24: Too Many?

Euro 2012 has been a marked improvement on what was a rather underwhelming World Cup in South Africa two years ago. Is it a coincidence or is it more to do with the fact that it really is the cream of the region as opposed to a bloated act of inclusivism used as a Marketing ploy by FIFA and UEFA to ‘stand up for the little guy’?

From Euro 2016 onwards the European Championships will expand from 16 to 24 teams, in the official literature produced by UEFA’s Executive Committee it stated the reason would be to:

“give middle ranked countries a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament,  thereby expanding the fanbase directly reached, and increasing the number of matches played and increasing overall stadium capacity”

In short make more money. I don’t want this to come across as a negative attack on the current trend for taking football to new frontiers, as ridiculous as a World Cup in Qatar does seem, but more an assessment if something isn’t broke then don’t go trying to fix it.

Let us start with some simple figures, UEFA has 53 member associations who can enter the qualification process for the European Championships, in the present format 16 teams can earn a place in the finals (host included), a percentage representation of 30%. That’s right being within the top 30% counts as being part of the elite of European Football. Expanding the tournament to 24 teams sees that percentage rise to 45%, nearly half! This means that almost 1 in 2 teams could qualify for a prestigious tournament reserved for the best in Europe.

But the UEFA statement reads as ‘ to give middle ranked countries a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament’ I hear you say, well if you don’t mind begging my indulgence here is a list of  teams  who I’m sure fall under UEFA’s ‘middle ranked demographic’ and when they made their debuts:

As can be seen every tournament since its re-invention as the Euros in 1980 has seen at least 1 country debut, many of the countries listed there have also then re-appeared at later tournaments and some of them have produced some of the most memorable tournament performances in the history for football.

Denmark’s triumph at Euro’92 is the greatest football fairy-tale ever told, while Greece gritted their way to triumph at Euro 2004, both teams considered nothing but cannon fodder before a ball had been kicked. At Euro ’96 the Czech Republic re-debuted as beaten finalists and Turkey reached the Semi-Finals of Euro 2008 showing that these middle ranked teams who have earned their way to the Finals have done well. Add this to FIFA and UEFA’s recent penchant for giving tournaments to countries who you would not usually expect and there seems little risk of each and every tournament not seeming fresher than the last one. The fact that Euro 2016 is going to be in France is fresh in its sheer conventionality.

In the qualifying for Euro 2012 countries such as Estonia, Bosnia and Montenegro were a play-off away from making their debuts. The current format does give these ‘middle tiered’ countries the opportunity to qualify for these tournaments they just have to work hard and perform well to take them. What the UEFA idea of expansion to 24 teams does is attempt to gift these sides an easier path, and perhaps more cynically help prevent the bigger nations from not qualifying if they have an indifferent campaign.

It would take something special away from the actual achievement of qualifying if the path to the Finals is met with less resistance and when you get there you find your still only one of about half the best teams in Europe. If it was meant to be easy to get their then it wouldn’t be called the European Championship FINALS if would be called the ‘Next Round’.

Putting the qualifying process aside though the expansion to 24 teams also leaves us with a bit of a Mathematical problem. 24 doesn’t easily work its way down to 2 for a final. UEFA’s Resolution: a final tournament consisting of six groups of four teams, followed by a round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. The top two from each group would qualify in addition to the four best third-ranked sides, the same system as was applied in the World Cups from 1986 to 1994. A format last used 20 years ago, really? And if that doesn’t make sense what makes things worse is UEFA’s General Secretary Gianni Infantino, a man in part responsible for coming up with the idea in the first place, has said the new format is ‘not ideal’.

I tell you why he said that, because it’s not just ‘not ideal’ but it is in fact flawed.

Earlier I mentioned that 45% of those entered will qualify for the finals, well of the 24 teams entered, 16, yeah that’s right 66% of those who turn up will qualify for the next round. In theory a team could qualify for the Round of 16 without winning a game. How does that create positive, attractive and exciting tournaments?

Greece won their way to Euro 2004 with organisation and opportunism, and here we are 8 years later and this same philosophy is being proclaimed as the way to win a tournament for a lesser light, while teams like Spain and Germany try to pass and counter their way to glory. Even England are settling for being ‘functional’ as that’s the cool thing to do now if you’re not very good.

Let us look at the conclusion of Group A as an example.

What if Euro 2012 had 24 teams would Greece have gone for the win they needed to qualify against Russia knowing that 3rd place could be enough to get them through? The drama of the final of round of Group A would not be matched in a 24 team format. Part of the joy of football is its sadistic nature to suffer defeat when glory seems far easier to achieve.  The second half would have seen Russia pass the ball about their defence knowing that a defeat would be enough to see them through. Football is about winning, not settling for defeat.

Ask any fan what they hate about tournament football when watching a game their side is not involved in, a lot will say ‘dead rubbers’, games where the conclusion is known before kick off or have no relevance to the greater picture of the Championship. With the possibility of 3 teams coming out of your group if results go a certain way a final round decider could turn into a boring procession. The proclamation of fuller stadiums and greater variety at UEFA’s inception of the format will be replaced with apathy towards games that once meant something to everyone to games that mean nothing for some and just a bridge to the next stage.

When an idea is rolled out and described as ‘not ideal’ by the people that formulated it you have to ask, is this change necessary or is it change for the sake of change, for the sake of one man’s vision of his own legacy? A similar set of changes  have been made in the Champions League, although they have resulted in a greater variety of teams and great stories like APOEL it has left a tournament of prestige split into a warm up event of group stages with multiple chances of redemption before the main attraction of the knockout rounds. Fans have been turning off to it.

Football’s governing bodies are often chastised for their resistance to change, goal line technology a case in point, but when change is brought in and you as the implementer are not sure of what the changes are, are you not best leaving things as they are? The European Championships works because it is a streamline, high stakes month of football where the cream of a continent compete head to head at the top of their game knowing that one off day could see them sent home knowing this time they just weren’t good enough.

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