Euros with 24 teams: the review
Norway seem likely to be heading back to the big stage in 2016
So after five tournaments, the Eurotopia is done, and it has provided an intriguing batch of alternative tournaments to dream about. But this did have a serious point to it. With qualifying for the first 24-team European Championships soon to get underway, there are two questions yet to be answered about the expansion:
– will the tournament become over-saturated with too many teams?
– who is likely to benefit?
I’ve always been in favour of the expansion, mainly for selfish reasons – it gives Wales a better chance of qualifying. But also I think it needs freshening up. With little difference between the number of UEFA teams qualifying for the World Cup and the Euros, the same teams tend to qualify, which compares badly to the Africa Cup of Nations and the AFC Asian Cup.
I believe allowing new nations to step up will benefit European international football as a whole, in the same way the expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations has allowed countries like Botswana, Niger and Ethiopia to progress as footballing nations, in turn weakening the positions of the country’s juggernauts like Cameroon, Nigeria and Egypt, who have all failed to qualify for recent tournaments.
But the counter-argument of it diluting the quality of the tournament should not be ignored. Euro 96, 2000 and 2008 in particular have gone down as classic tournaments, and this stems from a small competitive field of talented teams. Adding in weaker teams could disrupt that – no longer will we see groups like England-Germany-Portugal-Romania of Euro 2000 (or Shearer-Matthaus-Figo-Hagi if you want), or France-Italy-Netherlands-Romania of Euro 2008. At least one less competitive nation in each group at these tournaments was guaranteed.
In the light of disappointing recent World Cups, it looked as if we would have to prepare for more stilted group stage matches with the big teams doing just enough to get through. But the 2014 World Cup seems to have changed perceptions and brought out the optimism in people. Euro 2016 could yet follow it as an attacking tournament with plenty of surprise results.
Who will benefit?
Taken in isolation for a moment, here are the teams that gain an extra participation through 24-team Euros from 1996:
Norway – 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Rep of Ireland – 3 (1996, 2000, 2008)
Scotland – 3 (2000, 2004, 2008)
Belgium – 2 (1996, 2004)
Israel – 2 (2000, 2008)
Northern Ireland – 2 (1996, 2008)
Poland – 2 (2000, 2004)
Switzerland – 2 (2000, 2012)
Turkey – 2 (2004, 2012)
Armenia – 1 (2012)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 1 (2012)
Bulgaria – 1 (2008)
Croatia – 1 (2000)
England – 1 (2008)
Estonia – 1 (2012)
Greece – 1 (1996)
Hungary – 1 (2012)
Lithuania – 1 (1996)
Montenegro – 1 (2012)
Romania – 1 (2004)
Russia – 1 (2000)
Slovakia – 1 (1996)
Slovenia – 1 (2004)
Serbia – 1 (2008)
Sweden – 1 (1996)
Ukraine – 1 (2000)
Wales – 1 (2004)
However, this clearly doesn’t tell the whole story – it won’t tell us who is likely or unlikely to qualify unless we combine actual and theoretical qualifications. In the event, Croatia, England, Norway, Russia and Sweden would have been added to the list of teams who would have qualified for all five of the Euros along with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, while a number of others would get four of the five.
But five tournaments is still a pretty small sample size, so I have another way of examining this.
“The European Cup of Nations”
Until fairly recently, the Africa Cup of Nations was held in even-numbered years, which meant every other tournament would be held in the same year as a World Cup. This led to qualification for the two tournaments being merged into one competition.
It gave me the idea of looking at what would have happened had UEFA brought in the same thing. Obviously this is in no way realistic on so many levels, even if it would have been enormous fun to travel to Sweden for an international tournament in January (so if you are reading Michel…). But it is interesting to look at who the 24 teams qualifying for such a tournament would be, if only to act as a further comparison.
I started with 1994, which was notable for being the last World Cup with 24 teams overall, giving me 20 years of fictional tournaments to work with.
