Why pre-qualification in UEFA should not (and will not) happen

On Friday night, England went to San Marino for a World Cup qualifying match. For those who don’t know, San Marino is a small republic nestled within North-East Italy, with a population of roughly 30,000. They are at present, ranked joint-bottom in the FIFA rankings. As expected, England won the game comfortably, with the final score being 0-8.

Prior to the game, the media here in England were questioning San Marino’s right to play a team like England. A line that was trotted out by several reporters was that such fixtures ‘damage international football’. One newspaper openly wondered why England should have to ‘waste their time’ playing a team like San Marino; many settled on making lame jokes about San Marino being ‘pointless in every sense of the word’.

In England the game was broadcast on ITV (one of the major channels in the UK). ITV’s coverage, which at the best of times is the TV equivalent of a monkey in a zoo flinging around its own shit, pretty much amounted to them pointing at the San Marino team and laughing for a couple of hours (which caused the Sammarinese FA to complain via their Twitter account).

Unfortunately, this complete lack of respect for an International team wasn’t limited to one TV channel. Many other media outlets expressed similar disdain for the efforts of the San Marino team. Predictably, the reaction after the game was once again to call for the weaker teams in UEFA, teams like San Marino, to have to prequalify for the right to then try and qualify for major tournaments.

What good does this do San Marino? How can they possibly get anything out of going into every game knowing they’ll lose? These were the questions that the press were asking to back up their argument for prequalifying.

Remember folks, this is the same English media that, with no sense of irony at all, cannot figure out why nobody votes for England when it comes to hosting any major football tournament.

To be fair, the English media aren’t alone in calling for prequalifying. Joachim Low openly questioned why Germany should have to play a weak side such as the Kazakhstan team they played on Friday. Other senior figures in the DFB (the German FA) have publically called for prequalifying in the past.

Okay, San Marino are a weak side, and barring a miracle, will probably always remain one of the world’s weakest sides. But so what? Football doesn’t only exist for the elite teams and players. It exists for everyone, of all ability levels. There is no link between a team's results and their right to compete on an equal basis.

UEFA’s mission statement contains the following line: “UEFA's core mission is to promote, protect and develop European football at every level of the game”. Nowhere in the mission statement is there a line about countries ‘having to equal the performances of teams with far greater populations and resources than you have, or you won’t have the privilege of playing them’

What I believe would be hugely damaging to international football would be to introduce a two-tier system. If small nations like San Marino or Andorra are denied the chance to play the better European countries; it could have the effect of lessening the interest and participation in the game, which would lead to a vicious cycle where the standard of football in those countries gets worse, which is contrary to both FIFA and UEFA’s aims to develop football all over Europe.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that exposure to tougher competition improves weaker teams. Playing the strongest sides shows helps players to raise their game. Four years ago, the Faroe Islands were ranked 198 by FIFA. 18 months ago, I watched them outplay Italy in a EURO 2012 qualifier, hitting the woodwork twice and losing to a goal that should have been called offside. At the time of the draw for the world cup qualifying they were ranked 112 and for the first time, were not in the bottom group of seeds. That’s a significant improvement.

Having a competition or at least more regular matches, between the weaker teams in UEFA isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It might give some of the smaller teams more of an opportunity to win, and gain some confidence in the process. But that should be as well as, not at the expense of, playing the elite teams in Europe.

The argument for prequalifying also sidesteps the incontrovertible fact that San Marino are full members of both FIFA and UEFA, and as such, have exactly as much right as England or Germany do to play international football. In fact, you could argue that San Marino has more of a right to play than England do, as they are a sovereign nation whereas England are not.

Another significant factor often gets overlooked when the argument to institute a prequalifying round to international qualifying in Europe; which is that there’s a huge variation in the quality of the lower-ranked teams in UEFA, and nobody seems to have any clear idea where the cutoff in terms of rankings for prequalifying should be.

There is a big difference between the two lowest-ranked UEFA countries, San Marino and Andorra, and the third lowest-ranked team, Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein are, at the time of writing, 50 places higher in the FIFA rankings than San Marino, which translates to a significant increase in their ability to compete with stronger teams.

At present, UEFA sends 13 of its 53 current members to the World Cup. The current qualifying format sees those 53 teams divided up into 6 ‘pots’ according to their ranking. One team from each pot gets placed into nine groups, with the group winners and the winners of playoff games between the 8 second-placed teams with the best qualifying records, going to the World Cup.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation where some sort of prequalifying tournament takes place, which reduces the number of teams eligible to qualify for the World Cup from the current 53 to 45. This would allow the current qualifying format to stay in place, as you could easily have 9 groups of 5 teams.

Let’s say that, to reduce the number of teams by 8, the prequalifying competition would be between the bottom 16 teams in the UEFA rankings.

At present those teams would include sides like Finland (ranked 87 by FIFA), who drew in Spain on Friday night, as well as Iceland (ranked 92), who currently sit second in their qualifying group, above Norway and Slovenia; and Estonia (ranked 89), who made it to the playoffs for EURO 2012. While they may be amongst the lower-ranked teams in UEFA, they’re far from being weak teams.

Proponents of introducing prequalifying to UEFA point to some heavy defeats suffered by some of Europe's minnows at the hands of the elite teams. What they don’t tell you is that those huge scorelines are increasingly rare. That England defeat of San Marino was their heaviest loss in nine games. In fact, the lower-ranked teams in UEFA are more than capable of getting good results against the stronger teams. In the last round of qualifying games, Cyprus, the eighth-worst team in UEFA according to the rankings, drew with Switzerland, who are the tenth-best UEFA team. Even Andorra only lost 0-2 to Turkey, which is not a disgraceful result by any means. As I’m writing this, Azerbaijan gave Portugal a tough game earlier today and Ukraine only narrowly beat Moldova at home.

Thankfully, it is unlikely that the idea of introducing a prequalifying round in UEFA will ever come to fruition. As full UEFA members, all of these so-called minnows get a vote when it comes to UEFA Presidential elections; so no prospective UEFA presidential candidate would ever propose or support a prequalifying rule that would be guaranteed to lose a significant amount of votes.

San Marino don’t need to be patronised. They’ll be all too aware of their limitations as a team. All but one of their players are amateur. Normal people with normal jobs who every so often get to do something extraordinary and represent their country. People who play football more out of love for the game rather than what the game can do for them. People who, years from now, will tell their grandkids about the times they played against some of the best players in the world. That’s what San Marino’s players get out of it. For such a small country to be able to field a team against a country with the vast resources as England is a victory in itself.

Perhaps the last word on San Marino’s suitability to play sides like England should go to England manager Roy Hodgson. When asked about whether a team like San Marino should have to prequalify, Hodgson said "I would defend their right (to play in this qualifying competition), It's a football family, after all.

"They can't take the game to you or give you a game in the same way others do, but they didn't kick us off the park or foul us at every opportunity, or waste time.

"It's up to them to decide if they can accept competing all the time against teams who are so much better than them.

"All the time they and FIFA want them to be part of the family, I'm more than happy to bring teams here."