Too much of a good thing

One thing that has been overlooked in coverage of the England football team’s latest failings is just how tired and sluggish a lot of the players looked. While a lot of the blame for England’s shortcomings has to be laid on Steve McClaren’s own shoulders, it does not help his situation that a lot of his best players (Rooney, Lampard) are completely out of sorts at the moment, with barely no time to rest since the World Cup ended. This is not an excuse – England were crap – but it is a mitigating circumstance, and it exposes a growing problem with international football.

The World Cup was quite a gruelling, physical one for all sides involved, and yet ridiculously FIFA alloted an international weekend in mid-August. England played five matches in the World Cup and the players could have done with a bit of a break (psychologically, as well as physically – they must have all been sick of each other after a month together). The FA could have skipped this match, but instead stupidly accepted an invite from Greece to play, in a 4-0 win that (as is now evident) was totally useless in terms of improving team cohesion.

To make things worse, the qualifying groups for this European Championship are enormous. This itself is the fault of UEFA, who insist that all 50 eligible teams should feature at every stage of the qualifying tournament, which has 14 teams qualifying. This results in an insane tournament of seven groups of seven and one of eight; each team has to play home and away, meaning 12 or 14 matches for qualification in an 15-month period. England’s (population: 48,000,000) farcical match against Andorra (population: 69,000), who are little more than a Conference side, proved the stupidity of this situation. Rather than give this insult of a football team the response they deserve and field a second- or even third-string side (and perhaps make UEFA doubt the validity of these matches), the FA put out a strong side which did nothing for the players involved (except artificially boost Peter Crouch’s international standing).

Ideally we would have far fewer international matches – and I am not the only one who thinks so. European Championship qualifying could be split into two stages – e.g. the bottom 30 sides in Europe are paired into playoffs, the 15 winners joining the top 20 to make 35 teams, which are split into seven groups of five. The top two teams in each group qualify, with only 8-10 matches being played by each side in total.* This would be met by fierce opposition from the smaller associations, and you would probably have to give the sweetener of a minor nations’ tournament (a footballing equivalent of the ICC Trophy?) to make up for the fewer matches the knocked out teams have to play. But it would be to their benefit – Andorra will probably learn a lot more as a team regularly playing the likes of Lichtenstein than getting repeated hidings at the hands of larger nations.

Reducing the calendar would mean we would no longer have to play qualification matches in June (when players should be taking a break from the end of the season) and reduce the number of double-headers that need to be played (which only increase the risk of injury). Teams that had qualified for the World Cup would probably not play another international until October (once the first round of playoffs had got out of the way), further reducing the stress on major players.

Of course this is a radical change and if that’s one thing that the world of international football shies away from, it’s change. But it might be happening sooner than you think. There is currently a court case worming its way through over Abdelmajid Oulmers, a player for Charleroi, who are suing FIFA after Oulmers was injured playing against Burkina Faso. Charleroi are being backed by the G-14, a group of major European clubs. There is the risk that the G14 will just use it to leach money from FIFA (rather than it going through national federations), yet a bargaining chip is still on the table that could prevent this. Cutting international dates and streamlining tournaments would benefit the teams taking part and the clubs at the same time – pretty rare that something is in both teams’ interests. So why don’t they do it? Keeping with the unsustainable status quo is only going to lead to a further devaluation of the quality of international football – as if it couldn’t get bad enough as it is.

PS And before you ask, no, this has nothing to do with my opinion on this at all. Of course not.

*There are other less simple permutations. One would to only have the bottom 20 in the playoffs, the 10 winners joining the other 30 to make 40 teams, which is eight groups of five. 8 group winners and 4 best runners-up automatically qualify, while the other 4 are paired into playoffs and the 2 winners qualify. As I said, that’s less easy and means allocating 12 dates in the international calendar, in case a smaller team makes it to the final round of playoffs.