Fewer than eight months after they began, Europe’s World Cup qualifiers issued (most of) their verdicts. Ten nations are in, and 12 others will compete for the remaining three spots. Some will always complain about international football getting in the way of the club season, but we got this far with just four international breaks — albeit with two COVID-caused tripleheaders — and, except for those who were hoping to go and are now out or teetering on the edge, I’m not sure who can be too dissatisfied with the outcome.
So here are seven thoughts on what went down and what’s to come…
1. The good teams have made it, or at least aren’t out yet
The FIFA ranking is far from perfect, but it’s not insignificant as a measure of relative strength either. The 10 group winners are all among FIFA’s top 15 European nations, and had it not been for Jorginho‘s two missed penalties in the two Italy games against Switzerland or Portugal‘s implosion against Serbia, nine of the top 10 would have been group winners.
That’s what you want from your qualifying system: some level of uncertainty, but then the cream ultimately rising to the top. Conversely, Norway are the highest-ranked side to have failed to make the playoffs, and they are 20th in Europe’s ranking. You can live with that.
2. Even the minnows had something to cheer about… most of them, anyway
Just two of the 55 member nations (sorry, Gibraltar and San Marino, hate to rub it in) failed to record a single point. Just six of the 55 failed to win at least one game. Sure, San Marino and their 10-0 home defeat to England are fresh on our minds, and there will be folks who will continue to trot out arguments for pre-qualifying or excluding the tiny nations altogether. But we already have the Nations League as a way for countries to play teams on their level and, hopefully, develop.
3. It mostly went down to the wire
Apart from Germany and Denmark, which qualified with two games to spare, and France and Belgium, which qualified with one, the other six group winners had to wait until the final game to be sure of a place at the World Cup. Indeed, five of the 10 had to wait for the final half of the final game, as was a similar story further down the food chain, with four other teams eliminated from a shot at the playoffs on the final day.
4. It was more competitive than you might have thought
Alejandro Moreno debates whether Harry Kane will rediscover his goalscoring form in the Premier League.
Nobody was perfect in qualifying. Just six teams went undefeated, and of those, only England and Belgium qualified comfortably. Most tellingly, perhaps, is what happened on the final day of matches involving teams with nothing to play for but pride.
Italy went away to Northern Ireland and beat their heads against a green wall for 90 minutes, risking defeat at the end. Switzerland faced Bulgaria in similar circumstances, and while it finished 4-0 to the Swiss, it was scoreless at half-time, with Bulgaria defending as if they were battling to avoid relegation to Neptune. Or take Latvia, away from home to Norway on the second-to-last day with nothing but pride on the line, and snatching a 0-0 draw.
There’s no escaping the fact that (your San Marinos notwithstanding) there simply are fewer blowouts in the international game.
5. Playoffs are going to offer even more drama
Twelve teams will need to become three next March in the European playoff, and the format lends itself to more drama and tension — great if you’re a neutral, less so if your country is involved.
We’ll basically have three “final four” groups with one-legged semifinals and finals. The six seeded teams (Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Russia, Sweden and Wales) are guaranteed a home semifinal tie against the six unseeded (Turkey, Poland, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Austria and the Czech Republic). Beyond that, it’s wide open: Cristiano Ronaldo‘s Portugal may end up having to beat North Macedonia in Skopje to make the cut.
Two-legged encounters — like those in European cup competitions or, until recently World Cup playoffs — may be considered “fairer” by some, but there is no question that this format, with 90 minutes for all the marbles, is more compelling. There’s no away team parking the bus in the hopes of snatching a 0-0 (and, obviously, there’s no “away goals rule” either).
6. Don’t get too attached to this, because it may not last
The International Match Calendar — the master document everyone in football has agreed to that governs when we play, and what we play — expires in 2024. Between now and then — or actually, well before then, since broadcast and commercial rights to competitions will need to be sold, probably the end of 2022 at the latest — the game will need to agree some grand plan for the future.
Gab & Juls dissect Portugal’s poor World Cup qualifying campaign as they head for the playoffs.
That’s why Arsene Wenger has been brainstorming ideas on behalf of FIFA, and while his biennial men’s World Cup idea likely won’t be adopted (opposition is fierce, primarily from UEFA), other aspects appear to have more support. These include reducing the number of breaks in the season reserved for international football (from the current five, to two or three), but making the breaks longer, as well as having a mandatory rest period. But there are plenty of other proposals out there, from expanding the Club World Cup, to turning to the Nations League into a global event, to goodness knows what else.
Nobody wants chaos at the proverbial “witching hour” in 2024, which means some compromise will have to be reached. But the point is that so much of what we take for granted today in terms of the when, what and how of football is up for grabs. And if it’s going to change, it will be in the coming months, because if not, we won’t get a chance to do it for a long time.
7. Club football is back this weekend, and I’ll greet it with a metaphorical hug
Some fans hate the international break because it robs club football of momentum. We have natural rhythms during the year, lamenting the psychodramas at Barcelona and Manchester United, watching the soap opera unfold at Paris Saint-Germain, wondering whether Mohamed Salah will extend his deal at Liverpool. Most of that went on hold the past 10 days, and that’s not a bad thing. It helps us appreciate it more when it returns.
I thoroughly enjoyed this international break in terms of drama, at least. (As an Italy fan, I enjoyed the outcomes a bit less.) But I’m enjoying that it’s over and won’t be back for another four months — in Europe, at least, with qualifiers scheduled elsewhere in the world at the end of January — just as much.