Europe's minnows can sleep easy for now as Leinart Johannsson saw his UEFA presidential term extended. But according to Steve Menary, it's only delaying the inevitable
Europe’s minor nations can breathe a sigh of relief as doomsday has been temporarily averted. At last month’s congress in Tallinn, UEFA changed procedures for replacing Lennart Johansson as president and delayed Franz Beckenbauer’s seemingly inevitable advance to European football’s top job.
Instead of retiring next year as expected, Johansson will soldier on until 2007, allowing UEFA to join FIFA and the Asian, African and South American confederations in not having elections in a World Cup year. Just before UEFA’s decision, Beckenbauer’s bid for the presidency had been endorsed by FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and Pelé, but he is not so popular among Europe’s smaller countries. The reason for this dates to Germany’s 2001 World Cup qualifier against Albania, when Beckenbauer made a number of disparaging remarks about the number of smaller nations in UEFA. In the short term, he simply provided encouragement for the Albanians, who only lost 2-1, but his outlook reflected that of a significant constituency among the larger European nations. It is widely suspected that a Beckenbauer presidency would bring in preliminary rounds ahead of international qualifying tournaments to sift out the minnows. European MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of student protest movements in the 1960s, has suggested forming a pressure group “Alliance against Franz”. “Beckenbauer would be a scandal,” he says. “It’s about European football and not the particular interests of some companies.”
UEFA already has pre-qualifiers for the Champions League, which seriously discriminate against smaller nations. No Northern Irish side are likely to emulate Linfield’s 1967 feat of reaching the European Cup quarter-finals – particularly when the title winners from the province and countries such as Luxembourg must play qualifiers before they have even started pre-season friendlies.
Michel Platini, the only other candidate to succeed Johansson, has a very different vision for European football, saying: “I don’t think we should have 256 clubs in a knockout system from the start, but it should move towards that.” That approach will win votes among smaller countries, who reject Beckenbauer’s business-orientated vision. “No one should be excluded in this way,” says Marc Diederich, a lawyer working for the Luxembourg Football Federation. “It would be a catastrophe for all the small nations to be obliged to play a prequalification.” That the Luxembourgers have not won a competitive international for a decade is surely ammunition for Beckenbauer, but Diederich points to who this last win was against: “We beat the Czech Republic in a qualifier for Euro 96 and a few months later they played in the final against Germany.”
Malta’s recent 7-0 thumping by Sweden and Poland running up eight goals without reply against Azerbaijan give credence to Beckenbauer’s outlook, but these thrashings are becoming scarcer. That is one reason UEFA have given the smaller nations more games in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, with six groups containing seven nations and one featuring eight. Bigger groups mean that smaller nations play more teams they have a chance of beating. Liechtenstein won 4-0 in Luxembourg in the 2006 qualifers and drew 2-2 with Portugal. When they played England in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, they let in just four goals over two legs and had the only player with Serie A experience in former Verona striker Mario Frick.
Iceland’s population is only 280,000, but they have beaten Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Italy, Norway and Sweden in recent years. Omar Smárason, media officer for their FA, says: “Matches against the bigger nations are the lifeline of our association, not only with regard to attendances but also regarding TV rights to our matches. Losing both would be financially detrimental to us. I can see absolutely no argument for pre-qualifiers that would help football as a whole.”
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all face finishing fifth or six in their 2006 World Cup qualifying groups, which will have an impact on their seeding for the next tournament. If Beckenbauer gets his way, then it will be easy to imagine a time when at least one UK nation will find themselves taking on Iceland in a pre-qualifier, with the loser cast into the international wilderness for two years.
From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month