The football minnows within touching distance of Euro 2024

Kazakhstan’s celebrations could yet get far bigger

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Two rounds of matches left in qualifying for a major competition. By now, as the football gods deem it, there must be a number of big nations already through, at least one of which has a perfect record, further calling into question the need and point for lengthy group stages.

Additionally, it is required that a handful of established footballing countries must still be “sweating” or otherwise marginally concerned over their places at the finals, often with “work to do” but certainly still “needing a result”. Thirdly, and often most (viciously) enjoyably for some, one previous winner or at least finalist from a major tournament of yesteryear must be facing up to their new reality of missing out altogether.

For Euro 2024 qualifying we can tick, tick and tick again those boxes, with Portugal, Denmark and Italy nicely filling in those categories respectively: winners of the 2016, 1992 and 2020 European Championship, all experiencing very different stages of their national team peaks and troughs right now.

But there’s a third group to consider. And it’s not the emerging nations, the improving smaller sides or the countries potentially benefitting from different pathways into an expanded tournament, either.

No, this is an entirely unexpected and quite astonishing group who have not just torn up their own histories, but threaten to upset the very, very established order of international royalty. These are the football minnows of yore, who are today not just swimming against the tide but inching close to successfully jumping up the waterfall for the first time ever – and the opportunity to do so lies in the next two weeks.

Consider this set of qualification results.

Played ten, won one, lost nine, scored four, conceded 26. That was Moldova’s record for Euro 2020, where they finished bottom of their group and fared just as poorly as Faroe Islands did in their own group, or Malta, or Latvia. And so on. It was for Euro 2020 qualification, just one cycle ago, but really it could have been for any major tournament of the past few decades – rarely have they been a nation to trouble the standings much higher than the bottom two. They started attempting to qualify for World Cups and European Championships ahead of ‘96; since then, and up until this campaign, they had played 142 qualification matches, winning just 19. More often than not, those victories would come – as was the case with their three points for the 2020 edition at home to Andorra – against fellow so-called ‘minnows’.

And yet the qualifying tables this time around tell an extraordinarily different story: they’ve lost just once in their six matches so far and, with two fixtures remaining, hold a fighting chance of making the top two.

Moldova do not have it all in their own hands – that would be headline-worthy indeed. To an extent, they are still looking at those football gods and hoping that this time, at long last, fortune swings their way. But certainly Serghei Clescenco’s squad are doing everything in their power to be in position, should a team above them slip up.

Moldova beat Poland in their Euro 2024 qualifier

With two to play Moldova sit fourth, two points off second and four off the top. They have conceded six in six games – a better defensive record than Poland, Netherlands, Ireland, Italy or Switzerland, to name a few – and following a 1-1 draw in Warsaw last month, could yet cause a major shock if they pull off another big result. They need to win against Albania, first of all. If they do that they will at least be third heading into the last round of games, with Albania top but having the cushion of playing whipping boys Faroe Islands last. Should Moldova pull it off, it’s a straight one-match shootout against Czech Republic with the winner clinching a top-two spot.

If all that feels improbable, and surely not more so than Moldova still being in this position is anyway, consider that this nation of around 3m people already beat Poland and held the Czechs earlier in the campaign.

Sticking with improbability, Luxembourg similarly hold a chance of making it, though arguably their best shot departed with just 12 minutes remaining in their most recent qualifier.

They remain third (yes, Luxembourg, third in the six-team Group J) but that late defeat to Slovakia means a five-point gap with two matches remaining; had they held on to draw, a two-point gap would have been far more surmountable with the bottom two remaining to play. As it is, even two wins now might not be enough, despite yielding a historically good campaign for the nation of under a million.

Luxembourg were beaten by Slovakia in their last qualifier

And so, from the country with perhaps the longest shot at history, to the one with the greatest.

Kazakhstan, a far bigger nation of 20m or so but with absolutely no footballing pedigree on the international scene since they split from the Soviet Union ahead of 1992, have a genuine opportunity to be involved in a 90-minute shootout with a place at Euro 2024 on offer as the prize.

The simple arrangement is this: they are third, four points behind Slovenia and Denmark, but facing San Marino in their penultimate match – one they must obviously win. Meanwhile, the top two face each other, so one or both must drop points.

Kazakhstan’s wish is that Denmark at least earn a draw, because it’s Slovenia they face in the final game. If Slovenia don’t win in Copenhagen, the maximum they’ll be on is 20 points before the final game; Kazakhstan can be on 18 at the same time and be left with the simple equation of “win and in” when it comes to gameweek 10, which for them will take place in Ljubljana.

They’ve never made it this close. They have won three World Cup qualifying matches in the last two decades. For Euro 2020, they ended the group below Cyprus on goal difference. Yet see off the lowest-ranked nation in the men’s international game and they’re guaranteed a chance at reaching a finals, regardless of anything else.

Kazakhstan are already in a record-breaking campaign but have the best chance of reaching Euro 2024

It’s already historic. They’ve beaten Denmark, Finland and Northern Ireland, twice. If they do win their last two to make it seven victories from 10, that will equal their entire combined previous European Championship qualifying haul of wins.

None of the three nations above have ever been to a major tournament; all head into the final international break of 2023 with a genuine chance of making it to one. Not by way of play-offs, Nations League paths or any other secondary means, but by pure and simple results in a qualifying group. Yes, it’s an expanded tournament and thus second is a qualification spot rather than a route to a play-off as might have been the case in previous years, but that detracts in no way whatsoever from the scale of the progression and impression that these nations have already made, and could now improve upon even further.

If they make it, it won’t be the footballing gods who are spoken about any more; it will be that group of players who have, in their own lands, become immortals themselves.

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