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.