Thursday, 18 October 2012

Qualification qualifiers

So another international week is over. Each time a round of qualifiers or friendlies rolls around, I feel that I'm part of an ever diminishing minority of people who actually like international football. Perhaps this is related to not ever having inherited a club team from my Dad, and therefore never having been that ardent a “fan” of a particular club.

The England – San Marino match was admittedly not the most exciting game there's ever been (I know what you're thinking - “whoa, slow down there with your controversial opinions!”, but bear with me).  Following the game there were renewed calls for the smaller European nations to undergo some form of pre-qualification, perhaps best summarised when Gareth Southgate opined “what is the point of San Marino?”.  Does he have a point – should the smaller countries have to qualify for the “proper” qualification process so that these sort of matches occur less often?


The three worst ranked nations in UEFA are currently San Marino, Andorra and Scotland.  Ho ho, I mean the Faroe Islands.  Their combined international record (including friendlies), if translated to a 38 game Premier League season, would read:

They'd probably finish just above QPR

Pre-qualification would allow such nations to compete more evenly against each other in competitive football (the current seeding system doesn't currently allow this, of course), thereby building experience of matches against more evenly matched opposition rather than just turning up for a shellacking.

With fewer teams in the “proper” qualification process, there would be a reduction in the number of qualifying matches (which should appease some clubs worried about player burn-out) and an increase in the overall quality of games.  Additionally, larger club teams normally enter cup competitions such as the FA Cup or Champions League at a later stage than smaller clubs, so a pre-qualification system would more accurately reflect what is already in place in other competitions.

So there we are – pretty compelling arguments, no?  Well, yes and no.  On the other side of the coin, and as with most things in life, money is an important issue in football.  Smaller nations depend on games against larger countries to bring in much-needed TV revenue, commercial revenue and money through the gate, with this money being reinvested into that nation's coaching and infrastructure.  Removing this income stream for several countries could prohibit them from ever developing better players and improving.

For a comparison, the Sri Lankan cricket team achieved Test status in 1981.  Their first Test win did not come until 1985, and their first win away from home until 1995.  In those first fourteen years as a Test playing nation they competed against far superior opposition, regularly losing but gaining experience.  This culminated in them winning the 1996 World Cup.  When trying to improve, there is no real substitute for repeatedly testing yourself against strong opponents.

It's a common football cliché to broadcast the regular jobs that semi-professional or amateur players have when they face larger opposition.  But these players do have careers and work commitments – an extra set of pre-qualification games would add to the total number of games being played by those nations that qualify for the “proper” qualification process and cause further disruption.  Whether there is currently space in the heavily-regulated international schedule for these additional games is also a consideration.

The paragraphs above have given a (very potted) summary of some of the main arguments for and against pre-qualification.  Is it necessary to arrest a fall in the interest level in international football?  Is it fair on the smaller nations?  What other arguments are there for and against?  Comments in the box below are always welcome.

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