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24-Team Euros: success or failure?

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Poland v Portugal - EURO 2016 - Quarter Final

So Euro 2016 is over, and the narratives are already forming about how good a tournament it was, particularly with reflection on the expansion of the Euros to a 24-team format. It seems a lot of people are disappointed and are blaming the expansion for diluting the quality of the tournament and the lack of entertaining matches.

Except…this is a narrative that’s been in place for years – since the announcement of the expansion was made, in fact. There have been “concerns” it would dilute the quality, compared to the great 16-team tournaments of the past, particularly Euro 2000. This never really went away.

In the circumstances, it feels very much like confirmation bias to blame the extra teams for this. They were not the problem with Euro 2016. The fact that we had some new teams, often from smaller countries, freshened up the scene and provided some great stories. By and large, they weren’t all that defensive anyway – Hungary, Wales and Iceland all shouldn’t be regarded as defensive teams as they scored plenty of goals and were involved in several entertaining matches. The subtle blame from the likes of the English seems misplaced – although hardly surprising considering they lost to one of those new teams, eh?

The main problems were twofold. Firstly, the format of qualifying for the last 16 which meant teams could afford to play it safe – this was the format the 24-team World Cup settled on because the alternative, two group stages, was trialled for several World Cups and failed. There is no satisfactory format with 24 teams that could work better without having more games for each team, which seems to be something most countries would want to avoid.

Secondly, if anyone stunk up the tournament with mediocre football, it was the regular qualifiers, none of whom seemed to be more than a sum of their parts. England, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Sweden were probably the five most disappointing teams in the tournament, all of whom looking disorganised and uninspiring – none of them could be described as minnows.

Even the giants of European football were ultimately underwhelming – Spain limped through the group and it wasn’t particularly surprising to see them dumped out shortly after that, while Germany and France progressed deep into the tournament without ever looking like very good teams and there is a sense of justice that neither of them won it in the end. Only Italy of the traditional elite looked like a handy team, and even then this was considered to be a weak Italian squad due to a lack of quality strikers and the injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, their two best central midfielders.

However, I don’t see anyone blaming these teams for being the problem at this Euros. For my money, it was not the depth of quality of the tournament that was the issue – the celebrated 2014 World Cup had an overall lower standard of defending, which is what made it so entertaining. It was the best teams just not being that much more incisive than the rest, which harks back to Euro 2004, ultimately leading to Greece’s victory. Similarly, a lot of blame can be put on the managers of these teams – Del Bosque, Deschamps, Low and Hodgson all made poor decisions and stuck to players that didn’t deserve to be in their squads or starting XIs.

Even then, the evidence that this was a “boring” tournament when compared to two years ago or previous Euros doesn’t hold up beyond the group stages. The knockout stages saw more goals than the 2014 knockout matches, while the total number of goals across the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals was higher than that of 2012. While goals aren’t everything, it’s clear that the perceived lack of entertainment isn’t unique to Euro 2016 – knockout matches in international tournaments have rarely been particularly attacking games due to the high stakes. The problem is by that point the narrative that this was a “bad” tournament was already set in motion by that point, as in 2010, so it’s hard to undo that later on.

What this comes down to is that international football has been primarily based around defensive organisation for decades, at the very least since the 1970s as demonstrated by the great West Germany team of that period (though even the fabled 1966 England team was seen as unattractive at the time). As club football has seen increasingly intricate tactical systems, it has become harder to organise international teams and thus it’s so much easier to just play defensively. Greece’s Euro 2004 win epitomised how it’s possible to win tournaments just by getting limited players well-drilled.

Additionally, everyone takes different memories away from a tournament. England fans are typically nostalgic about the 1990 World Cup despite it being a very dull tournament and England’s performances being dour and unspectacular. Moreover, they probably won’t take away great memories of this tournament, as the dour, unspectacular football they played didn’t bring results on this occasion. Meanwhile, Wales fans will no doubt remember this tournament fondly for their team’s success. I’m not saying it always comes down to whichever team you support, but you’d be a fool to not consider how it plays into people’s perceptions.

The fact is international football is generally not as entertaining as Premier League football – that’s always been the case and is unlikely to change any time soon. The 2014 World Cup was a one-off and will be rose-tinted about for decades – people remember the high points, such as the high-scoring matches, but will conveniently forget the dull final and the Argentina-Netherlands semi-final that ended goalless after 120 minutes. It was always going to be hard to live up to an inaccurate nostalgic depiction of the previous tournament.

The format clearly has to be worked on, but it’s only one factor of several. But compare this to Euro 96, the first Euros with 16 teams. It was far worse than Euro 2016 – of the 7 knockout matches, 5 went to extra-time, 4 went to penalties (including both semi-fnals), and 3 of those were goalless. Of the 2 matches that finished in 90 minutes (both being quarter-finals), one finished 1-0 and one finished 2-1. And yet four years later, in Euro 2000 we had the tournament regarded as one of the finest of the modern era. It clearly wasn’t the format that was to blame.

As such, it’s worth giving this 24-team format another go. Certainly it would be a terrible, regressive idea to go back to 16 teams, because the benefits of having extra teams that wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for major tournaments have now been demonstrated. As a result, the only solution beyond that is to expand further, which I don’t believe would dilute the quality much further – the gap between the 24th-best team and the 32nd-best team in Europe is far smaller than the perceived gap between the 16th- and 24th-best teams.

Even so,  I can’t imagine it’d be popular with fans of big nations like, say, England – after all, that’s another 8 teams they could be knocked out by…


Written by James Bennett

July 11, 2016 at 17:17

The 2006 FIFA World Cup revisited, part 1

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We’re approaching 10 years since the 2006 FIFA World Cup, a tournament remembered for entertaining matches, absurd goals, and Wayne Rooney stamping on a man’s bollocks. Given that the anniversary itself is being overshadowed both by anniversary nostalgia for another great tournament (Euro 96) and by an actual tournament happening, I thought I’d do a retrospective team-by-team guide to the World Cup, to see how much/little has changed in the decade since:

Group A

1. Germany – 9 (+6)
2. Ecuador – 6 (+2)
3. Poland – 3 (-2)
4. Costa Rica – 0 (-6)




1. Jens Lehmann (Arsenal)
12. Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich)
23. Timo Hildebrand (Stuttgart)

2. Marcell Jansen (Borussia Monchengladbach)
3. Arne Friedrich (Hertha BSC)
4. Robert Huth (Chelsea)
6. Jens Nowotny (Bayer Leverkusen)
16. Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)
17. Per Mertesacker (Hannover 96)
21. Christoph Metzelder (Borussia Dortmund)

5. Sebastian Kehl (Borussia Dortmund)
7. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich)
8. Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen)
13. Michael Ballack (Bayern Munich)
15. Thomas Hitzlsperger (Stuttgart)
18. Tim Borowski (Werder Bremen)
19. Bernd Schneider (Bayer Leverkusen)
22. David Odonkor (Borussia Dortmund)

9. Mike Hanke (Wolfsburg)
10. Oliver Neuville (Borussia Monchengladbach)
11. Miroslav Klose (Werder Bremen)
14. Gerald Asamoah (Schalke 04)
20. Lukas Podolski (Cologne)

Captain: Michael Ballack
Head Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann

Never count out the Germans, etc. Germany entered their World Cup as many major tournaments hosts often do – in poor form, under enormous pressure and with expectations dropping. This reached the point where Jurgen Klinsmann, who had taken over as head coach following a disastrous showing at Euro 2004 under Rudi Voller, had seemingly already decided he was off at the end of the tournament regardless – maybe he realised that he would be found out as the massive fraud he is had he stayed on for another two years.

And yet you look at this side and think “not much was expected of THIS team?” I suppose hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s true that numerous players here had been underestimated – probably due to the typical lack of knowledge English pundits have for players who don’t play in England. But even so, surely it was obvious there was some ability in this team.

The team was fairly stable throughout the tournament. The goalkeeping situation that provoked the most controversy. Lehmann and Kahn’s relationship had reportedly reached Dutch levels of animosity when the former was given the starting job and the latter was left to bench-warm with Timo Hildebrand, although it cooled as the tournament progressed and Lehmann had an outstanding tournament. Kahn got a farewell appearance in the third place play-off; Hildebrand didn’t. See what being a miserable bastard gets you?

As with numerous German teams past and present, the weakness is at full-back, since Philipp Lahm was and still is yet to be cloned. Lahm played on the left in 2006 (hence cutting inside onto his right foot for his wonder goal against Costa Rica), with Friedrich (typically a centre-back) filling in on the right. Metzelder was the stand-out centre-back, while the 21-year-old Mertesacker blossomed enough alongside him to earn a move to Werder Bremen after the tournament.

The experienced Schneider and inexperienced Schweinsteiger operated on the flanks, with Ballack and Frings inside. Odonkor, a surprise call-up whose career would be ruined by injuries, was a regular off the bench. Klose finished as the tournament’s top scorer doing what Klose did best: score lots of scrappy goals from close range. Strike partner Podolski was as inconsistent as ever.

The truth is, though Germany did actually play very well, they were a bit fortunate with their draw. They weren’t given a particularly tough group, and were lucky Sweden capitulated in the second round without offering much of a threat. Argentina should have beaten them; Italy eventually did. At no point did they ever look like the best team in the tournament, but they were the hosts which did count for something. And this was at least a fun team to watch.




1. Edwin Villafuerte (Deportivo Quito)
12. Cristian Mora (LDU Quito)
22. Damian Lanza (Aucas)

2. Jorge Guagua (El Nacional)
3. Ivan Hurtado (Al-Arabi)
4. Ulises de la Cruz (Aston Villa)
5. Jose Luis Perlaza (Olmedo)
13. Paul Ambrosi (LDU Quito)
16. Giovanny Espinoza (LDU Quito)
18. Neicer Reasco (LDU Quito)

6. Patricio Urrutia (LDU Quito)
7. Christian Lara (El Nacional)
8. Edison Mendez (LDU Quito)
14. Segundo Castillo (El Nacional)
15. Marlon Ayovi (Deportivo Quito)
16. Luis Antonio Valencia (Villarreal, on loan to Recreativo Huelva)
19. Luis Saritama (Deportivo Quito)
20. Edwin Tenorio (Barcelona SC)

9. Felix Borja (El Nacional)
10. Ivan Kaviedes (Argentinos Juniors)
11. Agustin Delgado (LDU Quito)
21. Carlos Tenorio (Al-Sadd)
23. Christian Benitez (El Nacional)

Captain: Ivan Hurtado
Head Coach: Luis Fernando Suarez

Ecuador were kind of a surprise, except they shouldn’t have been, given that this was such a weak group. Their progression was essentially sealed when they beat Poland, the only team likely to challenge them for second place in the group, in their first game. Suarez, later manager of Honduras in the 2014 World Cup, got them well-organised enough to concede few goals (2 clean sheets out of 4 is reasonable), and they were good enough going forward to score some goals.

