Tournament torment

The World Cup has had to expand to the point where it can be too much of a good thing, believes Philip Cornwall, who thinks the European Championship is now perfection

It’s part of the calendar of the football fan’s life. One summer is dominated by the World Cup; then there’s a quiet year; but now the European Champ­ionship circus rolls in, in many ways a less cumbersome, more accessible (closer if you want to go; always in our time zone if you don’t) and so more perfect tournament than the global event. Euro 2004 offers a steady stream of daily matches stretching for a fortnight, then a less intense but more important final week, finishing on a Fourth of July that will be cele­brated so wildly in one country that visiting Americans will complain about the fireworks. The tournament’s rise, creating a two-rather than four-year cycle, has ensured the eclipse of the international friendly, making them training grounds for the games that truly decide coach’s jobs.

This in turn makes it much less likely that someone will emulate Allan Clarke at Mexico 70, and make their England debut in a major finals. The expansion to 16 makes it hard now to imagine an England coach failing to reach the European Championship finals surviving, though Bobby Robson and Don Revie once did just that. Alf Ramsey’s first match in the England job was an away leg, the home one already drawn, in the 1964 last 16; the 5-2 defeat to France scarcely mattered.

While today England fans are obsessed with ticket allocations because demand almost always exceeds supply and thousands will travel to Portugal in hope rather than certainty, in the 1980 finals 15,186 saw England play Belgium in Turin. That was a perfectly respectable attendance for years past, however – 7,614 watched Czechoslovakia play Greece in Rome that year, echoing around the Stadio Olimpico like a poor turnout for an FA Vase final at Wembley. By Euro 2000, 20,000 were delighted to visit the holiday hot-spot (if you like declining mining towns) of Charleroi to watch Yugoslavia 3 Slovenia 3 and as many saw the dead match between Denmark and the Czechs. More than one million tickets have been sold for Portugal – as the globe has shrunk, Europe has grown and its continental championship has matured. Though it can never quite close on the World Cup, it has narrowed the gap, learning from its own mistakes and others’.

Things we take for granted now were once new, untested and unthought-through. It is 74 years since Jules Rimet’s brainchild got off the ground, 44 since that of another Frenchman, Henri Delaunay, followed suit. The World Cup kicked off with 13 teams in 1930, none of whom had to qualify; four years later, uniquely, Italy were nominated as the host country but still had to face Greece for the right to play in the tournament proper. Quite what would have happened had Greece risen to the challenge is hard to say – though you don’t imagine Mussolini would have been too pleased with the referee – but it was a mistake the European Championship learned from, in its small way.

There will be 16 teams in Portugal this summer, contesting 31 games. That is one fewer team and three more games than for the whole of the 1960 event, from the preliminary round (Czechoslovakia beat Ireland  4-2 on aggregate) to the final (the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia 2-1), held in Paris. While it was appropriate that the venue was Delaunay’s home country, that was only determined once France had reached the last four, after two rounds of home-and-away ties. The winners had no quarter-final (Franco’s Spain boy­cotted the Soviets); Czechoslovakia finished their quarter-final on May 29 and played their semi in France on July 6. The finals consisted of three mean­ingful games and a play-off; no huge building pro­gramme, no months of scheming in friendlies. We wouldn’t be filling in wallcharts if Portugal finished with its third match, an hour before England kick off against France.

That 1960 start put Europe decades behind South America. After a trial run with three countries and no Brazil, their first official championship had been held in 1917, when Europe was otherwise occupied. And it took a long while for Europe’s championship to develop. The number of entrants increased slowly. You had qualifying groups for 1968, but no true finals tournament until 1980 – which was something of a disaster. By the simple expedient of forgetting to have semi-finals, UEFA sucked a lot of the tension out of that event. But that mistake was corrected and Europe was on the way to having a tournament that could rival the World Cup, because most of the strength of the global game and little of its weakness is represented.

The driver for expanding the World Cup is often seen as being the need to give a chance to more than just a token African or Asian nation, as was the case until Spain 82. Certainly João Have­lange came to power on the votes of the under-represented con­­tinents. It is right that a tournament with that name must be more representative of the world as a whole. But expansion carried the risk of bringing in more sides with little pros­pect of progress, of diluting the World Cup. What has sustained that tournament as it has bulked up from 16 in 1978 to 24 in 1982 then 32 in 1998, and compelled the continental championship to grow from four to 16, has been the strength of European football: what was there anyway in the 1980s; what has been achieved by smaller old states making the most of their resources in a way that even major African countries struggle, with more serious concerns, to do; and what was delivered by political accident as the multiethnic states of eastern Europe became two, five or countless nations.

South America has a great tradition and two jewels that still sparkle – Brazil and Argentina – but the last other side to reach so much as the last eight in the World Cup was Peru in 1978. Uruguay have been world champions twice but have made little impression since 1970. Senegal made deserved headlines in 2002, but they were the only African nation out of five qualifiers to escape their group. True, armed with two hosts, Asia outperformed expectations and matched the maths, South Korea and Japan reaching the knockout stages, the former losing semi-finalists. Only the luck of the draw and the Germans denied Concacaf even more than Mexico and their conquerors, the United States, achieved. But how strong, by contrast, is Europe?

Strong enough that despite the high-profile failures in 2002, Europe, with just under half the entrants, supplied nine of the last 16, half the quarter-finalists, half the semi-finalists and the runners-up in playing conditions as unfavourable as they are ever likely to be. And Turkey could finish third in the tournament,  then fail to even make the final 16 in the race for Euro 2004. That may seem anomalous. Latvia’s fairy-tale  success was certainly unexpected; not even Maris Verpakovskis would claim that the tournament is stronger in play­ing terms for Turkey’s absence. But Turkey were simply failing in the foot­steps of others, a remarkable run that justifies Europe’s numbers in the World Cup and the fact of 16 teams lining up in Portugal. Croatia were third in the 1998 World Cup, then missed out on Euro 2000. Sweden were third at USA 94, then missed out on Euro 96. Italy came third in their home tournament in 1990 then failed to reach Euro 92. France were non-qualifiers for Euro 88 after coming third in Mexico. Four years earlier the French came fourth, but their con­querors, Poland, did not reach Euro 84.

As well as this run of third-place losers, since 1978 Holland, Belgium, (West) Germany, Bulgaria and England have all made the World Cup semi-finals at least. Europe’s strength is so broad-based that a team that failed even to reach the continent’s finals, Den­mark in 1992, through international tragedy were handed a chance to be­come champions, making the case for 16 teams unassailable.

So now the European Championship is firmly established, with as many teams as the World Cup had in 1978 and, in spite of the presence of Latvia, arguably with fewer no-hopers. It will attract comparable crowds but with many thousands more from abroad, to a set of cities that would still be full of tourists if it wasn’t for the football. For the TV audience it has the advantage of being a middle-distance event, not a marathon. It could do with a greater touch of Brazil than the presence of Deco and Luiz Felipe Scolari, but has any tournament ever been as mouth-watering a prospect as three weeks in Portugal?

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month