UEFAVision

You could see Sepp Blatter’s hands more obviously than Thierry Henry’s. With the less than able assistance of a bewilderingly lost Charlize Theron and the copper from ‘Allo ‘Allo, the draw for next year’s World Cup Finals dragged on for longer than the Eurovision Song Contest. It contained more rules and regulations than those used to ensure the daily running of the Large Hadron Collider.

On the Saturday after the tedious ping-pong ball extraction, The Guardian had a proposal. Mix the idea behind the UN Security Council with FIFA’s intention to represent the whole world in football, to invent in time for the Brazil World Cup a far wider and larger contest. In short, give automatic qualification spots to the best teams in the world rankings, to give “smaller” associations a better chance of getting to the finals. I say “smaller”, even when South Africa 2012 includes New Zealand and Slovakia, under achievers both.

On a world-wide basis, I cannot see this laudable suggestion being adopted. To be fair, FIFA really are not on the look-out to create an actual international footballing event, hence the urgency with which they sought to keep France and Portugal in the Finals in the closing stages of the European qualifying section.

However there are merits to changing the way international football competitions are organised, starting with the qualifying stages. I do wonder how frustrating it must be for a young boy waking up on the eve of his thirteenth birthday to the news from his parents that he is, sadly and tragically, a resident of the Faroe Islands and therefore will never witness decent football at any level throughout his entire life.

If this “Security Council” plan is to move forward, let us start small. UEFA will soon begin the qualification for Poland/Ukraine 2012. Rather than continue along the formulaic route of putting small and micro-nations into the same qualifying groups as England, France, or whichever other high achievers, could it be too much to ask for than a little out-of-the-box consideration? Give the smaller associations – Andorra, San Marino, Cyprus, Norn Iron, Luxembourg and so on – their own dedicated qualifying group with at least two guaranteed places in the Finals. On a world-wide context, such “small” countries as India, Pakistan, and Canada, and as such “obscure” states as Palestine, Israel, and Iraq, find it almost impossible to make it to the top table of FIFA’s corporate feast of football and merchandise. Maybe it is fluffy and idealistic to want an internationalist perspective, but given the aims of both FIFA and UEFA, why not allow more countries the chance to play competitive football at a higher level than they may otherwise have achieved?

Fading memories of Zaire and THAT free kick, or Kuwait and THAT half-time malaise, should ensure any future aims to help the smaller countries can be untarnished by such botherations as actual FACTS. And anyway, it would mean smaller television draws and no comedy Frenchman presenter.

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Old Firm, new challenges

My post last week concerning proposals to bring Celtic and Rangers into a modified two-tier Premier League brought a very considered response in the Comments section from a reader called “Martin”. This post is a part reply to him. It would appear, following the Premier League vote last week, that this “Anglo-Scottish League” proposal has been roundly defeated.

Martin says, “Having a two-tier Premier League would divide television revenue between 36 clubs rather than 20, and considering only two of those would be Scottish teams, 14 English clubs would be better off, increasing competitiveness at the higher end”.

I think this statement presumes the television revenue would be fairly distributed and evenly granted between clubs. This presumption, under the new circumstances of an Anglo-Scottish league, lacks logic. The larger clubs, the “Big 4” of the Premier League, already command far more attention and television coverage than even those mid-table sides in the same league: it would be fanciful to suggest that Norwich or Hull or even perhaps Aston Villa would see similar benefits to a two-tier league than Manchester United or Arsenal. “Increasing competitiveness” could well be the end result, although not instantly; the special atmosphere between the “larger” clubs and Celtic or Rangers is often because of the rare European Cup ties between the sides, a relationship which would become lesser as the novelty of regular matches wears off.

Martin then lists a number of “cross country” examples, including the Welsh clubs which play in England (Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, and Merthyr Tydfil), Monaco in France, and Derry FC in Ireland, amongst others. He is absolutely right to point out these examples. And he is right to suggest that “..[t]he only way that clubs from smaller nations will ever be able to compete with the financial monopoly of the big clubs is to play in their leagues, or form cross-country leagues.”

With all due respect, Celtic or Rangers playing regular league football in England is not quite the same thing as Cardiff or Wrexham playing in England. That the Old Firm are “big fish” in a small nation is perhaps entirely a consequence of a mis-handling of the Scottish Leagues over generations. If something must be done, why not the “Atlantic League”, where similarly sized nations could share revenues across borders without the wholesale negative consequences to England’s footballing system?

Martin says that the Old Firm “leaving Scotland will improve the competitiveness of that league, and fill the ground two times more a season at every English club they play“. I cannot agree completely with this all-done-and-dusted assumption. For sides already struggling in Leagues 1 and 2, the promise of expensive jaunts up to Glasgow twice a season to be roundly thumped in a stadium atmosphere completely alien to the rest of the League does not exactly glisten with gold.

Inventing traditions in football does not work. FIFA see this with their ill-fated World Club Cup competition, a globe-trotting failure completely disconnected from fans who have no attraction to watching unknown Asian clubs stretch out results against a seemingly never-ending rota of different African also-rans. There could be a great amount of financial benefit from introducing Celtic and Rangers into the English Premier League, not least for those larger clubs and more affluent fans for whom the lucrative profits would rush out of the gates and flood the club shop. Ultimately, however, the logistical difficulties and questionable benefits further down the leagues tip the balance against the proposals.

I would like to thank Martin for taking the time to respond to my first post. He makes a good case for the proposals, but ultimately I think the whole idea would do more harm than good.