtenstein in 2004. They regularly finish qualification campaigns without scoring a goal, suffering huge defeats in the process – England won 10-0 against them and qualified for the 2022 World Cup.
It’s for this reason that they have developed a ‘loveable loser’ reputation. The team are backed by the ‘Never Any Joy Brigade’ fan club, who bask in the side’s winless infamy, and the fan account on Twitter, which tracks the lows and even bigger lows of supporting San Marino, is followed by over 100,000 people. Any kind of success is celebrated with great enthusiasm.
A match against Denmark, who are ranked 18th in the world, would not have been expected to be a source of anything more than a thumping defeat before kick-off. Surprisingly, the Danes struggled to break through a stout Sammarinese defence, with San Marino also showing strong offensive output – two corners by the 5th minute and having the first shot at goal in the 10th. It took a total of 42 minutes for Denmark to take the lead. Then, in the second half, the unbelievable happened.
San Marino scored a goal.
Cue wild celebrations from the whole squad, the bench, the coaching staff and the nearly 3,000 fans in the San Marino Stadium. I would highly recommend finding a video of the goal and celebrations online because it is truly joyous – never before has an equaliser on the hour mark been celebrated with such vigour. Denmark pulled ahead ten minutes later and held on for a 2-1 victory, but the main story in Serravalle wasn’t the end result of the game. Rather, it was that for a brief moment in time, the impossible seemed possible.
A First Time for Everything
While Europe was getting to the sharp end of qualification for next year’s European Championship, some Asian nations began their quests to qualify for the World Cup in three years’ time. 10 teams already know that they will not be participating in the 2026 tournament, with Guam being the first nation to be officially eliminated.
Taking the next step for the very first time will be Pakistan. Until this international window, the country had never won a World Cup Qualifying match and was drawn against the difficult opponent Cambodia, who had previously knocked them out of qualifying for the 2022 edition.
The first leg ended 0-0, meaning a win for Pakistan in their first home match for 8 years would see them advance. A solitary goal from current free agent Harun Hamid was enough to see The Falcons through to the second stage, where they will face Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tajikistan.
On the whole, it is cricket that holds the most principal position in Pakistan. However, with a first win in World Cup Qualifying, playing games in Pakistan once again, and a relatively young squad – the average age of the squad is 22.8 – the future of football in Pakistan does indeed look promising.
The Crowns are Crowned
Tajikistan earns a mention in this article in their own right, as they won the invitational Merdeka Cup hosted by Malaysia. The tournament was first held in 1957 to celebrate Independence Day in Malaysia making it one of the oldest international competitions in Asia. However, interest in the competition declined after the 1980s with the tournament last being hosted in 2013.
The competition was revived for 2023, with Malaysia, India and Tajikistan taking part. Tajikistan advanced to the final after Palestine withdrew, and they were joined by Malaysia after a comfortable 4-2 victory against the Blue Tigers of India. In the final, a goal just before half-time gave Tajikistan the lead at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, before an 88th-minute strike from Shahrom Samiev sealed the victory.
Although these matches were technically friendlies, they still provided plenty of entertainment and attracted big crowds – 46,000 attended the semi-final. Malaysia might have been beaten in the final, but the 10-time Merdeka champions are still improving and are very well supported.
Ageing Like a Fine Wine
World Cup qualification in South America started in September, and although only 4 matchdays out of 18 are complete, the table is starting to take shape. As the upcoming edition will feature 48 teams, the top 6 CONMEBOL nations will qualify automatically compared to four previously. This means Venezuela, the only nation from the confederation never to have qualified, may have its best chance ever to break that duck.
They have certainly started their campaign in a way that suggests they could be featured in 2026’s tournament. Currently, La Vinotinto (the Red Wine) of Venezuela sit 4th and performed well in their last two matches. The side battled to a 1-1 draw with Brazil after equalising in the 85th minute and followed it up with a 3-0 thumping of a Chile side that featured Gary Medel, Alexis Sanchez and Ben Brereton Diaz. If they continue this form, there’s a real chance Venezuela will debut at the next World Cup.
To end this round-up, here are a few surprising stats from the international break…
After drawing to Venezuela, Brazil was defeated 3-0 by Marcelo Bielsa’s Uruguay. Not only that, the five-time World Cup champions failed to register a shot on target for the first time since 2013.
Wales secured a vital win in their European Qualifiers against Croatia, which represented their first qualification victory without either Aaron Ramsey or Gareth Bale since 2005.
The Netherlands team selected to face France was also notable, as it was the first time since 1981 that the starting XI did not feature one player from AFC Ajax; yet another indication of the Dutch giant’s terrible start to the season, which has them in the relegation zone after the first six matches.
I’m sure many will be glad to see elite men’s club football return this weekend, and what a weekend it could be as well with the Liverpool vs Everton and Chelsea vs Arsenal rivalries on Saturday. However, when the last break of the year comes in November, keep an eye out for the surprises and stories which make international football so exciting.