With England thrashing San Marino during the international break, the viewing public learned very little in the way of squad capability. If anything, the win turned a spotlight on the format of world cup qualification and the pointlessness of pitting one of the best teams in international football against a hapless bunch of semi-professionals.
San Marino are nothing more than cannon fodder for the continent’s elite and, if anything, England can be disappointed that they only managed to win by five. These fixtures have the air of a dead rubber attached to them, a sense of utter pointlessness, yet the qualification phase is only getting underway.
Although the introduction of the UEFA Nations League has introduced a closer level of competition to international breaks that were previously just filled with friendlies, the ongoing qualification question is yet to be answered.
The answer to the World Cup qualification dilemma may require radical thinking or a change of mindset at the very least and the change could and arguably should come in the shape of pre-qualification rounds.
It is a method used across FIFA’s other regional confederations (except for South America’s Comnebol, as all 10 nations are placed in an incredibly tough home and away league format) and it is this method that separates the wheat from the chaff.
However, it must be noted that qualification phases are not perfect in terms of setup either and you only need to look at Japan’s stunning 14-0 win over Mongolia, as evidence that further tweaks may need to be made.
With that said, there is a sense that the benefits would arguably be greater for lower tier nations and more importantly the players who represent them, if only because they would earn more than memorabilia for their efforts.
The San Marino internationals who were fortunate enough to play at Wembley will at least get a match-worn England jersey for their ninety minutes of toil, which will undoubtedly look rather nice when framed. But what if those players could earn more than the right to swap shirts with Harry Kane? With pre-qualification this could become a reality, by virtue of playing opposition nearer to their own level of football aptitude.
If Andorra, for example, were bested by San Marino in a preliminary qualifier, then not only would the latter have the jubilation of winning a competitive fixture, but they would have earned the right to move into the group stage proper.
Additionally it would lessen the strain on the football calendar for nations such as England for whom the club versus country row is always simmering in the background. Such a step to lessen to burden of World Cup qualification would certainly ease the tension.
Of course, the obvious sticking point in all of this is the people who make the decisions at UEFA whose mindset currently leans towards a one size fits all approach for European international football. For the key decision-makers, such radical change is not on the agenda just yet.
If the European status quo does remain in World Cup qualification for the foreseeable future, alternative measures may have to be suggested and an additional summer competition could be one worthwhile option.
Although 24 nations make it to the European Championships, that leaves 31 kicking their heels every fourth summer which could leave scope for a second-tier tournament or a conference style competition where the lowest eight or twelve ranked nations are given a form of competitive summer football of their own.
In doing so, it would at least provide nations the opportunity to win something tangible and not just aim to keep a thrashing respectable. You could even run the tournament on the odd number years to not clash with the European Championships itself.
Obviously, this thinking is outside the box but, with the Champions League set to expand in 2024, there is a sense that the chasm between the haves and have nots is only going to increase further.
While that is the domain of club football, the effects will eventually ripple through to the international theatre. Without some form of substantial change, we are only going to see more England walkovers against the likes of San Marino in World Cup qualification and beyond.
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