Over the past few years, an argument has rumbled on in European football over whether some European countries should have to pre-qualify for World Cup and European Championship qualifying. Some of the better countries in Europe openly wonder why they have to bother having to play teams such as Liechtenstein, San Marino and Andorra when the result is almost certainly a foregone conclusion.
I’ve written articles in the past about why I’m absolutely against any moves to make teams pre-qualify. In my opinion, all teams have an equal right to play; and with all 54 UEFA members having the will and the resources to play, why shouldn’t they? Who cares if some of those teams aren’t as good as some of the others? Football does not exist solely for the elite teams.
But, as qualifying for next summer’s European Championships in France is almost wrapped up, with only the playoff to determine the last four teams to qualify still to be played; there is less of an argument to be made against making some of Europe’s minnows pre-qualify than ever before, because in this qualifying campaign, the minnows have exceeded expectations, and it’s some of Europe’s bigger nations that have suffered.
As Euro 2016 is the first European Championships since it was decided to increase the number of competing teams from 16 to 24, it was thought that qualification would be easier than ever before for UEFA’s elite teams.
Yet, of the 9 top seeds in each of the qualifying groups, only 6 have actually qualified, with Bosnia scraping into a playoff with Ireland, largely by virtue of a late collapse by Israel.
The highest profile team not to qualify is the Netherlands, who were 3rd at the 2014 World Cup and will now miss out on the Euros for the first time in 30 years. There are many theories as to what went wrong, but the Dutch will have the next year or so to try and put things right before World Cup qualifying begins.
Greece fared even worse, having been one of Europe’s most consistently solid teams for years, and were ranked 7th in Europe at the start of the qualifying campaign. Greece finished bottom of a group they were expected to win comfortably, and lost 4 of their 5 home games, leaving them ranked at 29 in Europe.
In fact, of the top 24 seeds when Euro 2016 qualifying was drawn, only 12 are in the list of the 20 teams to have qualified for Euro 2016 so far.
Each European Championship tournament has always featured at least one team playing in the tournament proper for the first time. Next summer there will be five debutants, with Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Albania will all be in the Euros for the very first time.
Northern Ireland were probably the biggest surprise of qualification. In their World Cup qualifying campaign, they only picked up one win, and finished second bottom of their group; just ahead of Luxembourg, who beat them.
Entering their group seeded 5th, nobody thought expected much from them, and questions were being asked about manager Michael O'Neill; but they had an excellent campaign, only losing once, and ended up winning their group.
In 2011, Wales were ranked 114 by FIFA, and were in the bottom seeded teams for World Cup 2014 qualifying. Following some great work first by manager Gary Speed, and then Chris Coleman, who was able to pick up the pieces after Speed’s suicide, and of course a great player like Gareth Bale, Wales are currently 5th in UEFA, and 8th in the world, and are the highest ranked side in the UK, being ahead of England. Wales’ success is not just down to Bale; the defence was superb throughout the qualifying campaign, conceding just 4 goals.
Slovakia made the 2010 World Cup, but hadn’t done a great deal else until this tournament. They got off to a storming start to their qualifying campaign; winning the first 6 games, including a 2-1 win over Spain, and were able to hold off Ukraine to finish second in their group.
Albania were the lowest ranked team in their group; having been ranked 40 in Europe when the qualifying draw was made. Now, they are heading to France next summer for their first ever major tournament appearance having got out of a group at the expense of Denmark and Serbia (although being granted a 0-3 win by UEFA after their game in Serbia was abandoned in truly weird circumstances helped) and are now ranked 21st in Europe, and have been ranked in the top 25 of the world in the last few months.
It was probably less of a shock that Iceland qualified for a major tournament following the giant strides forward they have been making in the past few years, but the manner of their qualification from a tough group was a surprise with Iceland qualifying with games to spare, having beaten the Netherlands home and away; and only conceding 6 goals along the way.
