Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The European question

    Peter Goldstein's expert analysis of each Confederation's qualifying system ended with an interesting look at UEFA which, as he noted, has been an epitome of stability throughout World Cup history.

    While Europe's system usually provides few talking points, the seemingly ever-changing balance between the number of teams in the confederation and the number of qualifying berths available may require longer-term solutions. Peter has offered some and, given that we know that UEFA officials frequently read material on this site, I'd like to offer some more.

    As some of my past columns would indicate, I am a UEFA fan. It remains a more effective organising/governing body than FIFA or any of the other Confederations. That, however, doesn't mean that Uncle Lennart and co get everything right and, for a number of reasons, the 7 team groups in the current World Cup cycle are a big mistake.

    At the heart of the European question is the club versus country question and the crowded fixture lists which, these days, mean that a top player might be eligible for club or international matches twice a week for most of the year. The powerful, star-studded clubs get around this by having big squads that allow player rotation and (if they can get away with it) sometimes/often refusing to release players for internationals.

    With international football under that kind of pressure, surely 7 team groups are the last thing the European fixture list needed.

    Don't underestimate the difference between groups of 5 or 6 and groups of 7. In a league system where everyone plays each other twice, groups of 5 or 6 need 10 rounds. A group of 7 needs 14 rounds. Although each team in a group of 7 plays 12 matches, the two "byes" that each team effectively has will still be on dates where international football is played - so the players from those countries probably won't be playing club matches anyway.

    And of course, the respective football associations of each country will want to arrange friendlies to prepare for qualifiers. It seems the G14 were not unhappy with these arrangements but I'm not sure that will remain the case when the reality of the 7 team groups kicks in.

    UEFA has chosen to keep countries with Úlite domestic competitions (England, France, Italy and Spain) in 6 team groups but ... well ... so what? Clubs in those countries are littered with international players from other European nations. Are Chelsea's starting 11s overwhelmingly composed of Englishmen? Are Milan's starting 11s overwhelmingly composed of Italians? Are Real Madrid's starting 11s overwhelmingly composed of Spaniards? No, no and no. Chelsea's Adrian Mutu will still be involved in a 7 team group (with Romania); as will Milan's Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine) and Real Madrid's Luis Figo (Portugal). Needless to say, the list doesn't end there.

    Now, if your sympathies are with the countries as opposed to the clubs (yes, mine are too), you might see the increasing number of competitive European internationals as a good thing. You might think it will help shift focus to international football.

    Somehow I doubt it. The 7 team groups might become quite boring. With only the first 2 teams getting rewarded, the number of meaningless games will rise - hardly the kind of advertisement international soccer needs. And the powerful European clubs might just gain ammunition in their propaganda war. I can just see Milan asking precisely why they need to release Shevchenko for the umpteenth time now that the Ukrainians are only battling with Georgia for 4th spot in Group 2.

    It's an easily overlooked fact that, despite the increasing power and wealth of the big European clubs, in recent years, the number of competitive internationals played by European nations has been rising, not declining. It doesn't seem that long ago when groups of 4 or 5 were the norm in Europe but, as we know, UEFA's membership has increased dramatically since the early 1990s.

    Nonetheless, it's tempting, every four years, to think that UEFA's allocation of places at the World Cup finals and the size of its membership will remain relatively stable throughout the next few four-year cycles. Surely FIFA won't take more places off them? Surely there are no more European countries on the verge of dissolving into a number of successor states?

    Don't ever bet on either. Who can predict the future success of secessionist/separatist movements in Spain (Basques, Catalans), Italy (Northern League) and Russia (Chechnya)? They all seem rather unlikely now but stranger things have happened. What will become of Serbia and Montenegro? If the Faroe Islands can play, why can't Greenland?

    Add to that the fact that Europe, in the strict geographical sense of the word, is not a continent. It is merely the western tip of Eurasia. The traditional boundaries between Europe and Asia have been the Ural Mountains, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the city of Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium - it's never been a really precise distinction. Both Russia and Turkey have a foot in Europe and a foot in Asia and, while my pocket world factbook tells me that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are all in Asia, they're all members of UEFA.

    I'm mentioning all that because Kazakhstan is now in UEFA. In the 2002 World Cup cycle, it attempted to qualify through Asia.

    Whatever reasons the Kazakhs have for switching Confederations (I think I can guess), the slightly arbitrary "continental borders" make their UEFA membership seem relatively normal. What's to stop Uzbekistan joining next?

    For political reasons, Israel is also part of UEFA. (You can hardly make a case for it being a geographical part of Europe.) Once it was believed, by FIFA at least, that Israel was located somewhere in the South Pacific.

    So you can't really take UEFA having 51 or 52 entrants for the 2010 qualifiers for granted. By then it could be more or less. And you certainly can't bank on the current allocation of places at the World Cup finals staying the same. If the UEFA nations perform strongly at Germany 2006, they will argue for more places; if they do badly, the other Confederations will try to take from them.

