Expanding the European Championship to 24 teams seemed to have passed its big test. Michel Platini, the now-disgraced former executive with the big idea, was told that it would ruin qualification and make the road to France for the tournament little more than a procession.
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) June 22, 2016
Maybe that was true for such footballing giants as Austria and Slovakia, who breezed to qualification, but try telling it to Holland, eliminated after being humiliated by Iceland and Turkey in their qualification group; the Dutch procession was a car crash.
Now the tournament is in full swing, however, problems with the new format are starting to become clear. The group stage of Euro 2016 has been a bit of a non-event, with just one third of the teams being eliminated and three points being enough to give a team more than a 50% chance of qualifying for the second round – three 0-0 draws gave you an 87% chance!
The problem is that, by allowing four of six third placed teams through the group stage, UEFA have massively overvalued both the draw and the narrow defeat. If a team gets one win on the board then there is no incentive for them to attack – two 1-0 defeats would almost certainly put them through, as Northern Ireland have proved. It’s Jose Mourinho’s wet dream of a tournament format.
There’s no point in them being here if such a minor points total can constitute success. It’s no fun for the fans and developing teams learn very little. The Northern Ireland fans may have enjoyed their narrow defeat to Germany, but it was a painful watch for the neutral fan that UEFA needs to keep interested.
Slovakia were also guilty of almost breath-taking negativity in their 0-0 draw with England, starting off with ten men behind the ball and bringing on more defenders as they got closer to their target. It’s easy to mock England for their inability to beat a limited side, but they are far from alone. When the free-scoring world champions can be blunted by the format, we need to really think about making a change.
— Alex Bellars (@bellaale) June 20, 2016
There have been goalless draws on four out of the six previous days at the championships, a figure that is far too high to entice some more casual viewers in to watching games. UEFA need to find a way to make this work. All of their grandiose montages and slogans are for nothing if the football is as tedious as it has been.
Whilst many will suggest returning to the old 16-team format, that horse has now bolted. Besides, one of the successes of the tournament has been the atmosphere, improved by the arrival of new groups of support from Albania, Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland, all keen to experience a major tournament for the first time in at least a generation. Their enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder has put the more established fans, particularly those from England and Russia scrapping in Marseille or the Croatians throwing flares, to shame.
The Northern Ireland fans are still here. pic.twitter.com/QEX28hCRu1
— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarretTimes) June 21, 2016
The actual quality of football has not been noticeably brought down, either. In fact, it is the ability of smaller nations to organise and keep themselves solid that has made the tournament so dull – big teams have not proven to be good enough to break them down and to score the goals expected.
It just goes to show how deep the talent in Europe is, with even the smaller nations able to call on players who can organise themselves into a system that can blunt Germany or Spain. It’s admirable; I just don’t particularly want to watch it.
The solution has to be another expansion for 2020, bringing the European Championship in line with the World Cup on 32 teams. It is a lot for one continent, but Europe has the depth of talent to pull it off.
In fact, of the nations not to qualify for Euro 2016, 11 of them have competed in at least one major tournament before. We would not be opening the door to San Marino, Andorra and Gibraltar.
Even if qualifying does suffer a little bit with another expansion, it should all be about the tournament. UEFA can’t spend all of their time trying to keep the fans of just four or five big nations happy. With more fans travelling, more games for fans to watch, more money coming into the confederation and a much more logical group stage format, who would lose?