Sunday 27 May 2018

Jamie Carragher: This could be last great Euros with Uefa plans to extend format

Jamie Carragher

IT has been an excellent start, but I fear we are enjoying the last great European Championship.

Uefa president Michel Platini’s decision to chase more corporate cash and extend the tournament to 24 teams for the next competition will ruin it.

At the moment, I would place the Euros above the World Cup and Champions League in terms of excitement and quality from the first kick until the last.

By the time of the opening ceremony in Paris in four years’ time, the European Championship will be relegated to third best in that group.

Less is sometimes more, and by increasing the number of competitors and fixtures Uefa is diluting the quality. It’s particularly surprising that Platini, whose nine goals in 1984 won the Euros for France, is the one meddling with the format of a competition which must mean so much to him.

My first memory of an international tournament is watching Maradona’s goal against England in Mexico ’86, but the first nation to capture my imagination as a youngster was the Dutch team in Euro ’88.

The orange kit, the flowing dreadlocks of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten’s hat-trick against England (and ‘that’ volley in the final) and Ronald Koeman’s free-kicks.

They seemed like the perfect team, packed with skill and unforgettable characters. I’ve preferred the Euros ever since.

The danger is it will now go the same way as the Champions League. Boring until the knockout stage.

When the club competition started it was the ultimate football spectacle during the group phases — just as we are seeing in this event — because it genuinely pitched the best of the best against each other.

Even when the extensions allowed the strongest nations to have four qualifiers, it improved the format.

Then Platini decided weaker countries deserved the chance to welcome Barcelona and Bayern Munich into their stadiums.

A noble gesture, certainly, and one I initially agreed with until I saw how it impacted on the competition.

The group stages of the Champions League are generally predictable and dull now. You might get the occasional surprise, but it only gets the juices flowing once you reach the last 16.

The World Cup is the same. It’s more of a celebration of football than a glorious exhibition. I’ve never played in a European championships and I regret it. I was in the 2004 squad but didn’t feature.

My World Cup appearance record includes the US, Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador. No disrespect, but I’d have much preferred heading into an international tournament knowing my first game was against France.

There is a different mental preparation when you know you have to be on your game from the first match.

There are no Mickey Mouse games in this tournament and you can’t say that about the World Cup. When I was playing for England, I never felt that playing in a qualifier and even in the first round of the World Cup gave you the same buzz.

Yes, the World Cup is special as an event, but the standard of matches was well below a Premier League match or those games I first played in the Champions League, for example.

You’d be coming up against players who couldn’t get into their club teams, or in some cases a division below you. I never walked off after any of those matches thinking I’d just played at the very highest level of football, even if the England performances were not especially good.

There was no excitement or sense of accomplishment, even if we’d won. That’s why the Euros are a different level.

While winning the World Cup will always be the pinnacle, the two great international teams of our generation, Spain and France, performed far better in winning their European championships than the World Cup.

When France won it in 2000, they were flawless. Zinedine Zidane was at his peak. In the World Cup two years earlier, he only truly shone in the final.

It’s easily forgotten how prior to then he had been sent off in one game, France needed a golden goal from Laurent Blanc to beat Paraguay and only overcame Italy on penalties. Two years later, they had matured into the finished product.

The same can be said of Spain, who impressed more when they won the European title four years ago than during the World Cup in South Africa.

I’d put this down to the immediate sense of intensity. Look at the quality of the opening fixtures: Germany facing Portugal, Spain and Italy, England against France – we have to wait two weeks for a match between the big-hitters at the World Cup as the weaker seeds predictably make an early exit.

Every team in this competition have pedigree, and as the early performances of Denmark, Croatia and Russia proved, even those you may not expect to win the competition have shown they have the capacity to reach the later stages.

The format of this competition helps the players, too.

There’s no doubt it can get tedious off the pitch as well as on it when you’re waiting for the next match, but having less time between games helps maintain the flow of the competition.

It is a shame that won’t be the case again in four years as the European Championship suffers because of its efforts to be just as big as, when it is already better than, the World Cup.

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