International Pre-Qualifying: Should smaller nations ‘earn the right’ to play England?

by Daniel Griffin

As England stepped out onto Wembley last month to face the minnows of San Marino, the question on many people’s lips was “What is the point?”

They were clearly referring to the fact that England had to play a match against the joint lowest ranked nation in the world (alongside Bhutan and Turks and Caicos Islands), and many people seemed to turn their noses up at England being ‘subjected’ to such a match. There were calls for a ‘pre-qualifying’ session, to make lower ranked nations have to play each other in order to ‘earn’ the right to face the likes of England and other more esteemed footballing nations in Europe.

Most worryingly though, these views were not just coming from the average football fan. They were being called for by respected sports journalists; people you would hope could formulate opinions further than most fans who, naturally, will only have the interests of their nation at heart. The notion of internatonal pre-qualifying could easily become a seriously debated point in UEFA, and this is worrying.

It is notable that the requests for pre-qualifying come largely from people who support more successful nations, and would most likely never sink to having to go through such a process. Herein lies the elitism of the idea, as fans of the best want to dilute the competition they have to face, in turn creating more ‘high class’ matches for the spectator.

There are numerous reasons why nations should not have to pre-qualify.

Firstly, as fully fledged members of FIFA, or their continental confederation, every nation earns the right to qualify at the same level, with the same theoretical chance of progressing to the finals. No nation should be forced to play matches in order to be able to play more matches at a qualifying stage.

The fact that four of the six continents in FIFA do this is unjust, and helps widen the gap between the elite, more established nations and the rest. It also stamps out any potential for upset; this clearly suits the larger nations.

Another reason why pre-qualifying is not the right idea is that for the lowest nations, interest in the game will simply dwindle. For nations like San Marino, their fans would not expect them to advance past a pre-qualifying stage, and as a result, marquee games like last month’s would be rare, if not non-existent.

The result of this would likely be a lessened interest in the national game in these countries; a vicious circle that would only stop if pre-qualifying sessions were scrapped or these nations simply withdrew from playing international football.

It is fair to say that pre-qualifying does have a place in the club game. With the sheer number of teams who qualify for continental and domestic club competitions, a system to reduce the numbers of teams is efficient, if not perfect.

However, when looking at continental competitions, where a maximum of 56 nations (in the case of CAF) have a less constricted time schedule to play their allocated matches, additional matches to determine who faces the ‘bigger’ teams are unnecessary, and are more a ‘waste of time’ than matches such as last month’s 5-0 win.

As the qualification process for World Cup 2014 carries on, it is safe to say that the calls for pre-qualifying will probably only get bigger, especially when England are facing one of the weaker teams in their group. However, these calls should be ignored, and the current UEFA process to determine who enters the World Cup should remain untouched, if only to give smaller nations an incentive to play competitive international football.

Do you agree with Daniel? Should the lowest ranked nations be made to pre-qualify for international tournaments? Comments welcome below and you can also vote in our poll:

Daniel Griffin is a guest contributor to Just Football. Daniel runs the blog Football Gibraltar and can also be found on Twitter @FootballGib

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2 Responses to “International Pre-Qualifying: Should smaller nations ‘earn the right’ to play England?”

  1. Mirko Bolesan
    November 19, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    A good way of doing this would be to only allow nations who have won or competed in World Cup or European Championship finals in the last 40 years to play in the final qualifying. Big nations like Germany, Spain, France, Holland, Italy, Portugal etc. would go through to the final round, the rest would have to pre-qualify.

  2. Steve Grey
    March 22, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    I see the arguments both ways. Without prequalifying in the weaker confederations you risk more games like Australia 31 American Samoa 0 and Australia 22 Tonga 0.

    Currently in Oceania, if Tonga were to play New Zealand, the All Whites wouldn’t even bother flying their best players back from Europe, so Tonga wouldn’t actually get to play against the top NZ players anyway.

    With prequalifying the weakest nations would get to play more games that are actually winnable, thereby possibly improving their FIFA ranking and earning a shot at an automatic place.

    On the other hand, for San Marino or Gibraltar to host England or Italy would definitely be a great occasion.