Euro 96…with 24 teams
In 2016, the European Championships will be expanded to 24 teams, after five tournaments of 16 teams. But what if history had been slightly different?
Other continental championships such as the Africa Cup of Nations, Copa America and the Asian Cup have had more participants than the number of qualifiers they send to the World Cup, whereas UEFA have until recently been reluctant to do the same, instead sending roughly the same number to both the World Cup and the Euros since the Euros were expanded. But what if they had decided to follow the same path in the early 1990s, expanding the Euros to 24 teams for the 1996 tournament in order to give nations outside the elite, particularly amongst the former Yugoslav and Soviet nations, a chance of making a major tournament?
This is the first of a series of articles how the tournaments would have been made up if that had happened, based on the actual results of the qualification campaigns.
The qualifying competition for Euro 96 was made up of eight groups, seven of which were made up of six teams and one which was made up of five. 47 teams took part, including 12 new teams who had never competed in a qualifying competition: six teams from the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), three teams from the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia), the two countries which once made up Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic and Slovakia), and minnows Liechtenstein. Additionally, Israel were attempting to qualify for the Euros for the first time, having switched from the AFC to UEFA for the 1994 World Cup qualification campaign. All eight group winners and the best six runners-up would qualify for the tournament in England, with the other two runners-up playing a one-off match to determine the 16th and final qualifier.
There were a few surprises amongst the group winners, the biggest being Switzerland’s victory in the five-team Group Three ahead of Turkey and 1994 World Cup stars Sweden, who were the only team to qualify for the 1992 tournament not to make this one. Another surprise was Croatia beating Italy into first place in Group Four on goal difference, while the Czech Republic beat the Netherlands and Norway to top Group Five. But otherwise, there were few notable absentees. The Dutch would go into the play-off with the Republic of Ireland, and won 2-0 courtesy of two goals from Patrick Kluivert.
The additional qualifiers
However, if it had been a 24-team tournament, it would have looked rather odd in hindsight, as there would have been a few notable qualifiers. The result of any expansion would have meant the Republic of Ireland would have made the tournament, along with seven 3rd-placed teams. For the purposes of this exercise, I will assume that it would have been the seven 3rd-placed teams with the best record (dropping the results against the teams in 5th and 6th in each group – this was how the 2nd-placed teams were ranked) that would have qualified. This leaves out Georgia, who picked up only three points against the teams in 1st, 2nd and 4th in their group.
The main headline for this would be the qualification of Northern Ireland, who would make their first major tournament for ten years. They had finished 3rd in Group Six, losing out on a runners-up spot to their neighbours from the Republic on goal difference; a 4-0 win for the Republic in Belfast in November 1994 ultimately proved crucial. With 24 teams qualifying, Northern Ireland’s qualification would have been sealed with a dramatic 5-3 win at home to Austria in November 1995; the Austrians slumped to 4th in the group, a point behind the two Irish teams, despite scoring 29 goals, the same as group winners Portugal.
A Northern Ireland squad for Euro 96 would likely have been based around an experienced defence which included Nigel Worthington, Colin Hill and the late Alan McDonald, all well into their 30s at this point. The midfield was probably the area of the greatest level of quality, likely to include Michael Hughes, Keith Gillespie, Neil Lennon, Steve Lomas, Jim Magilton and current head coach Michael O’Neill. Up front, the line would likely be led by Iain Dowie, who had scored four goals in qualification, and Phil Gray, who, like Worthington and McDonald, was a survivor of the 1986 World Cup squad.
Iain Dowie would have been a part of a 24-team Euro 96
Joining the two Irish teams in England would have been two teams qualifying for a major tournament for the first time. Lithuania finished 3rd in a difficult Group Four, ahead of future qualifiers Ukraine and Slovenia. They would have taken a squad largely made up of players who played in their home country, though the attack would have been led by experienced striker Valdas Ivanauskas of Hamburg, who later went on to become manager of Hearts under Vladimir Romanov. Future Porto striker Edgaras Jankauskas, who also would have a stint playing at Hearts, might also have made the squad at the age of 21.
