While watching Albania-Portugal yesterday I could not help but have the same feeling I often have when watching qualifying matches, be it for the Euro or the World Cup: 'what a waste of time!'
Fair enough, the end was exciting with Portugal scoring the winning goal in injury time, but the rest of the match was dreadful with the Portuguese players clearly wondering why they have to be playing football in Tirana after a long season already crowded with useless cups and tournaments. The Albanians on the other hand, were enjoying their own turf, taking any opportunity to lie there for as long as possible, while faking injuries or something of the kind.
The problem is that the same was certainly helping at the same time in other stadiums in other qualifying matches, as it usually happens. If we think carefully about the meaning of these matches, we'll reach the conclusion that they are not about playing football, they're just an obstacles' competition which the big teams need to overcome in order to guarantee their place where it really matters.
England did not manage to do it two years ago and the result was that they did not play in Euro2008. Weren't they good enough to be there? Of course they were. As far as I can remember, in no other sport is there this attempt of both misusing the game's best assets (players) and preventing the best teams to be in the best competitions as in football.
Could we think of a Rugby World Cup without Australia? Could we think of the US team missing a Basketball World Cup? Would an Ice Hockey World Cup be as interesting if Canada or Russia were not present? No, no to all of them.
In football, however, this happens on a regular basis, not counting with the near-miss cases, such as Brazil in 1994.
The counter-argument will certainly be that it is only fair for all the teams to compete on a similar basis and that if someone is really good it should overcome those minor football nations easily. Also, there are more 'good' teams in football than in those other sports and thus not all of them can be in the final stages of those international tournaments.
These are all valid arguments and thus deserve to be taken individually. It is only fair that any nation in this world has the possibility to compete for the World Cup. However, this is an idea as romantic as thinking Man Utd will present its best players when playing for a League Cup match in the eve of a big European night.
The latter obviously will not happen and with the exception of the other League Cup team that would probably like to play against the best, nobody will want it to happen, starting with the international and European ruling bodies.
Why? Because the best players are supposed to play in the most important events and there is a hierarchy of them to respect.
Regarding the limited number of 'seats available', it is linked to my own solution for this problem. There are, particularly in Europe too many good teams, internationally speaking. The same could be said of South America, and even of Africa. Obviously, not everyone can be present.
However, this does not mean the present solution is the best to solve this problem.
In most sports of international impact, national teams are divided along divisions. Rugby, cricket, basketball are some of the examples that come to my mind.
As probably the sport with the biggest number of nations competing, it is difficult to understand why those divisions do not exist in international football. With such background, it would be easier to address the qualification problem.
If, for example, Europe was divided in three divisions—the third division could play first, with the best teams being allowed to compete in the second division tournament, which, in return would give its best teams the possibility to compete for the first division qualification tournament.
Let us imagine the case of England's next opponent—Andorra.
Ranked very low in the international ranking it would probably be in the third division of European football.
However, if after competing against its 'equals' it finished top of the third division tournament, it could play in the second division tournament. If there, it was able to amaze the world and be among the best in the final standing, it would be allowed to try its luck against Europe's very best for a spot in the next World Cup.
This would largely reduce the number of matches the best teams in Europe would have to play, while at the same time giving every team the chance to compete.
Other solutions could be found. The question here is not so much the solution, but mainly the problem. International football players already play too many matches per season. If we want to see them perform at their very best we should not be demanding them to play against teams which are not of the same level.
If we do not do it at the club level, why should we enforce it when it comes to national teams playing?