Why Euro 2016 can’t come soon enough…
Qualification is now all but over for Euro 2012, and the verdict is in…write it off. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s going to be a good tournament. Because it won’t be. And there’s a good reason why this is – it’s because it’s exactly the same as every tournament before it in the past decade.
Look at the 12 teams that have already qualified, and what do you notice? Yes, it’s the usual suspects, the same old teams that have qualified for the vast majority of international tournaments in the 21st century. France, Italy, Germany and Spain have been ever present from the 1998 World Cup onwards. Portugal, should they make it through the play-offs (no doubt a mere formality thanks to UEFA’s seeding system), will join them in that regard. The Netherlands, Sweden and England have missed just one tournament each this century. That’s a core of 8 teams, half the number of teams that currently qualify for the Euros. The remaining half is usually also taken up by a selection of teams that usually make it – Denmark (5/7 tournaments), Russia (4/7), Greece (4/7) and the other seeded play-off teams: the Czech Republic (would be 5/7), Croatia (5/7) and Turkey (4/7). That makes 14 teams, leaving only the co-hosts – Poland themselves have made 4 of the last 7, while this will be only Ukraine’s 2nd international tournament since independence.
It’s the most boring UEFA line-up for an international tournament in a long time. Even the World Cup last year saw the debut of Slovakia and a rare appearance for Slovenia, and of course there are less spots available for UEFA at the World Cups than the Euros.
At this point, I should point that I’m not whinging for the sake of it. Of course, the teams that have qualified have generally qualified on merit – I say generally, due to events like FIFA and UEFA inventing play-off seedings at the last minute to make sure the big teams get good draws, and referees pretending that French players didn’t blatantly handle the ball before creating winning goals. It’s inevitable that the big teams will make the tournaments, and I think we would be disappointed and perhaps feel the tournament would be illegitimate if a number of them didn’t qualify.
However, what gets me down is it’s not just the big teams that are regularly making tournaments in post-Soviet/Yugoslavia UEFA. Most of the teams that make the tournaments, i.e. usually about 14 or 15 of the 16 in the Euros and 11 or 12 of the 13 in the World Cups, are the regulars now. This hasn’t always been the case. Back in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s, it was a regular occurrence for a European footballing superpower or two to not qualify – see England’s absence from the World Cup for 12 years in the 70s, or France’s non-qualification in the two post-Platini World Cups despite possessing some of the best players in the world. Perhaps this is in part due to the expansion of the major tournaments – the Euros became a 16 team tournament in 1996, while the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998. It thus makes it more difficult for a major team to not qualify – which is great for TV ratings, isn’t it?
But again, that is besides the point – that shouldn’t be an excuse for a significant number of teams beyond the core of 5 or 6 superpowers effectively being able to reserve their tickets to the next tournament before qualifying’s even began. And this is bad for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it promotes complacency and half-heartedness, which isn’t good for the game as a whole. OK, so the qualifying competitions are usually quite exciting and close but you know roughly who will come out on top in the end. It’s inevitable. And I think the teams by and large know this too. Therefore they can qualify with ease at a canter, which doesn’t set them up well for the good tournaments. Look at Italy – for the last few tournaments, they’ve qualified easily, but then flopped in a few of the group stages or early rounds. It doesn’t get the best out of those big teams, and promotes apathy among the smaller nations (particularly those displaced by the new former Soviet and Yugoslav states, like the smaller Home Nations). This then gives tournaments an illegitimate feel – were Uruguay really the 4th best team in the world last year, or were Turkey the 3rd best in 2002? Tournament football may be misrepresentative by its very nature but it shouldn’t be totally random.
Secondly, it’s not good for the football played. International football as a whole has been dying on its arse for the last decade or more, because teams are getting more defensive and club football is taking precedence. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the teams qualifying from UEFA, which of course dominates the World Cup, have tended to be the same teams over the last decade. It has become easy to expect what teams will play like – we know England will turn up and play long ball; we know the Scandinavian teams will be average and boring; we know France will either be brilliant or self-destruct and embarrass their nation with some abysmal performances against weaker nations, and so on and so forth. There aren’t many genuinely dynamic teams in Europe who have developed an exciting style of play – it just so happens that the ones that have are the best teams in UEFA at the moment: Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, although you could argue that the former two were rather boring in the World Cup.
