Sunday 15 June ~
Hup Swiss. If Switzerland lose to Portugal in their final Euro 2008 group match today, they will set a record for their worst performance ever by a host nation in one of the major international tournaments. But with co-hosts Austria only saved from defeat against Poland by a last-minute penalty equaliser, they may yet end up with the worst record of the two. Austria's final opponents Germany will want to retain their 30-year unbeaten run against their neighbours and will be strong favourites to win that match, whereas Portugal are expected to field a second string against the Swiss.
At the previous co-hosted European Championship in 2000, Belgium also went out at the group stage but this was partially offset by Holland reaching the semi-finals. The Austro-Swiss flop is the first in what may be a sequence of poor performances by host nations in European and world tournaments. World Cup 2010 hosts South Africa have slipped down the rankings in African football over the past few years and suffered another embarrassing defeat, away to Sierra Leone, in an African Nations Cup qualifier yesterday. Even if they get a helpful draw in two years' time they may struggle to advance. In 2012, the European championship will be jointly staged by Ukraine, who have qualified for only one major tournament since gaining independence, and Poland who have disappointed at Euro 2008 just as they did at the last two World Cups.
Tournament expansion is partly to blame for this trend. Very few countries in Europe have the means to stage 16-team championships entirely by themselves and only a handful of nations in the world can put on 32-team World Cups. Co-hosting is likely to become the norm if, as is apparently likely, the Euros expand to a ludicrously bloated 24 teams from 2012. There has even been talk, dismissed so far by UEFA, of Poland and Ukraine being unable to fulfill their hosting role in four years’ time, with two non-qualifiers for Euro 2008, Scotland and Ireland (mildly) hopeful of stepping in.
The hosts' failures are less significant than they would once have been. Matches are still likely to be sold out whatever happens. There are far more visiting supporters travelling to major tournaments than ever before, though many of the people in face paint and wigs seem to be major-event fans, who might as well be at a rock festival, rather than football diehards. What matters most to UEFA and their various corporate partners is that the countries with the largest TV markets qualify. Which is why the wails of frustration at England's failure to make it are yet to subside. England hope to secure at least one more qualification while Wayne Rooney is still playing by hosting the 2018 World Cup but by then we may find that a way has been devised for all the major countries - let's just call them global platinum-card premier-class stakeholders - to be "invited". There is still no guarantee that they won't mess up at the tournament itself, but taking part is what counts.