At the heart of the defence was Hurtado, who by the start of the tournament had accumulated 130 of his eventual 168 caps and was playing in Qatar (only another seven transfers to come, Ivan). He is now a left-wing politician. Alongside him at right-back was English-based De la Cruz, who is also now a left-wing politician. He is one of six of this squad to have played in England, the others being Kaviedes, Delgado, Castillo, Valencia and the late Chucho Benitez. As you can see, there were varying degrees of success.

The wingers Valencia and Mendez were perhaps the most talented attackers in the team, the latter being one of the most underrated South American players of the decade and the only player to feature in all three of Ecuador’s World Cup squads (thanks to Walter Ayovi’s omission here). Carlos Tenorio and former Southampton striker Delgado grabbed two goals apiece, while former Crystal Palace striker Kaviedes celebrated his late goal against Costa Rica with a Spiderman mask, a tribute to his late team mate Otilino Tenorio who had died in a car crash a year before.

Their eventual exit was rather predictable; they were taken apart by Germany in the final group game which set them against England in the second round, and not even Sven could fuck that one up. They probably weren’t in the top 16 best teams in the tournament, but the record books show they were. A feel-good story, which Germany and England killed.




1. Artur Boruc (Celtic)
12. Tomasz Kuszczak (West Bromwich Albion)
22. Lukasz Fabianski (Legia Warszawa)

2. Mariusz Jop (FC Moscow)
3. Seweryn Gancarczyk (Metalist Kharkiv)
4. Marcin Baszczynski (Wisla Krakow)
6. Jacek Bak (Al-Rayyan)
14. Michal Zewlakow (Anderlecht)
18. Mariusz Lewandowski (Shakhtar Donetsk)
19. Bartosz Bosacki (Lech Poznan)

5. Kamil Kosowski (Kaiserslautern, on loan to Southampton)
7. Radoslaw Sobolewski (Wisla Krakow)
8. Jacek Krzynowek (Bayer Leverkusen)
10. Miroslaw Szymkowiak (Trabzonspor)
13. Sebastian Mila (Austria Vienna)
16. Arkadiusz Radomski (Austria Vienna)
17. Dariusz Dudka (Wisla Krakow)
20. Piotr Giza (Cracovia)

9. Maciej Zurawski (Celtic)
11. Grzegorz Rasiak (Tottenham Hotspur, on loan to Southampton)
15. Euzebiusz Smolarek (Borussia Dortmund)
21. Ireneusz Jelen (Wisla Plock)
23. Pawel Brozek (Wisla Krakow)

Captain: Jacek Bak
Head Coach: Pawel Janas

Well, it was nice of Poland to turn up eventually – 2 games, 0 goals, 2 defeats, eliminated already, 1-0 down to Costa Rica, and then they suddenly realise they are a half-decent World Cup team and find 2 goals from a centre-back to win a game, to avoid the humiliation of finishing bottom of a group they were expected to qualify from. It wasn’t quite rescuing a bad situation but it was at least damage limitation – an upgrade from being pelted with rotten vegetables to just having a few bad headlines.

Poland had qualified as the best runners-up in UEFA, finishing only a point behind England after the English had decided to somehow lose to Northern Ireland and make it look closer than it actually was. It’s a strange one because the other teams in the group shouldn’t have been terrible – a Wales team that nearly qualified for Euro 2004, a Northern Ireland team that would nearly qualify for Euro 2008, and a solid Austria team that did OK at Euro 2008. The squad is theoretically alright too.

But there’s no magic there – aside from Magic Zurawski, anyway. It’s not at all inspiring. The only Lewandowski there is a defender. The only good performance was a defensive one: the stand against Germany, eventually with 10 men, that was cracked in stoppage time by Oliver Neuville.

I’d have hated to have been Polish watching this team, with memories of 1974 and 1982, of Deyna, Lato and Boniek. Why didn’t they beat Ecuador? Because Ecuador presumably interesting-ed them to death. Good on them. Shame Costa Rica didn’t hang on too.

Costa Rica



1. Alvaro Mesen (Herediano)
18. Jose Porras (Saprissa)
23. Wardy Alfaro (Alajuelense)

2. Jervis Drummond (Saprissa)
3. Luis Marin (Alajuelense)
4. Michael Umana (Brujas)
5. Gilberto Martinez (Brescia)
12. Leonardo Gonzalez (Herediano)
15. Harold Wallace (Alajuelense)
22. Michael Rodriguez (Alajuelense)

6. Danny Fonseca (Cartagines)
7. Christian Bolanos (Saprissa)
8. Mauricio Solis (CSD Comunicaciones)
10. Walter Centeno (Saprissa)
14. Randall Azofeifa (Saprissa)
17. Carlos Hernandez (Alajuelense)
20. Douglas Sequeira (Real Salt Lake)

9. Paulo Wanchope (Herediano)
11. Ronald Gomez (Saprissa)
13. Kurt Bernard (Puntarenas)
19. Alvaro Saborio (Saprissa)
21. Victor Nunez (Cartagines)

Captain: Luis Marin
Head Coach: Alexandre Guimaraes

The first game was a false dawn: in scoring two against Germany, they had given them and the rest of us false hope that this Costa Rica team, spearheaded by a Premier League hero of the past back for one final flourish, could win one or two thrillers and somehow progress by sheer will power.

