4 Ways To Shake Up the Insufferable International Breaks

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:

  1. Less games
  2. More meaningful games
  3. More games between stronger teams
  4. 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:

Spain Poland Scotland
Germany Hungary Wales
Portugal Slovakia Austria
England Romania Armenia
Netherlands Montenegro Georgia
Italy Turkey Estonia
Greece Slovenia Uzbekistan
Croatia Serbia Albania
Russia Belgium Belarus
France Bosnia-Herzegovina Finland
Switzerland Ireland IcelandI
Denmark Norway Macedonia
Sweden Czech Republic Cyprus

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?

20 thoughts on “4 Ways To Shake Up the Insufferable International Breaks”

  1. By “international football” I think you mean “European football”. I agree the UEFA qualies are swamped down by meaningless games against super-duper minnows, and you are probably right they need reform.

    I think CONCACAF has the right idea in thinning out the bad teams, although some bad teams still make the hex.

    But on Friday I really enjoyed the South American qualifiers, particularly the Argentina Uruguay game.

  2. Or you could just do this for a change:


    This is what went on this weekend with no Premier League matches, by all accounts it was a great success and is growing each year.

    I’m not really into international football but you can’t knock the crowd at Wembley even against San Marino.

  3. This is easy, here’s a few for a start….

    1. San Marino are not international quality. There must be pre-qualifiers for the rubbish teams based on FIFA ranking.

    2. Play the games on Saturday and/or Wednesday. When did this Friday nonsense start?

    3. I can understand the EPL having no games but the Championship? Really?

  4. The CONCACAF and South American systems are much easier because they have significantly less teams. Even with that the CONCACAF format is a disaster.

    Non league day is not exactly an option for me in California LOL.

    The crowd is not really a factor, MANY of those tickets were almost or literally given away. If you played more meaningful games you’d get bigger crowds for the mini tournament.

    Thanks for the comments.

    1. That doesn’t make any sense, there are less than half the teams in CONCACAAF, they only provide 2-3 teams to the finals, and they play as many or more games than UEFA. It doesn’t meet my criteria at all.

  5. nice article, regional divisions might be a good way to go, but even with that it needs to be in the summer, after the season ends. An occasional midweek friendly is fine.

    The whole, everyone gets to play, let’s be inclusive rubbish is a complete waste of time. That’s not to say that the bigger teams shouldn’t have to qualify but every single state in the EU having the right to play against the larger teams does nothing except open up the chance for pub league football to impact a professional league (Walcot out for 2 weeks).

    with the divisional series you would have the home nations plus iceland and Ireland in one group perhaps throw in Portugal or France or Belgium to spice it up a bit.

    The USA playing Antigua & Barbados is a joke, did any one see the pitch Dempsey tweeted out, what a joke, i’m surprised no one tore a ligament.

    I’m all for getting rid of international games during the season, if your club has players from far a field, or that will travel heavily when the come back its not easy at all.

    Spurs play Chelski this Saturday @ noon which in its self is a horrid kick off let alone when coming off an international break where both teams have key players that have to travel a lot for WCQ. It will have a negative effect on the game unfortunately.

    For Spurs Ade in Togo, Dempsey in the USA, Sandro in South America, Defoe, Lennon, Walker, in Poland (why not have that as the first game? why the travel at the end of the week?) Caulker, Townsend in Serbia, Dembélé, Vert not so bad, Glyfi in Albania then iceland, Bale in Croatia, Hugo with France.

    Its just ridiculous the amount of travel, they get back on wednesday then only have 2 days to re-adjust and train and digest the plan. As someone that travels a lot, it is taxing. There has to be a better way especially with so much on the line in the Premier league this week.

    Its the same for Chelski, such a shame a game like this next one isn’t going to have the teams firing on all cylinders.

    I wonder how many upset there will be this weekend for teams with less international players against the bigger teams that do?

  6. For Europe I would take the 2 lowest FIFA ranked teams and have them play a 2 legged match to get to 52 teams (unless previous World Cup winner is from Europe,they qualify automatically). Then just have 13 groups of 4. Group winners head to WC.

    1. Not bad, though quite different from your earlier post, the problem though, assuming we stick with seeded groups, is that 90% of the games would be uninteresting. Similar to the CONCACAF version I’m trying to get the better teams to play each other a little more, hopefully with something on the line.

      1. I wasn’t suggesting Europe goes to the Concacaf format it works for North America. They get 3 automatic places into the WC and the 4th place team goes to a playoff with another federation.

  7. International football is loved throughout the world. Just look at the passion it incites in every region of the world. The club game is ruining the game with their massive debts and barrage of games. The solution is to decrease the amount of games clubs play and increase international football.

    1. That’s a sure-fire way to practically kill the game.

      International football is essentially dead except for the tournaments themselves such as Copa America, European Championships, World Cup, Africa Cup Of Nations, etc. The qualification rounds are tedious and often mind-numbing.

      The Gaffer

      1. If the international breaks wouldn’t stop the flow of the leagues so much international qualifiers would be accepted more.

  8. What about simply giving teams who do well in their previous confederation’s tournament, an automatic berth into the world cup? This may work especially well in Europe.

    For example: the 8 teams that made the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, get a straight bye into the world cup. The remaining 8 Euro 2012 teams that never made it into the knockout stages, get seeded and await the group survivors of the teams that had failed to qualify for Euro 2012 – to then, either play each other in another group format, or in a home and away setting.

    The main problem to this master plan is, since international calender dates are world-wide, nothing would stop teams that have already qualified, to play meaningless friendlies anyway, because – at the end of the day, federations love internationals for the money.

    1. I like that idea, but friendlies can’t just occur without breaks in the league so that should be OK. The clubs have all the power in England so they can dictate the rules.

  9. No one likes the international breaks for qualifiers but everyone likes the tournaments that result. There are no easy solutions.

    My solution would be for the qualifiers to take take place in the summer and during the winter break(that will have to be extended to 3 weeks). This will force the EPL to have a winter break that many are calling for.

    1. I thought of that but you can’t play the games during the winter break because (a) then it’s not a winter break (b) the weather in northern countries is way too bad to play at the time of year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *