Ger Gilroy: Despite the complaints, the expanded Euros format is providing plenty of entertainment
After much Euro snobbery, the tournament has yet to produce any one-sided games17:52 Wednesday 15 June 2016, 17:52 15 Jun 2016
The expansion of the Euros from a 16 team to a 24 team tournament was not a move which was widely welcomed.
There was some justifiable European snobbery about the fact that this tournament tended to be high quality, technically advanced, well-refereed and well-attended. In short, it was better than the World Cup because it was purer with more really good teams and almost no bad ones, Ireland in 2012 being somewhat of an aberration.
The argument was that the teams who were qualifying after finishing third in their groups could no longer be counted on to be decent, and that smaller teams playing badly would result in lopsided groups. It could legitimately take until the quarter-finals for the tournament proper to begin. Besides, why do we need these extra teams – the qualifiers were effectively only halving the existing teams, the group stages are only getting rid of 8 more and the round of 16 could easily have some trimmings too. The Euro-snobs were appalled. They had a point.
It seems like a lot of football to play to reduce all of Europe to a final 16. 18 months of a campaign, and then the first two weeks of a tournament, and we still only know who the last 16 are. It’s an easy case to make when you consider that the Euros in 1988, where we made our debut, had only 8 teams in total, and the tournament was good but not great. In 1992 they still only had 8 teams and for one last time they had the back pass rule and the tournament was sensational.
The expanded tournament in 1996 in England has a hazy warm place in football fans' memory because there were so many teams we were getting to know, the sun seemed to shine a lot and they had good songs. The expansion clearly worked. Could it work again?
Since then, Europe has changed and is continuing to change. The collapse of Communism and the birth of new nations on the football stage gave us Croatia and the Czech Republic, teams immediately capable of competing at the tournament level, but it also clogged up the qualifiers with apparent cannon fodder. Over the decades since, it has become common place for those weaker sides to decide groups by putting in big performances when they’re least expected. Thanks very much Georgia.
Expansionism isn’t just about getting votes at UEFA congress for politicians. It’s understandable, given how corrupt football has become, that all decisions made at the top levels come under scrutiny for questionable motives. Maybe it’s naive to think that UEFA made the decision to make their tournament more inclusive, reaching into more countries and involving more people for reasons other than exclusively money. It’s true the bigger tournament means more money, more sponsors and more attending fans, but is it also possible that this is a genuine win-win?
I was completely against the notion of splitting a tournament up and having different centres of action, like what will happen in 2018. But then you start to think about two games for Ireland in Dublin and wonder if just maybe an expanded tournament might be a proper European festival of football as the continent becomes momentarily united by the game. Given how much separates us now, it’s worth experimenting to see if we can recover the memory that at the end end we’re all just people. A diversion along the way to watch some football and chat and find some commonality is a welcome development. Eight more teams like Iceland, Albania, hell – us? I’m on board.
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