The European Championship’s simplicity used to be one of its biggest strengths. But the latest expansion of the tournament will take the edge of some fixtures and reward mediocrity, writes DW’s Matt Pearson.
Organizing the structure of a tournament seems pretty simple, right? Decide whether it’s a straight knockout, round robin or a mixture of groups and knockout. Then find the requisite number of teams to best suit that format. Then let them play each other and reward the winner, maybe the second placed team at a push.
After some initial tinkering, UEFA settled on a 16-team format for the Euros, 20 years ago in England at Euro 96, when they doubled the number of teams from eight to 16. It was the right move. As probably the world’s strongest continent in terms of national teams, it made sense to invite a few more in to the fold. But, as Greece proved with their 2004 win, 16 teams was enough to mean outsiders still stood a chance.
That format also meant teams were forced to be at their best from the start. The last edition of the tournament saw Spain grouped with Italy and Croatia, and Germany in with Portugal and the Netherlands. In 2008 the unlucky Dutch drew Italy and France in the group stages. These early clashes of major footballing nations were in stark contrast to the 32-team World Cup group stages, which often feel a little laborious and mis-matched.
Now, with the expansion to 24 teams, driven by former UEFA boss Michel Platini, it’s entirely possible that a team (or teams) could progress to the last 16 without winning a game. With four of the six third-placed teams qualifying, three draws – or one win – might just be enough. Should that be what tournament football is about?
Of course, it’s great to see new blood at major international tournaments and the qualification of Wales, Northern Ireland, Albania and particularly Iceland have made for great stories. Many neutrals – if there is such a thing in international football – will be rooting for the first timers.
But if the tournament must be expanded – and there is a valid argument for inclusion, even at the expense of consistently high class clashes – then surely 32 teams makes more sense.
Following the model of the World Cup would give a chance to even more teams but keep the amount of matches played by each side the same. Moreover, it would remove the unsatisfactory scramble to work out who needs what to get one of the best runner up slots that we’ll surely see in matchday three.
With European places in league football already meaning fans have become increasingly preoccupied by the ‘race’ for minor positions and the Champions League now employing a Europa League safety net, the do or die nature of international tournaments previously served as a refreshingly clear cut event. Not any more.
Let’s say Germany only pick up one win from their opening two fixtures against Poland and Ukraine. In previous editions this would’ve meant their third game – against Northern Ireland – had everything riding on it. Now? There’s a decent chance the world champions could squeeze through even with a defeat. Sure, it would probably mean a stronger opponent in the last 16 but they’d still be alive in the tournament.
While Platini’s aim to bring more teams in the fold may appear admirable, in reality it will be hard to believe that we’re really seeing the best of Europe in eveyy match. And we really should be.