It is widely reported on internet forums that many fans feel let them by the lack of quality football in major tournaments, especially among the ‘big guns’.
Factors contributing to this include:
- Fatigue from normal season for top players (who may be more concerned about their domestic clubs)
- Lack of time international teams spend together during international breaks
- Over-cautious approaches from managers (preferring experience or youth, tactically sound but unspectacular players over the eye-catching ‘flair’ kids)
- Angry press conferences from top domestic managers protesting injuries suffered by players on international duty (i.e when Arsene Wenger criticised the French international football coaching staff (2005) for certain injuries Thierry Henry in particular had picked up from playing for France- he likened their misuse of Henry as being similar to thieves stealing a Ferrari without permission and returning it damaged)
I personally this is exacerbated by a lack of matches played against ‘difficult’ opposition during international qualifying matches. In the current Euro qualifying zone for next year’s World Cup, only Spain and France can be seen as two big guns selected for the same group together. This itself is unfair on the other teams who finish second (and qualify for the play-offs) as it is most likely whoever is drawn against France or Spain will struggle to beat them over two legs.
It is a rather drab prospect for football fans of the top European countries to see their side routinely comfortably beat weak sides such as San Marino, Andorra and perhaps Malta, knowing that their manager is learning little about his players. Unfortunately FIFA and UEFA have become obsessed with applying egalitarianism towards world football, constantly stating the importance to include such insignificant minnows. These minnows have gained membership of FIFA primarily for the sake of boosting the image of these major football governing bodies, whom contain leaders interested solely in gaining power (similar to real world politicians). Such an attitude is perhaps a response an attempt to try to pander of the romantic idea of these minnows defeating the big-guns; however, such a upsets of such magnitude have been extremely rare.
Is this practice repeated worldwide?
In comparison the other qualifying zones in Africa, Asia and North America do not bunch every country together in groups between five to seven in one large qualifying round. Instead, the lower ranked countries having to enter preliminary knock-out rounds in order to process to latter stages of qualifying, essentially sorting the wheat from the chaff.
This is not a solution I think would help improve the European zone, but it is clearly far more productive for the bigger teams in these zones (USA, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Ghana etc.) to avoid playing such minnows. Not only is it unproductive for manager in terms of gathering knowledge of his players, but it saves these players exerting their bodies and risking unnecessary injuries (avoiding angry prompts from domestic managers).
What type of solution could improve qualifying tournaments?
My solution for European qualifying zone would be select the top eight into an elite group, which insure the maximum amount of ‘quality’ football available. These matches are likely to provide managers the best knowledge that could be attained about their players. In addition, it help fans of these top teams gage where their countries most likely stand in the context of the FIFA world rankings.
Holding this elite round-robin tournament could also be a potential financial success for UEFA, as TV stations worldwide maybe willing to pay high prices to air such matches. The advertising campaigns that would air such matches would attract the attention of global viewers, especially those paying more attention to the European leagues than leagues of their own.
However, whether this ‘quality’ type of football would be seen as entertaining is questionable. There are likely to be some fairly dull matches with few goals, as managers become aware of strengths and weaknesses along with the results and the team morales at stake. Some fans will have to tolerate the tedium of these close matches, but many will realise the sight of world-class names competing against each other regularly is more productive than thrashing the minnows.
When the qualifying campaign for the elite group has finished, a special championship trophy should be awarded to the winner of this round-robin tournament. This could be counted as an official European championship victory, although this would be subject to protests from UEFA committee members who may believe that their lack of involvement renders such a victory as invalid.
The teams ‘stuck in the middle’
For the middle-order teams, it is probably too more valuable competing away from the big -guns and the minnows. These middle teams tend have five or six world class players at most, but the lack of squad depth hinders any sustained length of success they achieve. Therefore, it would be better if three groups of eights were selected, by which the end of this particular qualifying process would see the teams who finish first or second qualify automatically. The three teams that finish in the bottom three in the elite groups would then enter a play-off against three teams who either finished second or third.
This solution I feel would benefit the quality of the national teams Europe has, in which their matches are spent against those of a similar level. Players competing against those of similar quality provide coaches clear benchmarks in their style of play and performances; when competing against superior teams, they tend to revert to hyper-defensive styles; however against inferior opponents, they switch to attacking styles which may not be effective against those of a similar level.
How the minnows should be helped by FIFA
I believe if FIFA are truly concerned with developing these minnows, the tiny countries of Europe should compete to qualify for a special international tournament against lower-end countries from other continents. Many would argue a lack of interest from fans and sponsors would hinder the chances of such a tournament commencing; however, strong financial and advertisement campaigns should be implemented by FIFA themselves to boost the chances of these nations challenging superior teams.
Hang on, what about the major tournaments? How would you improve the quality provided by the big-guns?
I think the World Cup should become a two-part tournament. It would still be held within the space of two months, but the initial group phase would be held with games having a five or six day break in between. In addition, eight different countries would be gifted the opportunity to host all six games of a particular group. This would allow smaller but competitive countries (i.e. Croatia) an opportunity to host a small of chunk of World Cup, which would not be possible if they had to host all 64 games.
After a two week commencing the end of the group phase, the final sixteen knock-out games will be held in a single country. Providing a two week break within the tournament would allow players nursing slight injuries to recover, ensuring the tournament would not be deprived of their star names. I believe this break would also allow fans a breather from what often seems like a dramatic crash of events during the group phase. This would allow the local media to stir up support for their national sides and a flurry of interviews and sponsor functions to take place among the stars.