In support of the expansion
It seems learned opinion is generally slanted against the upcoming expansion of the Euros. For the 2016 tournament in France, 24 teams will compete as opposed to the usual 16. The general argument is that, as has been the case since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams, this will dilute the competition, add more meaningless games and produce a less intense competition which will help the more established nations.
While these are all valid concerns, I am not convinced. Firstly, I don’t think you can compare this to the World Cup’s expansion. When the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in 1998, it wasn’t just the fact that there were more teams that diluted the competition – it was that these new slots were spread evenly between the “stronger” and “weaker” continents, meaning more weaker teams: Europe gained 2 slots, but so did Africa. In 1994, 13 out of the 24 teams were from UEFA, but this became 15 from 32 in 1998.
Of course, the Euros is only made up of UEFA teams. UEFA is traditionally the strongest confederation, and has a lot more strength in depth. Even though the FIFA World Rankings have a tendency to be skewed somewhat towards teams from outside UEFA, the European teams still dominate the top end, with 7 of the top 10, 13 of the top 20, and 18 of the top 30.
Thus, a 24 team Euros isn’t necessarily a tournament with a load of weak teams in it – in fact, I would suggest that it would be stronger than a 24 team World Cup as per the 1994 distribution. The top 24 UEFA nations in the FIFA rankings include all 14 of the teams that went through qualification (Poland and Ukraine currently sit outside at 32nd and 28th respectively), and also include the likes of Switzerland, Norway, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Wales, Slovakia and Scotland. All of those teams bar B&H have some kind of major tournament heritage, and most of them have been in tournaments within the last 15 years, but at the same time, several of them haven’t made any of the recent major tournaments.
Alternatively, as I wrote back in October (citing myself now – feel free to stop reading now if you think smugness levels are too much for you to handle), if you look at the qualifying results for 2012, and transfer that to 24 slots as per 2016, this would have meant the top 2 teams in all groups qualifying, putting Turkey, Estonia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina in, as well as three 3rd place teams, Norway, Armenia and Hungary. The remaining places would be contested in a play-off by Switzerland, Scotland, Israel, Serbia, Belgium (with that much-hyped young generation of players now emerging) and Romania.
I don’t believe you can say that by adding the teams listed above, you would considerably weaken the Euros. Yes, “Groups of Death” would be rarer, but I would argue that such groups are usually an anti-climax anyway. You would also get fresh impetus from new teams instead of the same old qualifiers playing the same old boring way – I am aware there are reasons why international teams now play so defensively, but I think new teams would at least give it more of a go. Group A in Euro 2012 may end up being terrible but not because of the standard of the teams in it – more because three of the four teams in it will play defensive football. That may be because its their best chance of success, but I’m not convinced – sometimes the best way to win is to try something different, and that’s why I think adding new teams next time around should make it a more interesting tournament and will help European international football more generally.
But obviously I’m also terribly biased here. Because, let’s face it, an expansion of the Euros is probably the only way Wales will qualify for an international tournament in the short-to-medium term. I can also relate to Hungarians and Scots and Belgians who are in a similar position. It’s tough to qualify for a major tournament when there is a core of 8-10 teams who manage to find a way of qualifying for virtually every single one. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union is a factor in this as it has made it more difficult, but it’s a separate issue as most of those core teams are Western or Northern European.
And I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the inevitable counter-argument that if you want to qualify you have to win all your matches, and if you don’t, you’re not good enough and don’t deserve to be there – I see the point, obviously, but there is a vast difference between the qualifying tournament and the finals: Denmark didn’t qualify in 1992 and still won it, while England perennially fly through qualifying before disappearing up their anal passages in the finals.
And, as I explained in my previous article, I think part of the reason European international football is becoming stale is because it has become a lock-out for a particular group of teams, unlike in Africa where because more places are on offer for the Cup of Nations than for the World Cup, there is more variety and it has helped the smaller nations develop: the likes of Niger and Botswana, relative minnows, managed to qualify when the likes of Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa didn’t. Though there is an argument that an expanded format helps the bigger nations, I would argue the opposite – that the current format helps the bigger nations – can you see a scenario, with the present system, where Wales, Hungary and Bosnia qualify and England, Spain and France don’t?
You’ve got to give smaller nations a chance of qualification to expect them to improve. That’s why the new format will be a good thing. And I don’t necessarily think the Euros will be a weaker tournament because of it – on the contrary, I think you’ll get more sub-plots, more upsets and more interesting football. However, as I said, I am biased.
One final point – sometimes it is nice to be able to miss a match in a major tournament…