Doubtless the football fraternity in Gibraltar is whopping it up at the prospect of the “rock” playing host to Germany and Scotland, albeit on Portuguese soil. Far be it from me to take away a little joy for a community that revels in its ability to provide Watney’s Red Barrel on tap and the sort of ambience not seen in “multi-cultural” Britain since the early 1960s, but can we really take Gibraltar seriously as a footballing “nation”?
What are we going to see next? The principality of Sealand applying to host the World Cup? It’s all getting out of hand.
The result of a heavily expanded UEFA is that the qualifying tournament has become unwieldy, boring and, largely, meaningless. 53 teams playing an awful lot of games to dispose of 30. It’s going to be awfully difficult not to qualify. My goodness, even Scotland will have a chance! No wonder Strachan and co. are excited!
It’s time to rationalize the qualifying programme and to really make the competition representative of the relative strengths of various countries. That might sound undemocratic, but since we live in a football world of seedings, weightings, TV rights and uneven playing fields, whenever was the game a people’s republic?
There are too many teams that can be classified as no-hopers. In 1968, there were 31 teams in the qualifying competition, but the final stages involved quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final (not to mention a third and fourth place play-off). Only the last two stages were centralized, played in Italy.
Today, we have 54 teams including hosts France and the finals involve 24 nations, just seven less than the entire competition in 1968. Of course, the break-up of the Soviet Union has contributed a sizeable chunk of the increase.
Back in ’68, countries like Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus were the minnows, but now we have a whole pond-full of shrimps. Do we really need Andorra fighting for a place at the bottom of the group? Or San Marino conceded another cool half century of goals in their qualifying games? Or maybe the plucky, whale-loving Faroe Islands sinking without trace? No, of course not.
In four successive qualifying competitions (EC 2008, WC 2010, EC 2012 and WC 2014), Andorra and San Marino have not recorded a single win. In that same timeframe, Leichtenstein have won just three, the Faroes two and Luxembourg four.
With stats like that, there’s really no point having a protracted qualifying regime. Without wishing to be patronizing, a place in the qualifiers should be the prize for finishing on top among your peers. In other words, remove the underdogs and have a preliminary tournament to determine the best of the bunch. So, here goes:
The bottom 17 in a preliminary round – 3 x 4 team groups, 1 x 5.
Four winners go through to the EC Qualifying competition to join 36 others.
8 x 5 team groups: 8 x winners through, 8 a runners-up through, 7 x third place through. 23 qualifiers.
Simple isn’t it?
Personally, 24 teams is an uncomfortable number in the first place. 16 or 32 is the number, but then 32 in Europe will mean it’s almost “everyone’s a winner”. If UEFA think again, they might realize that the classic 16-team tournament was footballing best practice.