Leading on from that, there is the issue of freshness. Because it’s the same teams qualifying all the time, playing the same way, inevitably you’re going to have the same players, the same tired old faces and legs that are just doing what they’ve done for the last few tournaments – generally, that’s not a lot. And yet they are often the big stars – take Rooney, for instance, a player who hasn’t done anything in a major tournament since bursting onto the scene in Euro 2004 as an 18 year old. We know he’s going to under-perform. And it is boring; it’s not exciting – I don’t really want to see, say, Jesper Gronkjaer in his umpteenth international tournament doing exactly what he’s done for the previous umpteen tournaments, because it’s nothing special, and the teams will know exactly how to handle him.
Finally, the dominance of the major teams has become self-perpetuating – if they are locking out the major tournaments, they are the ones getting all the coverage and exposure, the sponsorship, the money. Conversely, the teams that don’t make it get no coverage and exposure, which is hardly inspiring people in their homeland. It is a wonder that there are emerging football nations in Europe at all, as there is seemingly no reason for them to take the game up with a system so heavily biased in favour of the big name teams, and nothing for these minnows to aim for other than the odd qualifying campaign win. It promotes apathy. And yet somehow countries like Armenia and Estonia have made major strides in recent years, although they haven’t found a way to step up to the next level because there’s a big UEFA-branded hurdle in the way called qualification.
I know Euro 2012 is going to be just the same as the last few tournaments. It’s not a fresh, exciting line-up. There’s nothing new there. So if there’s nothing that has the potential of surprising us, where’s the interest? Surely you’re just setting yourself up for exactly the same boring results as last time. If you know everything, then there’s no variable there compared to last time.
There needs to be a random variable in an international tournament to make it interesting. What made the 2002 World Cup interesting, if not for the football itself which was pretty bad, was that the heat, absurd travel arrangements and daft refereeing decisions led to some surprise results, and teams outside the core of major footballing nations did well – South Korea and Turkey in particular. However, as I hinted earlier, this could be said to be as much down to the bigger nations under-performing that year. Last year’s World Cup was the same, though again the football was generally terribly dull and the big teams didn’t play to their potential. The issue of fatigue among the big name players in particular was a factor for both of these tournaments – the number of injuries and withdrawals was quite frustrating and robbed us of some big name players.
The dull football last year in particular, though, can be put down to the major footballing nations, and I’m sure this must be because of the fact that certain teams have now been figured out, and that many have a tendency to cancel each other out, leaving a mass blob of defensive “flairless” possession football that goes nowhere. The most exciting teams in 2002 and 2010 were the ones that came from left field, that people didn’t know much about and weren’t expecting much of – Uruguay were the best example of this, having only qualified for one World Cup in recent times.
There has to be a balance between the random factors making upsets possible and it getting too random and big teams not performing, and giving the tournament an illegitimate feel. The big tournaments in recent years seem to have lurched between the two – the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 were relatively predictable; the World Cup last year was totally unpredictable. It’s probably not a coincidence that the former two were both held in Europe while the latter was held in an unfamiliar hot country with stadiums at altitude. Euro 2012 promises to be more of the former so it will no doubt follow a similarly predictable pattern
But the most annoying thing is that it doesn’t have to be the case. This has been demonstrated this week. While Europe has been wrapped up in Euro 2012 qualification, on the other side of the Mediterranean Africa’s footballing nations have been closing out a remarkable African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. Many of the big name nations, the equivalents of your Germanies, Italies, Spains and so on, didn’t qualify – you will not be seeing the reigning champions Egypt in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, nor will you see Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Togo or the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of whom have qualified for World Cups, putting them at the top of the tree in the CAF hierarchy. Tunisia are the only one of the last 5 different winners of the tournament (covering 9 tournaments over 18 years) to qualify. Ghana are the only team who have won the tournament more than once to make it.
Instead, we have new teams on the scene. In addition to Equatorial Guinea, there are 2 other teams that have never played in the ACoN before – Botswana and Niger. The idea that there are nations in Africa that have never played in the ACoN, which has been biannual since the 1950s and is heading into its 28th edition, is rather remarkable itself, and shows how extraordinary an achievement it is for both these nations to qualify on merit ahead of the established powers. They genuinely have come from nothing to beat the superstars of their continent – it is akin to a nation like Armenia or Lithuania qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Germany or Italy.
