And so, for the third time in as many qualifying campaigns, Ireland head for the playoffs. The Boys in Green’s failure to beat Denmark in the Aviva Stadium on Monday night may have scuppered any hopes of automatic qualification, but Mick McCarthy’s charges knew they had the safety net of the playoffs courtesy of their position in the Nations League.
For those whose memory is somewhat opaque, Ireland finished bottom of their group in the new competition with two points from four games and yet still qualify for the playoff by virtue of UEFA’s new system being inherently flawed.
In truth, Ireland could have lost every one of their qualifiers 20-0 and finished bottom of their group with a -160 goal difference and still qualified for the playoffs.
Technically, they could have also lost every one of their Nations League games against Wales and Denmark last year by the same scoreline and still qualified for the playoffs by virtue of being in the second tier of the competition and thus guaranteed a place as at least the 24th best team in Europe.
Regardless of what Ireland did in qualifying, it didn’t matter. So long as 16 of the top 24 teams in the Nations League qualified via the conventional route, Ireland would be afforded a place in the newly conceived playoffs. The expected success of the top teams in Europe in qualifying for Euro 2020 meant that Ireland were able to benefit from that system.
It is a system that rewards mediocrity and it is a farce.
Bosnia have been assured of a place in the playoffs for over a year now for winning a few glorified friendlies against Austria and Northern Ireland in last year’s Nations League. The fact that they were utterly dreadful in their qualifying campaign this year and finished below Greece and Finland is completely irrelevant.
Similarly, the fact that Scotland were abject in qualifying is equally unimportant given that the Scots won a few mickey mouse games against the likes of Israel and Albania last year. What’s more, Scotland will get an even kinder playoff draw since they competed in League C of the competition. What best highlights just how flawed the Nations League playoff system is, however, is the fact that Bulgaria, Israel and Romania are all going to be getting places in the competition next March.
That is the same Bulgaria who picked up a mammoth six points in qualifying and finished with a negative 11 goal difference. That is the same Israel who finished fifth in a decidedly average group below North Macedonia and Slovenia, the latter of whom have been excluded from the playoff equation despite finishing third in their qualifying group.
But it’s hard to argue that Israel finishing above Albania – and just Albania – is more important than doing well in the actual qualifiers, so their inclusion in the playoffs is warranted.
That’s not to even mention the fact that one of Georgia, Belarus, Kosovo or North Macedonia will be competing at next year’s competition, despite being some of the lowest ranked teams in Europe.
There is now a genuine incentive for teams like Slovenia and Estonia, who were relegated from League C last year, to purposefully relegate themselves to the lowest tier in order to gain a more favourable playoff draw.
Ireland's task is a simple one.
Win and they go through.
Lose, and they must seek qualification by retrieving the golden amulet from the City of Zinge. This gains entry into path C of the UEFA Nations League, as long as results go their way and Mercury is in retrograde.
— Paddy Power (@paddypower) November 18, 2019
Proponents of the new system argue that it increases inclusivity and that it gives the likes of Georgia and Belarus a chance to compete in major tournaments that they never would have got through qualifying.
The point of major tournaments, however, is not to be inclusive, but to be elite.
If they are not good enough to qualify via the conventional route, then they are definitely not good enough to play in a major tournament.
When whoever emerges triumphant from the League D playoffs next spring is annihilated in each of their three group games at Euro 2020, there will be uproar.
If the only argument to structure playoffs in such a manner is to make the competition more inclusive, then UEFA may as well throw open the doors and do away with qualifying altogether.
Ireland have benefitted from this flawed system on this occasion, so it is inconceivable that many green-clad supporters will be too upset about it at present. However, UEFA seriously need to look at how they organise their qualifying ahead of Euro 2024, lest they want to start inviting the San Marinos of the world to take part.