Some countries just have too much talent.
With World Cup qualifying at a close, 32 fortunate countries will start the six-month task of selecting their rosters for Brazil next summer. It's a daunting task for managers and directors where invariably someone worthy of inclusion will be left off the team.
But what if an entire team worthy of inclusion is left off the squad? What if some participating nations have so much talent, they could field two entire rosters that could qualify for the World Cup?
Maybe FIFA should let them do it.
Andre Schurrle got himself in a bit of hot water this week when he told reporters in advance of Germany's friendly with England that "[Wayne] Rooney is a great player, but we have good quality, too, in every position, and maybe twice, so I don’t know if he would play."
Schurrle later clarified his comment to reiterate that he thinks Rooney is a great player. He is. But that doesn't mean Schurrle wasn't right. Rooney, as great as he is, may not be good enough to start, or even play, for Germany.
Come to think of it, is Schurrle?
I ask that only to prove a point. The German side is one of the two or three most accomplished teams in the world, thanks in part to the incredible depth in all key positions.
Are they too good, and two-deep, to include one of the best players in England?
While an injury to a key player such as Sami Khedira has created a bit of a mess for Joachim Low in the defensive midfield, Germany has a host of talented players who will now get the chance to step in and star.
There is no shortage of options for the German manager.
Look at the players Low has at his disposal in midfield and up front when the German side is healthy (yes, a big if at this point): Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez, Max Kruse, Schurrle and probably five or six players I haven't yet mentioned, including the seemingly ageless Miroslav Klose, Khedira and both Benders.
Granted, not all of those players are healthy. Khedira will be fortunate to be back to full strength in time for the World Cup. When Schweinsteiger can stay healthy, he is one of the top players in the world, but injuries have set him back as well.
But what if they are healthy in time for World Cup 2014? Who will Low select and which players will he start?
Victor Valdes is 31 years old and one of the top goalkeepers in the entire world. He has never played in a World Cup or European Championship match.
Pepe Reina, also 31 years old, has played in one European Championship match, back in 2008. He has never played in a World Cup match.
David De Gea just turned 23 years old and has been the top option at keeper for Manchester United for three seasons, starring at Atletico Madrid for two seasons before making the move to Old Trafford. De Gea has played for Spain's U-21 team and in the Olympics, but he has never played in even a World Cup qualifier, let alone a major competition with the full national team.
Why have three of the top keepers been absent from the world's biggest events? San Iker, of course.
Valdes and Reina have been behind 32-year-old Iker Casillas for their entire professional careers. Casillas is a hero in Spain, leading his national team to unparalleled success over the last 10 years in Europe and around the world.
Casillas has been a mainstay in goal for Spain as far back as 2004, giving little room for the likes of Valdes, Reina or even De Gea. (While we're at it, let's not forget to mention Diego Lopez who, at times, has taken over for Casillas at Real Madrid but has never had so much as a sniff at international competition for his country.)
Spain has at least five goalkeepers who could start for more than half the teams that qualify for the World Cup. And unlike, say, the United States, which has multiple world-class options at keeper as well, Spain has that kind of depth at nearly every position on the field.
We ran through Germany's midfield and forward options earlier, but how about what Spain has to offer: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Santi Cazorla, Isco, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Pedro, Javi Garcia, Roberto Soldado, Fernando Llorente, Mario Suarez, Thiago Alcantara, Diego Costa, Michu and Juan Mata, who seems like a forgotten man both for club and country these days. (Note: it feels like I'm forgetting someone…)
Mata talked to reporters this week about recently being included in the Spanish side, saying "[i]t’s very special to be in the Spain squad. I feel lucky to be training with this team because we all know each other very well. We know how we play and we’re friends on and off the field" (via InsideSpanishFootball.com).
Mata may as well have sent a fruit basket to Vicente del Bosque in hopes he stays on the Spanish squad through the World Cup. Even then, there is no guarantee he will actually get on the field.
(…oh right! Fernando Torres. How could anyone forget Torres?)
By my count, that's 16 players for, at most, six spots on the field. If Spain employs two defensive midfielders, as the side has in major competitions in the past (Xabi Alonso and Busquets stationed in front of the back line and Xavi and Iniesta serving as playmakers just ahead), that leaves two spots on the pitch for roughly a dozen qualified players.
