I may be looking back through rose-tinted glasses, but I remember EURO 2008, as being a truly great tournament. In fact, I’d say it’s the best tournament that’s taken place in my lifetime. It was, at least in my mind, a tournament where the attacking teams were rewarded and the teams that played negatively went home early. Similarly, EURO 2012 was a good tournament, certainly a step up in terms of drama and tension from the 2010 World Cup.
It didn’t take too long after EURO 2008 for UEFA to ruin things by announcing the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, starting with the next European Championships to be held in France in 2016. UEFA’s executive committee said that the expansion would,
“give middle ranked teams a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament, thereby expanding the fanbase directly reached, increasing the number of matches played and increasing the overall stadium capacity”
The part they didn’t publish, but was lost on nobody was “and make more money”.
UEFA currently has 53 members, with at least one more expected to join in the next few years. Having 24 teams involved means that around 45% of UEFA’s members will compete in the final stages of what’s supposed to be a major tournament, which is far too high a proportion.
What seems even more stupid is that in the new format, which is expected to be the same as was in the World Cup from 1986 to 1994 - only UEFA could try and modernise something and then come up with a format that was last used 20 years earlier- of the 24 teams going into the tournament, 16 will qualify from the group stages, the top two from each of the six groups of four, plus four third placed finishers.
A team finishing third in their group could quite conceivably not win a match, and yet they are rewarded by progressing to the next stage? It’s highly possible that this will lead to teams playing extremely negative, defensive football in order to grind out enough draws to go through, which will diminish the tournament as a spectacle. It also seems likely that this will lead to an increase in dead rubbers, both in qualifying and the tournament proper, which no fan wants to see.
UEFA’s premise of expanding the number of teams to give middle ranked nations the chance to play just doesn’t add up. Since the inception of the tournament, even when only 4 teams took part, in every European Championship there has always been a nation making their tournament debut, with co-hosts Ukraine continuing that record in this year’s tournament. Remember also that in the playoffs for EURO 2012, Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro could have come through their playoffs to make their tournament debuts.
I can’t see what’s wrong with the current system. It does give ‘middle tiered’ nations the chance to qualify. It’s not easy, but then again, it shouldn’t be. This is a major international tournament we’re talking about. In EURO 2004, against all odds, Latvia qualified for the finals after beating Turkey in a playoff. This was an incredible achievement for a small country, and one which they can look back on with immense pride. Would a team like Latvia get the same sense of satisfaction if they qualified after things were made a little easier for them to do so? I don’t think so.
Generally, the reason why countries are in the middle of the pack is because they don’t have as strong a pool of players to choose from as the teams above them. There are two ways players improve, better coaching and a higher standard of competition. With the latter in mind, it seems incredible that UEFA are seriously considering scrapping the Europa League in favour of an expanded Champions League, which would probably only benefit teams from Europe’s best leagues at the expense of teams from some of the lower-ranked European leagues, which will prevent a lot of players from reaping the benefits of having to compete against a better standard of opponent than they would in their domestic leagues.
When deciding to increase the number of competing teams, something UEFA seemingly didn’t foresee was that more teams in a tournament means more matches, an increase from 31 matches in the 16-team format to 51 in the 24-team format to be exact. This in turn means more stadiums would be required to host those matches, and increase from 8 in EURO 2012 to 10 in EURO 2016, which in turn means more money is required to build or refurbish stadiums to a required standard. Add to that the other costs of hosting a tournament; infrastructure, logistics, security etc. and that means that the cost of hosting a tournament is restrictively high.
Most European countries are currently in deep financial trouble and are on austerity drives to try and stave off financial meltdown. When governments all over Europe are faced with decisions regarding which essential public services they may have to cut to try and cut spending deficits, spending hundreds of millions hosting an international football tournament isn’t high on the agenda for most European nations.
When the invitations to bid for EURO 2020 came in, the list was quite short. There was a half-hearted joint bid from Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland that never really got off the ground; and a bid from Azerbaijan and Georgia, where neither party seemed exactly sure if it was a joint bid or separate ones, but neither bid really went anywhere. Turkey were the only nation to put in an official bid, despite having been ignored several times in the past. However, Istanbul is bidding for the 2020 Olympics, so as a result, UEFA were reluctant to award them the tournament as they don’t want their showpiece to turn into an afterthought.
The lack of an appealing bid from a host nation, or host nations, has led to UEFA announcing that EURO 2020 will be held in 13 cities all over Europe, rather than in one place. “We’re looking at something bigger and more united,” UEFA President Michel Platini said.
“Countries that would never have had the chance to host the Euros will be able to participate in this festival of football.
“The situation is difficult in Europe. It’s hard to ask one country to invest in 10 stadiums like in Ukraine. There’s also the idea of belonging to a European country. It’s a great idea to mark the anniversary.
“The Euros will go to the fans. It’ll meet supporters. In previous years, they had to go to the Euros. Everything will be done so that the fans are able to get to games.”
It hasn’t been announced exactly how it’ll work; there has been some vague talk about the seeded teams being the hosts, but Platini has assured fans they won’t have to travel from side of Europe to the other in order to follow their team.
UEFA have insisted that this will be a one-off, and they plan to revert to having the tournament based in one host country, or host countries, for the 2024 tournament, but I can’t help but get the feeling that this idea may be the shape of things to come rather than a one-off.
This decision hasn’t gone down well with fans. They think Platini is playing a clever political game, and this decision is more about currying favour with some of Europe’s smaller footballing nations in the hopes of securing votes in future elections, rather than being a decision that has been taken with the best interests of supporters in mind.
When an English journalist asked Platini how a fan could be expected to attend games in, for arguments sake, London, then Munich then Copenhagen, in order to follow their team in the group stages, Platini answered “As you know, there are budget airlines”
Of course, Platini’s right, there are budget airlines, but what he seems unaware of is that these airlines, which are riddled with hidden costs anyway, making what looks to be a cheap flight on paper, not-so cheap in reality, will hike their prices up to exorbitant levels and that assuming that fans can get seats, which are limited.
Even FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke isn’t in favour of this idea, though it does apparently have the support of Sepp Blatter. Valcke said
"If I can express myself as Jerome Valcke, only, not FIFA's Secretary General, I would say that I don't understand it,"
"If it transpires that a tournament with 24 teams is more difficult to organise in just one or two countries...that destroys the spirit of the competition.”
One of the huge benefits to having a tournament based in one or two countries is that it becomes a celebration of the host nation (or host nations). It’s a chance for a country to show off a bit and for fans, many of who will be coming to that country for the first time, to experience the culture and traditions of these countries. Also, it’s a chance for visiting fans to congregate and meet people from all over the continent.
That will all go in one fell swoop. Fans will only stay in one place for a day or so at the most, which not only prevents fans from seeing anything other than the football matches, but denies fans the chance to mingle. These tournaments cost a lot to stage, but countries do it knowing that they’ll get a lot of tourist money both for the tournament, and in the future as if a visitor comes to a country for the first time and enjoy themselves, chances are they’ll come again.
UEFA have made their decision and, as a result, EURO 2020 will now be held all over Europe. Platini claims that this decision and the decision to expand the European Championships is all about including more teams and more fans, which in theory is a laudable notion. However, I can’t help but feeling the reality will be a diluted version of the existing tournament, which the ordinary fan is priced out of attending.
Michel Platini clearly doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”