Blog: International footbal – Is time to reshape the qualifying process?

The reputation of international football is in arguably its deepest trough thanks to the appalling World Cup we’ve just had to endure. With so much football for the consumer, a crowded schedule for the competitors and a waning interest away from the club game, John Baines has a look at whether it’s time to reshape the qualifying process.

Let’s just have a quick recap of what has gone on over the first part of this International break. Before and during the weekend there were 23 fixtures across the continent and there’s another 22 still to come next week as one instalment of the long and drawn out hike to end up in Ukraine and Poland 2012. Of those 23 matches, there were few surprises.

Northern Ireland earned a creditable draw with the Italians, Armenia surprised Slovakia with a 3-1 win, Estonia did Serbia 3-1 away from home and the Netherlands nudged past Moldova by a single goal. Otherwise, it was much as expected with not much to get excited about. After a couple of qualifiers so far, the usual suspects of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Andorra, the Faroe Islands, San Marino, Malta and Lichtenstein all remain pointless. Pointless being the word.

There are 51 teams seeded and divided across nine groups, when in reality, only 22 can qualify. The inclusions of the likes of San Marino – who have so far shipped in 19 goals in three games – as well as the equally hapless Andorra does nothing for anybody bar add unnecessary fixtures to the calendar and prolong the campaign.

Quite why UEFA feel the need to continuously torment these minnows by allowing them to get trampled on again is anyone’s guess. One of UEFA’s remits is to promote and develop football in Europe, and it’s difficult to see any benefit for these countries to be part of the qualifying process. For the good of all, change is needed.

A not uncomplimentary suggestion would to be to use the UEFA coefficients – the method of ranking and seeding teams dependant on past results – to withdraw the lowest eight ranked nations to form a ‘development’ group, whereby these teams play each other during one qualifying period, to enable the top two to be ‘promoted’ to the main qualifying stage for the next tournament.

So, hypothetically, the eight worst teams – which at present are the seven listed above plus Luxembourg who have amassed one point but are still bottom – play amongst each other during qualifying for Euro 2012, for the chance to attempt to get to Brazil 2014. It is a simple theory, which needs imposing.

Far from being elitist to the top countries, it gives these lesser nations the opportunity to have an achievable goal rather than the futile process of trying to reach a tournament they have no hope of appearing at. The players and fans don’t have to once again make up the numbers, or have their soul sapped by being thumped the whole way through. Over the years they would be able to see tangible improvements, whereas also, those sides with the threat of ‘relegation’ hanging over them, would also need to up the ante.

The current system just is not sport. San Marino taking on Netherlands or Italy playing the Faroes – both 5-0 wins in September – is akin to a champion boxer pounding an unfit amateur. Nobody gets anything out of it, it doesn’t improve the game at all.

The top nations are benefited of course by playing fewer games. The logistics of the revised format would have to be worked on, but should mean a condensed qualifying period would allow extra time for the implementation of winter breaks if necessary, or, at the very least just a few less unneeded games for our top players.

Either way, there are few losers. And certainly fewer losers than there are now. It’s a simple call Mr Platini.

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