International football: What's it like to play for the lowest-ranked nations?

By Joe BradshawBBC Sport
Jason Roberts
Jason Roberts represented Grenada 12 times during his 19-year career

"In my first training session with the national team, one of the players said to the manager: 'Sorry boss, I have to leave to go and tie up my cow.'"

A 19-year-old Jason Roberts discovered very quickly that international football isn't always glamorous.

For global stars like Paul Pogba, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, playing for their country offers the chance to compete for the greatest prizes in world football.

Further down the food chain, expectations are more modest.

But this is a place where farmers can line up against icons of the game, and where tiny island nations take on - and sometimes even beat - nations of millions of people, as the 64% of countries who have never made the World Cup finals seek to defy the odds and make history.

Welcome to the world of the international minnow.

'Like non-league football'

Roberts ultimately played at the highest level of club football, scored 37 Premier League goals and became the record signing at three clubs.

But when he first joined up with Grenada, his successes in English football were still ahead of him.

"I was just Jason from down the road," he tells BBC Sport. "I turned up at training straight from the airport in a suit and chauffeur-driven car and the boys looked at me as if to say 'you're not Ian Wright or Stan Collymore'.

"Most of my team-mates had never left the island and never been blessed with the opportunities I got in England. There is no coaching development system, no academies, no Manchester United or Chelsea to turn you into a professional footballer.

"But the team have always been a great bunch who work hard jobs - farmers, labourers, builders. Their passion for their country has nothing to do with money.

"It's something I could relate to from playing non-league football."

Grenada have never reached the World Cup finals; a Caribbean Cup runners-up spot is their best performance to date. An island of just 107,000 people, it would be unrealistic to expect more - but Roberts insists the locals have high standards.

"One of our greatest results was a 3-2 defeat against the United States in 2004. I scored to make it 1-1 and we nearly got a famous draw against a nation of more than 300 million people.

"But there is a lot of Caribbean national pride. The supporters expected a win."

Infrastructure, intensity and in-fighting

For Pakistan, the problems are starkly different.

A country of more than 200 million people, the resources are there. But a large population does not always translate into football success.

Highest populations never to play at the World Cup
CountryPopulationWorld population sizeFifa ranking

Pakistan sit 200th in the current Fifa world rankings and face three significant barriers: climate, infrastructure and in-fighting.

Former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman knows the deep-rooted challenges.

"Cricket and hockey are by far the most popular sports," he says.

"When Pakistan play home games, stadiums are full. But there is never any sustained push around the game."

The majority of the Pakistan national team play domestically, where there are no foreign players and coaching development is minimal.

"It's hard for our players to play outside Pakistan and that restricts the standard," adds Rehman.

The talent is there - Atletico Madrid were so convinced they opened up an academy in Pakistan in January.

Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid aim to get players into the Pakistani youth teams in three to five years

And Rehman credits the national team's Brazilian manager Jose Antonio Nogueira and his coaches with driving up standards.

"The current coaching set-up is brilliant," says the 35-year-old. "It's professional and I've learned a lot."

Nogueira's technical ability may be helping on the pitch but the southern Asian climate makes football very different. Soaring temperatures and humid conditions ensure the intensity is "nowhere near" that of the English game.

"Technically, the standard isn't bad," says Rehman. "But when you're used to operating at 100%, you really have to adapt."

Pakistan is also currently dogged by in-fighting after a disputed election split the Pakistani Football Federation (PFF) in two. Indeed, the boardroom conflict got so bad Fifa suspended Pakistan from international fixtures for six months in 2017.

While the suspension is now lifted, a rival faction exists, laying claim to home-based players, most of whom did not play in recent World Cup qualifiers against Cambodia. With the dispute ongoing, Pakistan's "home" leg actually took place in Qatar rather than Lahore.

"As footballers, we just want to play," says Rehman. "The fewer external issues, the better your performance. Pakistan needs both sets of players if it's going to improve."

Domestic comfort

It's not only Pakistan where a lack of exported players affects the national side.

