Why qualifiers are not the best guide for tournaments such as the Euros
ILIKE international tournaments. I prepare for them with great discipline. I prepare for them with great discipline by not watching any of the qualifiers. What happens in qualifiers, in my opinion, does not tell you anything of real use about what will happen in the tournament. But if you watch you can easily fall into the trap of thinking that it does. Here, I think, ignorance of what came before can be a help rather than a hindrance when you are wondering what might come next. Consider England. They won the World Cup in 1966 and were semifinalists in 1990 and 2018. They also reached the semi-finals of Euro 96. England’s chance in 1966 had not been highly rated by English fans. Hopes rose as the tournament progressed. Nor were expectations high in 1990, 1996 or, by the standards of recent times, 2018. England qualified for the 1990 World Cup by finishing second in a group behind Sweden. They won only three qualifiers – at home to Poland and home and away to Albania. In pre-tournament warmup games they lost at home to Uruguay then drew in Tunisia. In a build-up game before Euro 96 England scrambled to a 1-0 win over a Hong Kong Golden Select XI. They qualified for the 2018 World Cup reasonably well, with eight wins, two draws and no defeats, but in a group where all of their opponents were much smaller countries – Lithuania, Malta, Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia. It is not only England whose fortunes before a tournament might give no clue as to how they will fare at the tournament. I compared performances in qualifiers and at the tournament for the last six European Championships – 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. First I ranked performances in qualifiers. I did this by points per game. The qualifier with most points per game I ranked as one, the next best as two, and so on. Then I ranked performances at the tournament. I did this by stage reached. The winners I ranked one, runners-up two, beaten quarter-finalists 3.5, because they could be said to have finished either third or fourth, and so on. There was next to no correlation between the position in which teams qualified and the position in which they finished at a European Championship. Admittedly some qualification groups would have been harder than others, and sometimes it might have been possible to tell which ones. Even so, I think we are deceiving ourselves if we reckon that qualifiers can tell us anything really worthwhile about what teams might produce when they get to the European Championship. WHY are qualifiers for all practical purposes useless as predictors of a tournament? Here are two of the reasons. In qualifiers teams play opponents who are mostly a lot worse than those they will face at the tournament – certainly a lot worse than those they will eventually meet if they go far in the tournament. Imagine that Premier League teams played a selection of different non-league opponents. The results would tell us next to nothing about the relative merits of the Premier League teams. And qualifiers, like tournaments, involve only a small number of games. Conclusions drawn from small samples are the ones that are most likely to be wrong. For no reason that you or I will ever fathom, a team who looked ordinary in qualifiers can suddenly look great at a tournament. And the other way round.