This week, World Cup qualifying commands the attention of world football fans around the globe.
While there are some interesting games in Europe, such as Czech Republic-Italy, Austria-Sweden, and Portugal-Russia, most of the games don't exactly stoke the passions of neutrals and casual fans.
The problem with the UEFA system is that it treats each of its 53 members as equals in the qualifying process. It sounds good in theory, but we know all countries are not created equal. The talent gulf between Spain and San Marino is massive.
Having one stage of qualifying with all 53 countries included just creates a bunch of matches that aren't fun for anyone. Just take a look at some of the lopsided results that have already occurred in qualifying so far:
San Marino 0, England 8.
Liechtenstein 1, Bosnia-Herzegovina 8.
Luxembourg 0, Israel 6.
Andorra 0, Hungary 5.
Austria 6, Faroe Islands 0.
Bulgaria 6, Malta 0.
UEFA should take a look across the Atlantic at the way CONCACAF holds their qualifying process. With 13 bids to award, UEFA couldn't do a final "hexagonal" like CONCACAF does, but breaking the qualifying process up into stages is something UEFA could do.
A three-stage format that provides more equal competition for the weaker countries in Europe while gaining some stronger, more competitive games on the back end for the perennial powers would best serve everyone involved.
The first stage would be a play-in round where the weakest 10 countries in the rankings would play head-to-head, two-leg series to eliminate five countries to get the field down to 48.
While this may seam unfair compared to the current system, but the lowest 10 teams should welcome the opportunity for competitive matches against countries of their own skill level.
According to the current rankings, the 10 countries in this phase would include Andorra, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova and San Marino.
The five winners of those series would join 19 other countries in a semi-final, second stage. This stage would consist of six groups of four, with each group playing six matches.
The top two teams from each group would then advance to the final stage with the remaining 24 countries. In the final stage, there would be six groups of six, playing 10 matches.
The teams that get the bye to the final stage wouldn't necessarily be the top 24 teams in the rankings. Instead, they would be the 24 teams that participated in the previous European Championships. The bye would be a reward for qualifying for that event and would give those players a rest from international play.
The top two teams in each of the six groups would advance directly to the World Cup. The remaining spot could be awarded a number of ways. It could just be given to the top third-place team, or awarded in a two-team or four-team playoff.
Here's what a sample draw for the revised qualifying process would look like. The 24 bye teams to the final stage were determined by the qualifiers for Euro 2012, the teams that lost in the playoffs (since only 16 teams were in Euro 2012) and the four highest-ranked teams not in those 20 teams.
First Stage - June 2016
|Azerbaijan vs. Andorra|
|Moldova vs. Luxembourg|
|Cyprus vs. Faroe Islands|
|Kazakhstan vs. San Marino|
|Malta vs. Liechtenstein|
Second Stage - Fall/Winter 2016
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D||Group E||Group F|
|Winner 1||Lithuania||Winner 4||Winner 2||Winner 5||Winner 3|
Final Stage - 2017
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4||Group 5||Group 6|
|Winner B||Winner D||Winner C||Winner A||Winner E||Winner F|
|Runner-Up C||Runner-Up F||Runner-Up A||Runner-Up B||Runner-Up D||Runner-Up E|
Sure, if you have a bad European Championship qualifying campaign like Serbia, Bulgaria or Hungary did in 2011, this format might unfairly put you behind the eight ball. But countries like that shouldn't have an issue finishing in the top two of a four-team group to move on to the final phase. Those six matches would just take the place of a bunch of friendlies they would play anyway.
Every game in the final stage wouldn't be a classic, but most of the obvious mismatches would be avoided. The worst teams in the final stage would be along the lines of Wales, not Andorra. Teams advancing from the second stage would be underdog stories that could capture the imagination of neutrals. Countries like Austria, Albania, Iceland and Israel are all making noise in the current World Cup qualifying.
Those squads that are eliminated early could also benefit by playing friendlies against each other in order to build experience against similar-strength countries.
While it may not be perfect, this system would be a huge improvement over the current system.
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