I don’t believe this is a fluke. This is a product of the African international football system, which is ideally set up for fostering emerging football nations. With 16 spots, it gives many nations who wouldn’t normally stand a chance of making the World Cup an opportunity to play in a major international tournament. This gives them a reason to keep improving, which in turn gives them a chance of qualifying for the World Cup and becoming a powerful African footballing nations. This decade has seen the likes of Angola and Togo, two rather unlikely national teams, make their debuts in the World Cup as a result of this system, alongside Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana who have always been powerful nations in Africa but hadn’t made a World Cup until 2006. Indeed, all four made their debuts that year, pushing out regular qualifiers Cameroon and Nigeria. The system has created unpredictable qualifying tournaments with many surprise results, which in turn has led to African nations becoming wildcards on the world scene – take Ghana’s impressive 2006 and 2010 World Cups, for example. It has become an incredibly vibrant footballing continent, far more interesting, in my opinion, than the current European setup, and yet only got 6 spots out of 32 at the last World Cup, including the host nation, whereas UEFA had over double that.
Contrast that to Europe – the same old stale teams, players and playing styles every single tournament, and a consistent lockout of the major tournaments by the same old teams, leaving the smaller nations to hope and pray for a bit of luck. Look at this qualifying campaign – there have been some impressive performances from “emerging” nations such as Estonia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, who all made the play-offs ahead of more established teams in their groups (Serbia for Estonia, Switzerland and Bulgaria for Montenegro, and Romania for B&H). However, the system has worked against them – 16 spots and a seeded group draw means the big teams have the automatic qualifying spots pretty much covered, while UEFA has also created a contrived seeding system for the play-offs which guarantees a tough draw for all 3 of them, meaning they will have to wait for another 2-4 years. In B&H’s case, this must be frustrating beyond belief, as it’s exactly what happened in qualifying for last year’s World Cup, and all the while this generation of players, led by Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, isn’t getting any younger – they’ve already lost a generation of quality players to time, such as Muhamed Konjic, Hasan Salihamidzic, Elvir Bolic and Sergej Barbarez.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. UEFA (for once) have made a clever decision. From Euro 2016 onwards, the number of teams that will participate in the European Championship finals will rise from 16 to 24. This is absolutely 100% definitely the correct decision, the best decision UEFA’s made in years. After all, it’s what the other confederations have – a continental competition with a lot more spots open than the number of spots available for the World Cup:
– all 9 of the CONMEBOL nations of South America participate in the Copa America, compared to either 4 or 5 for the 2014 World Cup
– 12 CONCACAF nations qualify for the Gold Cup, compared to 3 or 4 for the 2014 WC
– 16 CAF nations qualify for the ACoN, compared to 5 for the 2014 WC
– 16 AFC nations qualify for the Asian Cup, compared to 4 or 5 for the 2014 WC
Generally, the ratio is for around 4 times as many teams in the continental competition as the World Cup, other than CONMEBOL. Obviously such an arrangement would not work with the Euros – that would mean 52 out of the 53 nations qualifying for a tournament, which is practically impossible. This can be put down to the domination of UEFA in the World Cup, with 13 of the 32 spots going to them, and the world of football as a whole. I’m not going to advocate less places for UEFA at the World Cup, but it is clear that UEFA need to expand the Euros, which is exactly what they’re doing.
What would 24 teams mean for Euro 2012? Well, you have to take the results at face value – obviously UEFA may invent a new qualification system for 2016 in order to insure certain teams qualify, as they always do, and the system changes compared to how many teams in it (for instance, 51 teams participated in the qualifying tournament this time, but 52 will next time as France as sole hosts). But basing it on those results, you would take 18 teams from the 9 groups automatically – the top 2 in each. That leaves 6 spots. One way to get these 6 would be to take the 3 best 3rd place teams automatically, leaving 3 spots to be decided by 3 play-off matches between the remaining 6 3rd place teams.
What teams would qualify? The good news is that we have some different ones to usual. Alongside the teams that have qualified, we would get all 8 of the teams currently heading for the play-offs – this would mean debuts in international tournaments for Estonia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, and a return to the big stage for the Republic of Ireland. When working out the 3 best 3rd place teams, it gets a bit more complicated, as you have to drop the results of the 3rd place teams in the groups of 6 teams against the bottom sides in the group (hope you’re still with me). This means automatic places for Norway (last major tournament: Euro 2000), Hungary (last major tournament: 1986 World Cup) and Armenia (a first major tournament). Switzerland, Scotland, Israel, Serbia, Belgium and Romania would contest the play-off matches. All in all, an interesting set of teams – a mixture of established nations and newcomers, which would provide an intriguing tournament.
