International Pushovers: Something has to change in Europe

San Marino V England

England faced San Marino twice in recent World Cup qualifying, but should such predictable walkovers become a thing of the past?

We’re now into the final throes of the latest World Cup qualifying campaign: all that remain to be played in Europe are the exciting two-leg play-off matches.

The whole thing is immense and many games are, quite frankly, a waste of time and energy. There are now 53 countries vying for 13 European places and the whole process began in early September 2012 - it is just too long. The money that has come into Europe’s big leagues in recent times has lured players from all over the world.

The World Cup, however, is no longer the pinnacle level of football it once was. That accolade belongs to the Champions League – a tournament extended from the European Cup for reasons of pure greed. Nevertheless, it brings together the world’s greatest players at the peaks of their career, the ageing stars seeking one last chance and the bright new stars ready to test themselves.

Several times a season, usually just when there is a peak of interest, all that stops. That’s fine when the matches are competitive, but there are far too many games that don’t even count – the teams which compete in the play-offs are decided by points accumulated except against the bottom-placed country.

Whilst there is a high level of football in most of Europe, some countries are repeatedly the weakest – by a long way. In the table below you can see 7 countries have consistently been the whipping boys over the last 3 World Cup qualifying phases:

Moldova - played 26, points 11; Luxembourg - played 28, points 9, Malta - played 30, points 7, Faroe Islands - played 30, points 6, Liechtenstein - played 30, points 6, Andorra - played 32, points 5; San Marino played 30, points 0. (San Marino have in that time scored four, and conceded 141).

I have omitted the results from when any of these teams have played each other – for 2006, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg were incredulously drawn into the same group! With the admission of Gibraltar (though not yet into FIFA) and possibly Kosovo into UEFA, the number of participants is set to rise even further.

What really is the point of flying Europe’s strongest teams to the middle of the Italian peninsula to play a team that, on average, loses 5-0?

Europe and South America are currently the only continents without a preliminary section to their qualification phases. However CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, has only ten members, not 53.

What UEFA and FIFA must agree to do is hold a two-leg knock-out tournament between the eight worst-performing teams, with just one team entering the group stage. Any money lost through this restructuring should be shared between the seven federations who do not qualify for the group phase.

The teams which have to take this route should not be determined by FIFA world rankings as they are woefully inaccurate. They were used to determine the seedings for the play-off draw and Ukraine was unseeded, merely because it hosted Euro 2012 and thus played fewer competitive matches to gain extra points.

It’s time to take a couple of matches off the calendar and make the whole thing a little more streamlined.

image: © pedrozembruski

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