The tiny UK-owned principality of Gibraltar has a team of players who mostly play domestically in a competitive but lower standard of league. It makes international football a big leap.

Danny Higginbotham
Danny Higginbotham's 17-year playing career included 210 appearances in the Premier League

Danny Higginbotham represented Gibraltar after their official recognition by Fifa in 2016 and he recalls the culture shock.

"The group played for a couple of teams that experienced consistent success in the Gibraltar Premier Division. They were all about attacking. I had to help them see we had to get it right defensively."

Their first official friendly against Slovakia went well, a creditable 0-0 draw played in Portugal after the artificial pitch at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar was deemed unsuitable for international football.

The experience was another eye-opener.

"They've only got one pitch in Gibraltar and teams wait for their allocated slots, a couple of times a week, to train on it," says Higginbotham.

"When we went to Portugal, I didn't understand why the lads kept going into sports shops. It was only later I realised they were trying to buy boots to play on grass.

"It gave me an understanding of how big this game was."

Since then, Gibraltar have lost all World Cup and European Championship qualifiers and they have not scored a qualification goal for two years.

Bruising defeats have included 6-0 to Scotland in 2015, 8-1 in Poland the same year and a 9-0 thrashing by Belgium in 2017.

On Monday, they narrowly lost in Dublin as Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland squeaked a second narrow win in three months against them.

It could be daunting for the world's 195th-ranked team to travel but striker Jamie Coombes, who plays for West Didsbury and Chorlton in south Manchester - a team recently relegated from England's ninth tier - insists they are always confident.

"We love playing against teams with loads of fans where you see their passion," he says.

"Everyone thinks we're underdogs but in every game, it's just 11 v 11. We give our all for Gibraltar."

Sometimes club comes before country

Zesh Rehman
Zesh Rehman was the first British-born Asian to play in all four English divisions

Smaller nations also struggle from player unavailability. Many fixtures have tended to fall outside Fifa's international windows and their better players have had to rely on their clubs freeing them to play. Rehman pays tribute to bosses at current side Kwoon Chung Southern District FC in Hong Kong for letting him represent Pakistan regularly.

But not everyone is so fortunate.

"People thought I was crazy for choosing Grenada at 19 rather than pushing for the England set-up," Roberts says.

"Pulling on the national shirt was the proudest moment of my life and I immediately had to miss games during Bristol Rovers' promotion push to play for Grenada.

"I wasn't always free to represent my country and it was hard to take."

Indeed, Roberts collected only 12 caps for his country despite being one of the most high-profile players in Grenada's history.

New opportunities

That situation is changing.

Roberts retired in 2014 and now works as Concacaf director of development, with a brief to provide opportunities for Caribbean footballers to develop.

He has helped establish a Nations League, offering regular, competitive fixtures against teams of similar standing. Initiatives like these are aligning the region with Fifa's calendar and scheduling more games for Caribbean and Central American footballers. Previously, nations could play one two-legged fixture in a four-year World Cup cycle, lose it and then be left with meaningless friendlies.

"There is no development without games," Roberts says. "It was a real challenge for the region when I was playing, but now we're tackling it.

"Our long-term vision is to build a coach development system. We want a professional environment where players improve."

For Gibraltar, the Uefa Nations League has had a similar impact.

"It gave an opportunity to face other small countries and showed we can compete," says Coombes.

Gibraltar picked up six points in League D, following up a famous 1-0 win against Henrikh Mkhitaryan's Armenia with a victory against Liechtenstein.

Heavy defeats in their final two games ruined any Euro 2020 qualification hopes but it has given them, and others like them, a platform to build on.

And Roberts feels optimistic about the future of football in the Caribbean too.

"We'd never have believed it if someone had said 15 years ago that Grenada would become the smallest nation to win an Olympic gold (400m sprinter Kirani James at Rio 2016), Anthony Hamilton would be father of the greatest driver in history (Lewis Hamilton) and Panama would reach the World Cup.

"Now we're investing in the future and connecting with the diaspora of Caribbean sports stars.

"There are many opportunities out there."

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