Unfortunately they just weren’t very good. It probably says more about Germany (and their hilariously bad defending that day) that they were able to score 2 in that first match. Granted, a couple of these guys were a part of the true giant-killers of 2006, and Wanchope and Solis had been good enough to work their way into the Premier League in the 1990s, but this wasn’t a particularly talented team. The three players who played outside Costa Rica in 2006 played in Italian Serie B, Guatemala, and MLS. Only Saborio made a name for himself after this.

Maybe it’s just me being judgemental towards Central American teams that aren’t Mexico, which I know little about and never really do much at World Cups, but this was a pretty shit team by World Cup standards. They had at least won a game in 2002, when they beat China, then held Turkey to a draw, and even put 2 past Brazil (albeit conceding 5). But four years on, they had regressed somewhat – their best players were the wrong side of 30 and it probably made the difference. It was a real shame after that first game.

Group B

1. England – 7 (+3)
2. Sweden – 5 (+1)
3. Paraguay – 3 (0)
4. Trinidad and Tobago – 1 (-4)




1. Paul Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur)
13. David James (Manchester City)
22. Scott Carson (Liverpool, on loan to Sheffield Wednesday)

2. Gary Neville (Manchester United)
3. Ashley Cole (Arsenal)
5. Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)
6. John Terry (Chelsea)
12. Sol Campbell (Arsenal)
14. Wayne Bridge (Chelsea, on loan to Fulham)
15. Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)

4. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
7. David Beckham (Real Madrid)
8. Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
11. Joe Cole (Chelsea)
16. Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)
17. Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham Hotspur)
18. Michael Carrick (Tottenham Hotspur)
19. Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
20. Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

9. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
10. Michael Owen (Newcastle United)
21. Peter Crouch (Liverpool)
23. Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Captain: David Beckham
Head Coach: Sven-Goran Eriksson

Ah England. Specialists in failure, as Jose might say. This was supposed to be the Big One. “Our Moment”. In the last World Cup, England had scraped out of the groups primarily because of a smash-and-grab win over a vastly superior Argentina side, before getting dumped out by Brazil. That being said, this was an England team which had lost two key players (Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard) to injury, so we’ll let them off; it was an overachievement to get as far as they did. By Euro 2004, things were looking a bit brighter: they should have beaten France, they did beat Switzerland and Croatia, and were unfortunate to lose to Portugal on penalties.

However, in hindsight, it’s at this point that things start to unravel. This was already an unbalanced team, stacked in some positions, but with a reluctance to compromise: yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am of course referring to Lampard and Gerrard. It’s impossible to avoid this when talking about mid-2000s England. At this point, we’re talking Beckham and Scholes too, and then Joe Cole as well after Scholes decided he wanted no further part of this rabble, allowing him to retreat with his reputation in tact. It was utterly daft to play them all together. But of course it made sense too: they were high profile players with large personal/club followings and large sponsorship deals. There would have been massive uproar if either Gerrard or Lampard had been dropped for Owen Hargreaves, who should have been key, but he was laughed off until the end of the tournament, when everyone collectively realised he was actually good. Of course, after that his knee, sensing it was a part of the England setup, realised that it needed to give in, and England lost perhaps its most vital midfield cog of that generation of players.

The line-up for 2006 that always springs to mind is Robinson; Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole; Rooney, Owen. But actually that XI never played in the tournament. Rooney of course started the tournament on the sidelines injured, so Crouch got the nod for the first two games; Wayne came on after an hour for Owen against Trinidad and Tobago. Then Neville got injured and missed the next three games, with Carragher starting the next two and Hargreaves against Ecuador. Hargreaves also started the Sweden game in place of Gerrard, which was the only game where Owen and Rooney started together; as we all know, Owen then busted his knee after four minutes, being replaced by Crouch. After this, England played 4-5-1 in the remaining games with Rooney as the lone striker, Carrick as the holding midfielder against Ecuador, and Hargreaves in that role against Portugal.

Herein lies the problem: even with this supposedly more progressive formation, while they kept two clean sheets, England scored only one goal, from a Beckham free kick; in fact, Beckham also supplied the only goal against Paraguay, and the crucial first goal against Trinidad and Tobago too, while the rest came from moments of magic from Gerrard and Joe Cole. For all the attacking talent, Sven had somehow managed to neuter all the creativity. While playing Rooney and Owen together didn’t work (which often gets overlooked), Rooney was young and unfit, so it was stupid to play him up front alone. Even if England had won the shootout, he’d have been suspended for the semi-final, meaning it would have been Crouch up front alone, given that Sven had seemingly decided he wasn’t going to risk Walcott. It was never going to work out. This one is all on the manager.

Hindsight is 20/20. What England should have done is play 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard in behind Rooney, and Hargreaves and AN Other (Carrick maybe, or even Jenas; Scholes in an ideal world) sitting deep. This would have accommodated Gerrard and Beckham (who was always under-utilised by Eriksson) far better and given the side a stronger core. But that would have meant dropping Owen (fans’ favourite) and Lampard (in form for Chelsea, even if he never showed it for his country), which demonstrates that you couldn’t have pleased everyone. And obviously Defoe should have been taken ahead of Walcott. Obviously.

