World Cup Qualification Should Be Turned into a Mini Tournament
The majority of domestic seasons have now concluded, giving many world-class players a small window in which to take a relaxing break. Franck Ribery, for example, has gone speedboating. Ashley Cole has overextended his deodorant's capabilities in Los Angeles.
Hundreds of top flight players, however, will be reporting for international duty today, as yet another round of 2014 World Cup Qualifiers is upon us.
I am now going to float an opinion that I know is not mine alone: international breaks are annoying.
I'm a fan of the international game, but it is club football that is closest to my heart. Rounds of qualifiers are fine when they take place outside of the domestic season—like this weekend—but the majority of them punctuate important league campaigns.
World Cup qualifiers tend to disrupt the flow of league football. They irritate managers who lose their top talent for several weeks a year, knowing they risk seeing them return with serious injury.
How many times over the years has Ryan Giggs picked up an injury that conveniently rules him out of selection for Wales? Sir Alex Ferguson was not the only manager to strive to keep his players out of certain international games.
When it comes down to it, clubs pay for too much for their biggest assets to disappear to foreign climbs during the season, away from the careful watch of their own medical staff.
The sad truth is that many players would choose their paymasters over their country. Rio Ferdinand did exactly this in March, opting to prioritise his club's "pre-planned training regime" over the opportunity to represent the Three Lions.
(And judging by the apathetic performances of certain England players over the last few years, Rio isn't the only one who would prefer not to spend a few weekends a year playing in a remote corner of Europe for a team that doesn't pay him.)
When thinking about the issue of sporadic and disjointed international fixtures, I came up with an idea: What if World Cup Qualification was condensed into a single tournament in its own right?
Instead of dragging qualifiers out over the course of 13 months—as is the current case with UEFA's Brazil 2014 qualification process—what if all the matches were brought together in a concentrated round robin competition?
Perhaps these tournaments could be held in the summers of odd years between the major finals. So 2018 World Cup qualifiers could be staged in summer 2017, within their respective continental confederations. In Europe, summer 2015 could be devoted to a similar tournament for Euro 2016.
The benefits would be plentiful. National team players would get much more time to train and gel with one another, rather than the infrequent meetings they are used to. Domestic managers would have no longer face the issue of their players constantly jetting off (although a limited amount of friendlies could be organized during the season to keep the national teams in contact).
There would be a much greater sense of occasion if qualification was contracted to a single month. It would be exciting for the players, and very exciting for the viewers. It could evolve into a football equivalent of March Madness, with one or two underdogs surprising us with how far they can progress in the competition.
Would a World Cup Qualification tournament be better than the current format?
Fans and players of smaller nations who never normally get to experience a tournament would finally be able to soak up the atmosphere of the big stage. Albeit, the slightly smaller big stage!
What's more, World Cup qualifier tournaments would also generate plenty of revenue for broadcasters and sponsors, with the heightened interest that this format would surely produce. And if there is one thing that FIFA loves, it is revenue from broadcasters and sponsors.
If the qualifying tournaments were hosted across smaller nations, they could also provide myriad benefits for the local economy.
Granted, I can see a few reasons why this idea might not be championed. Those who are great fans of international football might miss it too much during its lengthy absence. It could prove a logistical nightmare, with nations potentially disagreeing over where their own qualifiers are held. And a qualifier competition might detract from the grandeur of the tournament proper.
But in an age when some top flight teams play over 60 games a season, removing the distraction of international breaks would surely be mutually beneficial.
It's a fairly radical idea, but stranger things have happened in the beautiful game. After all, FIFA sees no reason why the World Cup Finals in nine years time cannot be played in a 120-degree desert...
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