Sunday 4 December 2016

Far from vintage football but dreams became reality

The 24-team format offers hope where it is needed

Published 11/07/2016 | 02:30

Portuguese supporters show their colours at a fans' zone in Lisbon after their team’s victory. Photo: Rafael Marchante
Portuguese supporters show their colours at a fans' zone in Lisbon after their team’s victory. Photo: Rafael Marchante

Euro 2016 is over and the consensus has already formed that it will be remembered as a distinctly average affair.

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It will share that verdict with more or less every other international competition in the social media age.

When was the last great one? Nobody is quite sure, apart from definitively ruling that the latest edition bears no comparison with the sepia tinted gold standard.

This time, there is a strong angle to the scepticism. The prevailing view is that the expansion to 24 teams has ruined the 'perfect' event.

It's a line that was oddly trotted out as a criticism in a knockout stage which has actually been comparable with any and all recent tournaments in terms of thrills and spills with sporadic excitement merged with cynical pragmatism.

Has Euro 2016 really been that bad?

The starting block for the counterpoint is to look at its predecessor. Poland was miserable for Ireland but strip the parochialism from this debate and examine 2012 itself. What were the amazing tales?

The superb final performance from a dominant Spain stands out. Beyond that, Italy's Mario Balotelli-inspired semi-final win over Germany and a dismal group phase for the Netherlands just about linger in the memory.

This instalment has fared better on the storylines front. Iceland's defeat of England and their overall adventure will be recalled decades from now. Wales made their mark too, especially the dismantling of a Belgian side on an epic night in Lille.

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The exploits of Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Hungary and Albania might only have resonated inside their own borders, but 2012 was entirely devoid of uplifting stories.

It may not please the purists, but those feelings carry weight. Without them, the international game loses a huge selling point.

The days where it provides the highest standard of football are long gone; the concentration of the leading players at a coterie of the richest clubs has ensured that.

Emotions

What it's still capable of doing is generating emotions which the globalised club game cannot.

At a time when the Champions League superpowers are making noises about closing the door to unglamorous outsiders, the loosening of the entry criteria for the Euros to allow others share in the joy is really no bad thing.

The competition generated almost €2bn and, while it's undoubtedly a money-making operation for UEFA, it's helping to spread the wealth too.

Earlier this year, Real Madrid cited having to play BATE Borisov of Belarus as part of calls for a Champions League revamp. Barcelona have spoken of safeguarding places for glamour clubs should they fail to qualify.

Perhaps their case will strike a chord with the consumer who only watches football on TV.

With the domestic game in a permanent state of disarray, Ireland is a sad example of that. But around the continent, there are reasonably well run clubs like BATE that are running a professional operation in the hope they can hit the jackpot.

The original concept of a European Cup was that it gave champions from around the continent the opportunity to come into contact. If that principle is taken away from the club sphere because of elitism, then a slightly more open approach to international tournaments is palatable.

Last week, ex-England full-back Paul Parker described the qualifying process for 2016 as "boring because too many teams can access the finals".

It might have been boring in his parish, but it was exhilarating for the new contenders.

The flip side is that the race to make World Cup 2018 will quickly become boring for a larger number of UEFA members. Sepp Blatter's politicking has contributed to the reduction in European qualifying places to 13.

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As an example, Albania face into a group containing Spain and Italy and, even if they somehow defy the odds to finish second, they would likely be unseeded in a play-off. And if it's hard for them, it's a forlorn task for the poor souls ranked lower.

The 24-team format Euros might make regular qualifying a drag for the big fish - Holland chose to make it exciting - but the drip down effect is that more countries will start the 2020 campaign with optimism.

Fixtures on dark October and November nights can be a hard sell; a development that adds excitement for the democratic majority shouldn't be sniffed at.

Expansion

It has to stop somewhere and talk of an expansion to 32 is a step too far - there was still tension last autumn which saw reasonable sides miss out - but the simple truth is that Europe has a deeper well of resources than the other confederations.

The margins are fine. Ireland, Hungary, Sweden, Turkey and Ukraine made it by finishing third in their qualifying groups. Austria and Northern Ireland advanced as group winners.

You could throw a blanket over those protagonists. The vagaries of ever-changing co-efficients and the luck of the draw can have a significant impact.

It's the clunky format that drags the 24-team idea down and ways to shake it up should be explored. Dumping the second round and putting the six group winners straight into the quarters with the four best second-placed sides facing off to join them would demand positivity from the outset. But the accountants would never allow such a scenario to happen.

The old format was smooth but seeding co-hosts posed problems. Poland were placed at the head of a 2012 group with Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic which the latter won with a negative goal difference. That was hardly an advertisement for exclusivity.

For the travelling fan, the other consideration for determining the success of a competition has to be the setting. The Ukrainian half of 2012 was a turn-off on a number of levels.

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Despite all the fears about terror attacks - "I hope you have a Kalashnikov" was the opening gambit from a Dublin taxi driver on June 8 - France was easily accessible and a total of 2.4 million supporters attended the 51 games. The extra invitations and novelty value helped.

It was only the troublemakers from England and Russia who darkened the mood and the casual approach from Moscow towards their organised hooligans struck another blow to the 2018 World Cup's image.

Russia's track record on tolerance will turn off prospective travellers and it's unlikely the communal atmosphere that was a feature of Brazil in 2014 and the better part of the last five weeks will be repeated.

These factors have to be incorporated into any review. Trite as it may sound, Euro 2016 did produce some memories that will last for a lifetime. There is sporting merit in that.

A vintage tournament? Of course not, but it will induce nostalgia in time. Give it two years.

Irish Independent

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