Also a reminder at this point that Aaron Lennon was frequently used off the bench and impressed with his pacy running and those other things he does/did. Stewart Downing also appeared in the first two games, then disappeared, which seems like an apt summary of his career. Jenas, Bridge and Walcott were the only outfield players who didn’t play.




1. Justo Villar (Newell’s Old Boys)
12. Derlis Gomez (Sportivo Luqueno)
22. Aldo Bobadilla (Libertad)

2. Jorge Nunez (Estudiantes LP)
3. Delio Toledo (Real Zaragoza)
4. Carlos Gamarra (Palmeiras)
5. Julio Cesar Caceres (River Plate)
14. Paulo da Silva (Toluca)
15. Julio Cesar Manzur (Santos)
21. Denis Caniza (Cruz Azul)

6. Carlos Bonet (Libertad)
8. Edgar Barreto (NEC)
10. Roberto Acuna (Deportivo La Coruna)
11. Diego Gavilan (Newell’s Old Boys)
13. Carlos Paredes (Reggina)
16. Cristian Riveros (Libertad)
17. Jose Montiel (Olimpia)
19. Julio dos Santos (Bayern Munich)

7. Salvador Cabanas (Jaguares)
9. Roque Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich)
18. Nelson Haedo Valdez (Werder Bremen)
20. Dante Lopez (Genoa)
23. Nelson Cuevas (Pachuca)

Captain: Carlos Gamarra
Head Coach: Anibal Ruiz

After second-round berths in the previous two World Cups, Paraguay were perhaps a bit unfortunate to get such a tough draw, and certainly unlucky in the manner of their departure. But this was perhaps a balancing out of the luck they had had in the previous two tournaments. It was also representative of a midfield that was devoid of top-level creativity, but it wouldn’t be a Paraguay side if it was solid, unspectacular and pretty dull.

Either way, they were still unlucky. They went behind after just three minutes of their opener against England after captain Gamarra accidentally diverted a Beckham free kick into his own net. They then lost first-choice goalkeeper Villar (later responsible for Copa America penalty shootout heroics) five minutes later with an injury that would keep him out of the rest of the tournament, though Bobadilla hardly disgraced himself in the remaining games, conceding only one goal. And then in the next game, they succumbed to an 89th minute Ljungberg winner that knocked them out of the competition, albeit after being totally dominated by the Swedes. They were out having done little wrong at the back, but little right going forward. They did at least get a consolation victory over Trinidad and Tobago, but even then one of their two goals was a Brent Sancho own goal. Nelson Cuevas, also a scorer in 2002, was the only Paraguayan to score at the right end.

Paraguay had finished 4th in South American qualification, three points above Uruguay who went into, and lost, a play-off against Australia. It’s not hard to think that a Uruguay team with Recoba, Forlan, Montero, Zalayeta et al might have been a more interesting participant in the main tournament than this Paraguay team, even if not a more effective one. However, we should also bear in mind that it was missing Jose Cardozo, the team’s top scorer in qualifying with seven goals, who was forced out with a late injury. It’s a shame a very good collection of strikers and a solid defence was playing with such an average midfield.




1. Andreas Isaksson (Stade Rennais)
12. John Alvbage (Viborg)
23. Rami Shaaban (Fredrikstad)

2. Mikael Nilsson (Panathinaikos)
3. Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa)
4. Teddy Lucic (Hacken)
5. Erik Edman (Stade Rennais)
13. Petter Hansson (Heerenveen)
14. Frerik Stenman (Bayer Leverkusen)
15. Karl Svensson (Goteborg)

6. Tobias Linderoth (Copenhagen)
7. Niclas Alexandersson (Goteborg)
8. Anders Svensson (Elfsborg)
9. Fredrik Ljungberg (Arsenal)
16. Kim Kallstrom (Stade Rennais)
18. Mattias Jonsson (Djurgardens)
19. Daniel Andersson (Malmo)
21. Christian Wilhelmsson (Anderlecht)

10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Juventus)
11. Henrik Larsson (Barcelona)
17. Johan Elmander (Brondby)
20. Marcus Allback (Copenhagen)
22. Markus Rosenberg (Ajax)

Captain: Olof Mellberg
Head Coach: Lars Lagerback

Sweden continued their run of good-but-not-quite-good-enough tournaments here, a run which would eventually stretch from 2000 to 2008. As in 2002, they had enough quality progress, but rolled over far too easily when the going got tough in the second round; while losing to the Germans in Germany probably isn’t the most humiliating result, this one would have to go down as a disappointment.

The balance of the squad is quite nice: a good goalkeeper in Isaksson (though former Arsenal backup Shaaban played in the first game), a solid defence, a midfield with a mix of defensive and attacking individuals, two absolute stars in Ljungberg and Zlatan, and the vastly experienced Larsson in his final major tournament. And yet after the first round of games, they were perhaps the most embarrassed team in Germany, after failing to break down Trinidad and Tobago and slumping to a 0-0 draw. They struggled against Paraguay too, being rescued by a late goal from Ljungberg. With the under-performing Ibrahimovic dropped for the England game, they actually scored two, with Aston Villa flop Marcus Allback, who had been lively throughout the tournament, and Larsson getting the goals.

