Peter Young
26 January 2002
England Football Online
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Comment: Winnow the Minnows

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UEFA must improve the quality of football on display in qualifying competitions
 

Whatever else might be said about UEFA’s Euro 2004 preliminary draw, it was fair.  There was none of the manipulation that attended FIFA’s World Cup final draw.   The seeding of the teams had a fair basis—their competitive results in fairly balanced qualifying groups in the last World Cup and European Championship--and the seeding was allowed to control the entire draw.  The end result was 10 qualifying groups as fairly balanced in terms of strength as possible even though some of them will not feature dramatic matches whetting every football fan’s appetite. 

In European qualifying for World Cups 1998 and 2002, England met footballing powers Italy and Germany, respectively.  Even in Euro 2000 qualifying, they faced a traditional rival they had been unable to beat for 30 years, Sweden.  This time the big opponent will be Turkey, who have failed to score in eight matches against England.  The rest of the Euro 2004 qualifying calendar will be filled with home and away matches against Slovakia, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.  England versus Liechtenstein—twice!—is not an attractive proposition, and it is unnecessary.

There is a way to ensure that the qualifying competition is both fair and entertaining, or at least more entertaining.  It is time UEFA stopped treating each of its 51 member nations as if they were footballing equals.  Rigid insistence on equality has diluted the quality of the football on display beyond the tolerable.

UEFA should institute a first phase of qualification, as it has done in European club cup competition.  The weaker teams—as measured by their qualifying results—should be required to play among themselves for the privilege of entering the second phase qualifying competition against the stronger teams.  The weaker teams still have a chance to win the tournament, although they must first show they are better than other weaker teams.  There is nothing unfair about this; the seeding system UEFA already employs is itself based on team merit and greatly affects the qualification prospects of the weaker teams.

The benefits are considerable.  The second stage of qualification would involve fewer groups, each group including at least two and perhaps three of the stronger teams, with the top two or three teams qualifying for the final tournament.  That would mean each group would feature several matches most fans would consider worth watching.  The same should be done in World Cup qualifying from Europe.  The result would be many more quality matches, and the winner would be football.