The World Cup that none of the Home Nations qualified for would have produced the ECoN that all of them would have qualified for, giving England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a chance to compete at an as-yet undetermined location. Joining them there would be France, who famously missed out on a place in the USA courtesy of a wayward David Ginola cross, European champions Denmark and the golden generation of Portugal. Austria, Hungary and the Representation of Czechs and Slovaks (RCS for short; the former Czechoslovakia to you and I) would have made up the central European contingent, and Iceland would have made their first major tournament.
Play-off losers Russia, Ukraine, Hungary and the Republic of Ireland all would have progressed to a tournament that probably would have been in France as a dry run for the World Cup. Surprise non-qualifiers Sweden and Portugal would also have made it, along with Greece and Turkey. Israel and Lithuania were tied for the last place on the six-game record that was usually used to determine these things, but over eight matches, Israel had the better record so I’ve given them the place.
Louis van Gaal might not have guided the Netherlands to the World Cup but they would have made the ECoN as the best third-placed team. Scotland qualified in similar fashion after their disappointing campaign, along with Slovakia, Yugoslavia and surprise package Belarus. The play-off losers were Austria, Romania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, getting a reprieve after a surprising failure to qualify.
A reduction in the number of spots for UEFA teams means there would have been ten additional qualifiers for the ECoN in Germany, led by play-off losers Slovakia, Turkey and Norway. There would have been joined by seven of the eight third-placed teams: Bosnia & Herzegovina would have qualified for the first time, along with the more familiar flags of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Romania, Russia and Israel. Scotland were the third-placed team to miss out after picking up only 13 points from ten games.
With only 13 UEFA teams qualifying for the World Cup, there would need to be eleven additions, and these were dominated by Eastern European teams. Russia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Ukraine were among the play-off losers, while Croatia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Latvia were amongst the best third-placed teams. In addition, play-off losers Norway and third-placed Sweden and Finland made up the Scandinavian additions, and the final spot went to the Republic of Ireland despite the Hand of Frog.
Another eleven teams and it’s the same old suspects. From the north, Sweden, Denmark and surprise package Iceland qualify as play-off losers, along with Ukraine and Romania. Of the third-placed teams, Serbia and Slovenia represent the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia represent the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary and Austria represent the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finland, Montenegro and Israel finished third in their groups lost out, the former pair on goal difference.
Here are the combined total additional appearances including both 24-team Euros and ECoN
Norway – 6 (96, 04, 06, 08, 10, 12)
Republic of Ireland – 5 (96, 98, 00, 08, 10)
Scotland – 5 (94, 00, 02, 04, 08)
Ukraine – 5 (98, 00, 02, 10, 14)
Austria – 4 (94, 02, 06, 14)
RCS/Czech Rep – 4 (94, 02, 10, 14)
Hungary – 4 (94, 98, 12, 14)
Israel – 4 (98, 00, 06, 08)
Romania – 4 (02, 04, 06, 14)
Russia – 4 (98, 00, 06, 10)
Slovakia – 4 (96, 02, 06, 14)
Sweden – 4 (96, 98, 10, 14)
Turkey – 4 (98, 04, 06, 12)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 3 (2006, 2010, 2012)
Bulgaria – 3 (2006, 2008, 2010)
Denmark – 3 (1994, 2006, 2014)
Northern Ireland – 3 (1994, 1996, 2008)
Yugoslavia/Serbia – 3 (2002, 2008, 2014)
Belgium – 2 (1996, 2004)
Croatia – 2 (2000, 2010)
England – 2 (1994, 2008)
Greece – 2 (1996, 1998)
Iceland – 2 (1994, 2014)
Poland – 2 (2000, 2004)
Portugal – 2 (1994, 1998)
Slovenia – 2 (2004, 2014)
Switerland – 2 (2000, 2012)
Wales – 2 (1994, 2004)
Armenia – 1 (2012)
Belarus – 1 (2002)
Estonia – 1 (2012)
Finland – 1 (2010)
France – 1 (1994)
Latvia – 1 (2010)
Lithuania – 1 (1996)
Montenegro – 1 (2012)
Netherlands – 1 (2002)
Combine it with the actual qualification figures and we have a tiered system on who is likely to qualify for 24-team European Championships in the future.
