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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