Then, in their final game, they left themselves with too much to do by going 2-0 down after 12 minutes, and this was compounded by Lucic’s harsh sending off (famed for referee Carlos Simon’s…unprofessional reaction) and Larsson blazing a second-half penalty into the crowd. For the third tournament in a row, this talented Sweden side had made it through the group stage, but no further. On the face of it, a shame. But I’m not sure they really deserved to go any further. It’s not overachievement or underachievement.

Trinidad and Tobago

Dwight Yorke,  Steve Gerrard


1. Shaka Hislop (West Ham United)
21. Kelvin Jack (Dundee)
22. Clayton Ince (Coventry City)

2. Ian Cox (Gillingham)
3. Avery John (New England Revolution)
4. Marvin Andrews (Dundee)
5. Brent Sancho (Gillingham)
6. Dennis Lawrence (Wrexham)
8. Cyd Gray (San Juan Jabloteh)
17. David Atiba Charles (W Connection)

7. Chris Birchall (Port Vale)
9. Aurtis Whitley (San Juan Jabloteh)
10. Russell Latapy (Falkirk)
11. Carlos Edwards (Luton Town)
16. Evans Wise (Waldhof Mannheim)
18. Densill Theobald (Falkirk)
23. Anthony Wolfe (San Juan Jabloteh)

12. Collin Samuel (Dundee United)
13. Cornell Glen (Los Angeles Galaxy)
14. Stern John (Coventry City)
15. Kenwyne Jones (Southampton)
19. Dwight Yorke (Sydney FC)
20. Jason Scotland (St Johnstone)

Head Coach: Leo Beenhakker
Captain: Dwight Yorke

The Soca Warriors were the Caribbean’s encore after 1998’s Reggae Boyz. They were everyone’s second favourite team in this competition. They even came with their own fun song. It may be slightly disrespectful to compare them first and foremost to that great Jamaica team, but the parallels are there, particularly the many players from the English lower leagues. However, we should discuss the squad on its own merits. They, like Jamaica eight years before, were more than “the fun team”.

In goal, the squad had three goalkeepers who were well-known to fans of the English lower leagues. Kelvin Jack was initially meant to start the first game against Sweden, but was injured in the warm-up. Shaka Hislop, who had been called up by England for their friendly against Chile in 1998, was drafted in and produced a wonderful performance. He kept the starting spot for the game against the land of his birth, where he was again beaten from distance by Steven Gerrard, as he had been in the legendary FA Cup Final between Liverpool and West Ham a few weeks before. Jack started the third game against Paraguay.

Hislop, who had retired from international duty in 2004 but returned on hint of success, was one of several notable faces to come out of retirement for this time, which was largely welcomed. The other major additions were former Rangers midfielder Russell Latapy and his good friend Dwight Yorke, who had both quit in 2001 but returned in qualifying at the behest of Jack Warner (yes, that one). Yorke, who was quickly made captain of the team, was 34 and fresh from winning the very first A-League; to prepare for the World Cup, he had been training with his former club Manchester United. However, as is evident from the squad list, Trinidad and Tobago weren’t short of striking talent, and in the event, Yorke was moved back into central midfield, where he partnered Aurtis Whitley. He was so effective that Sunderland manager (and Yorke’s former team mate) Roy Keane hired him to perform this role for another three seasons. Both Yorke and Latapy, whose careers with the national side had begun in the late 1980s, played on for their country for another three years.

There were plenty of other English and Scottish Football League regulars. Dennis Lawrence, scorer of the winning goal in the play-off against Bahrain that qualified the Soca Warriors for the World Cup, had made over 200 appearances for Wrexham and soon moved to South Wales to join Swansea. Carlos Edwards had also made his name at Wrexham from 2000, and today plays for Millwall, his sixth English/Welsh club. Stern John had stints at nine English clubs in the Premier League or Championship. Ian Cox was born in Croydon and began his career at local club Crystal Palace, before long stints at Bournemouth, Burnley and Gillingham. Marvin Andrews, like Latapy, was a mainstay of the Scottish leagues including a stint at Rangers. Jason Scotland followed Lawrence to Swansea for a successful stint, later moving to Ipswich and Barnsley; today he plays for Stenhousemuir back in the country of his name. Kenwyne Jones would go on to be a well-known figure in the Premier League and Championship in the years to come, and is now Trinidad and Tobago captain, the only survivor of this team.

And then there’s Chris Birchall. In one of the most fascinating little stories of the 2006 World Cup, the Port Vale midfielder, born in Stafford, was eligible due to his mother’s birth in Port of Spain, and was asked to play for the team by Lawrence in the middle of a match. Birchall became the first white player to play for Trinidad and Tobago for sixty years; indeed, a BBC behind-the-scenes video suggested his nickname in the team was “Whitey”. Impressive performances led to a move to Coventry City, and eventually to MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy, playing with one of his more prestigious opponents from the World Cup. After a brief stint at Columbus Crew, he returned to Port Vale in 2013, the same year he retired from international duty.

The Soca Warriors acquitted themselves very well in their three matches, with a draw and two narrow defeats, albeit with no goals scored. As you might expect, they were defensively solid but limited. But they remain one of the more remarkable teams of recent major tournaments. With the retirements of their best players and their Central American rivals having improved in the years since, it’s unlikely we will see them in a World Cup again any time soon.

