Following England’s routine win over Kazakhstan on Saturday, I was listening to Five Live’s 606 programme, which has the unfortunate habit of being gripping despite being mostly filled with ranting, rambling nonsense.
Irritating as Alan Green, the usual presenter, can sometimes be, he does bring a certain level of wit that adds entertainment to his acerbic comments, whether or not his points have actual merit when fully considered. At the other end of the scale, there is Tim Lovejoy, the worst of the worst ‘local down the pub’ sort of football fan, the sort that feels compelled to shout his baseless opinion above those he is debating with, as if drowning out reason makes him more credible. It makes him more painful to listen to.
But as depressing an experience listening to Lovejoy can be, he is not the worst. That dubious honour goes to Steve Claridge, a man so out of touch with the game he comments on, one who has never held an opinion that stands up to any sort of analysis, and whose mannerisms often leave me wishing for David Pleat’s voice. Yes, he really is that bad.
With a fairly average performance nevertheless resulting in a 4-0 victory, and a trivial match against Andorra to come on Wednesday night, the subject for the full hour was the uncompetitive nature of international football. Nothing wrong with that – a pundit claiming that qualifying matches are, for the most part, dull and predictable affairs will get no argument out of me. What will provoke a reaction is suggesting idiotic solutions.
With the breakdown of Yugoslavia and certain Russian states, plus the invitation to some of the tiniest nations in Europe, such as Andorra, there are now around twice as many UEFA members as there were only a couple of decades ago. Naturally, with the talent pool no bigger than before, the quality among some of the smaller nations is no better than lower league domestic football, and certainly not a spectacle for the neutral, less so when a giant of the game hands out a routine hammering whether or not they actually play well enough to deserve it.
The trouble is that there are so many poor nations out there that more than half of our qualifying games are meaningless one-sided affairs. Croatia and Ukraine provide the challenge in England’s group, and those games at least raise an eyebrow, but elsewhere we have to put up with six matches against Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra. Does anyone care about these games?
Claridge is adamant that the bulk of these nations should be placed in pre-qualifying, with only the cream of the crop allowed to face the elite of European football in the full qualifying stage, thus reducing the matches and the boredom. Reading this, you might think I’m in agreement, but I couldn’t be more against the idea.
There are so many reasons why such an idea is unworkable. Firstly, to have it make any difference, you effectively have to split the continent in half – the automatic ’round 2′ nations, and the pre-qualifiers, otherwise it’ll make little difference. But with so many nations, this means a massive tournament has to take place before the big nations even begin their qualifying campaigns. When can this happen? Some have suggested during the summer tournaments, but the FAs of these nations rely on gate and TV revenue – how much money do you think will be made in a Luxembourg v San Marino match during a major tournament?
And what next for the losing countries? Two years of friendlies? Oh, that’ll help them.
Leaving practicality aside for a moment, let’s look at the morals. The whole point of putting all countries together is that they all start from a level playing field. A few shock wins, and you might get in. Conversely, a few bad results from a major nation puts them in jeopardy. But the minnows would have to perform well in two campaigns, which seems highly unfair.
Perhaps more importantly, it stifles their opportunity for progression. Turkey used to be absolutely hopeless on the international stage, but after years of hammerings their game improved to the point where they are no longer a pushover. Latvia, a country who would be in the bottom half and therefore the pre-qualifiers, made it to Euro 2004 on the back of a few surprising results. Northern Ireland nearly qualified for Euro 2008 and beat England in the previous campaign, but may never get the chance to compete in the finals under these circumstances. With the cyclical nature of national strength, each pre-qualifying country may get through to play ‘top half’ nations every 12-16 years. How does this help them improve, or promote their game?
The real problem is not that we play the minnows, it is not that they have an equal chance of progression as we do, it is not that there are so many of them, and it even isn’t that Kazakhstan, along with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the more dangerous Turkey, Israel and Cyprus are geographically more in Asia than Europe and should therefore be elsewhere. The real issue is the mechanism of qualification chosen by UEFA are designed to suit the powerhouses of European football.
Years ago, qualification groups were much smaller – four teams in a group was commonplace. As we know from tournament finals, groups of that size massively increase the magnitude of individual games – one poor result and you could be in real trouble. In qualifiers, it is slightly expanded because each team plays each other twice, but even in six games one or two results can have an enormous impact.
Compare that to the current model – say the unthinkable happens and England draw with, or even lose to Andorra on Wednesday night. Would it matter? To the gleeful press, yes, but to the bigger picture of qualification, not one jot. There are so many other games in the group that we would not be punished for our slip, and nor would the result give Andorra a prayer of qualification.
Now imagine the groups were smaller. We have 53 nations in Europe and 13 places up for grabs in the World Cup. Why not have 13 groups, nine of four teams, and five of five. The winners qualify. Simple? Thought so.
Picture England in a group of four teams, knowing second place was nothing. While seeding would still mean a minnow would be in their group, would a poor result against them be so meaningless? Of course not – one slip and you put yourself in massive danger.
Moreover, it promotes the idea of football as a worldwide sport, where every country really does have a chance of getting through. Take Northern Ireland or Bosnia, two countries never in major finals, both of which are having terrific campaigns. Over the course of 10-12 qualifiers and a playoff, they will surely be found out and will, once again, fail to qualify. But under a shorter system, those few excellent results they have achieved would take them to the finals. Seeing Latvia dominate Germany in a Euro 2004 group stage match was memorable for me, and certainly for them – why not increase the chances of this happening again? It doesn’t devalue the main competition as that is also set up to be open – look at how Greece eventually won the same tournament.
The positives are numerous – there would be fewer internationals exhausting the players during the season, each match would actually have significance, the chances of producing a more diverse competition are greater, and the stature of the international game as a whole would improve, which is surely good for UEFA and FIFA.
So why aren’t they considering it?
Simply put, it would annoy the bigger nations by making their qualification trickier. But surely that is what it is all about – one of the stories of this campaign is how Portugal may not make it, with Denmark and Hungary currently comfortably ahead of them. Neither would be embarrassed at the finals, so neither would detract from the competition. But you get the feeling, with the length of the qualifying process, that Portugal will probably come back. But with only two wins from six games, they should be gone.
It seems such a simple plan. But it will never happen, not while the big countries hold all the power. So don’t listen to the likes of Steve Claridge bleating about the lack of strength of international competition, but only suggesting changes that marginalise the smaller nations, instead of giving them a fair crack. It is not our place to dismiss them into their own competition. We should instead not design a system that suits us, only to complain about it later.
This is not the Champions League, where forcing automatic entry to weak sides who will inevitably get hammered devalues the competition. This is the World Cup, where performing well in 4-5 qualifiers should give you a chance to perform on the biggest stage.