Almost certain – teams who would have qualified for all possible tournaments
England – 11
France – 11
Germany – 11
Italy – 11
Netherlands – 11
Portugal – 11
Russia – 11
Spain – 11
Sweden – 11
Croatia – 10 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
This group can feel fairly safe about their chances of making Euro 2016. Barring an absolute disaster, they will be there and most will be amongst the leading contenders for the title. Of these, only Germany, Italy and Spain have actually qualified for every tournament, with France missing the first of them and Netherlands missing 2002. By contrast, Russia and Sweden failed to qualify for four of them.
Very likely – teams who would have qualified for all bar one or two
Czech Republic – 10 (1 as RCS)
Denmark – 10
Norway – 9
Romania – 9
Switzerland – 9
Serbia – 7 (4 as Yugoslavia/Serbia & Montenegro; out of 9 attempts to qualify – banned for WC94 and Euro 96)
This group will also feel pretty confident as they have a good record in qualifiers, theoretically qualifying for three-quarters of the 24-team tournaments. Norway are perhaps the surprise package here having not qualified for an actual tournament since Euro 2000 but are consistently around the top three in their groups. When including theoretical qualifications, the Czech Republic missed only 1998 and Denmark missed only 2008.
Likely – teams who would have qualified for most tournaments but not all
Greece – 8
Republic of Ireland – 8
Turkey – 8
Belgium – 7
Bulgaria – 7
Scotland – 7
Ukraine – 7 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
This group are there more often than not but are on the margins – the running total of teams after this group is 23, so you can expect a couple of these teams to miss out. Nonetheless, expectations should and will be high, as a number of these nations haven’t been at a major tournament for some time, particularly Scotland, who last made one in 1998.
Semi-regulars – teams who would have qualified for around half the tournaments
Austria – 6
Poland – 6
Slovakia – 5 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Slovenia – 5 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 4 (out of 9 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC98)
Hungary – 4
Israel – 4
Montenegro – 1 (out of 3 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC10)
The fates of these countries will depend on the quality of generations of players – Austria benefited during the 1990s, Poland during the 2000s, and Hungary in the distant past but have also performed well in the 2010s. Bosnia & Herzegovina will be expected to qualify after making the 2014 World Cup and Israel, who last qualified for an actual major tournament in 1970, are in the same qualifying group as them. Montenegro are hard to call but I’ve put them in here as they have performed to this level in recent campaigns.
Outside shot – teams who would have qualified once or twice a generation
Northern Ireland – 3
Iceland – 2
Latvia – 2
Wales – 2
Armenia – 1 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Belarus – 1 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Estonia – 1
Finland – 1
Lithuania – 1
These teams will pop up once every now and then, making up one of the 24 countries at roughly every other tournament. There are five ex-Soviet states here, with only Latvia having qualified for an actual tournament. Iceland will be contenders for 2016 after a strong 2014 campaign. Northern Ireland, Finland and Wales lurch from struggling to being an occasional surprise package, which the latter have the potential to be in the upcoming campaign.
Very unlikely – teams who would never have qualified
Albania – 0
Andorra – 0 (out of 8 attempts to qualify – first attempt Euro 00)
Azerbaijan – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Cyprus – 0
Faroe Islands – 0
Georgia – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Gibraltar – 0 (yet to enter)
Kazakhstan – 0 (out of 5 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC06)
Macedonia – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Liechtenstein – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Luxembourg – 0
Malta – 0
Moldova – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
San Marino – 0
Of all these, Albania, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia and Moldova form their own little sub-group of nations ms who have the potential to make it with a very good generation, as demonstrated by Estonia who would have fallen into this group but for one outstanding campaign. Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and San Marino are almost certainly far too small to ever get anywhere near qualifying; even George Weah couldn’t drag this lot to a major tournament.
Things look grim for Lorik Cana and Albania
All images used in the spirit of fair use