Running through that list of world-class talent, it's important to remember the young stars waiting in the wings such as Jese, Crisitan Tello, Sergi Roberto and Gerard Deulofeu. And this is admittedly ignoring any and all back-line depth.
There is just too much talent waiting around for a chance to play. They shouldn't have to wait.
A World-Class Plan
At its core, the World Cup is the greatest event in sports, connecting countries from around the globe in a competition of the world's most played, loved and celebrated game.
In an effort to include every possible country, however, the World Cup finals rarely features the 32 best sides. It certainly never features the best 500 players on the planet. Not even close.
There are a number of countries that have enough talent to field multiple teams, and while FIFA does cater to younger talent by holding U-20 World Cups and other junior-level tournaments, that doesn't take into consideration those top-level players in their late 20s or 30s who never get to participate in international competition because someone born in the same country happens to be a tiny bit more talented.
All the while, San Marino, Malta, Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and a dozen other nations with no chance of advancing get a chance to qualify.
There are 53 nations in Europe that fight for 13 spots in the World Cup. Of those 53 nations, no more than 20 have any real shot of qualifying in any World Cup cycle.
In a good year, let's call that number 25, which still means that more than half the European teams vying for a spot in the World Cup begin the qualifying process with little to no chance of success.
Why not make qualifying more difficult for the other nations and more dynamic for the fans?
Disparity of Qualification
The CONMEBOL qualification process is terribly impossible—or impossibly terrible, depending on which country you ask—with 10 teams vying for four to six spots in the World Cup tournament.
There are no cakewalks in CONMEBOL, which would probably preclude the likes of Brazil or Argentina from fielding a second squad to partake in qualification.
The same cannot be said in other parts of the world, specifically Europe and Africa. Europe's 53 competing nations are mirrored by another 53 nations in the Confederation of African Football.
Granted, both the UEFA and CAF qualification play-offs are incredibly difficult to navigate—as evidenced by the situation Portugal, Sweden, France, Algeria and others found themselves in during qualification—but the round preceding the play-offs, especially in UEFA, is a bit of a joke.
Italy secured a place in the World Cup without having to face another team that qualified for Brazil or even made the UEFA play-offs in hopes of doing so. No European qualifier has to face more than one other team that will make the World Cup. In CONMEBOL or CONCACAF, that's simply not the case.
This is not to suggest the Andorra, San Marino and Faroe Island teams do not deserve a chance to qualify for the World Cup. Every nation should have a chance to qualify. It's just that, perhaps some nations deserve two.
A Championship Comparison
Wouldn't it be a better soccer tournament if all of the best players had the chance to play? FIFA looks out for all its participating nations but not all its participating players.
Sure, Spain or Germany or Brazil or Argentina or a host of other talent-rich nations have the option to select whichever players they feel give them the best chance to win. If Mata doesn't make the field during for Spain during the 2014 World Cup, it's not for a lack of opportunity.
Perhaps, though, FIFA can take a page from UEFA.
The UEFA Champions League has become a better tournament by including teams from power leagues that don't actually win the championship. Having multiple clubs from England, Spain, Germany, Italy and other more competitive domestic leagues enhances the tournament by including a higher quality of competition throughout the event.
FIFA already has a similar system of reward in place for each region of the world—UEFA gets 13 participants out of 32 World Cup teams, while no other region gets more than five, or in the case of next year's event being hosted by Brazil, six.
If Europe already gets nearly half the field at the World Cup, why should FIFA create a system where more players from Europe can make the finals?
UEFA should not be given more spots in Brazil, or any subsequent World Cup for that matter. Having said that, UEFA—or any federation—could create a more talent-filled elimination process by allowing the top countries to field more than one team.
How Would It Work?
The logistics are actually quite simple, especially in UEFA. During this cycle, UEFA had 53 competing nations in nine groups. The winners of each group automatically qualified for the World Cup, while eight of the nine second-placed teams were placed into a luck-of-the-draw play-off to fill the final four spots.
UEFA determined which eight teams qualified for the play-offs by totalling the group points each amassed during qualification—but removed the results against the lowest-rated team in each group. Why? Because 53 teams left one group with just five competitors, not six.
So just add a 54th team. Or add a 55th or a 56th or even a 60th team. Give Spain or Germany or Italy or the Netherlands or any one of the top-ranked nations in the world another team, place them in a group and see what happens.
