Saturday 5 July ~
Remember Euro 2008? Suddenly it all seems so long ago and, worse, unlikely to be repeated if UEFA has its way. Like FIFA in 1970, after one of the most attractive tournaments in its history the European governing body cannot resist wrecking the simple format that produced it. The chief executive of the Scottish FA, Gordon Smith, said the members of UEFA “saw no real disadvantage” in expanding the tournament to 24 teams for 2016 and it would make a lot more money (or, as they teach you to say at chief executive school, “there was no downside in terms of revenue”). For countries such as Scotland and Ireland, who proposed the change, there is an obvious benefit in that they are more likely to qualify. For everyone else, the idea borders on lunacy. Let us count the ways it will damage the competition.
1.Maths. As surely even UEFA has noticed, eight, 16 or 32 teams makes for a simple and fair format. Anything else, such as the 24 at the World Cup between 1982 and 1990, requires cumbersome second-round groups of three teams each, or the manifestly unsatisfactory alternative in which four third-placed teams qualify for the second round. In 1990 that meant two teams, Ireland and the Netherlands, went through from one group without having won a game.
2.Fixture congestion. Smith says more teams would “only add a few extra days” to the competition. In fact it would probably add a week, given that the revenue upside is maximised by not screening matches simultaneously. With clubs and national teams already in a grinding conflict over injuries, fatigue, payments and availability, taking another week out of the summer break seems perverse at best.
3.Quality. You can have bad games in an eight-team tournament (almost anything from 1980 springs to mind) and good ones with 32. But are we really crying out for more matches between Europe’s middle tier nations? Michel Platini says “countries like England, Denmark, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Serbia, Ukraine and Bulgaria all have the ability to participate in a European championship”. And you know what Michel? They all have (except Ukraine), and so have Latvia, Slovenia and Norway – but only when they have a good team.
4. Common sense. UEFA has 53 members and, barring the break-up of Germany into its 19th-century patchwork of principalities, is unlikely to get many more. If you can’t get into the top 16 out of 53, you don’t deserve to be in the finals. Isn’t that right Steve?