Lee Wellings: UEFA sacrifice quality with 24-carat mistake

UEFA’s week will go from the sublime to the ridiculous

Tuesday and Wednesday are proud days for the organisation. The Champions league returned with slavering anticipation, an open tournament, some fascinating ties, and barely a negative word.

Thursdays and the ghastly Europa League usually raise questions over UEFA formats. But this week it will be shameful Sunday.

The European qualifying draw in Nice is something that will be met by quiet shrugs of indifference, but it should be considered an utter disgrace, and a sad day for European football. A 24-carat mistake.

The draw for the European qualification for 2016 will be treated by the organisation as an exciting moment of progress, marking the introduction of their new ‘week of football concept’. We’ll see this in qualifiers later in the year when games are staggered between Thursday and Tuesday.

But what fate will actually be served before the hungry worldwide football audience? Looks like tasteless low quality ‘TV dinners’ to me.

The perfect finals format has been scrapped by UEFA. The 16 team tournament has produced the highest quality of football over the course of a tournament finals. Better even than the World Cup where weak nations have more chance of qualifying.

Two through two out meant every result seemed to matter. Good nations sometimes failed to qualify but overall 16 was enough for the wheat to participate, and the chaff to disappear. Or at least it was.

Now we have ‘Le 24’. It might be harder for good teams NOT to qualify. What’s the point?

I was in Kiev in 2012 before the last final, amongst those challenging Platini on the folly of the 2016 expansion. He looked tired, sheepish, a principled man defending the barely logical. He talked of UEFA not being a dictatorship, of the UEFA nations having VOTED for 24 teams.

Of course they vote it in! Goodness me. Give a national association more chance to reach the finals, with the financial implications that brings, and expect them to turn it down? Such voting is the same principle that has kept certain people in power at FIFA over many decades. And it’s disappointing Platini, a football romantic, didn’t make more of a stand. Turn the mirror on these people, and let them see their misguided selves.

Maybe one or two of the smaller nations will genuinely deserve to reach an expanded finals. Competitions should always ultimately provide a path to the top. Iceland were one step from the World Cup finals for instance.

Though I will never understand why there isn’t a pre-qualifying tournament in Europe. Fine to welcome Gibraltar but a match between Gibraltar and a top nation without them having earned the right is actually bizarre. Think about it. At a time when the schedule is rammed, footballers are stretched to the limit, they are obliged to show for a fixture against a team of part-timers from San Marino or Luxembourg? Enough of this absurdity.

And the new format will be fairer on a nation like Ireland, always a decent side but seem to end up in tough groups and be edged out. That said, they could get another bad draw and finish fourth in a group trying to qualify for 2016!

Ultimately this ‘brave new world’ (more ‘cowardly new Europe’) will remove much of the drama and intrigue from qualification. If a big nation suffers a shock defeat in the opening game they will have recovery time. It’s second chance-ville.

And when the finals get underway in the summer of 2016 it will showcase what football has become. Never mind the quality…feel that quantity.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1634532927reeza1634532927jla@s1634532927gnill1634532927ew.ee1634532927l1634532927. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport