I always find it amazing when a small nation overturns a large nation at a major sporting event.  Sometimes you get the odd upset – of course – but for me the big nations should always win at big sporting events.

I was reminded of this fact recently when England lost a key football/soccer match against Uruguay, a country of some 3 million people. There have been some fantastic books which have debunked this theory, such as the superb ‘Brilliant Orange‘, but for me it boils down to a combination of three important factors:

– the sheer population numbers with access to the game

– the number and quality of facilities to be able to play

– the number of qualified coaches

With decent facilities and great coaches you can go a long way, but you also need people playing the sport in their masses so that the numbers of exceptional players percolate through from an immense group. Take a look at English footie and you see an enormous amount of players, plentiful decent facilities, but in the main very poor coaching. It’s ‘hoof it up to the big guy’ or ‘give it to the dribbler’ on pitches that are far too big, from a very early age. Kids grow up thinking that all you need to do is dribble past half a dozen players or shoot from 30 yards. They don’t know the basics and they are not adequately taught the technical fundamentals of the game.

I’m not sure of the actual numbers, but I have heard a statistic that there are 17,000 qualified coaches in Germany, and 900 in England. Here’s an article which suggests England has nearly 3,000, but Spain has nearly 24,000, Italy nearly 30,000 and Germany nearly 35,000. People blame the English premiership and the influx of foreign players, but that’s nonsense. Why would spend the earth for an overseas star if you were spoilt for choice domestically?

In 50 years’ time, China will probably be the nation that tops all the sports it chooses to compete seriously in. Fifty years ago it wasn’t playing table tennis, now they are comfortably the best nation, and the Chinese diaspora declare for many other countries, making up a huge proportion of the world’s top 100 players, men and women. They have some serious numbers, and a totalitarian government with the will and resources to capitalise on the immense political kudos of being the world’s best at something.

You might think there are exceptions to this, like New Zealand rugby’s All Blacks. It’s a population of nearly 4.5 million. But, rugby is the national sport, they invest heavily in coaches – their coaches hold great jobs across the rugby world – and they have decent facilities. They also have their pick of some of the best giants in the islands like Samoa, Fiji and Tonga to bolster their numbers. My celtic chums will hate me for it, but that’s why England are always there or thereabouts in rugby world cups. The largest playing population in the world and lots of dosh are a pretty powerful cocktail.

It always seems a shame that some true geniuses of sport happen to be from small nations. In football terms, think of Northern Ireland’s George Best, Wales’ Ryan Giggs and of course Liberia’s George Weah, a former world footballer of the year. They never experienced the playing on the global stage that their talent warranted. They never got to win the big global sporting event and be included in the pantheon of world’s greats in the way that Messrs Pele and Maradonna are.