What UEFA Needs To Do To Change Its World Cup Qualification Process

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 32 countries in UEFA, up only seven from the 25 that founded Europe’s governing body for football in 1954. The winds of change that would spur the Scorpions to lay down their greatest hit swept through Eastern Europe and redrew borders that had tenuously confined its people since the end of the Second World War.

Conglomerations of disparate nationalities such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia collapsed, swelling UEFA’s ranks with several new strong sides. UEFA now has 53 members, more than double the number it had at its founding. But, more than 25% of UEFA’s members are ranked below 100 in FIFA’s ladder.

Today, England will defeat San Marino, the lowest ranked side in Europe and tied with Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands for worst in the world. Matches like these will neither help San Marino improve its perpetually putrid play nor give England the challenge it needs. England’s constantly-criticized players are in a no-win situation. If they play well they’ll impress no one because of the lowly competition. If they play poorly, they must prepare for a pummeling in the press. Fans lose out too, as they can’t be expected to get pumped for a mismatch like this after falling into the rhythm of pulse-pounding Premier League action every weekend.

Allowing all its members to compete equally for World Cup and European Championship qualification is noble. But it is the antithesis of the spirit of meritocracy that rules most football competitions.

The Confederation of African Football is a good example. Unlike UEFA, the CAF splits up its members by FIFA ranking for World Cup qualification so that its best countries aren’t stuck playing its worst. Those ranked 1st through 28th get a bye into the second round, where they are joined by survivors culled from a pool of the CAF’s 24 lowest-ranked nations.  Similarly, Africa’s minnows must first fight amongst themselves before they can face the big boys in Cup of Nations qualification.

The Asian Football Confederation holds a separate tournament for its weaker nations. The winner of the Asian Challenge Cup earns entrance into the AFC’s flagship Asian Cup. The Challenge Cup is part of the AFC’s goal to raise the quality of football throughout the continent.

It’s long past time for UEFA to adopt a similar approach. UEFA already recognized the problem presented by an abundance of countries when it tweaked the European Cup in the early 1990s. Back then, UEFA realized that it couldn’t continue to have each country’s club champion play each other when there were so many new entrants. Thus, it forced the weaker countries’ champions to play each other in preliminary rounds.

Perpetual punching bags like Liechtenstein, San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Andorra and Azerbaijan aren’t going to improve through getting whipped by Europe’s perennial powers. Wembley may be full tonight but it won’t be electric. Matches against these countries only serve to improve our geography skills.

UEFA should create its own the Asian Challenge Cup. Instead of a dreary diet of minnows, fans would get to feast on more matches involving Europe’s heavyweights and tighter matches between its lesser lights.

9 thoughts on “What UEFA Needs To Do To Change Its World Cup Qualification Process”

  1. I really pity these minnows who always get trashed by the other teams, unfortunately this trend is set to keep continuing and the enormous gap between countries isn’t going to be shortened anytime soon.

  2. I’m not sure what’s the point of this article. Most of those minnions existed before the polical changes in Eastern Europe. I agree that having 53 members is somewhat unmanageable. However before starting to divide them into first and second class citizens UEFA can trim this number by:
    1) Getting rid of countries that do not have presence in Europe i.e. Armenia, Georgia, Israel and Kazakhstan
    2) Enforcing one UEFA member per country rule by having GB team represent England, Wales, Scottland and Northen Ireland.

    That would bring UEFA member number down to much more manageable 45 and reduce percent of underperfoming teams.

    1. Is 45 really more manageable than 53?

      Having two tiers and preliminary qualification rounds sounds far easier than telling the 139-year old Scottish FA to shack up with its rivals.

    2. I agree with you England, Wales, Scottland,and Northern Ireland being one team. I would go one furthur to say what did those countries gain from going back to being small countries after the fall of the Soviet Union. You would think if they stayed unified and worked together that they would have been better off, but the Europeans don’t seem to get that and would rather bicker amoung themselves about who is better.

      1. Actually, after break up in 1991 Russia offered to keep common football league that would include all ex-Soviet republics. With lower leagues organized at the national level with chance to qualify to the common league. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work out…

    3. Israel: a lot of Asian countries don’t want to play against Israel.

      I agree with your comment that most of the minions existed before the political changes in Europe. The teams resulting from the break-up of Yugoslavia have been pretty strong and so have the teams from the former Soviet Union

  3. CAF is a terrible example-only one team makes it out of the four team groups in the penultimate stage leaving no margin for error (especially considering that good teams are often placed in the same group). A confederation’s first task is to get its best teams into the World Cup, not to predetermine who is good and who isn’t but to give the teams a fair, reasonable chance to show their skills-CAF doesn’t do that. Agree with the idea of a preliminary group though-CONCACAF, AFC, even Oceania, are all better examples than Africa.

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