Next decade may be new dawn for international football
With change ahead will it be for the benefit or detriment of the international game?
Alex Ferguson and Scotland manager Gordon Strachan during the Glasgow Uefa Euro 2020 Host City Logo Launch. The next European Championships will be played across 13 different countries. Photo: Getty Images
There’s little doubt international football is dying a death. What was once the pinnacle of the footballing world has been overtaken by the money-guzzling, sponsor-laden giants of the Champions League, the Premier League and, it could be argued, other elite European leagues such as La Liga or the Bundesliga.
Sure, there will always be scenes such as those witnessed in Panama and Egypt when they secured qualification for next year’s World Cup in Russia, there will always be national scandals like those seen in Italy and Chile after both failed to join the party next summer and international football will always have the power to unite and divide countries.
But that’s when it comes to the business-end of qualifying and the major tournaments themselves. The majority of qualifying campaigns and friendly matches are, for the most part, greeted as an inconvenience; a week of pining for the return of a Super Sunday made up of Stoke’s visit West Brom and a scoreless draw between Huddersfield and Watford.
That’s why international football, particularly in Europe, needs a change. If it’s not broken don’t fix it. But, in this case, it is broken and it needs fixing. With qualifying for next year’s World Cup complete we can look forward to a bonanza of football next summer with matches on almost every day and the guaranteed drama that knockout games between the 32 best teams in the world always produces.
But, once it’s over, the winds of change will sweep across Europe and, in the longer term, the world.
The next nine years will see the international football landscape change completely: in September 2019 the Uefa Nations League will begin, doing away with the majority of meaningless friendlies, Euro 2020 qualifying will take on a different complexion because of that, the European Championships themselves will be changed utterly with matches being played across 13 different countries, two years later we will witness a World Cup in Qatar which will be played in November and December and, four years after that, there will be 48 countries competing at the 2026 World Cup. It’s a step into the unknown. But is it for better or worse?
The Nations League, for the most part, seems to be for the better. Not only does it offer four automatic qualification spots for Euro 2020 – therefore putting competitive games in place of friendlies – but it gives those countries generally considered as minnows something to actually play for.
The fact is that one team from the 16 in League D will reach a major tournament in Euro 2020. Yes, they won’t have a hope when they get there but isn’t it better that they will, at least, stand a chance in most of the games they play and not enter the majority with the only tactic of keeping 11 men behind the ball at all times and limiting how many goals they concede to less than double figures?
At the other end of the scale it can also only be a good thing for the top tier teams as they face tests in every game. As viewers we also get the rewards of seeing the likes of Germany, Spain, France, England and others play competitively against each other.
It’s been eight years and 39 games since England last lost a qualifying game and yet, when they face the big teams at major tournaments, they tend to struggle. And also, despite that quite staggering qualification record, the apathy around the English national team continues to grow. Games against top sides, the chance to win a trophy and possible early qualification for Euro 2020 might not be guaranteed to change that but it’s a start. In the last few days Concacaf – which takes in north and central America and the Caribbean – announced that they are implementing an almost identical competition in September 2018.
Coupled with that is the fact the Uefa say, for the 2022 World Cup, "the same principles will apply to both the Uefa Nations League and the European Qualifiers, but will be adapted to the number of slots available and final tournament dates." A second way of qualifying for the World Cup, they say? Happy days.
But that will just be the beginning of this brave new world of international football and it may not all be good news.
Euro 2020 qualifying will not start until March 2019 and will see all 10 matchdays squeezed into nine months before the Nations League playoffs in March. With 10 groups and the top two qualifying from each, it’s a slight change from Euro 2016 qualifying where third place in each group went into the playoffs. Under the new structure Robbie Brady’s goal in Zenica would never have happened and Ireland would not have been in France.
While the finals themselves will take on the same structure as those in France, there will be no host country with matches taking place across 13 different countries in what is planned to be a special one-off edition of the tournament.
You have to imagine this will only serve to give the tournament more of a qualifying campaign or Champions League feel with elements sucg as the gathering of fans from so many different countries in one place now lost.
The impact on each of the 13 cities – London, Munich, Rome, Baku, St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Dublin, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Brussels, Budapest, Bilbao and Bucharest – will also depend hugely on what teams are playing where.
Anyone for Georgia v Ukraine in Lansdowne Road, followed by a trip to Baku in Azerbaijan?
And then, two years later, comes the real kicker – a World Cup in a country with no footballing pedigree, a population half the size of Ireland, where homosexuality and alcohol are illegal and where an estimated 1,200 migrant workers have died while building stadiums. Oh, and it’s in the middle of winter with the World Cup final taking place seven days before Christmas. And, to top it all off, the Qatar bid has been dogged by some of the worst allegations of bribery and corruption ever seen in sport.
And this is where the international football world could see its biggest head-to-head with the parallel universe of club football. Losing 28 days from the calendar right in the middle of the season will pose huge risks for European football leagues in a row that is sure to rumble on, getting louder and louder as the 2022 World Cup ticks ever closer.
Couple that with the fact that, four years later, the World Cup will expand to 48 teams, resulting in more meaningless games and less of what everybody wants to see – that being the best teams going head to head.
Could we see a day where players start to pull out of international squads even for major tournaments?
Don't rule it out.
One thing for certain is that, if that were to happen, it really would be the nail in the coffin for the international game.
Ireland match calendar
Friendly matches: March 19th, 2018 – March, 27th 2018
2018 Nations League: September 6th, 2018 – November 20th, 2018
Euro 2020 qualifying: March 21st, 2019 – November, 19th, 2019
2018 Nations League playoffs (winners qualify for Euro 2020): March 2020
Euro 2020 finals: June 12th, 2020 – July 12th, 2020
2020 Nations League: September 2020 – November 2020
2022 World Cup qualifying: March 2021 – November 2021
2020 Nations League playoffs (number of World Cup qualifying spot tbc): March 2022
2022 World Cup: November 21st, 2022 – December 18th, 2022