13 October 2012

No more no-contests!

And that's the 468th goal San Marino have conceded...

England's 5-0 win over San Marino last night has once again highlighted one of the big problems of the European qualifying rounds of the World Cup.

For too long, UEFA has agreed to let all of its member nations enter the World Cup and European Championship qualifiers at the same round-robin stage. With 53 members, the round-robin can become a long, drawn-out affair. In the UEFA Euro 2008 qualifiers, for example, one of the groups saw its teams have to go through 14 matches.

It doesn't help that a number of those teams have no prospect of reaching any major tournament for at least the next decade, if not even more. For teams like Andorra and Liechtenstein, picking up even one point is almost cause for a national celebration, while San Marino - officially the joint-worst nation in world football - are little more than target practice for the continent's behemoths.

What's more, these nations aren't getting any better, even though they get an almost-annual game against one of the big guns. For example, San Marino's record for the 1994 World Cup read: Played 10, Drawn 1, Lost 9. They scored two goals and had a goal difference of -44.

Fast forward to 18 years later, and the Sanmarinese managed to not only lose every single one of their ten Euro 2012 qualifying matches, but they also conceded 53 goals without reply!

No wonder that whoever was in charge of the music at Wembley decided to play the theme to Mission Impossible before kick-off. There was more chance of Tom Cruise keeping a clean sheet against the Three Lions than Aldo Simoncini.

Of course, there are exceptions to the general rule that minnows stay as minnows. Before my era, Turkey could be classed as whipping boys, and obviously that isn't the case anymore. Albania, too, have taken big strides, and even Luxembourg have buckled up.

But those small fry who either can't improve or won't improve their national standing need to know where they stand. On all of the other continents except South America (who only have 10 members, all of whom are pretty strong), there are preliminary rounds ahead of the main qualifiers when it comes to the World Cup. This way, you don't get any total non-contests like Australia vs American Samoa was in 2001.

It's like at the Olympic Games. You don't get some total novice from Nepal or the Solomon Islands who can barely sprint the length of their garden running against Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. The no-hopers were all weeded out before Bolt and co came into contention.

I've been wanting preliminary rounds in European qualifiers for some time now, and this is how I'd do it:

Let's say that Michel Platini has placed Yours Truly in charge of organising the qualifiers for Euro 2016. Unlikely, I know. There needs to be 23 qualifiers out of 52 to join France in the finals.

I'll have nine groups of five teams for the main Group Stage (that'll give the teams a nice number of eight games - not too few, not too many). That means that only 45 can take part in this stage. I'll seed the top 38 European nations (excluding the French) in the FIFA World Rankings through to this stage, sending the 14 teams from 39th downwards into a two-legged preliminary round.

The purpose of the prelims is to knock out the real dead wood, and give the winners a confidence boost which they can take into the Group Stage.

(For the record, in the Group Stage, I'd send the top two nations in each group through automatically along with the best 3rd-placed team, and put the other 3rd-placed teams through the play-offs.)

Of course, missing out on a money-spinning trip to Germany or England would hurt the coffers of those who don't qualify from the prelims. UEFA could subsidise this a little bit by introducing a minnows tournament, like AFC have in the shape of the Challenge Cup. Fair do's to anyone who wins that, and there might even be the incentive of an automatic place in the next qualifying round-robin for the victor.

That might kick-start things for a country like Liechtenstein or the Faroe Islands.

A preliminary round could even become a necessity in the coming years, because UEFA's membership is more likely to grow than shrink. Gibraltar could potentially be welcomed to the fold next year, paving the way for Jersey, Guernsey, (perhaps) the Isle of Man, Greenland, and not to mention Kosovo, who have been recognised by 92 sovereign states since their 2008 independence. There's also talk of Belgium splitting into two - Flanders and Wallonia.

Heck, if the Spanish financial crisis gets even worse, we could even see Spanish regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia becoming independent!

I don't know about you, but in my opinion, a 2022 World Cup qualifier between Germany and Jersey isn't exactly going to be the greatest football match of the next decade.

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