With talk of the Euros being expanded to 32 teams by the 2028 tournament, could the Nations League prove to be a replacement for the current, tired qualifying format?
Photo Black and Burst
With the current, 24-team tournament set to finish tonight, there has been criticism over the current format, where only eight teams are knocked out from the group stage. The expansion from 16 to 24 teams for Euro 2016 has not been without issues, and with the chances of reducing back to 16 teams practically zero, an increase to a 32 team tournament, in the same format as the current World Cup, seems most likely. However, this would need to come with a drastic change to the qualifying process.
As it stands, a 32-team tournament with the current qualifying process would become increasingly pointless for all involved, however the success of the Nations League format could hint towards the future of qualifying – and there is a potential format for qualifying that fits into the current 16-16-16-7 format, while still giving all 55 nations a chance of qualifying for the showpiece event.
12 automatic tournament qualifying spots (1st to 3rd each group)
4 playoff spots (4th place each group)
8 automatic tournament qualifying spots (1st and 2nd each group)
6 playoff spots (3rd place each group and two best 4th place teams)
4 automatic tournament qualifying spots (1st place each group)
4 playoff spots (2nd place each group)
0 automatic tournament qualifying spots
2 playoff spots (1st place each group)
Four League A team and four 3rd place League B teams are seeded and gain home advantage in a one-legged playoff against other eight teams – eight winners go to final tournament to complete 32 team tournament. Depending on which country hosts the tournament, they take one automatic spot from their league presuming they aren’t in League D. If they are in League D, then League D could become one group of 7, with the host nation guaranteed a playoff spot alongside one other League D side.
Under this proposed format, the elite nations will have a reduction in what they see to be ‘pointless’ games against sides which they expect to win comfortably, meanwhile as you go down the leagues, it gives nations more of a hope of making the final tournament – giving League D two playoff spots also allows UEFA to continue to sell the idea that all 55 nations could feasibly make the final tournament, no matter how hard it would be. It would also reduce competitive matches from 10 to six in a qualifying cycle, which for players would no doubt be appreciated as the demands of football continue to increase.
For Gibraltar, the addition of more games against sides of a similar quality would certainly be welcomed, as would an increased chance of potentially making the playoffs for major tournaments. The World Cup Qualifying would still give fans the chance to see Gib play the elite nations in the world (eg Netherlands in the current qualifying for Qatar 2022), but it would also give both fans and players alike the opportunity for more moments of celebration that the Nations League has provided since its formation.
The only way seems to be up in terms of tournament sizes, but combined with a more sensible approach to qualifying, a 32-team tournament has the potential to improve the qualification process for all involved.