    Therefore, the answer to the European question is not to reinvent the wheel every four years because that just means potential fixture chaos - and occasional bad systems (like including 7 team groups). Rather, UEFA needs to find a longer term system that can adapt to changing circumstances.

    I would go back to groups of 5 and 6. To be more precise, in the current cycle, I would go for 10 groups: 9 of 5 teams and 1 of 6 teams. I can already hear you asking how that's going to work seeing as if the 10 group winners qualify automatically, that leaves only 3 places for second-place getters (and you can't do that because you don't want to eliminate worst second-placed teams and playing them all off only gets you from 10 to 5).

    Simple. Have two playoff rounds. Give the 2 best second-placed teams a bye through the first playoff round, leaving 8 teams and 4 winners from the first round and a final playoff round of 6 teams which produces 3 World Cup qualifiers. (The draw for which countries play each other can stay random - I would only ensure that the 2 best second-placed teams were kept apart in the second playoff round.)

    The advantages of this idea seem so obvious to me that I can't believe nobody at UEFA thought of it.

    It avoids the monster 7 team groups. That's obvious enough. But it also keeps more interest in the qualifying series. Having 8 groups will only produce 16 teams that either qualify for the finals or get a second chance through playoffs. Having 10 groups extends that number to 20.

    And this system copes with the problems I've spent a lot of this column talking about - UEFA's fluctuating membership and ever-changing allocation of places at the World Cup finals. Having 10 groups allows UEFA's membership to grow to 60 (10 groups of 6) without needing to change anything. A drop in the number of UEFA nations is no problem either seeing as there'd be nothing wrong with a few 4 team groups. Plus, this system is good for a minimum of 13 places at the World Cup finals - currently, UEFA has 14 places because Germany qualifies as host. An allocation of 15 places would hardly be a problem (just eliminate the second playoff round) so the allocation would have to drop as far as 12 before tinkering (or alternatives) would be needed.

    This system is also perfect for the European Nations Championship. The qualifiers for the 2004 Euros had 10 groups of 5 and, as there were 15 places available at the finals, a single playoff round reduced the 10 second-place getters to 5 qualifiers. For the 2008 Euros, only 14 places will be available (as the tournament will be co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland). Fine. Go for 10 groups, put the 4 worst second-placed teams into the first playoff round and the 2 winners from that can advance to join the other 6 second-placed teams in the second playoff round and that will produce 4 qualifiers to join the 10 group winners (and the tournament hosts) in the finals.

    This system has one potential disadvantage - teams that are in both playoff rounds would need to play 4 extra matches.

    There's an easy way around this problem (which I'll come back to) but, even so, under a two round playoff system, if a particular country came from a 6 team group and participated in both playoff rounds, that would mean a total of 14 qualifying matches. With the current arrangements, any countries that go into playoffs from the 7 team groups are going to play 14 matches anyway.

    But 4 extra internationals for particular countries (after the group phase has finished) is not ideal. It means a need for too many international dates for a small number of participants. The best way around that is for each playoff to be a single-legged affair on neutral territory (instead of the usual two matches, one home and one away).

    There is a precedent for single-legged playoffs. The Euro '96 qualifiers had 8 groups and 15 finals places to fill. Allowing all first and second-placed teams to reach the finals would have meant having one qualifier too many so UEFA decided to give the 6 best second-placed teams a ticket to the finals and the 2 worst second-placed teams (Netherlands and Republic of Ireland) played off in a single match on neutral territory to decide who would fill the last spot. That match was played in England - a logical choice seeing as England would host the tournament.

    Similarly, the two rounds of single-legged playoffs I'd propose for the 2006 World Cup (even though it's too late now) could have all been played in Germany.

    On occasions where the World Cup is being staged outside Europe, finding neutral territory could be done by having 3 or 4 countries ready to host the playoff matches when the time comes (a bit like selecting venues for the UEFA Cup and Champions League Finals).

    Hypothetical time. Say this system was in place for the 2006 World Cup qualifiers (and the finals didn't have a European host) and Belgium, Denmark and Romania are hosting the playoffs. As it happens, when the group phase finishes, the best second-placed teams are Belgium and Denmark. The other second-placed teams are Russia, Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Scotland and Greece. A draw takes place (yes, I've asked my work colleague, Graham, to draw the names out of one hat and the numbers out of another) and the results are as follows:

Qualifying place A - Poland v Bulgaria (1st Round); winner plays Belgium (2nd Round)
Qualifying place B - Romania v Ireland (1st Round); winner plays Denmark (2nd Round)
Qualifying place C - Slovenia v Greece & Scotland v Russia (1st Round); two winners play each other (2nd Round)

    The battle for Qualifying place B includes two of the nations that have elected to host playoffs so those matches (Romania v Ireland and winner v Denmark) need to be played at the other host nation, Belgium. UEFA then decides to play the matches for place A in Denmark and the matches for place C in Romania. Not too hard is it?

