Why We Should Cheer On Europe...

We might be sentimentally liking Brazil or be blown away by Colombia, but England fans should cheer on our near neighbours to protect those World Cup places...

Last Updated: 04/07/14 at 12:15 Post Comment

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English representation in Brazil is now reduced to Howard Webb and friends but there are still teams playing to the advantage of Roy Hodgson (or at least his successors). Step forward Germany, Holland, France and Belgium.

The subject of continental representation at the World Cup has been broached in the Mailbox but is bound to come up in less august fora at some point. The dispute over so much as half a place at the finals - with FIFA backtracking over agreement that Oceania would have a whole place for that confederation or merely a play-off entrant - led to Australia changing continents after 2006 and the issue will never go away. There are votes in it, after all.

It is an undeniably difficult job to allocate places for the tournament - which is one of the reasons why what was a 16-team event in 1978 had doubled in size by 1998, after four finals comprising 24 sides. On the one hand you need a World Cup to reflect adequately the balance of football ability, rather than granting an equal number of places to each continent and being flummoxed by four groups of polar explorers turning up at the draw and inquiring which groups Antarctica's teams were in. On the other, the only way to improve standards is to grant teams access and also, competitive football is the truest available test of abilities.

Without a doubt the position in the 1960s that Africa did not have a single guaranteed place was unacceptable. If you want to know why FIFA wound up in the hands of the belatedly banned Joao Havelange, you need only look at his predecessor as the governing body's president, Sir Stanley Rous, who had far more time for apartheid South Africa than for the post-colonial independent countries. And it remains true that anyone campaigning for the FIFA presidency will make promises related to World Cup spots, just as much as they make empty pledges over World Cup hosting.

Inevitably, as the confederation with the most finals slots, UEFA has always been the one under pressure to relinquish some. On the other hand, two factors weigh in UEFA's favour: the quality of their teams and the value of their TV markets.

The latter remains an inescapable point in favour of keeping European representation around the current level of 13. Yet any suggestion that UEFA's teams are makeweights leads to musings or pressure to reduce the number, as the failure of more than half the side to make the last 16 inevitably did.

Six sides made it out of their groups - but only two of those, Switzerland and Greece, then failed to reach the quarter-finals. From being under-represented, UEFA is now over-represented - as it has been at the critical stages of every tournament since Mexico 1970, when more than half the finalists were European.

It is not just at home that this has held true: at Argentina 1978, five of the last eight teams were European. At USA 94, Brazil took home the trophy but were the only non-European quarter-finalists. In South Korea and Japan, there were four UEFA teams in the last eight. Only three made it in South Africa four years ago but they all won, and then locked out the finals.

We should not overlook the broad base of playing ability in Europe, either. Of this year's quarter-finalists, Belgium failed to reach Euro 2012 while Holland were knocked out at the group stage - a fate that befell France at the last World Cup. Europe has also regularly thrown up surprise semi-finalists: Belgium in 1986, England in 1990, Bulgaria and Sweden in 1994, Croatia in 1998, Turkey in 2002. Until Uruguay made the semi-finals in South Africa, no South American nation aside from the heavyweights Argentina and Brazil had even made the last eight since Peru in 1978.

Europe did underperform in the group stages - but not as badly as Africa in percentage terms, and Asia's representatives failed to win a match, never mind qualify. North America did especially well but two of their three qualifiers fell in the last 16.

The way the draw falls, Europe will have at least one semi-finalist from the France v Germany game. With two, if Holland succeed where Italy and England failed and overcome Costa Rica, Europe will have a strong playing case for retention of 13 places. With three, if Belgium beat Lionel Messi, then UEFA should have an impregnable position - and future England managers should not be scrambling for fewer places in 2018, 2022, 2026...

Philip COrnwall

Could have just finished this at the sub-heading really. Not a fan of the flowery 'august fora'-type stuff
- Ezy_Rider

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