But the impact of this goes beyond what we can see right now, for it will give a lot more teams a genuine chance of qualifying for a major tournament, something that will no doubt spur some of them on. For many, like Belgium, Hungary and the remaining Home Nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it will be a realistic chance to return to major tournaments after years of decline and stagnation. For others, including most of the ex-Soviet and ex-Yugoslav nations that have yet to make a tournament, it’s a chance to make an impact for the first time, to put their country out there on the European stage – in a footballing sense but also a wider sense. For instance, I was 9 when Euro 2000 came around, and I’d never heard of Slovenia. No doubt there are many of people who don’t know where the likes of Armenia and Lithuania are. The non-football economic benefits are actually going to be quite important for many of these small, otherwise anonymous nations.
This is a massive carrot being dangled in front of a sizeable proportion of UEFA’s member nations, many of whom are currently apathetic about football – many suffer from poor attendances at international matches, not least my own nation, the most apathetic about football of all the Home Nations at the moment. It could throw up all sorts of surprises – teams will now have extra motivation against the big guns and we could see casualties. Plus this then gives us wildcards for the tournament itself – even if some of the traditional football nations that haven’t qualified for a while get to France in 2016, such as Belgium, Hungary, Scotland, Bulgaria and the like, they will still be a considerable unknown factor in the tournament. We have all seen what that can bring – just ask the French about Senegal…
Could they perhaps go further, with a 32 team tournament? While it’s a nice thought, I think not. Given that there are only 53 member nations in UEFA, that’s over half qualifying for a tournament – none of the other federations, aside from CONMEBOL and the marginalised organisation that is the OFC, have that high a proportion of teams qualifying. It would make qualification a bit meaningless for a lot of the big nations, which could cause all kinds of issues with clubs, and probably lead to calls for a Cricket/Rugby World Cup-esque automatic qualification for them. It would be interesting to see 32-team Euros if you throw logistics and the constraints of reality out the window, judging by the nations that would qualify, but equally that’s letting in teams of quite a low standard, who would inevitably probably not last very long in the competition. In the World Cup, you usually get one or two Trinidad & Tobagos or New Zealands in each tournament, and they don’t do badly, but 32 UEFA teams in the Euros would probably mean a higher proportion – again comparisons can be drawn with the Cricket and Rugby World Cups, where you can write off most of the group stages as pointless and not really going anywhere because there are so many genuinely awful teams compared to the major nations.
Saying that, I’d love to see it happen, even if it was only a one-off experiment or something like that. Perhaps even a tournament for those teams that don’t qualify, a sort of Europa League to the Champions League in international teams, would work, and would give the smaller nations a chance of winning something.
But let’s not needlessly complicate matters for now – I’m happy with the expansion to 24. Euro 2016 promises to be one of, if not the most exciting tournament in a generation. I look forward to it immensely, a lot more than next year’s. That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to Euro 2012 at all, of course – I love international football, no matter how awful it becomes, no matter how many times Spain wins the title. But the European Championships is a tired format in need of the facelift it is about to get.
Last time we saw this kind of expansion was for Euro 96, when the format was expanded from 8 to 16 teams. That tournament was the catalyst for a new era of European international football, and revolutionised what had previously been a bit-part tournament on a similar scale to the Confederations Cup. If Euro 2016 has half the impact, it will be a major boost to international football as a whole, and a great spectacle. I just hope the Red Dragon will be flying as Les Pays de Galles walk out onto the pitch at a major tournament for the first time since 1958 – it will be our best chance yet.
EDIT (12/10/11): With regards to the qualification system for Euro 2012, I have seen two possible answers. One is found on Wikipedia, which suggests that the system will remain unchanged – the same number of groups, with the top 2 in each automatically qualifying and all the 3rd placed teams bar the best going into the play-offs.
However, Gabriele Marcotti has said on Twitter today that a different system is currently under consideration. There would be 13 groups of 4 teams, with the group winners qualifying automatically. The remaining 39 teams would then head into a two-round play-off tournament (one would get a bye to the 2nd round) – presumably this would have to be seeded, otherwise it would be rather farcical. The 13 group winners would play UEFA-organised friendlies against fellow group winners and the hosts (France in the case of 2016).
I think this would work quite well – groups of 4 would be a lot closer to the ACoN qualifying, plus the smaller nations have a second bite of the cherry, which will give them a much better chance of qualifying; the group winners (i.e. likely to be the big nations) will play less matches which means the clubs will be happy; the play-offs will be more exciting than group matches with a lot more riding on them and thus easier for UEFA to market; and the whole system (play-offs and friendlies) is a great way for UEFA to make more money which will give a leg up to the smaller nations when it is distributed out and trickles down.