Euro 2008…with 24 teams
In a change from previous campaigns, Euro 2008 qualifying saw seven groups with the top two in each automatically qualifying and no play-offs. This was surely good news for the continent’s most powerful nations, with most finding their way to Austria and Switzerland, but it wasn’t enough for England, who became the campaign’s biggest casualty by finishing behind Croatia and Russia under the ill-fated leadership of Steve McClaren.
Joining usual suspects France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Portugal were semi-regulars Poland, Croatia and Russia, reigning European champions Greece, and two teams returning to a major tournament finals: Turkey, for the first time since the 2002 World Cup, and Romania, for the first time since Euro 2000. It was one of the most memorable qualifying campaigns ever, particularly for British fans, and yet despite many shock results, the teams that made it had a familiar feel.
The additional qualifiers
With eight extra spots open, though, it’s fairly clear that every team who finished third in a group would also have qualified. The British Isles as a whole would have benefited enormously from this in particular. England and McClaren would have been given a narrow reprieve after edging Israel on head-to-head, while Scotland, who beat 2006 World Cup finalists France twice but narrowly missed out, would have been fairly rewarded for their efforts.
The Republic of Ireland would have been back at the Euros (for the first time in twenty years if ignoring previous reprieves in 1996 and 2000) under the management of Steve Staunton, while their neighbours Northern Ireland would also have made it after a sensational campaign in which they beat Spain, Swden and Denmark and striker David Healy topped the overall qualifying scoring charts with a record tally of 13 goals.
David Healy inspired Northern Ireland to a famous win over Spain but missed out on a major tournament
Elsewhere, Norway feature after another reprieve (and there’s more to come), led by the goalscoring talents of John Carew and Steffen Iversen, and they are joined by Dimitar Berbatov’s Bulgaria, who finished a point behind the Netherlands in Group G despite drawing twice with Albania (the first of which cost Hristo Stoichkov his job as manager). The other third-placed team was Serbia in their first campaign since Montenegro’s independence; they finished ahead of Finland on head-to-head record in Group A.
This leaves one more spot for the fourth-placed team with the best record, being contested between Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Slovakia and Ukraine. In a huge disappointment for Jari Litmanen fans, Finland just miss out, finishing with the second-best record behind Israel, who again head to a 24-team Euros after previously “qualifying” for Euro 2000. However, we can just pretend that we could have had a play-off between the two sides and that Finland may have won it…
Despite scoring six goals, Dimitar Berbatov couldn’t inspire Bulgaria to Euro 2008 qualification
The national team co-efficient was again used for the seeding, and as usual it threw up some odd pots. With two co-hosts and reigning champions Greece automatically placed in Pot One, it would have seemed almost as if the top pot was actually the bottom one but for the inclusion of the Netherlands. Pot Two included Croatia, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden, while Pot Three included Germany, Portugal, Spain and Romania, and Pot Four featured France, Poland, Turkey and Russia. Remarkably, this could have produced a potential group of Netherlands-Italy-Spain-France, and indeed brought three of the teams together, with Romania as the Pot Three team.
Naturally, adding six extra teams to the mix is going to water this down somewhat. Croatia and Italy would have been promoted to Pot One, with Pot Two being made up of the Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania, Germany, Portugal and Spain. England, stuck in Pot Three with Poland, France, Turkey, Russia and Serbia, would likely have faced a tough draw. The bottom pot included Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Norway and Israel.
The toughest possible draw? Netherlands-Spain-England-Ireland would have been fun. Alternatively, Italy-Portugal-France-Scotland would have been fiercely competitive. Euro 2008 was a great tournament (with one of the best TV intros), but unlike its predecessors, adding more teams may not have detracted from its quality. This was definitely a time where there were more than 16 competitive international teams in Europe and provides arguably the best case for the expansion.
Projected Pot One
Projected Pot Two
Projected Pot Three
Projected Pot Four
Republic of Ireland
James McFadden sunk France in Paris with a brilliant strike; given the chance, could he have been Scotland’s hero on the big stage?
Next time – four new teams to the Euros, plus the return of one of the great footballing nations
All images used in the spirit of fair use