LONDON • A lacklustre draw for Europe’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers could once again raise the question over the format used by Uefa, which some feel makes it too easy for the top teams while featuring too many mismatches.
Although Monday’s draw in Zurich produced some interesting fixtures from a historical perspective – England against Poland and Hungary – there were no heavyweight clashes to get pulses racing.
This was by design rather than accident as the biggest teams were kept apart by the seeding system, leaving all of them with relatively straightforward routes to Qatar.
Even if the likes of Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and England fail to win their groups, they get a second bite of the cherry through the play-offs.
Under the European system, the continent’s 55 teams are divided into 10 groups of five or six, which in Monday’s case produced fixtures such as Germany v Liechtenstein, England v San Marino and the Netherlands v Gibraltar.
This, in turn, leads to the idea in Europe that the international break is “boring” and provides an unwelcome interlude to the club season.
England’s progress to the last World Cup was so serene that, when they beat Slovenia 1-0 to guarantee their place at Russia 2018, bored fans were throwing paper planes onto the pitch instead of celebrating.
Yet in other parts of the world, the international break is the year’s highlight, no more so than in South America which has the ideal format for its region.
With only 10 teams and no real minnows, the continent uses the simplest and fairest system possible – a single group where every team play each other twice.
The format routinely serves up drama and controversy in equal measures and has also allowed lesser teams like Venezuela and Ecuador to improve enormously, thanks to greater exposure to competitive matches.
Meanwhile, Africa, Asia and the Concacaf region all use a staged format, in which the lower-ranked teams take part in preliminary rounds and the bigger teams enter the fray at a later stage.
Europe has so far resisted this route, with Uefa arguing that the smallest nations have the right to face the biggest in qualifying.
But with World Cups continuing to expand – the 2026 edition that will be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico will feature 48 teams, up from 32 – this traditional group system will only become even less competitive.