(Pictured above: Zaire, Africa's only representatives in the 1974 World Cup finals.)
Thirteen European nations will materialize in South Africa in 2010. Many deservedly so. Only five African nations will join them. I expect after the performances of Africa's representatives, demand for a fairer apportioning of places in future World Cups will be irresistible and undeniable.
The fat is in the UEFA zone, as are the bigger television audiences and mobile credit card carrying supporters. Trimming UEFA representation in future World Cups could be a gristly experience. Asia and the Americas have sound claims also.
Less can mean more.
Europe's contenders add class to the tournament, but we can be less sure of their second tier cousins, composed as they all too often are of cross-country runners and wrestlers masquerading as footballers.
I cannot be alone in being underwhelmed at the prospect of seeing another second rate European team trundle out of the group stages, before ultimately caving in to a predictable 3-0 knock out stage defeat, afraid of their own shadows.
If Europe's qualification process is more competitive, it follows the calibre of Europe's entrants will be higher. Reducing Europe's quotient from 13 to 10 should produce a more dynamic and entertaining brand of football from the Europeans.
UEFA has 53 members. Extricating 13 qualifiers from 53 is a confusing and cumbersome process: 9 Group Winners. 8 2nd place teams advancing. Results against the 8 worst teams in the 8 Groups that contain 6 teams annulled. Decisions over how the 8 2nd place team engage each other held over, pending a executive committee decision. And all this to hand places to packs of under performing, overpaid, prefer to play for their club, pouting professionals.
The solution is simple.
UEFA must act like other federations. Preliminary match-ups are well established for small Central and South American and Caribbean nations, Pacific Island nations, as well as Asian and African nations. Exciting, well balanced two-leg fixtures herald the beginning of the tournament in far flung corners of the world. UEFA's principalities, rocky outcrops and tax shelters need not be any different.
A series of pre-group home and away match-ups between the lowest ranking European nations can simplify UEFA's qualification calculation and still provide a deserving level of competitive football for those supporters in Europe's more quaint dominions.
How would work this work?
Europe's group stage must begin with 50 teams. UEFA can then draw 10 groups of 5, with 10 Group winners advancing. A group stage structured as such would reduce per group qualifying fixtures from 10 to 8 and eliminate the second place two-game playoff. UEFA and FIFA would secure a valuable chit in club versus country tensions. Creative placement of fixtures can maintain television income. Less dead rubber fixtures will be appreciated by players, supporters and viewers alike. And the lower ranking teams (who have the history of the occasional upset) will find their efforts more concentrated with the potential for greater reward in groups containing 5 rather 6 teams.
So how does UEFA get to 50?
At first glance, it would seem easy to pair up UEFA's 6 lowest ranking teams in three home and away fixtures, with the three winners joining the Group stage. It would be unfair, however, to let, for example, San Marino (currently UEFA's lowest ranking nation at 203rd) have their World Cup end after just one two-legged fixture.
Two pre-group stages involving UEFA's 12 lowest ranked teams looks to be a more equitable approach. Using current rankings as a reference, the following competitive fixtures could be structured, with the winners advancing to the Group stage and the six respective losers gaining a another chance through a second round series of match-ups.
Montenegro (96) v San Marino (203)
Georgia (103) v Andorra (195)
Estonia (112) v Faroe Islands (163)
Luxembourg (119) v Liechenstein (150)
Armenia (123) v Malta (146)
Kazakhstan (130) v Azerbaijan (137)
Only one of the above fixtures looks a mismatch and that is because Montenegro (new to UEFA) have an artificially low ranking. The others look mouth-watering and well-matched affairs, though I would only fancy the Faroe Islands to upset the odds.
Taking the above example further. I would expect Montenegro, Georgia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Armenia and Kazakstan to advance. This would generate the following second round series of fixtures.
Estonia (112) v San Marino (203)
Azerbaijan (137) v Andorra (195)
Malta (146) v Liechenstein (163)
From the above, I would expect San Marino, Andorra and Liechenstein to go out, though I am confident each side would have given a good account of themselves and their supporters been appropriately indulged with competitive, meaningful fixtures.
The rest you can figure out for yourselves. The top ten ranked European teams would avoid each other in the new draw (as they have largely done anyway), but with second place meaningless, the prospect for more appealing and edgy fixtures would multiply.
How FIFA could best redirect those 3 places between Africa, Asia and the Americas can be the subject of a whole other football anorak discussion.