Written by James Bennett

June 7, 2016 at 12:00

Euros with 32 teams

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We’d have seen even more of Jari Litmanen in a Finland shirt with 32 teams at the Euros

It’s now over eight months since I completed the 24-Team Euros series. Mulling over it recently, it was quite a useful venture, although it’s usefulness in predicting who was going to qualify for Euro 2016 seems to be pretty limited. Even so, it’s good to dream about Lithuania at Euro 96 or Armenia in Euro 2012.

Nonetheless, it’s left me pondering what if…what if it was taken further? Of course 32 teams in the Euros is a pretty stupid idea – if, as some would argue, 24 teams is arguably oversaturation point, including over half the continent’s teams in a major tournament is ridiculous. And yet…I can’t help but wonder what it would be like.

So let’s just ignore the practicalities for a moment. Following the same format as before, with the Euros and World Cup qualification expanded, I’ve worked through from Euro 96 on to see who would have qualified, including a reminder of the 24-team expansion qualifiers.

Euro 96
Actual: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey

17-24: Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Sweden

25-32: Austria, Belarus, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine

1998 World Cup
Actual: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Scotland, Spain, Yugoslavia

16-24: Greece, Hungary, Israel, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine

25-32: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland

Euro 2000
Actual: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Yugoslavia

17-24: Croatia, Israel, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Scotland, Switzerland, Ukraine

25-32: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Slovakia

2002 World Cup
Actual: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey

16-24: Austria, Belarus, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Romania, Scotland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

25-32: Bulgaria, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Norway

Euro 2004
Actual: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

17-24: Belgium, Norway, Poland, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia, Turkey, Wales

25-32: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iceland, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Serbia & Montenegro, Slovakia, Ukraine

2006 World Cup
Actual: Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia & Montenegro, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine

15-24: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Denmark, Israel, Norway, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey

25-32: Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Slovenia

Euro 2008
Actual: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey

17-24: Bulgaria, England, Israel, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Serbia

25-32: Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Wales

2010 World Cup
Actual: Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland

14-24: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine

25-32: Austria, Belarus, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Turkey

Euro 2012
Actual: Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine

17-24: Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Hungary, Montenegro, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey

25-32: Belarus, Belgium, Israel, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Slovakia, Wales

2014 World Cup
Actual: Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland

14-24: Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine

25-32: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Finland, Israel, Montenegro, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Turkey

The mighty Azerbaijan would have made a 32-team ‘European Cup of Nations’ in 2014

The headlines

– Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia and Moldova are the additions to the list of teams who would have made a major tournament. Azerbaijan (2014 WC) and Moldova (Euro 96) join Armenia on the one-hit-wonders list, while Cyprus (1998 WC and Euro 2000) would have qualified for 2 and Georgia (Euro 96, 1998 WC and 2002 WC) for 3

– At the other end of the scale, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Turkey and Ukraine would be added to the list of teams who would have qualified for every tournament, while Yugoslavia/Serbia qualified for every one they were eligible for (after being banned for Euro 96). This is particularly impressive/galling for Slovakia as they have only qualified for one actual tournament

– Just missing out on a full set are Austria (Euro 2012), Israel (Euro 96), Norway (2014 WC), Poland, Romania (both 2010 WC), Scotland (2014 WC) and Switzerland (2002 WC), who all made 9 of the 10 tournaments

– This leaves a core of about 25 regular teams, 10 of which would have qualified for every tournament even with only 24 teams (Croatia, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden). This essentially leaves between 7 and 12 spots free for others

– The team that made the most 32-team tournaments without making an actual one is Israel with 9. Next up is Finland with 8 (though only 1 24-team tournament), followed by Hungary with 7 and Lithuania and Iceland with 4.

– Wales and Northern Ireland would have both qualified for 3 tournaments, including both for Euro 2008, making it the only 32-team tournament of the last 10 with all of the Home Nations qualifying

I think the conclusion that we can draw from this is that if you’re Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Azeri, Cypriot, Georgian, Hungarian or Finnish, this would be brilliant, but if you’re a fan of high-quality football, it’s iffy at best. So obviously I’m massively in favour of it. Bring it on, Michel.

Gareth Bale would have represented Wales at a 32-team Euro 2012, but does Euro 2016 beckon?

All images used in the spirit of fair use. This is definitely the end of it – there will be no 48-team Euros article. That would just be silly

Written by James Bennett

April 2, 2015 at 17:55

Euro 2016 qualifying predictions

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No reasoning, as it’s mainly off the top of my head.

Group A
1. Netherlands
2. Turkey
3. Czech Republic
4. Iceland
5. Latvia
6. Kazakhstan

Group B
1. Belgium
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina
3. Wales
4. Israel
5. Cyprus
6. Andorra

(we’re doomed now, aren’t we?)