    UEFA could have also gone with just 5 pots to complete the draw for these 10 groups (with the weakest pot having 11 teams). Because Europe is so well balanced, I actually see this as a plus.

    And my last words on the subject are that such a system would be really exciting come playoff time. You might think it's a tough contract - most teams needing to defeat two other opponents to qualify but, hey, they could have won their groups.

    It would be remiss of me not to mention a few other issues raised by Peter's column and by qualification systems generally.

    The first issue is the very important method for ranking best/worst second-placed teams. It's important to my system because it decides which teams get a bye through to the second round of playoffs. Under the system that is being used for the 2006 qualifiers, it's even more important seeing as it actually separates automatic qualifiers from teams going into playoffs.

    Every time UEFA has needed to pick out best and worst second-placed teams, it has made a table ranking the second-place getters using the 6 matches that each second-placed team played against the teams that finished first, third and fourth in the same group. Thus far, it has occurred for the 1998 World Cup qualifiers and the 1996 and 2000 Euros. On every occasion, each qualifying group had 5 or 6 teams - so results against teams that finished 5th or 6th were disregarded.

    I've mentioned the 1996 Netherlands-Ireland scenario from Euro 96. Two years later, the best of the 9 second-placed teams for the 1998 World Cup qualifiers got through automatically (Scotland!) while the other 8 went into playoffs and that arrangement was replicated for the 2000 Euros (where Portugal was the lucky team). If you look back at qualifying group results for those three competitions, you'd probably agree that the rankings got the best/worst second-placed teams right.

    The difference for World Cup 2006 is that groups comprise 6 or 7 teams (as opposed to 5 or 6). I suspect UEFA will either continue the policy of using matches against teams 1-3-4 to rank second-place getters or extend it to also include teams that finish 5th. I doubt that 6th placed teams will come into the equation.

    The next question is should there be a preliminary round for Europe's minnows? Obviously I've just written at length about a system that doesn't include one so you can guess my answer would be that, for the foreseeable future at least, UEFA's unique single group phase should stay. The 2006 qualifying cycle might be a little painful for teams that have a couple of minnows in their groups (e.g. Portugal and Russia each needing to play Luxembourg and Liechtenstein) but this is also a function of having only 8 qualifying groups - less groups mean more minnows per group. Having 10 groups would spread them out a little better.

    If the minnows don't like playing all those matches against stronger opponents, they really should say so. But most of them are recent entrants (Andorra, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, San Marino all started playing in qualifiers in the 1990s) and you'd have to think that they entered the circus knowing they were likely to be on the end of a few hidings. Overall, though, they acquit themselves rather well. I especially like the Faroese. They were distinguished in their latest qualifying group (for Euro 2004) by scoring 7 times and finishing up with a goal difference of -11 (from 8 matches). Germany and Scotland probably never want to see the tiny country (population of just 46,000 people) again! Better still, the Faroe Islands gave us Jens Knudsen - and his beanie.

    So keep them in a single group phase unless they want out. There's nothing stopping UEFA's minnows getting together for their own tournament, every few years, if they want to have some decent competition against each other. As it happens, UEFA has 8 member countries (perfect!) which each have a population of less than one million (Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Andorra, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino). I'd be following it ... even if no one else would.

    [Oceania does precisely this with a tournament called the "South Pacific Games". It's a good excuse for a competition that doesn't involve getting beaten up by New Zealand or Australia. Fiji won it last year.]

    Finally, some comments on UEFA rankings and the use of results in the Euros to establish seedings for World Cup groups. I'm in favour of it because any rankings system will always be more accurate when most recent results are factored into it. UEFA nations take the European Nations Championship just as seriously as they take the World Cup so the best guide to their form is their qualifiers for this year's tournament in Portugal. The groups are not perfectly balanced but a couple of factors have contributed. Obviously the Dutch and the Czechs are together again - and in a very difficult group. But this is a function of the Netherlands' failure to qualify for Korea/Japan. When you fail like that, you're often going to pay for it (e.g. England getting grouped with Italy for the 1998 qualifiers after failing to qualify for the 1994 finals). We can hardly change the rules just because we know the Dutch are good.

    The main weakness in the rankings is that Portugal has no competitive results for Euro 2004 as it is that tournament's host. It's unfortunate, but there's no real way around the problem unless you drop the use of Euro results for UEFA's rankings.

    I have criticised FIFA for using results from the last 3 World Cups to decide who gets seeded in the 8 groups at the finals because it must be plain that results that are 8 or 12 years old are utterly irrelevant to a team's current strength. UEFA's rankings are only taking results from the last 4 years into account - nothing wrong with that.

    So there it is, my answer to the European question. Double the playoff rounds; double the excitement; and double the efficiency. Over to you Uncle Lennart.



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