The other first time qualifier was Slovakia, who finished behind Romania and France in Group One, a point ahead of Poland and two ahead of Israel. This too was a side short of star names, with few playing outside Slovakia. The most familiar names to British fans would be future Middlesbrough defender Vladimir Kinder of Slovan Bratislava, future Celtic midfielder Lubomir Moravcik of Saint-Etienne, and future West Brom defender Igor Balis of Spartak Trnava. Future head coach Vladimir Weiss, who guided them to their actual first major tournament in 2000, might also have made the squad at the age of 34, while Miroslav Karhan, who missed the 2010 World Cup through injury, would also have been in the running for inclusion at the age of 19. Real Oviedo’s Peter Dubovsky, the only member of the team to play in Spain, would sadly die in June 2000 after a freak accident on holiday in Thailand at the age of 28.
Due to his tragic death, Peter Dubovsky never played in a major international tournament
The other extra qualifiers were perhaps less surprising and their teams are probably more familiar to you. Greece, Sweden, Norway and Belgium all qualified for the 1994 World Cup, with the latter pair also qualifying in 1998. It would have been Norway’s first ever European Championships, while Greece hadn’t qualified since 1980 and Belgium since 1984.
Euro 96 was one of the last tournaments where seeding was kept to a minimum. In reality, there were four seeded teams – hosts England, reigning champions Denmark, and Germany and Spain; I can’t find anything to determine exactly why the latter pair were chosen but they were the top-ranked European sides in the FIFA World Rankings at the time, though later tournaments used a specific team coefficient.
With a 24-team tournament, six teams would be seeded. The FIFA Rankings of November 1995 would mean that those two additional teams would be Italy and Russia, two teams that would be eliminated from the tournament’s ‘Group of Death’ after being pipped by future finalists Germany and the Czech Republic. A 24-team Euros, as you will see, would have dispersed the teams and prevented the tough groups the actual tournaments saw, but with minimal seeding, it would still have been possible for a ‘Group of Death’ to be formed – the likes of France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Croatia and the Czech Republic were all still unseeded and difficult teams to beat, along with the two other Home Nations and the Republic of Ireland who were all virtually on home soil, so a combination of any three of these could have been drawn with one of the six seeds.
Seeding might have made a huge difference for Andrei Kanchelskis’ Russia and Paolo Maldini’s Italy
A more orthodox seeding structure, with six teams in four pots, would have seen Norway, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Romania and Bulgaria in Pot Two, followed by Switzerland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Belgium in Pot Three, and Greece, Turkey, Slovakia, Croatia, Lithuania and Northern Ireland in Pot Four. England, therefore, could have drawn a group as difficult as France, Portugal and Croatia, or as weak as Sweden, Belgium and Northern Ireland.
Projected Pot One
Projected Pot Two
Projected Pot Three
Republic of Ireland
Projected Pot Four
Some of you may be wondering about stadia – yes, the whole idea of expanding to 24 teams is flawed considering each country prepared for a 16-team tournament and didn’t necessarily have the infrastructure to handle more, thus potentially meaning different hosts and different qualification results. I am assuming that each country would therefore have had extra stadia. France will have ten in 2016, while England only used eight in 1996.
As a fun aside, which two stadia are the most likely to have been used at the time to round the figure up to ten? The actual grounds used were Wembley, Old Trafford, Anfield, St James’ Park, Elland Road, Hillsborough, Villa Park and the City Ground, i.e. the national stadium plus the grounds of the biggest clubs in the country at the time, all with a capacity greater than 30,000. Two stadia were used per group. Of the other top flight stadia at the time, Highbury, Ewood Park, Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, Maine Road, the Riverside Stadium and White Hart Lane all had a capacity of over 30,000. However, three of those are in London, while one is in Manchester and another is in Liverpool, with only one city usually allowed to have two venues.
Naturally, one of the London stadia would have got the nod. With Stamford Bridge still undergoing major works and White Hart Lane also being updated, Highbury seems the most likely despite its proximity to Wembley. The one-year-old Riverside Stadium would probably be chosen as the tenth venue, which is appropriate given that Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough was a 1966 World Cup venue, famously hosting North Korea’s win over Italy. The 11th and 12th venues, if necessary, would be Ewood Park and, due to Old Trafford’s location in the borough of Trafford rather than Manchester, probably Maine Road (this technicality may also have been exploited had England been given the right to host the 2018 World Cup), although expansion of another stadium just under 30,000 would also have been possible.
Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, as it was in 1996
Next time – a diluted Euro 2000 with more additional British and Irish presence and three teams qualifying for their first Euros…
All images used with the spirit of fair use