Group C
1. Spain
2. Ukraine
3. Belarus
4. Slovakia
5. Macedonia
6. Luxembourg

Group D
1. Germany
2. Poland
3. Republic of Ireland
4. Scotland
5. Georgia
6. Gibraltar

Group E
1. Switzerland
2. England
3. Slovenia
4. Estonia
5. Lithuania
6. San Marino

Group F
1. Greece
2. Romania
3. Hungary
4. Finland
5. Northern Ireland
6. Faroe Islands

Group G
1. Russia
2. Sweden
3. Montenegro
4. Austria
5. Moldova
6. Liechtenstein

Group H
1. Italy
2. Croatia
3. Norway
4. Bulgaria
5. Azerbaijan
6. Malta

Group I
1. Portugal
2. Serbia
3. Denmark
4. Armenia
5. Albania

Qualified teams
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Republic of Ireland

Play-off losers
Czech Republic

Thing I’m most looking forward to – (Hopefully) some new/different teams qualifying

Thing I’m least looking forward to – Tedious technocratic debates over whether or not minnows should have to pre-qualify after England thump San Marino 16-0

Written by James Bennett

July 16, 2014 at 18:39

Euros with 24 teams: the review

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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.

In total…
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

Written by James Bennett

July 15, 2014 at 23:35

Euro 2012…with 24 teams

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The last qualifying campaign before the move to a 24-team format saw a shift back to smaller groups with only the group winners guaranteed to qualify. This time all the big guns made it through unscathed, with Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, England and Spain all winning their groups, along with Greece, Denmark and Russia, and Sweden qualifying as the best runners-up.

But behind them, there were plenty of surprises, with three teams entering the play-offs with a chance of making their first major tournament. For Bosnia & Herzegovina, it wasn’t much of a surprise, as they had been progressing for a while, and Montenegro were the new kids on the block but clearly had capable players. However, Estonia’s shock second place in a group also containing Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland was a huge shock, but they were unfortunate to be drawn with a Republic of Ireland side fired up after losing to France in the 2010 World Cup play-offs.

Similarly, Montenegro were beaten by old hands the Czech Republic, while Bosnia were dumped out by Portugal. In the last tie, Croatia beat Turkey, giving the tournament another familiar feel. It’s easy to see why many thought an expansion was necessary – by now, it was largely the same teams qualifying for every European Championship. A shake-up was needed.

The additional qualifiers
The evidence for this is all too clear in the list of teams that would have qualified for a 24-team Euro 2012 – it would have featured a stack of unfamiliar teams making a breakthrough. For a start, there are the play-off losers, which included three new teams, along with Turkey, who again missed out on a major tournament. Firstly, there is Bosnia & Herzegovina, who would instead qualify for their first major tournament two years later. In this campaign they were unfortunate to finish behind France, after a late Samir Nasri penalty forced a draw between the two teams in the final match of the group.

Estonia’s record goalscorer Andres Oper might have added to his tally at a 24-team Euro 2012

Montenegro finished behind England (despite not losing to them) and ahead of Switzerland, Wales and Bulgaria to finish second in their group; it was only their second qualification campaign as an independent nation. Estonia were the true anomaly, though – after this campaign, they slipped back to fifth place in their World Cup qualifying group, suggesting it was a one-off. It may prove to be the closest they come to reaching a major tournament.

The other four spots are taken up by the four best third-placed finishers, and there were even more surprises. Joining semi-regular qualifiers Switzerland and the team that always gets close to qualifying but doesn’t, Norway, there was another new nation in a major tournament and one returning after a long absence.

Driven on by an emerging young generation including Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Yura Movsisyan, Armenia had finished third behind Russia and the Republic of Ireland after going into their final game in Dublin with a chance of making the play-offs (an opportunity lost when they lost 2-1 to the Irish). Nonetheless, they make a 24-team Euro 2012, along with Hungary, who would have finally qualified for a major tournament for the first time since 1986 and a European Championship for the first time since 1972.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Armenia narrowly missed out on a play-off berth but would have made a 24-team tournament

Of the third-placed teams missing out, Scotland were the most unfortunate, finishing behind Switzerland on goal difference. Israel, Belgium, Serbia and Romania were the other four teams, the latter having the worst record and thus would also miss out on a play-off if that was used to determine the final four spots.

The draw
Seeding is relatively straight forward. A modified version of the original co-efficient was used, and 15 of the 16 teams that actually qualified were the top 15 teams in the ranking, leaving only co-hosts Poland further down. The result is all of the additional teams fit below them.

In the actual seeding, World Cup finalists Spain and the Netherlands are seeded alongside the co-hosts, with Germany, Italy, England and Russia in Pot Two, Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Sweden in Pot Three, and Denmark, France, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland in Pot Four.

With the new teams slotting in below, it means that Germany and Italy are promoted into the top pot, with England and Russia joined by the four Pot Three teams in Pot Two. The four Pot Four teams are joined by Switzerland and Turkey in the new Pot Three, and the last pot is made up of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Norway, Hungary, Montenegro, Estonia and Armenia.

It’s quite a top-heavy seeding, with only France and a few tricky teams in Pot Three and a weak batch of new additions in Pot Four. It feels almost like a World Cup. After quite a competitive 24-team Euro 2008, this is more polarised, if only because some teams improved enormously in the interim period. But at the same time, it feels like a very interesting tournament because of the diverse range of teams in it.

Projected Pot One

Projected Pot Two

Projected Pot Three
Czech Republic
Republic of Ireland

Projected Pot Four
Bosnia & Herzegovina

Mirko Vucinic came close to leading Montenegro into their first major tournament, but does Euro 2016 beckon?

All images used in the spirit of fair use

Written by James Bennett

July 15, 2014 at 20:39

Euro 2008…with 24 teams

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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 draw
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
Czech Republic

Projected Pot Three

Projected Pot Four
Republic of Ireland
Northern 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

Written by James Bennett

July 15, 2014 at 01:43