Let’s start with a clear statement. I don’t really like international football and I hate international breaks.
I didn’t used to have this feeling, but I do now. I should also add that while I live in the United States, I am English, since that may be a factor. The exception being the Euro Championship and the World Cup, of course.
On a recent podcast the host described international breaks and Premier League like watching a fantastic three hour movie, where they stop it every 30 minutes to show a documentary. On it’s own you might like the documentary, but not when it ruins your main feature.
In truth, this wasn’t always the case. For those that don’t remember, it’s not all that long since international games seemed exciting. They were initially played on a Wednesday after club games were played on a Saturday. They were then followed by a club game the next weekend. A great sojourn where you saw teams like Germany and Holland on a regular basis, and your “minnows” were Poland and Romania (though Luxembourg and Liechtenstein were always there as the true minnows).
Later a not disastrous move was made to change it so a game was played on a Saturday with often another game on the Wednesday before or after. However with the current situation, the break takes up an entire two weeks. Coming so early in the club season, it feels completely unnatural.
As a side note, I really used to enjoy the mini tournament home international tournament that was lost due to all the changes.
There are reasons these changes came about — the increase in games from the Champions League and the advent of many more international teams due to all the various independence activities over the last 20 years being the main drivers.
So what would I do to change this? Before I share my ideas, I want to admit that I don’t have a completely solid idea that works for both European Championship and World Cup qualifying. I’m looking for your ideas in the comments, so get your thinking caps on. The major tenets of my ideas are:
- Less games
- More meaningful games
- More games between stronger teams
- Longer, more condensed international periods
So let’s start with the slightly easier World Cup Qualifying. There are currently 53 countries in UEFA. For Brazil we need to, I believe, provide 13 qualifiers. Currently we have 9 groups, most with 6 teams. This results in 10 games per team. The winners qualify plus the 8 best second places playoff. The “best” second places rule is such a flawed system I find it hard to comprehend. This basically rewards teams in weaker groups and ends up with us not knowing, or understanding who is through or not until after the last group games (it’s harder for us to figure out).
The primary approach of my suggestion is to break the qualifying into two groups, an upper tier and a pre-qualification tier. The pre-qualification teams play a mini-tournament to gain access to the main group. To get the 13 teams needed, I am suggesting a final set of 13 groups of 3 teams. This would result in each major team only needing to play 4 games. So:
- 13 groups of 3 teams each = 39 teams
- 27 teams seeded into the final round (based on whatever criteria we believe works)
- The remaining 26 teams play a small tourney to grab the remaining 12 spots
- Then the winners of each group qualify for the World Cup.
Now for the schedule. I would suggest we play the final round in a condensed mini-tournament, the summer before the World Cup. So in this year’s qualifying, after the 2013 end of season, a 3 or 4 week window of international games occurs where all 6 match days are played. This would almost be like a mini Euro’s every other year and we already said we like that. The pre qualifying tournament could be played the year before (2012 in this case), just before the World Cup.
Time on the calendar for the tournament is not an issue, because if you remove the in-season international breaks, still allowing for a number of Wednesday friendlies or “get together weeks,” you get back eight or so weeks of the season. After the domestic season ends, you have time for a friendly or two before the qualifying tourney begins.
Personally I would not seed these final groups but I can see why you might want to. Going off the current FIFA ranking to get an idea here is the kind of groups and hence games, you could get:
Top games across the board? No, that’s what I wouldn’t seed it. But it’s definitely more interesting. Small teams still have the chance to play in for 12 positions. Only 4 games allows for some surprises and definitely for more excitement with each game meaning something. Another advantage of this approach is that it’s relatively flexible when Europe needs to provide less or more teams to the World Cup based on the latest structure of the final tournament.
Making this work for the Euro’s is not quite as simple due to the ridiculous decision to increase the teams to 24 (meaning the “best” 3rd place rule is coming in for that also). In this case, with one host we need 23 qualifiers. For simplicity, I’m going to let the holders auto qualify, so that’s 22. I propose 11 groups of 4 teams, with the top two from each qualifying. This results in 33 automatically moving to the final round and 20 teams playing for the remaining 11 positions. You then have to play 6 games in the tournament, over 6 match days, which is still 3-4 weeks.
What other ideas are there? Well, you tell me. Many people point to the South American system, where all teams play each other home and away in a long league, but they have a limited set of teams.
One interesting approach I thought of was something similar to the NFL. Create regional “divisions,” have them play each other, plus play against the equal-ranked teams from other divisions from the previous tournament. It’s an interesting idea but it’s hard to cut the number of games this way and it has other flaws.
Let us know what you think. Do you like the current system? How would you change it?