It cannot be overstated how big an achievement it is that a nation of about 330,000 people has qualified for a major tournament, as the previous country with the smallest population to qualify was Slovenia with 2m people.
UEFA’s lower-ranked teams can also feel pleased with the way qualifying went, as out of the 8 lowest ranked teams in the draw, only 4 finished bottom of their group. Even then, those four teams will probably be happy enough with the way things went for them.
Gibraltar may have lost every game, and suffered some heavy defeats along the way, but it was their first ever qualifying campaign since being admitted to UEFA, and they will be able to build on this going forwards.
Similarly, Andorra lost every game, but showed some signs of being a little more competitive than in the past. Andorra scored 4 goals, which is the same as they managed in their previous 30 competitive games, and only failed to score in one game at home.
Once again, Malta finished bottom of their group, but managed to pick up two points, including a creditable draw away at Bulgaria. Malta may have lost a lot of games, but they were not heavy defeats; Italy only managed two 1-0 wins against them, and this suggests they are not the easy prey they once were.
San Marino finished bottom of their group, but during qualifying managed to snap a 61 game losing streak when they drew with Estonia, which also took them off the bottom of the FIFA rankings for the first time in years. They nearly got another draw in Lithuania, but were cruelly denied by a Lithuanian injury-time winner. That game in Lithuania saw San Marino score an away goal in a competitive game for the first time in 14 years (they’ve only ever scored 5 away goals), thanks to a thumping free-kick from Matteo Vitaioli.
Of the other minnows, Liechtenstein managed to avoid finishing bottom of their group, picking up 5 points; and managed to win a game, beating Moldova away. Liechtenstein can also be proud of their home draw against a much stronger Montenegro team.
Kazakhstan won away in Latvia in their last game of their campaign, and that result meant that they leapfrogged Latvia to finish second from bottom of their group. The positives for Kazakhstan are to be found in club football, with FC Astana having made it to the group stages of the Champions League, as well as some of the other Kazakh sides having participated in European competition, so the hope is that the improvements the Kazakh club football will help the national team to improve.
It’s probably a measure of Luxembourg’s improvement in recent years that they’ll be slightly disappointed by a qualifying campaign that saw them avoid finishing bottom of their group. Luxembourg came into the qualifying campaign on the back of a good run of results that saw them draw with Italy, Cape Verde and Belarus, only to lose their first game in Macedonia to a late goal.
That set the tone for their qualifying campaign, with Luxembourg conceding several late goals, which made their results seems a bit more lop-sided than they actually were.
The best performance by UEFA’s lesser teams came from the Faroe Islands, who pulled off the biggest shock ever in international football in terms of ranking disparity, when they beat Greece 0-1 away. At the time, Greece were ranked 18 in the world, and the Faroes were 187.
Earlier this year, the Faroes proved that result was no fluke as they beat Greece again 2-1. Even though those two wins over Greece were the only points the Faroe Islands picked up, they will still be happy with their campaign; as they proved themselves to be no longer the pushovers they once were, and teams had to work hard to beat them.
The Faroes also improved their ranking to the extent that they are now comfortably inside the world’s top 100 and when the draw was made for World Cup Qualifying, the Faroes were fourth seeds in their group.
In 2018, the inaugural UEFA Nation’s League will be played. As a result, one of the bottom 16 ranked UEFA countries will be guaranteed a place at EURO 2020. So there is a clear incentive for those teams at the bottom to keep working hard and keep progressing.
From the evidence of this qualifying campaign, that won’t mean that a weak, makeweight team will be given an opportunity they do not deserve, as Northern Ireland and Albania were both in UEFA’s bottom 16 when EURO 2016 qualifying was drawn.
There’s always been a moral and philosophical argument to not introducing pre-qualifying in UEFA, as all teams. At present, and perhaps for the first time, there’s less of an argument to be made for pre-qualifying on the grounds of performance on the pitch too.