Time to reform European World Cup qualifiers
Published: 18.09.12 / Written by: David Gold
Europe’s qualification process is underway for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
With it has come criticism of some one sided results, with England slaughtering Moldova 5-0 and Bosnia crushing Liechtenstein 8-1.
Such results surely demand one thing – a pre-qualification stage. UEFA may resist this, with Michel Platini having much of his electoral constituency among those countries who have benefited from his opening up of the Champions League group stage to Europe’s lesser ranks, and expanding the European Championships to include more second and third ranked teams.
But qualification for both World Cups and European Championships are often excessively bloated. This year at least there is not an eight team group, as there has been before. While it is laudable to want teams such as Moldova or Malta to get their chance to take on Italy, England or Spain in two useful pay days, what is to be learned from being ripped to pieces? Surely it is better for these teams to have a genuinely competitive environment prior to facing Europe’s top teams?
The pre-qualification period is one all confederations, bar South America and Europe, use. South America has just ten teams though, and only has qualification for the World Cup – everyone automatically qualifies for the Copa America. So one long 10 team qualification stage for the World Cup seems reasonable, particularly as it takes over two years. Europe’s qualification period lasts for little over 12 months.
So what you have is fixtures, often against small and weak nations, cluttering up the fixture list. England v Moldova last week was a classic example. UEFA should do two things. One is bring in the demanded pre-qualification stage. They could do a number of things. They could take all but the top 16 ranked teams, and require them to play off in a two legged tie to reach the final stage of qualifying. That would probably be preferable to another group stage. Africa have used a similar system to good effect. But what Africa also has is groups which are no larger than five teams. This seems eminently sensible.
A four or five team group, of a higher overall quality, would be more competitive, take less time and be far more useful for the continent’s top teams. Combined with a pre-qualifying round, UEFA could whittle the system down to having eight groups of four in the final round.
With the World Cup, UEFA usually has 12 or 13 teams. Then eight teams would qualify automatically for events as group winners, and for the World Cup, eight runners up would play off for four places, or the six worst runners up play off for three and join the best two second placed sides at the competition. That would keep the group stage competitive and mean it is not just the best teams qualifying, and keep interest in all group games. It would also mean that you have more clashes like Spain v France in the qualifying, one of the more attractive features of European qualifying.
Something like this surely has to be worth a go. It would improve international football on the continent, and make things far more exciting for all involved. Surely the time has come for UEFA to sit down and consider this seriously.