It’s hard to imagine reaching the World Cup Finals with less jubilation than England managed on Saturday night, by (a) getting the required result with a wobbly performance, (b) having to wait for another team to lose a game on the other side of the continent and (c) qualifying via a method that involves the use of maths. By the time you’ve gone to BBCi Sport to make sure that the Czechs beat Armenia and Andorra in both matches, you’ve practically forgotten what you were planning to celebrate.
But, ignoring the fact that England could have coasted to qualification if they’d played to their potential in these last three games (I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d like to ignore that), the fine margin by which they’ve made it demonstrates how tough it is to qualify for the World Cup these days. There are several good sides who are seriously looking at missing out on the Finals. Greece, Denmark and Turkey are all in the same group and none have managed to top it, so all of them could be absent. Ireland have suffered a tough draw and the surprising form of Israel, who have been so good that France may have to win a play-off: similarly, Spain have left it to the last game. Although England have grabbed their automatic spot, the Czech Republic deserve to be in Germany too.
Yet think back to when the draw for this qualifying campaign was being made: FIFA was talking about the possibility of cutting the European allocation of berths for the World Cup. To be fair, this is in keeping with the organisation’s laudable policy of broadening the audience of football and making it a truly global game. World Cup participation promotes the sport heavily within the participating nation and brings money and prestige. If all parts of the world are not given a chance to participate in the World Cup at its highest level, then the game’s old powers will dominate forever and the emerging footballing nations will never get a chance to, well, emerge.
There are 32 places available in the finals, and 14 of them – that’s almost half, for those of you who had trouble working out the Czechs’ adjusted points total – go to Europe. Meanwhile, South America – home of many of the greatest footballers ever – is only guaranteed four spots. Is this not unfair?
The answer is that no, it isn’t unfair at all. Around 50 European countries entered qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That means that well under a third of them get through to the finals. Meanwhile, the South American zone of qualifying comprises just ten teams: four of them get through, and the fifth gets a play-off with the winner of the Oceania Zone (this is always Australia). This means that, in practice, half the teams in South America usually go to the finals. And, to be honest, whilst Brazil are the best team in the world and Argentina are never far off, who else is there? The once-great Uruguay (double World Cup winners) have been mediocre for ages. They’ve missed out on an automatic place this time – the other two spots have gone to Ecuador and Paraguay. There are more than enough places in the South American zone to allow all the worthy teams to qualify.
One area which can make a good case for more places is Africa: four of its five qualifiers will be playing in the World Cup for the first time. This means that Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon – who have all impressed in previous tournaments – are staying at home next summer. That’s pretty harsh, and possibly needs to be looked at. The fact that Africa has produced some of the world’s best players in recent years (Drogba, Essien) but its national teams have struggled to make an impact at the World Cup suggests that lack of experience is a factor, and this will only be righted by ensuring that the promising teams get to go.
But there are emerging sides in Europe too. Look at Ukraine, who’ve never got to the finals before but have walked through a group which includes the European champions and the third-placed team from the previous World Cup. There are also resurgent teams like Poland, who were one of the world’s great teams in the 1930s but got interrupted by Hitler before they could have a decent shot at a World Cup. Every time one of these teams comes through to qualify, they nudge out a good team who qualified last time. I’m not making a case for Europe to be given more qualifying spots – indeed, it’s good that the qualifying is so fiercely competitive, making the build-up to a World Cup that much more interesting – but I don’t see how you can cut them back much further.
Of course, the more places Europe has, the more chance England have of getting through, so I’ve a vested interest in saying this. But, frankly, if they really are one of about five teams who have a chance to win the World Cup as Eriksson claims, they shouldn’t need any of this best-second-placed-team bollocks anyway. They should be one of the few teams who don’t have to sweat over qualification. Yet somehow we always do. Funny, that.