In 2016, it will all be different. Of course, there will still exist the footballing inevitability of England losing on penalties, England being tactically inferior to lesser nations, and Scotland not qualifying, but the format as we know it will be consigned to football’s archives, along with both the golden and silver goal, the back pass rule and Trifon Ivanov’s mullet. For better or for worse, Euro 2016 will see twenty-four teams, rather than the current sixteen.
The overwhelming positive of a twenty-four team tournament is that there will be more football. Rather than the meagre thirty-one matches that we have been treated to since Euro ’96, we will be able to witness twenty more. One of the many appraisals of the European Championship is that it is a short, sharp tournament, with teams playing every five days. A notion of momentum can build in a miniscule amount of time. Would the additional eight teams dissipate this?
Furthermore, would eight further teams raise the spectacle or, more pertinently, the level of quality on show? If we take Euro 2012, a twenty-four team tournament would have seen the four play-off losers – Montenegro, Estonia, Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as the four best third place teams – Hungary, Armenia, Israel and Serbia – be added to the festival. Quite clearly, a gulf in ability would be exposed. In its simplest form, Estonia, for example, were beaten 5-0 on aggregate in the play-offs by the wretched Ireland side.
On the flip side, a football tournament should never be a barrier to progress. Excluded from the list are nations with a proud footballing past, such as Romania, Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland. An increased tournament would arguably add to the spectacle, with more fans having the opportunity to support their nation at a major event. After all, football is nothing without the fans, even if, sadly, many fans would be priced out by Uefa and instead sent to the increasingly corporate fan parks.
Sixteen teams has a sensible symmetry to it. Four teams of four, with the top two from each group progressing to the quarter finals. A twenty-four team tournament creates its own complexities. As was the case in the World Cup from 1986-94, there would be six groups of four teams. Rather than the top two qualifying, four out of the six groups would have three teams qualifying. It would be entirely feasible to progress to the second round having lost twice in the group stage, thus diluting the notion of success.
Whilst Euro 2016 has been awarded to France, the increased capacity leads to uncertainties. Ukraine have struggled badly at simply co-hosting a smaller competition, due to the lack of hotels, particularly in Donestsk. An expanded format would deny smaller nations the right to host, whilst subconsciously suggesting that, unless you are Italy, France, Spain or Germany, hosting alone would be problematic. Critics of the last two co-hosts may argue that this would be a progressive, rather than regressive course of action.
The group stage of Euro 2012 was excellent, largely due to every match truly holding a high sense of importance. Spain v Ireland was a mismatch, but this would only increase if we saw Germany v Armenia, for instance. The counter argument would be that, in Euro 2004, Germany could only draw with Latvia, so smaller nations have every right to compete. The issue is that the gulf could be as obvious as the group stages of the World Cup. The European Championship is the lesser competition, but has stood its ground due to the consistent level of skill on show. An expanded version could sour one of the sweetest tournaments to witness. The only winners could be Uefa’s bank managers.