During the first half of the opening International Champions Cup match against Fiorentina, Guadalajara’s Alan Pulido lined up a penalty kick with the opportunity to give his side a 2-1 lead.
The current European Championship qualification structure must be reformed.
Let me set the scene. It’s Friday night in London; the pub is full and so are the pints. The TV screens are on and England are walking out to host their first Euro 2020 qualifier against the Czech Republic.
For a brief moment, there was a sense of déjà vu. The scene was reminiscent of a not-too-distant memory from last summer. Football was coming home again! Although there was something amiss.
As play commenced, the casual chatter and the background music didn’t die away, and hardly a head was turned. There was no collective hush, no commentary, and no plastic pint ‘glasses’ moments away from being hurled into the air.
Okay, so I’ll be the first to admit that it would be harsh to compare the World Cup to the first round of European Qualifiers, but surely this match warranted something of an attentive audience given how successful England have been over the past 12 months. Semi-finalists in Russia. Winners of their inaugural UEFA Nations League group ahead of Spain and Croatia. They haven’t done too much wrong.
The problem is the calibre of the opposition. With no disrespect to the Czech Republic, they’re simply not in the same class as England. It wasn’t a surprise to see the Three Lions, ranked fifth in the world, coast to a 5-0 victory. To compound matters, The Czechs (44th in the world) are the highest-ranked opponent England will face in their qualification group.
England have just put five past Montenegro (46th), and will go on to face Bulgaria (48th) and Kosovo (130th), although to be fair to the latter, they’ve only just entered European competition.
Considering they only have to finish second in their group, England will reach the 2020 European Championships, so there’s not much appeal for the fans. This is especially the case in March when you’re interrupting a Premier League title race that could rival 2012-13 (google ‘Aguerooooo’).
And it’s not just England who will be coasting in their bids to reach the 2020 tournament. While the Wembley crowd watched Raheem Sterling score his first international hat-trick, France were doing it easy in Moldova, cruising to a 4-0 lead before allowing a late consolation goal. The World Champions will also face Albania, Turkey, Andorra and Iceland during qualification.
Admittedly, the draw does throw up a few cracking matches. The Germany versus Netherlands game on Sunday night was a belter and could have gone either way, while Hungary showed that rankings don’t always count for much in their win over Croatia.
But too often it’s not the case. Italy are playing Liechtenstein on Tuesday night. How long again until the Champions League is back on?
This raises another point. The lopsided fixtures result in the best players being rested, so you’re not even getting to watch the best teams at full strength. You might as well be watching a friendly.
Don’t even get me started on the number of players from top clubs going down with mysterious injuries or illnesses prior to the international break.
So what’s the solution? Well, UEFA have already half solved it, they just need to take things further. I’m talking about the UEFA Nations League.
Essentially, the Nations League was implemented to bring life back to international football, and after a slow start and almost no fanfare, owing to the fact it started just a couple of months after the World Cup, the football community began to realise just how good it actually was.
Top teams play against top teams, and with relegation, nations are almost forced to play their best XI. Lower-ranked teams play against similar calibre opponents, so they can actually improve, and there’s nothing stopping a team like Kosovo from making it all the way to the top tier. It’s a great concept.
For the 2020 European Qualifiers, just four of the 24 places available will come down to UEFA Nations League results. It’s not the easiest to explain, so I’ll let UEFA do it for you, but I can tell you that one team from the lowest tier of the Nations League will appear at the 2020 tournament. That’s a big win and a huge incentive for the smaller countries.
So why not scrap qualification altogether and use the UEFA Nations League to determine all 24 places? This has huge potential with a number of advantages.
Instead of having the UEFA Nations League every two years, it would be able to run every season. This would add more flow and almost completely eradicate uneven European matches. Almost every match would mean something, and teams will be able to build momentum leading into the big tournaments.
The hypothetical 2019-20 Nations League would be the official qualification path for the 2020 European Championship, and the breakdown would be as follows:
• Eight teams from League A would automatically qualify (those finishing 1st and 2nd in their respective groups).
• Eight teams from League B would automatically qualify (those finishing 1st and 2nd in their respective groups).
• Two teams from League C would automatically qualify (those finishing 1st from their respective groups will play off for the two spots).
• One team from League D would automatically qualify (those finishing 1st from their respective groups will play off for one spot).
• The four teams finishing bottom of their League A groups would play-off against each other for three places.
• The four teams finishing bottom of their League B groups would play-off against each other for two places.
The intricacies of how the spots are allocated can be debated, but this idea is better than the current system.
This same ideology can be carried over to World Cup qualifying by simply adjusting the number of spots based on the UEFA allocation.
This whole concept keeps players and fans interested, and playing the event annually wouldn’t take anything away from the big tournaments.
Player welfare wouldn’t be an issue, especially considering that a UEFA Nations campaign would see teams playing fewer games than they would during Euro or World Cup qualifying.
To put the icing on the cake, it would be a long long time before I have to watch England play a team like the Czech Republic on a Friday night.