PtG Article 23.09.2005

Election of New UEFA President Postponed to the Relief of Europe's Minor Nations

Knowledge bank: Europe’s minor nations can breathe a sigh of relief as doomsday has been temporarily averted. At the April 2005 congress in Tallin, UEFA changed procedures for replacing President Lennart Johansson. This delayed Franz Beckenbauer’s seemingly inevitable advance to European football’s top job with his suggestions for preliminary rounds before international qualifying tournaments.

Instead of retiring next year as expected, Johansson will soldier on until 2007, allowing UEFA to join FIFA, the Asian, African and South American federations in not having presidential 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 Pele but he is not so popular among Europe’s smaller countries. The reason for this is that prior 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, Beckenbauer simply provided encouragement for the Albanians, who only lost 2-1, but his outlook also reflected that of a significant constituency among the larger European nations.

Beckenbauer wants preliminaries before qualifying tournaments

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 1960's, 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 club side is likely to emulate Linfield’s 1967 feat of reaching the European Cup quarter final – particularly when the title winners from the province and countries like Luxembourg must play a 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.”

The smaller nations reject Beckenbauer's vision

That approach will win votes among the 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 dramatic catastrophe for all the small nations to be obliged to play a prequalification and not acceptable for them.”

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 0-7 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 when smaller nations play more teams they have a chance. Liechtenstein won 4-0 in Luxembourg in the 2006 qualifiers and drew 2-2 with Portugal. When they played England in the 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.

Ómar 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 sixth 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.