Whilst watching some of the European qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, the tedium of UEFA’s qualification process becomes glaringly apparent when compared to how the associations of other parts of the world deal with the issue.
England defeat Malta: a result that was known as soon as the draw was made over two years ago
CONMEBOL simply have 10 South American teams fight it out within one group. Meanwhile, the countries in the confederations of North America, Africa and Asia have to earn the right to play in their respective continent’s ultimate group stage that determines qualifying. The lowest ranked teams initially face a round where they must win over two legs in order to prove their worth.
Unlike in Europe, each of these sets of qualifiers has a sense of excitement surrounding them. Huge South American clashes are guaranteed, with Brazil playing Argentina just one example. And, due to the preliminary qualifying round(s) format used by the North American, African and Asian confederations, some nations considered to be among the worst in world football have to face each other, meaning half of them will definitely win at least one game.
Brazil vs Argentina is the highlight of some very exciting qualifiers on offer from CONMEBOL
Big matches, competitive ties and high stakes make all of these seem much more appealing than what UEFA has to offer. Whilst 54 European sides are thrown into nine groups and each given a theoretical equal chance, the next highest number of teams in a confederation’s final stage of World Cup qualifying is Africa’s 20.
It is time that we saw each of Europe’s lowest ranked 14 play one of the next lowest ranked 14 for a place in a qualifying group, with the victors joining the highest ranked 26 in the group stage. Not only would this give the FIFA rankings a meaningful purpose in relation to UEFA, but it would ease fixture congestion and make each international break more significant. It would ultimately leave 10 competitive groups of four, where each group winner qualifies and the six best runners up are left to battle for the final three spots via play-offs.
In the current system there are fixtures between teams such as Latvia and Andorra which count for little in the grand scheme of things, as neither is going to upset the heavyweight opposition in their group for one of the top spots. With that said, Andorra recently ended a 66-match winless run in competitive internationals by securing a 1-0 victory over heavy favourites Hungary, who performed admirably at EURO 2016 by winning their group and reaching the last 16.
Andorra celebrate a rare victory (but with 30 points to play for, it won’t mean much)
Whilst this unlikely win could be seen as an argument to keep all the lowest ranked teams in the group stage, ultimately it will be meaningless in relation to Andorra’s hopes of qualification. It is almost certain to be their only win in their 10 group games, with the sheer amount of points to play for minimising its effect. However, if their number of fixtures shrunk to six as it would in a four-team group, the impact of the result would be more beneficial to themselves and more damaging to their opponents, who would have fewer opportunities to make the points up elsewhere.
Furthermore, it is unlikely a team as good as Hungary would be involved in a preliminary round involving the lowest ranked 28 teams. If Andorra are able to pull off an upset of that magnitude, it is easy to imagine the drama a clash with someone like Estonia or Cyprus would bring if it determined who would make it through to the group stage.
With their latest competitive win coming after a wait of nearly 13 years, the Andorrans’ matches during that stretch have been of little interest due to their predictability. Giving them and the other minnows of Europe something tangible to play for would boost all involved.
Example groups based on seeding used for 2018 World Cup:
Group A: Germany – Austria – Poland – Republic of Ireland
Group B: Belgium – Italy – Hungary – Norway
Group C: Netherlands – Switzerland – Sweden – Bulgaria
Group D: Portugal – Czech Republic – Albania – Faroe Islands
Group E: Romania – France – Northern Ireland – Montenegro
Group F: England – Iceland – Serbia – Estonia
Group G: Wales – Denmark – Greece – Cyprus
Group H: Spain – Bosnia and Herzegovina – Turkey – Latvia
Group I: Croatia – Ukraine – Slovenia – Armenia
Group J: Slovakia – Scotland – Israel – Finland
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