Euro 2004…with 24 teams
Beginning after a World Cup full of shocks in the Far East, Euro 2004 qualification would continue the surprises. The biggest came in Group Six where Greece, who hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since the 1994 World Cup, topped the group ahead of 2002 quarter-finalists Spain. Belgium missed out as Bulgaria qualified for their first post-Stoichkov tournament, while Switzerland returned to the fold for the first time since Euro 96 ahead of Russia and the Republic of Ireland.
The play-offs would thus see a wide range of teams, including Spain, the Netherlands (beaten by the Czech Republic in their group), World Cup semi-finalists Turkey, Russia, Croatia, Slovenia, Norway, Scotland and two more surprise packages, Wales, who had inflicted Italy’s only defeat of the campaign, and Latvia, who beat Poland into second in Group Four.
In a dramatic series of games, the biggest teams progressed: the Dutch, inspired by a Ruud van Nistelrooy, hat trick, beat Scotland 6-0 in the second leg despite losing 1-0 in Glasgow, and Spain beat Norway 3-0 in Oslo to secure a 5-1 aggregate win. But the rest went down to the wire. Despite securing a 0-0 draw in Moscow, Wales lost 1-0 at home, with Russia progressing despite a positive drugs test for midfielder Yegor Titov, while a second half goal from Dado Prso was enough to give Croatia a 2-1 aggregate win over Slovenia in Ljubjana. But the big shock came in Istanbul. Latvia had won 1-0 in Riga, but went 2-0 down in the second half. However, goals from Jurijs Laizans and Maris Verpakovskis secured their first qualification for a major tournament.
They joined all of the other juggernauts in Portugal – France qualified winning all eight of their group games, while England and Germany all progressed without defeat, and Sweden and Italy also confirming their presence. But who would have been the other eight teams to make it a 24-team tournament?
The additional qualifiers
Again, all five of the losing play-off teams would have been guaranteed a place in the finals, as finishing in the top two of a group would have been enough.
For Slovenia and Turkey, it would have been their third consecutive major tournament. Norway would have returned after missing the 2002 World Cup, while Scotland would be appearing for the first time since the 1998 World Cup (not counting their appearance in a 24-team Euro 2000) with a team managed by Berti Vogts and probably captained by Barry Ferguson.
But the real story would have been Wales. They had (and still have) only qualified for one major tournament: the 1958 World Cup. There had been a number of other close calls – they reached the last eight of the 1976 European Championships when it was still only a four-team tournament, while they had come close to qualifying for the 1982, 1986 and 1994 World Cups – but this is the closest they have come in the last two decades. As a result, Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, Gary Speed, Robbie Savage and others missed out on their best opportunity to appear at a major international tournament.
In club football, Ryan Giggs won just about everything, but he never played in a major international tournament
The remaining three teams would have been the best third-placed teams. While the likes of Israel, Austria and Slovakia fell comfortably short, it was three major tournament regulars who would have benefited. Belgium would have qualified for yet another tournament despite missing out by a point to Bulgaria and on goal difference to Croatia, while Romania would have bounced back from missing out on the 2002 World Cup, armed with pre-positive drugs test Adrian Mutu of Chelsea. The final spot would have gone to Poland, who had finished three points behind the inspired Latvians.
Adrian Mutu was present at Euro 2000 and 2008 but Romania failed to qualify in between
In the event of a play-off to decide these three slots, it may have been a litle more intriguing. The Republic of Ireland and Serbia & Montenegro would have been tough opponents, but the real surprise package would have been Iceland, who had finished third behind Germany and Scotland in Group Five, missing a real play-off spot by a point. However, this great generation of Icelandic players (Gudjohnsen, Helguson, Hreidarsson, Ingimarsson, Bergsson et al) would have missed out on an automatic slot in a 24-team Euro 2004 on goal difference, as their 13 points tied with Poland’s total but with a difference of +2 compared to the Poles’ +4.
Again, the pots for the first round draw were determined by the national team coefficient, based on the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 qualifying campaigns. In reality, the four seeds were Portugal, France, Sweden and the Czech Republic, with big guns Italy, Spain, England and Germany locked into the second pot, and the Netherlands down in the third pot due to their underwhelming performances in both campaigns. It was less spread out than Euro 2000, which produced a couple of very strong groups, but did at least produce a lot of tight competitive games, as well as the early eliminations of Germany, Italy and Spain.
With 24 teams, it is again diluted, although perhaps not as much as Euro 2000, which is perhaps down to the low co-efficients of Latvia, Greece, Switzerland and Bulgaria. Indeed, only Italy and Spain are promoted into Pot One, leaving England and Germany in Pot Two with the Netherlands, Turkey, Croatia and Belgium. Pot Three would include Russia, Denmark, Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania, while Pot Four would include Scotland, Switzerland, Greece, Norway, Latvia and Wales.
So while it is no longer possible to get a Portugal-Spain-Russia-Greece, or Czech Republic-Germany-Netherlands-Latvia, it is possible to get a group as competitive as France-England-Denmark-Switzerland or Italy-Germany-Russia-Norway. There’s still plenty of promise there for an exciting tournament – especially if you’re Welsh.
Projected Pot One
Projected Pot Two
Projected Pot Three
Projected Pot Four
Yildiray Basturk’s only major tournament for Turkey was the 2002 World Cup, but the playmaker almost certainly would have appeared in a 24-team Euro 2004
Next time – four British Isles teams are helped to Austria and Switzerland
All images used in the spirit of fair use