Shake up Euro qualifying for World Cup's sake
It's time to look for solutions to the potential mess that threatens to engulf European football in the 2022/23 season.
FIFA and representatives of continents, nations, clubs and players are about to try and harmonise the calendar.
In the spirit of 'ideas for solutions being more welcome than more problems' here's my humble offering to try and ease the disruption and logjam of fixtures.
First let's remind ourselves of the landscape. It's now as clear as a desert day (before a sandstorm) that the World Cup will go ahead in Qatar and that it will be a moved to winter rather than played in temperatures of over 40 degrees.
Those who ask why FIFA didn't consider this when awarding the tournament only have half a point - yes it's too hot, but sooner or later a World Cup was going to have to be moved. Why discriminate against the Middle East and the world's hotter regions?
FIFA sit down in Zurich on October 3 to confirm the tournament will move to European winter and begin the journey towards a workable calendar for a World Cup season.
UEFA has just met in Croatia to clarify Europe's stance on 2022, which effectively the big European clubs will have to go along with. Unsurprisingly UEFA will comply - as if there was an option not to - but with a significant voice in the shaping of the calendar. Which is entirely reasonable, they really will suffer most.
Remember President Platini voted for Qatar and has always been in favour of a Winter World Cup. In Kiev two years ago he insisted to me in an Al Jazeera interview he would move all his tournaments and leagues as the World Cup is the priority. He is good to his word.
Now Platini and UEFA can help themselves in 2022/2023 by making club football their priority and compromising European qualification.
My idea is this; qualification for Euro 2024 needs to be completely revolutionised.
To explain my theory and how it works we need to start at Euro 2016.
Sadly, this is the first tournament that will feature 24 teams. It's depressing that UEFA is changing the best format and the best quality tournament in international football - the crisp 16-team format brought in for Euro ‘96. Platini gave his famous Gallic shrug when criticised over this, talking about votes and democracy etc. Perhaps as President he could have tried harder to dissuade individual Football Associations being allowed to vote for a pointlessly easy passage into the finals.
So 24 out of 54 teams qualify, as will be the case in 2024.
I've felt for many years that there should be pre-qualifying in Europe for Euro tournaments and World Cups and that major nations playing minnows home and away was serving no purpose. It's long been time to change this, perhaps in 2022 they will have to change it.
What I'm suggesting is the top 24 teams in Europe are excused from qualifiers until a second qualifying stage that starts around March 2023. Only the best 16 of the rest reach the final 40 having played their pre-qualifiers in existing international dates in late 2022/early 2023.
For the higher-ranked nations the late summer/autumn 2022 international dates would be used for club fixtures. Club with players representing Europe's minor nations will simply have to get on with it.
So, for example, in the September international window Luxembourg could play Belarus then San Marino. Meanwhile the English Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, Primera Division etc. would be able to play two or three fixtures, meaning they wouldn't clash with the long World Cup period later in the season. Africa, Concacaf, Oceania etc would play friendlies if possible. If tournament qualifiers absolutely had to be played then clubs would simply have to release players, just as they have to do currently when the Africa Cup of Nations has been played in January.
Objections to this I'd anticipate, in the unlikely event of anyone at FIFA and UEFA actually welcoming ideas for the football calendar.
The protection of international fixture windows in the calendar would surely make FIFA territorial over giving up European international dates. Plus it's potentially unfair on clubs whose players are away on international duty for African, Asian nations etc. And maybe unfair on smaller European leagues too. But the pressure has to be released somewhere for the sake of the World Cup.
Perhaps for 2022/23 FIFA could lose some international dates altogether. Get rid of the increasingly pointless distraction of the international friendly, that I dearly wish hadn't lost its lustre. But it has.
With 24 teams progressing European qualification has been reduced to a joke, so there's hardly any credibility removed by my seemingly radical overhaul.
Whether November/December or at the start of 2023 a World Cup will take players from clubs for over eight weeks, maybe 10 or more. You can't play a World Cup without a run-up or recovery time.
So maybe it's time for a bit of unusually left-field thinking. And perhaps good solutions will be overlooked. For example FIFA should seriously look at May as a month in which World Cup football can be played in Qatar. Andrew Warshaw suggested it on the InsideWorldFootball website and people in Doha have agreed to me it could work, temperature-wise and logistically
Why not try something radical? Whatever happens the English Premier League and others are going to suffer in 2022/23, why not ease the burden on them and let international football take some of the strain off clubs.
This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.