2008 Be Damned: Why England Will Never Again Fail To Qualify For A Major Finals

The days of qualifying struggles have been diluted by the newer formats
12:01, 19 Jun 2023

Three games into an eight-match campaign, we can already say it: England have qualified for Euro 2024 with a bit to spare. How can we be sure? Because there’s simply no jeopardy anymore prior to major finals tournaments.

Those of us with long enough memories are still scarred by the Three Lions’ inability to qualify for Euro 2008, the 1994 World Cup and, before then, consecutive Mundials in 1974 and 1978. But that appears to be a thing of the past now. Sure, Italy have failed to reach each of the last two World Cups. But in the modern world of 24-team Euros and 48-plus in the World Cup, examples of big nations missing out are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

England beat Malta 4-0 on Friday night and will likely despatch North Macedonia with little trouble on Monday. Just as they’ve lost two of 69 qualifying games in the last 15 years, they’re going to make a mockery of the format again by winning just another match that we’ll have forgotten in a couple of weeks’ time.


But this is not to say there’s an issue with the qualifying format itself, more that the expanded finals tournaments result in exactly this type of indifference towards the preliminary stage. Some claim that the way to alter this is to set up some kind of pre-qualifying for lower-ranked nations and give those involved a chance at international wins but that purpose is served these days by the Uefa Nations League.

Qualifying itself isn’t the issue. North Macedonia, Malta et al deserve a shot at higher-regarded countries, they’re just not going to beat them often enough to make most encounters truly interesting. The endgame of more giants is to use such matches to rotate their squad and have a look at those players who may have a case for inclusion in the coaches’ plans come finals time.

As a result, qualifying games are not even glorified friendlies since they’re against nations you’d not pick as a sure-fire sales pitch to bring in the crowds. They are matches that serve a purpose, hand cheap caps to squad players, allow fans to tick off another game following their country and everybody goes home happy.

The experiences of Italy have been the outlier over recent times, and even they would have qualified for the last couple of World Cups had the expansion already taken place to admit an extra 16 teams for the tournament phase. What can Gareth Southgate and his contemporaries truly gain from a different shade of one-sided fixture where once there was a sense of competition?

The days of England losing to Nothern Ireland and it feeling like it matters are dead and gone. Even if they were to be beaten by North Macedonia, what is the long-term penalty? There really isn’t one. They’ll still finish second, which these days is more than enough to get a ticket to the banquet. And even if they somehow completely bombed and landed up third, there’d be a back-door route via the Nations League play-offs to give them yet another chance. Unless something truly catastrophic happens, England will never again fail to reach a major tournament, and that seems to suit Uefa and Fifa, no matter the qualification inertia it creates.

All of which is to say that, well, there’s football on tonight. If you’re off to Old Trafford, enjoy it, but if it’s by TV that you’re taking in the game there’s a fair chance you’ll be at least thinking of channel surfing by half-time.


*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change

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