Malta’s impressive, if ultimately heartbreaking, run in the Nations League group stage is further proof that the qualifying process for the European Cup itself needs a complete overhaul.

The introduction of the Nations League is a welcome, if slightly confusing, replacement for the meaningless friendlies we had to endure before it was created. It has a degree of excitement and gives everyone something to play for.

So now it’s time for UEFA to give the qualification process for the European Cup itself a similar makeover; like I have suggested many times before.

You may recall my idea is simple – forget seeding and all that nonsense, which essentially means all the best teams are pretty much guaranteed a spot in the finals. Instead, groups should be made up of teams of similar standard.

Not only would that make the qualification process more interesting and competitive (as the Nations League has shown) it would also give the smaller teams a true sense of purpose (as the Nations League has also shown).

So in Group A you could have the likes of England, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Portugal, with all but the bottom team going through to the finals. That would make for some fascinating viewing and, just to be fair to the bottom team, you could give them a play-off slot to try and redeem themselves.

A similar sort of set-up would operate in the other groups, with maybe the bottom two being eliminated in Group B, the bottom three in Group C, and so on.

That would go on all the way down to the last group, which would contain teams from Europe’s smallest countries, like Malta, Andorra, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar, which could then fight it out for a single qualifying place.

Yes, I know this would reduce the glamour ties for these smaller countries which wouldn’t get one or two guaranteed big matches every couple of years. But surely it would be worth sacrificing that for: a) properly competitive football; b) increased supporter interest; and c) an outside chance of actually making the finals themselves.

Last Tuesday night’s match was not a traditional glamour tie. But I tell you what, if it hadn’t been for COVID restrictions, I think Ta’ Qali would have been rocking with passionate and excited supporters.

People I know who don’t even like football made it a point to watch the game on TV. Why? Because Malta had something concrete to play for, and the chance to achieve something special and memorable.

Interest in the match was huge because people knew the chance of glory was within reach.

You don’t get that sort of emotion, passion and interest from going out to try and concede as few goals as possible against Spain or France. You get it from going into football matches where you have a realistic chance of winning; and where the ultimate prize on offer is something that can be life-changing for an entire country.

I know, I know. I have said all this before. But when I last suggested this plan, it was based on little more than conjecture.

Smaller countries like ours would embrace a qualifying system for a major tournament that isn’t stitched up in favour of the few

The Nations League has, however, proved that properly competitive football is more entertaining at every level, whether you support Spain or Gibraltar. And the fact that Malta went into their final group game with everything to play for, with the nation watching on with baited breath, shows that the public in smaller countries like ours would embrace a qualifying system for a major tournament that isn’t stitched up in favour of the few.

The Maltese team did us proud in this competition. Now it is up to UEFA to make the changes necessary to ensure they have the opportunity to do the same when trying to qualify for Europe’s ultimate international tournament.

A new Low point for Germany

Wow, how the mighty have fallen!

It wasn’t that long ago that Germany failing to win any sort of competitive football match would have been front-page news. They played, they won, they moved on to the next game – the ultimate combination of efficiency and consistency.

In recent years, however, that hasn’t been the case. The once formidable team has become unreliable and fickle, drawing games they would normally win and losing games they would also normally win.

To be fair, they haven’t had a totally bad 2020, going undefeated and leaving themselves in with a shout of reaching the Nations League finals.

Until they played Spain last Tuesday. And lost 6-0.

It wasn’t just the result, although that in itself was enough to shoot Germany back to the front pages, but the performance. Germany, once lethal and devastating, failed to manage a single shot on target during what became their heaviest ever competitive defeat.

 Joachim Löw was given the chance to rebuild Germany after their group stage exit in the 2018 World Cup. But two years on it is looking like that rebuilding process has made very little progress at all.

I have no doubt that at some point in the near future, Germany will once again be one of the dominant forces in European and world football. But I have several doubts that Löw in the man to get them there.

Your say

David Xuereb makes a good point for discussion here. Are we pushing our COVID luck by not limiting the football season just to the domestic leagues…?

“Regarding Vida’s incident last weekend, in your article you said ‘it probably didn’t cause much of an issue in this case’, but we got to know that Inter’s Brozovic is now positive after hugging Vida during a celebration, while other clubs are anxious to see if their players like Perisic (Inter), Calhanoglu (Milan), Demiral (Juventus), etc., got it too...

“As you said, swab results should arrive before a match, not during half time, and with all due respect it’s common sense too. The mind boggles.

“On a separate note, like all the other football followers, I appreciate that clubs are trying to continue their respective leagues during these difficult COVID times, albeit without the usual stadia income, and missing key players sometimes because of the pandemic, to name but two obstacles.

“However, again, we can link this with the Vida case as an example. Would it have been safer to continue the leagues only for this season, rather than also playing all the European cups and international matches? The worst of all are friendlies. I mean, is it worth taking the risks?

“OK, this is business. TV rights, commitments carrying deadlines which will need to be postponed, I get it. Nevertheless, are we also risking penalising the leagues this way and ending up with football parked again?” David Xuereb, e-mail.
Twitter: @maltablade

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us