Euro 2012: It has been an enthralling European Championship thus far, but thanks to Platini’s incompetence, it may be the last of its kind
So 24 games into this European Championship and it has been as action-packed, thrilling and blessed with gifted talents as its predecessors. We have witnessed Russia looking like potential champions in their opening fixture, producing some slick football to dismantle the Czech Republic, yet it is the latter who have advanced to the knockout round- a remarkable surprise. We have seen the Netherlands outfit fall apart on and off the pitch, with poor displays from key individuals and their egos creating a bad atmosphere. We have watched Croatia compete admirably with the two powerhouses Spain and Italy and come an Ivan Rakitic header away from possibly eliminating the world and European champions, and watched a realistic yet effectively pragmatic England side battle for a pair of tight victories to top their section after the managerial fiasco and Roy Hodgson having just a few weeks of preparation.
It’s been an enjoyable group stage. It always is at the Euros. Every group is extremely competitive. Very rarely is there a whipping boy opponent at this tournament. Even Latvia, when they sensationally qualified in 2004, were victims of daylight robbery against a laughably dismal Germany side when they were denied two stonewall penalties. The quality of football at these championships has outshone the World Cup ever since I watched my first Euros, in my home country in 1996. The only Jules Rimet tournaments I have seen that compare were the extraordinary football fest that was USA 94 (fond memories of Bebeto’s goal celebration, Letchkov’s bullet header, Baggio’s amazing tournament bar his final kick) and France ’98. Yet despite the Euros’ 16-team format producing fantastic football celebrations ever since 1996, Michel Platini, who defines the very phrase ‘fix something that isn’t broken’ lobbied and has successfully pushed through an expansion to 24 teams for the 2016 edition, to be held in France in four years time.
There are a multitude of reasons why this is a disastrous move for the competition itself. Sure, it gives smaller nations a bigger opportunity to qualify for an international tournament, but unheralded nations have always excelled even under the current format. England, a nation of 50 million residents, has never lifted the Henri Delaunay trophy, yet Greece, who had never reached a major tournament until 1994, have. Did they need a 24 team championship to achieve that? No they did not. The Czech Republic have a relatively small population compared with a few European powerhouses, yet their record in the competition is superior to many. Platini defends the change, stating that it allows these so-called small countries a chance to develop their football, yet in the Champions League he has only changed the system to benefit the biggest clubs, with the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga (having taken Serie A’s four Champions League berths) now obtaining three automatic tickets to the group stage instead of the two they used to have. So he is a little hypocritical to claim he is sticking up for the less fashionable sides. Those that fail to qualify for the Euros (and the World Cup for that matter) do so because they are simply not good enough. We have already seen exhibit A right here at these championships. Poland and Ukraine qualified as hosts, but they lacked the quality to get through the group stage despite the home advantage in both cases. Would those teams have come through a tough qualification group? I highly doubt it. With a 24-team Euros, there will be more cases of teams simply out of their depth being taken apart by Europe’s elite. The quality of football that has been outstanding since the 1996 edition will be dragged down.
Another exhibit is that the qualification groups for the Euros will now be rendered rather pointless. Europe’s biggest clubs will be absolutely loving it. Their big name players won’t be needed if the top three in each section go straight through. Will the Germans really need the likes of Ozil, Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Gomez to finish at least third from their qualifying group? Will Spain have to call on the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to finish ahead of Albania and San Marino? The challenge of going to difficult, hostile environments to obtain the required points total and reach the ultimate objective will have been removed. Memorable upsets like the Dutch failing to qualify for World Cup 2002 (although the European format for that competition will remain the same) and England not being present at Austria and Switzerland in 2008 will never happen again at the Euros. The predictability factor will reign supreme. So while it may seem to benefit the smaller nations, it also favours the international giants, who can happily cruise through a group beating only the minnows and resting all their elite players for the championships themselves.
The one other aspect I find ridiculous is you are going to get many more scenarios where predictable results may occur. Four of the best third place sides will advance to a round of 16. So if two teams in Group F know a draw is going to take them through and knock out a third placed side from another group, then the result is going to be lamentably predictable isn’t it. What happened with Denmark and Sweden in Euro 2004 knowing a result would qualify both was an anomaly. Expect it to become the norm from 2016 onwards. No team finishing third in a tournament group has any business going anywhere other than the second plane home- after the bottom-placed nation have departed the runway.
International football gets slated by many as being second-rate compared to club football. I often challenge this theory, and enjoy the contrast between the two, but when decisions like this are made it is difficult to argue against. I cannot wait for France 2016 when Scotland get walloped 6-0 by Germany in the group stage and everyone salivates over the Germans’ phenomenal attacking football when the reality is they have defeated a woeful outfit who had no business being there in the first place. Bring it on.