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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for and and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


UEFA Needs To Look To Africa To See How Qualifying Should Be Done

Written by on October 10, 2011 | 11 Comments »
Posted in African Cup of Nations, European Championship, General

A question that needs a quick response. What is the bigger surprise – that Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt and South Africa have not made it to the 2012 African Cup of Nations or that Mali, Guinea, Libya, and Niger have?

My guess is that it is the former rather than the latter. We tend to consider the failure of bigger names a greater shock than success of teams that we expect less from.

If the results in African Cup of Nations had been replicated in Euro 2012 it would have been the equivalent of something like Germany, Italy, Netherlands and England failing to make the finals.

We can only guess at the fall out if that had happened.

As it is Euro 2012 will wrap up on Tuesday and although there are automatic and play off spots that have still to be decided there will not be the drama that we have seen played out in Africa.

Holders Spain, ’08 runners up Germany, Italy, Netherlands and England have all guaranteed a spot at the finals in Poland and Ukraine next summer. A run down of the other countries that carry some pedigree over the last decade or so of major tournaments includes:

. Portugal hold a head-to-head edge over Denmark and unless they lose in Copenhagen and Norway fills the Cyprus net the worst looks to be another crack through the play offs

. Greece has at least a play-off place guaranteed and with a two point lead on Croatia they should go through as group winners

. Sweden could yet qualify as best second place finishers

. France only needs to draw with Bosnia-Herzegovina to win group D and at worst they would face a play off

. Serbia are in a wee bit of a trouble but they are still are in control of their own destiny – a win away to Slovenia will do the job.

. A draw at home for Russia against Andorra should not be possible without breaking into sweat

The play-offs will generate a bit of excitement but it has been a very lacklustre qualifying campaign for Europe’s major international tournament.

What’s more if truth be known the play-offs is just another way to give the larger more powerful countries another opportunity to make it should they screw up the group stage.

The bad news is in four years time it will only get worse. Qualifying for France will involve 54 countries and 23 will join France as host. That is over 40% of the entries make it to the final.

Take all the group winners from 2012 qualifying, add all the runners-up, plus Ukraine and Poland and there would still be another 4 spots for third place finishers. Isn’t that an exciting thought.

The chances of getting the types of shocks we saw in African Cup of Nations drops to close to zero.

Africa had 44 countries in the final qualifying stage and 14 places were made up for grabs – the two others going to the joint host nations of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. That gives a success rate of around 36% compared to the UEFA mark of 26% for 2012 and the aforementioned rate of 40% for 2016.

Africa managed to generate more excitement than UEFA even though the qualification rate for 2012 is higher.

But there is a way to generate more excitement and surprises even with an expansion to 24 teams. The way to do it – it really is quite simple.

Follow the African system and go for smaller groups.

In a similar way to World Cup qualifying Africa has opted for more but smaller groups. Smaller groups means that the intensity of each game increases because we know that the shorter the campaign the greater the chance of success.

UEFA could easily do the same thing. Next time around take the ten lowest ranked countries and conduct a draw that offers the five winners of a home and home series a place in the full draw.

That would then give us 48 countries that could be drawn into 12 groups of 4. Group winners would all qualify as would each of the group runner-up – well all except the two poorest.

They would have to play off against each other to decide the final spot.

Although such a system may not create the sort of results we have seen in Africa it at least offers the chance of a shot in the arm to a qualifying system that it tantamount to legalized rigging.

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11 responses to “UEFA Needs To Look To Africa To See How Qualifying Should Be Done”

  1. Ed Gomes says:

    Yes it should be a level playing field. The “Big boys” shouldn’t get breaks in qualifying.
    But let’s be honest, TV money rules. And the reason TV money rules is because the “Big boys” bring in the fans. Even if they play a lesser squad, people will tune in to watch the top players. We might romanticize the posiiblity of Cinderelas, but in truth, everyone wants to see the big teams compete.
    By the way, there are still plenty of cinderela possibilities. Portugal, Turkey or Belgium, Bosnia, etc…

    Keep in mind that this is coming from someone that watches a ton of football. Frankly, if two of the big boys meet early, it’s usually a ho hum affair. The the fact is that most would still prefer to see that instead on Macedonia vs Slovenia.

  2. I wonder if we just accept the fact that the big boys have to be there as conventional wisdom but never look beyond that. Was 2008 a lesser tournament because England failed to qualify or 2002 because the Netherlands did not make it?

  3. Article by Gabriele Marcotti on CAN qualifying from the WSJ.

  4. Gus Keri says:

    Gabriele Marcotti made a mistake when he said that 17 of the last 18 cups were won by a West or North African team.

    Cameroon which won 4 of these 17 cups, located in Central Africa.

    And if you add the three titles won by Congo and DR Cong/Zaire, you find that Central Africa has won 7 of a total 27 African Cups of Nantions, equal to how many cups won by West Africa.

