In the absence of Wikipedia today, which I have been using for researching my next article, this is a plan I came up with a few months ago.
International qualifers are regarded with something approaching disdain nowadays. Is the current system for qualification for international tournaments for European teams really the best system possible? This is an alternative plan which could benefit all interested parties.
Problems with the current system
- The most common complaint with the current system are the almost pointless participation of the minnow countries, such as San Marino, Andorra and Scotland (tongue-in-cheek that last one, in case you were planning to send me a bomb in the post). Not only does this mean that some matches end up in inevitable drubbings (where the only interest is derived from finding out what jobs the minnow's players hold down), but it also has an impact on crowds for these matches, particularly when the larger team is at home. And in the minnow country itself, all their matches are damage limitation exercises where national pride is exploded, and competitive interest is absent, resulting in very negative tactics.
- Groups are of different sizes. Whilst this is quite neatly overcome when it comes to the 'best runners-up', it still means some clubs are arbitrarily given more games to play, which may feel unfair.
- Because the international breaks are of just 1 or 2 games at a time, teams have no chance of building up a rhythm; qualification is just getting the best possible players together and hoping they gel out on the pitch, with the minimal amount of training together. Countries rarely have a chance to try experimental formations due to this. These small stoppages also interfere regularly with domestic football. Furthermore, half the matches are played during the year, midweek. This can be very hard for working fans to get to.
We will assume this is a model for qualification for the 2014 World Cup. There should be 14 European berths, and 53 teams under UEFA. For a graphical representation of this plan, scroll beyond this explanation of how it will work.
Firstly, a two-tier system really should be implemented. In fact this should be a no-brainer. To give try and maximise the amount of teams who will always have 'something to play for', the amount of teams in the preliminary round should be quite low, so even the bottom-ranked countries will have something to play for. Of course, such splits are arbitrary, but I feel that having 13 teams in the preliminary round is about fair. Clearly, for the first time this method is used, the lowest 13 ranked European teams would be in this round. For afterwards, see below.
These 13 teams can be split into 4 groups; 4 groups of three, and 3 groups of four.
Each team plays 4 games. Clearly in the groups of 3, this means each team plays the others twice each. However, for the group of 4, this can still be achieved. Say the four teams are A, B, C, D, with A being the highest ranked team of the four, B being the 2nd ranked team, etc. Then each team plays the others once each, but for the final round, A plays D and B plays C. This means that the teams' games are reflective of their ranking, which gives them further motivation to compete in every game.
The four group winners qualify for the main round.
The Main Round
This leaves us with 44 teams left in. Clearly the most sensible way of splitting these teams is into 11 groups of 4 (with 1 team from the top 11 ranked teams in each group, 1 team from the teams ranked 12-22, and so on).
Each team plays the others twice, which leaves 6 games per team. In the current system, teams either play 10 or 8 games, so this is a nice reduction (the implications of which we'll see later).
The top 11 teams automatically qualify. The bottom 2 teams in each group are out. The four of these with the worst record in qualifying drop into the preliminary round for qualification for the next tournament. So everyone should have something to play for, meaning that more or less every game is competitive, hopefully encouraging more positive football. This is taken from the Champions League, where each of the 4 positions in a group mean something different.
Of the 11 2nd-placed sides, the 5 with the worst record are eliminated. Of the remaining six, they are placed into 3 two-legged play-off matches. These would be unseeded, as all six teams earned their place there. The three winners also go through to the final tournament, making up our 14.
For this example, I've just used the rankings of the teams at the time of making this, randomly chosen the groups, and made educated guesses as to how the teams would finish.
The other main issue with the current system that I have yet to tackle is the timing of the qualifiers. The top graph below shows when games were played in the seasons 2008/09 and 2009/10 - i.e. in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup. The graph below that shows how it could be played out under my plans.
Eng is when any domestic games were played in England, and Int represents any international breaks. Light grey are suggested friendlies.
One of the noticable things about this is that we can also clear space in January for a two-week domestic break, which will hopefully help both clubs and countries with player fatigue.
With the preliminaries out of the way, we have six match days required for the main round. We can get all of these done before the start of the 2009/10 season, as the diagram makes clear, with five weeks of qualifiers. In 2009/10, all that remains is the play-offs, which can be completed in January 2010.
With so many international breaks removed, the domestic season can be shortened by at least two weeks, and can also start a week earlier. With so much time freed up, we can also add in a break in January in English football, which mirrors that of other major European leagues, and also allows for more international football to be played in late May/early June, allowing for extra qualifiers and extra warm-up friendlies, depending on the year.
One huge benefit of this schedule is that by grouping qualifers together as much as possible, it allows international teams to get their team together in a training camp, so they can prepare players for the conditions they will experience for a major tournament. They will be able to get a better look at their players, and work on more innovative tactics, hopefully resulting in better football at international level.
This plan should, in theory, benefit everyone involved.
Small international teams - still have something to play for throughout the whole of the qualification process. More competitive games will hopefully increase interest in their national team in their own country.
Large international teams - longer international breaks allow them to go into more detail when preparing for tournaments. Domestic leagues finishing early allow them to condition players to get them at their peak for any international tournaments. Less matches against minnows means less dead rubbers, and smaller groups keeps more games competitive, which hopefully will raise attendances and TV viewership, which in turn raises revenue.
Clubs - uninterrupted spells of domestic football allows clubs to keep their concentration throughout the season, with a rest in January to recharge their batteries and concentrate on the transfer market.
Fans - with bigger blocks of international games together, it allows more flexibility in travelling to games. More games will be attractive to go to, as there should always be something to play for.
Neutrals - with the qualification process broken into smaller groups, with only the top team in any group guaranteed of progress, this will hopefully promote positive football. National teams will hopefully also devise more original tactics, too, to raise the excitement of watching games.
UEFA - information on national team rankings, as well as the current format for qualification.
BBC and The FA - information on domestic and national fixtures.
24-team European Championships
After the 2012 Euros, the tournament will have 24 participants. This is a quick idea on how qualification for that could work, assuming only one team is hosting (which is certainly true for 2016). Say the teams are numbered 1-52 with 1 being the highest ranked European team, etc.
- Teams 41-52 play a preliminary round, in the format of a two-legged play-off. Seeded, so 41 face 52, 42 face 51, etc. The six winners go through. Assume teams 41-46 go through.
- The remaining 46 teams play a two-legged knockout round. 1 play 46, 2 play 45, etc. The 23 winners go through to the finals.
(This is not a serious suggestion, more to highlight how ridiculous the notion of having a 24-team European Championship is.)