Friday night’s 2014 World Cup qualifier between England and San Marino was an extreme example of what is currently holding international football back.
Everyone watching could be near certain of the final result long before kick-off, and the sense of apathy that resulted from such predictability was palpable. While many, Steven Gerrard included, still claim internationals to be the pinnacle of the game, the reality is that club football, most notably the Champions League, has taken over as the true home of football’s elite.
The World Cup may still be one of the greatest sporting spectacles on the planet, but an event that takes place once every four years isn’t enough to keep international football in the spotlight. And as the European Championships move in worrying directions under the orders of Michel Platini, with plans for more teams and a tournament spread across the continent, there will soon be even less enjoyment for us in the intervening years.
For me, the qualifiers are the problem. Not helped by the fact that they are so spread out that you can all too easily forget what the hell is going on, qualifying is just dull. Too many of the matches are processional affairs, meaning you can pretty much predict the top two in most groups as soon as the draw is made. And that means that when you do get a shock – Finland drew with Spain on Friday – it is of little or no consequence because the bigger team will almost always still qualify comfortably.
The qualification process is slightly different outside of Europe so these problems may be less relevant there, but here we have far too many minnow teams clogging up the groups. San Marino, Malta, the Faroe Islands, Andorra, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, to name a few. These countries, and a few more, should be put into a pre-qualification knockout stage to rid us of at least some of the unbearably boring encounters like the one we all sat through obediently on Friday. This may be a rather elitist take on World Cup qualifying, but I genuinely believe it would improve the competition – not to mention providing the smaller nations with a rare chance to actually win a game rather than being beaten comprehensively every time they step onto the pitch.
Then comes the question of timing. At present the World Cup qualification process in Europe is dragged out across 13 months, which not only serves to make it entirely forgettable, but also provides a series of annoying interruptions to our league seasons with matches that are often uninteresting and inconsequential.
Surely a better system would be to set aside one month per season solely for international qualifying matches, with each nation able to play four or five times. This would give international sides more time to train together, and would make international football the focus of our attention for more than a few days, which could help create the kind of interest and passion that would otherwise be reserved only for tournament finals. The Six Nations is a prime example of how well this kind of system works for international sport – imagine how boring and disjointed it would be if spread across a full year.
Of course, there would need to be a serious reorganising of the domestic league calendars and a lot of convincing to do, but these problems are not insurmountable if FIFA could get their act together for once.
The truth is that international football has a very limited set of resources outside of the major tournaments. It needs to start making the most of them.