The lowest ranked UEFA teams should have to pre-qualify for World Cup and Euro Finals
I'd hate to come across as a bitter England fan who has been brooding about their failure to qualify for Euro2008, but I am, and I have. My brooding wasn't helped when I realised that if my ticket application for Euro2008 had been successful, in the summer I would be going back to Salzburg to watch my adopted homeland of Greece twice. I've also been brooding about the way the European section draw works out for the next tournament.
Sports journalists often bandy the word 'meaningless' about when it comes to international friendlies, but with the system FIFA have adopted, there will be literally meaningless World Cup Qualifying matches.
Group winners in the European section qualify directly for South Africa. However, only four of the second place teams can make it. Those with the eight best records go into play-offs to see who reaches the 2010 World Cup. In order to even the number of teams in each group, FIFA decree that the group tables are re-drawn, discounting the matches against the team that has finished bottom in eight of the nine groups.
That means there will be 80 matches taking place in which the results have no bearing on who qualifies for the European section play-offs. 80 games where players can pick up injuries or suspensions that will keep them out of later meaningful matches, whilst fans are still expected to pick up the tab for going to the games, and media companies are still expected to pay out for TV, radio and new media coverage rights.
If FIFA and UEFA don't think matches against these bottom placed teams count for anything, then why have them particpating in this stage of qualifying at all?
Well, a lot of people argue that it develops the game of these smaller nations by having them get experience against bigger and more powerful footballing nations.
In the draw for the World Cup Qualifiers, there were 17 European teams in the bottom two pots. Of those, two didn't participate in Euro2008 qualifying - Montenegro was not an independent state in time to enter the tournament, and Austria qualified automatically as co-hosts.
The remaining fifteen countries were Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, San Marino and Slovenia. These are the countries whose game is supposedly being 'developed' during these matches.
Their combined record in the Euro2008 qualifiers against teams ranked higher than them was as follows:
|15 lowest ranked UEFA countries||142||9||13||120||62||357||40|
Of course there were some great results amongst those nine wins. Kazakhstan's win over Serbia wrecked their chances of going to Euro2008, and Georgia's win over Scotland proved costly for the Scots. But 9 wins out of 142 starts? The players and the coaches are not learning anything from this except the tactics of trying to avoid a hammering.
If we look at the matches between these nations though, we see a quite different pattern emerge - one of competition. A couple of groups featured three so-called minnows from this list of 15, and they genuinely had a go at each other. The league table for the games between just the lowest-ranked 13 countries who played each other removes the 13-0 and 6-1 thrashings being handed out, and suddenly some of these sides have respectable looking records.
The CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying system is brutal. Two lower ranked teams are pitched together in a two-legged contest. Bang, the loser is out of the World Cup. The winner then plays a much more fancied team in another two-legged affair. Bang, the loser's World Cup dream is over, before they even get to group stages.
I'm not suggesting Europe should adopt quite so drastic a measure. However, it seems to me statistically obvious that the weaker fifteen teams are just getting repeatedly beaten, whereas when they play teams of a similar calibre they learn how to nick an away point, or how to cling on to a lead, and actually get to play competitive international football.
If FIFA and UEFA acknowledge that games against the weakest of these nations are pointless for deciding who should go to the World Cup or not, why play them? Why not let the smaller nations play-off for the right to get drawn in with the major European nations? It would give them the opportunity to play in matches with real edge and a real reward, and spare us the dubious pleasure of watching these 80 meaningless mis-matches.
By discounting the bottom team, doesn't that mean that theoretically, a team that finished first in the group might actually end up finishing second? ie: if England win their group despite contriving to lose twice to Andorra, when everyone else beats Andorra, but loses to each other.
Wouldn't it be easier for UEFA to say that Israel, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc, aren't in Europe and should go and play with the Asian qualifiers?
I haven't been through the absolute minutiae of the regulations, but my understanding is that who finishes second in an individual group is based on all the group games, but who finishes ninth worst runner-up in the comparison across the groups, and therefore is out of the play-offs, is based on discounting games.
Where they can join Australia! A cynic might suggest that their Football Associations joined UEFA because of the television money from getting teams into the Champions League and UEFA Cup, and for the potential of drawing the odd big home fixture in qualifiers every two years...