    North Africa: 11 cups
    West Africa: 7
    Central Africa: 7
    East Africa: 1
    Southern Africa: 1

  5. Soccerlogical says:

    What does it say about the intelligence, work ethic and overall commitment of developed countries like SA (who just hosted the WC) and top teams like Inter Milan, when the former wasn’t aware of the fact that head to head was the primary deciding factor in ACN qualifiers and Diego Forlan had participated in the Europa League and was ineligible for the CL group stage for Internazionale?

    I mean, how many staff members do these organizations have…200 or more?

  6. Carmelo Gabriele says:

    I like the idea, but I am not sure it would be in the best interest of UEFA or any governing body to do what the African Nations Cup does. I mean underdogs are great, but let’s face it all sports depend on TV revenue and quite honestly as much as I love an underdog (Hellas Verona scudetto 84/85) but that would sink the Euro’s as a marketable event in the minds of the TV producers and the viewers for that matter…. On the other hand I love the points you made, and don’t get me wrong I would like to see Slovakia (Hamsik) vs. Wales (Ramsey) in the quarterfinals…. However if UEFA created 12 groups of 4, with the top teams spread evenly, it would not make that much difference, perhaps it would create more pressure on the big boys if they got a draw against Albania or Estonia, but the cream would still rise….
    How about completely randomised drawing of teams?
    no seeds, no preferential treatment, almost F.A. cup like??

  7. […] Nigeria joining Cameroon and Egypt on the sidelines for the African Cup of Nations. Both Bobby McMahon and Gabriele Marcotti pick through the rubble. I completely agree with McMahon’s call for […]

  8. Ed Gomes says:

    Bobby, you are absolutely right, we do and should expect the big boys to be there. Whether it’s the World Cup, Euro’s or Champions League.
    People play to watch the best, period.
    By the way, having an England, Netherlands or another well know squad out here and there will never hurt a tourney. In some cases it heightens the following for the next ones qualifyers.
    But I can guarantee if Spain, Italy and England were out, the Euro’s would be in a great deal of trouble. The only saving grace would be for UEFA to make sure Netherlands faced Germany in the final.

    Carmelo, I know that I would watch, but Slovakia vs Wales in the quarters? That would put one of them in the semis. I’m sorry but only if you are from either country. By the way, should either team play a bigger squad in the quarters and advance, you then have a whole different tale. That’s a cinderela, that viewers could get behind.

  9. John Bladen says:

    If money wasn’t the overriding concern of any organizing body, there would be no group play in any of these competitions.

    It’s a good story, and perhaps even generates more intere$t, when a minnow country or club makes it through the tortuous prequalifying and play in games… but no-one in the ivory towers in Geneva wants to see more than one or two “plucky” small club or country entrants make the finals of any major tournament.

    On the other hand, populous (or geographically “necessary”) countries are often given much easier routes to qualify for World Cups despite their comparatively low level of play. It may be odd, but those of us who like to cheer for the underdog team in the early rounds of Europa or CL action don’t feel the same about North Korea or New Zealand…

  10. Brian says:

    Just bear in mind that Guinea has made multiple CAN quarterfinals in the last decade and Mali has made multiple semifinals. Not sure their appearance is that shocking.

  11. Gbenga says:

    Excellent piece Bobby and well written… The problem with the big countries like Nigeria and Cameroon who didn’t make it to the African Cup of Nations next year is their WC form and the bad results they got during the World Cup in South Africa, carried over into the nations cup qualifiers. Nigeria hasn’t been the same since the last WC and the results against Ethiopia away and Guinea how poor some of the displays were.

    Cameroon and their infighting never got going and they ran into an energized Senegalese team, who are looking to make amends after falling off the radar in the African game for quite a while. Egypt never got going after starting their qualifying campaign with a draw against Sierra Leone at home. As the qualifiers progressed, they never got into it and also the revolution that took place didn’t help matters… It’s going to be the first time in a long time where the defending champions won’t defend their cup at the next tournament.

    South Africa was simply clueless and out of touch with the rules designed by CAF after Mauritania pulled before the group games began. Interesting, coming from a country who just hosted the WC last year and they failed to understand what the rules were. South Africa, with the team they currently have is enough to beat Sierra Leone at home and yet they decided to play for a draw thinking it was a enough to see them through. Poor coaching, bad administrative by their federation officials who simply just didn’t understand what was going on.

    Nigeria also got the rules confused and didn’t know a win against Guinea would have been enough to grab one of the best second place spots. Nigeria’s chances were helped when Ghana defeated Sudan 2-0. Nigeria were leading 2-1 against Guinea and there was confusion on the bench, urging the players to go a for a third goal thinking goals difference would Nigeria through, but left holes at the back which Guinea took advantage of and scored late in the game to tie the game at 2-2 and eventually eliminated Nigeria out of the Cup of Nations.

    Congrats to the new countries who will be making their first appearance at the Africa Nations Cup. It’s about time we see different competitive nations at the tournament.

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