So, that’s it then, the European championships are over for another 4 years. Spain went where no team has gone before and won three major championships in a row, Germany’s young team looked the class of the tournament before sliding out with a strangely muted semi-final performance again and many Canadian media outlets bugged the hell out of us by calling it “The Euro Cup”. Overall it was a great European Championships, not up there with France 1984 and the absolutely peerless Michelle Platini lighting up the tournament at the heart of a transcendent french “magic square” midfield, but definitely a great tournament. Sadly, however, this may be the last great European Championships as the powers that be have decided to expand the tournament from 16 teams to 24. The irony of that happening when Platini is the President of UEFA and the championships returning to France, is pretty obvious.
The real beauty of the European Championships is that it is such an intense tournament. Only 16 teams qualify, groups of death are commonplace and if you don’t hit the ground running you can quickly find yourself behind the 8-ball regardless of your reputation coming into the tournament. 13 of the competing nations were in the FIFA top 20 (only the Czech Republic and the host nations bucked that trend). And that’s just the group stages. Qualifying is a cutthroat business (only Germany has qualified for every final since those 1984 championships) and even the biggest of names can find themselves not even making it to the finals. The knockout stages are even more intense with heavyweight contests guaranteed right from the first knock out round. France and England went into the tournament knowing that even a flawless group victory would likely see them rewarded with a match-up against World champions Spain or 4-time world champions Italy. Although there is nothing like a World Cup, if you are a soccer purest, the European Championship is unbeatable in terms of seeing heavyweight names slugging it out toe to toe.
So why does extending the tournament to 24 teams make such a big difference? Although adding another 8 teams doesn’t seem that big a difference on the surface, it could have far reaching consequences for the tournament.
Quality of Teams:
If we look at the FIFA rankings going into this year’s tournament, teams 17-24 would be soccer luminaries Bosnia-Hertzegovenia, Slovenia, Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Wales, Slovakia and Scotland. Without meaning any disrespect to any of those nations, they are hardly great box office, are they? The average fan would struggle to name more than a player or two from any of them, and they have a sum total of ONE qualification between them for the last three European tournaments. Only Turkey can really claim to have any international standing over the past 15 years or so. Of course, there is always a chance that a dark horse will come through, but realistically the best that you can hope for is that they end up in the same group as a historical/political rival giving us a nice juicy grudge match to watch (e.g. Scotland, Serbia, Turkey or Slovakia drawing England, Croatia, Greece or Czech Republic respectively). As a Scotland supporter, I’m gutted by our on-field failings and qualification failures in recent years and I would be one of the fans hoping to gain from the additional places, but as a soccer fan, none of the “average eight” are likely to bring much interest for the neutral viewer.
Over the past 20 years or so, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, England, Holland and Portugal have consistently been the big 7 of European soccer. In the current tournament we saw 5 match-ups between those teams in the group stages alone, and a further 5 of the 7 knock-out games bringing together a “clash of the titans”. Only Germany had a 100% record after two games.
If you use the top 24 teams in the current rankings as a guide, make France (host), the #1 seed and “snake draft” the others according to their rankings, you end up with six groups that look like this:
- Group A: France (host), Sweden, Ireland, Scotland
- Group B: Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Slovakia
- Group C: Germany, Russia, Norway, Wales
- Group D: Netherlands, Italy, Czech, Serbia
- Group E: England, Portugal, Bosnia-Hertzegovenia, Hungary
- Group F: Croatia, Denmark, Slovenia, Turkey
Suddenly you only have 2 clashes between big teams, and it is hard to see any of the major nations getting into real qualifying trouble, even with a slow start. The “group” containing Italy and Netherlands looking like the only possible exception.
The other area where it has a potentially detrimental effect is on the knock-out stages. To accommodate there now being 6 rather than 4 groups, an additional “round of 16” is added and the 4 best 3rd placed teams from the groups qualify. The upshot of that is that we have now played 36 games (70% of the tournament) to eliminate just 8 teams and teams can now qualify with as little as a single point.
Assuming the seeding from the example above worked out, the round of 16 would look something like this:
- France vs Czech
- Spain vs Norway
- Germany vs Switzerland
- Netherlands vs Ireland
- England vs Sweden
- Croatia vs Greece
- Denmark vs Russia
- Italy vs Portugal
Not too many clashes there that are worth “pulling a sick day” for . . .
Yes, we understand that more teams = more games to sell the rights to, bigger TV contracts, more advertisers’ revenues and more money to line your pockets with, and sweetening voting delegates from smaller nations with an increased change of qualification has never done any harm when it come to re-election, but couldn’t a decision that’s good for the game rather than self interest be made for a change?
C’mon UEFA, you’ve already taken the world’s greatest club competition and turned the majority of it into a bore-fest. . . MUST you do it to the world’s greatest international tournament as well?