By Max Grieve
Xavi can’t be wrong – nearly everything he does is right. “The European Championships are harder than the World Cup; more intense,” he said. “There are no Cinderellas. In the Euros, anyone can beat you.”
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The plastic balls rolled as Marco van Basten dipped his hand down into the bowl and, almost as if by divine intervention, he plucked out the Netherlands. Zidane was next, and held up a slip of paper with Denmark’s name to the hundreds of suits, and sixteen nervous managers, who were gathered in the dark beyond the stage. Next, the Frenchman with the soft feet and the hard head blindly chose Portugal. Finally; wonderfully, gloriously, he plunged down into the bowl once more. The camera swept across a wall of uneasy faces. Zidane unfurled the coil of paper – Germany.
So the notorious Group of Death for the European Championships of 2012 was decided. Enjoy it; it may well be the last of its kind.
In late September, 2008, UEFA rubber-stamped an expansion of the finals from 16 to 24 teams; threatening the very identity of the tournament. From its conception, it has been renowned for its purity and unfathomable intensity, which is why the expansion has, in some quarters, been met by a distinct disappointment. Once, the Euros consisted of only four teams. Now, there will six times that amount; nearly half of UEFA’s 53 member nations.
“We decided there are 24 good teams in Europe,” said Michel Platini. “In 2008, no British team qualified. This year there is no room for Switzerland, Norway or Serbia. That shows you the tournament can sustain 24 teams. We want to increase participation. Look at rugby. Wales and Scotland do well in competitions, they are always there. In football it is much harder for them to compete.”
Platini doesn’t appear to have looked far beyond the fact that Wales and Scotland are countries that play rugby. Indeed, they are very good at it, and earn their places in international tournaments on merit, rather than with a helping hand from the governing body of the sport. It’s an argument that doesn’t have much to stand on – Scotland and Wales aren’t at the Euros simply because they aren’t good enough – so we’ll try to disregard it. It’s the equivalent of Platini stating that just because he was brilliant with a football at his feet (a point which he is all to eager to make when a microphone is in front of him), he should be good at acting as the head of one of the sport’s governing bodies. Sepp Blatter, for those interested, never played the game.
What is more pertinent is his justification that expansion was necessary to include the 24 “good” teams in Europe. Days ago, the latest FIFA World Rankings were released. Reading too much into this index should be discouraged, as rankings are often delayed by a number of months – Uruguay, it seems, are just about getting their reward for their Copa America victory, and France, despite an undefeated streak of 20 matches, still sit below Chile and Russia – though they are interesting to consider in light of Platini’s claim.
Thirteen European nations are currently placed in the top twenty countries in the world, and each qualified for Euro 2012. Norway is Europe’s 15th best ranked nation (let us not take Switzerland into account; they have the quality deserving of a place at the Euros). Since the turn of the millennium, Norway have not featured at an international tournament. In 2008, they failed to win a single match. With the expansion, they are likely to be one of the teams who scrape through qualifying, and into the finals. Simply, they’re not a side that deserves a place in the Euros. Beyond the Norwegians, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Montenegro and Armenia would all be in contention to qualify for Euro 2016. The risk being run is turning the Euros into a European edition of World Cup (another tournament which many feel is too big), complete with the odd 7-0 thrashing. Denmark sensationally beat the Netherlands , but it’s difficult to see Armenia doing the same.
It is, of course, important to consider the other side of the argument. The smaller format denies some of the greats. Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov (there are many more examples) have never played at a European Championships, and perhaps would have if more countries were let in. UEFA, in expanding the tournament, are also sharing the joy that participating brings – entire nations switch into party mode. There will be more matches, more goals, and a wider celebration of football.
If these were Platini’s primary ambitions in expansion then perhaps the majority would more readily accept the change, but one suspects that it has more to do with Platini retaining his place in the UEFA hierarchy. Smaller European nations, or those who struggle in qualification for the Euros, will continue to support Platini, though only on the condition that they be given a greater opportunity to reach the finals. And for those nations, participation is less about football than it is about the financial benefits that the Euros provide. Television audiences, participation bonuses, marketing – Germany received €8m for reaching the finals and €1m for their win over Portugal; money which would mean a lot more to smaller footballing federations.
The opening group in this tournament has arguably provided the best entertainment so far, with the each of Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands failing to live up to the hype that the occasion had warranted. Whilst perhaps not playing the most spectacular football, there was a brilliant tension between the Portuguese and the Germans, as both took a far more considered approach to the first group game than most others have. Poland and Greece was, quite simply, ridiculously fun. Russia ran riot, and the Netherlands threw all that they had, which more often than not was a wayward shot from Robben cutting in, at the Danes. Whilst a win for either of Germany and Portugal would have put them in good stead going into the next round of fixtures, both were seemingly more intent on not losing, rather than winning. Whilst such an approach can be conducive to a perceivably unattractive game, it does not detract from the immeasurable tension.
The Dutch will meet the Germans later in the week in a match that could see Germany all but seal a place in the quarter-finals, or conversely, send the Netherlands home. It’s all set up beautifully, but wouldn’t be quite as romantic if you were to substitute Macedonia for either side – in France in 2016, it’s an entirely likely situation.
"I personally find the format with 16 teams ideal," said German football association (DFB) president Wolfgang Niersbach. "We at the DFB view the (expansion) with mixed feelings. It was smaller nations like Finland and Scotland, and I think Norway was in there as well, who had never qualified and who pushed it through with their votes.”
If there was to be any change to the tournament, there’s a suggestion that reducing the number of participating sides would be the step to take. Halve the amount of qualifying nations, double the amount of group matches, and you’ve got yourself a truly epic footballing spectacle, even more suffocatingly tense. Commerical pressures forced the tournament to open up to 16 sides; next time we will have 24.
There will always be high-profile clashes, and the juggernauts of the European game often meet deeper into the tournament, but by allowing eight more teams into Euro 2016, Platini has, for all intents and purposes, killed off the Group of Death. One wonders if he really cares about the football from his corporate seat – indeed, he looked royally bored by a positively thrilling opening match. For a man who gave so much to shape the identity of the European Championships, he’s well on his way to destroying it.
Twenty-four, sixteen or eight teams – or another arbitrary number? What do you think?
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- moonlityork answered: Sixteen.
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- hiranom20 answered: Brilliantly written. These were my sentiments when the expansion was announced. Shades of RSA 2010 in 2016 perhaps? (sigh)
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- apingaround answered: Your last paragraph is wonderful and spot on. Uefa (and Fifa) have another agenda & it’s no longer about football; they both need to change.
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- aztecaameliaaa answered: 16 teams is truly the best number to stick with. The Group of Death always seems to be the finger-biter. Viewers thrive on it.
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- thesubstitution answered: I like the idea of taking it down to 8 – it’d be a few weeks of such pure quality. There’d be two quintessential groups of death. Perfect.
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- sleepierthanthou answered: The current format ensure the group stage is no dull confirmation, no extension of qualification. Why change such a great formula??