Moreover, instead of continuing with the current system of nine groups, UEFA could do what CONCACAF, CAF and other federations do and implement a system that incorporates byes for top-rated teams.
UEFA could quite easily rework the tournament to include eight groups of four, with three teams in each of the groups chosen by FIFA ranking, while the fourth teams get decided by a "first round" knockout tournament that includes the remaining 29 nations.
To round out the field, the top-ranked nations—the eight seeded teams in the tournament—could be given the option of including a second team in the competition.
If, for example, Spain, Italy and Germany opted in with second teams, those nations would be included in the play-in tournament of 32 participants, with eight teams advancing to the second round.
The winners of each group would still advance to the World Cup, with the eight runners-up—and two third-placed teams—heading into a two-leg play-off to determine the remaining five spots.
This could happen all over the world.
CONMEBOL had nine teams attempt to qualify this cycle with Brazil receiving an automatic berth by nature of hosting. But even when Brazil is part of qualification, that makes 10 teams vying for four or five spots.
Why not 12?
If Brazil or Argentina has enough talent to field two teams worthy of inclusion, let them try to qualify both teams.
Unique and Independent Teams
The toughest hurdle—really the only hurdle—is how teams would handle player inclusion in the qualifying stages. Teams have to play between 10 and 20 matches to qualify for the World Cup, and as stated before, no team can survive qualification without calling up reserves.
If a nation fielded two teams, how would it handle reserves? The answer is pretty simple. There are two ways to handle this potential problem.
First, countries would be asked to submit two distinct rosters of inclusion into the tournament. If Spain put Mata and Isco on the "B" team and suddenly Xavi and Iniesta lost the ability to use their legs, the defending champions would be unable to call up those players during qualification.
(Note: after qualification, if the second team did not qualify, those players would again become available for the World Cup final.)
To supplement both rosters, a collective pool of unaffiliated players would be available, but once a player from that pool plays for one of the two teams, he must stay with that group for the duration of qualification.
It is simple. But here's an even simpler way.
At the Olympics, countries must send a group of mostly U-23 players, with just three of the participating players allowed to be over the age of 23. This would be a perfect way to incorporate a "B" side for a country in World Cup qualification. As long as a player is younger than 23 when qualification begins, he could play for a nation's second entrant.
UEFA qualifying began on September 7, 2012. All of these players for Spain were under 23 at that time: De Gea, Nacho Fernandez, Marc Bartra, Inigo Martinez, Alberto Moreno, Isco, Alcantara, Tello, Koke, Roberto, Jesé and Deulofeu, with Cesar Azpilicueta turning 23 just 10 days earlier.
Tell me you wouldn't take that team over San Marino.
The German side would be nearly as talented, including Muller, Kroos, Schurrle, Gotze, Draxler, Ilkay Gundogan, Patrick Hermann and Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
And neither list would be limited to just these players, by any means. In fact, the UEFA European U-21 Championship states a player is eligible if he was born in or after 1992, which would put most of the players past the age of 23 for an U-21 tournament. By that logic, half the current German team—all 25 or under—would be eligible for selection on either squad.
If the Faroe Islands get a team, why not give Spain two? Heck, if Northern Ireland gets a team—if all the countries in the United Kingdom get their own teams—why not give Spain, Germany or Italy two?
A "B"eautiful Result
The concern with putting two teams from the same nation in the World Cup is what would happen if they both qualified and, even more, got to the finals. Could a "B" team actually win the World Cup?
It would be unlikely that a "B" team would even qualify for the tournament with how difficult it can be for teams outside of the top few in the world. And while a list of stars under 23 for the likes of Spain and Germany is incredibly impressive, there is no chance names such as Muller, Kroos, Schurrle or Gotze would be playing on anyone's "B" team.
The chances of Spain playing Spain for the World Cup final are incredibly unlikely.
More likely, a "B" team would simply provide more depth for a federation's qualification process, making it a bit harder for some teams to qualify, while providing an opportunity for more of the world to play in the event.
Having said that, if the Spanish or German "B" team was in this week's UEFA play-offs, it would be hard to pick against either if facing Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine, Sweden, Greece, Romania or even, at this point, France.
Ultimately, isn't the World Cup about bringing together the best footballers on the planet?
Maybe it's time to think about giving some nations more than one crack at the crown.
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