When I first heard that the European Championships was to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams my immediate response was somewhat cynical. People generally don’t like change, and this is exacerbated when we’re talking about football fans who are seemingly never happy. The previous format of the European Championship saw the best 16 teams out of 54 UEFA affiliated nations taking part. You’d think that the harder a tournament is to qualify for, the more prestigious it will be. Why should more teams be allowed in? Elite tournaments should be for elite teams. I’m in no way against “smaller” or less-fashionable nations taking part, on the contrary, my initial thought was that an expanded tournament was just a way to include the under-performing bigger nations should they stutter in qualifying. My worry is that eventually we’ll go to 32 then even 48 teams and before you know it all UEFA-affiliated nations will take part. Like with the introduction of video technology, you give them an inch and they take a mile. If a tournament contains an ever increasing number of teams then what incentive will teams unable to qualify have to improve?
During the qualification process I slowly came around to the idea. Unlike usual tournaments where we see the same old faces, we’ve seen the qualification of less-traditionally successful nations such as Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a European Championships with a population of approximately 330,000. Wales qualified for their first major tournament since 1958, and Northern Ireland reached their first finals since 1986. The failure to qualify of the likes of the Netherlands, especially given the bloated nature of the qualification process, was a surprise and a blessing. People may says that a tournament is all the poorer for the absence of traditional powerhouses like the Dutch but I believe otherwise. Teams should be there based on merit, not because of their historical achievements or eye-catching orange kits.
One thing is important to mention: certain teams haven’t just qualified due to the expanded format, they are there on merit. Northern Ireland topped their group and therefore would’ve qualified automatically regardless of the format. They didn’t sneak in through the back door of a play-off after finishing 5th in a 6-team group. They deserve to be there and did it the hard way finishing ahead of traditionally stronger nations such as Romania, and Greece who won the same tournament less than 12 years ago. Iceland and Wales finished second in their respective groups and produced performances and point hauls that belied their status before the tournament, going to toe-to-toe with the likes of Turkey, Belgium and the Czech Republic. Shocks weren’t exclusive to the top end of the tables either. Luxembourg finished level on points with Macedonia in Group C; Faroe Islands finished on an equal footing to the aforementioned Greeks; Albania finished above Serbia and Denmark, and beat the former in a politically-charged atmosphere; and for a while in Group D it looked like the German’s could be pipped to top spot by Poland, Scotland or the Republic of Ireland.
I must say I’m also a fan of the Nations League idea which will, in part, replace meaningless friendlies amongst European nations. The fear from some quarters is that this will undermine the European Championships itself but hopefully that isn’t the case and it complements, rather than replaces, the quadrennial championships. How it’ll work is that the European nations will be split into leagues based on current rankings, with promotions and relegations to follow. This means that the minnows will be able to battle opponents of a similar standing and have a more realistic chance of victory, which is surely better than losing 9-0 every game. It also means players can develop in a competitive environment without the pressures that qualifiers and tournaments bring. Perhaps managers will be a little more experimental, and perhaps this will allow promising youngsters to flourish.
I would still suggest the winner of next year’s tournament will come from one of the traditional nations; Spain, Germany, Italy, France and England. Okay, probably not England. Other teams such as Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland will no doubt struggle on the big stage but I hope they enjoy the ride whilst it lasts. Starved of success, their fans deserve something to shout about, whether that is from in the stadium or in a Cardiff, Belfast or Reykavik bar. They are deserving participants and an inspiration to “smaller” nations all over the world that with planning, togetherness and a sprinkling of quality, they can upset the odds and qualify for major tournaments. I wish them all the luck in the world. Now all we need to do is get rid of seeding and pots, but that is a battle for another day.
The draw for the group stage of the European Championships France 2016 takes place on December 12th.
Follow Dan on Twitter @winkveron