Sure, Spain had just completed an unprecedented treble and, yes, Vicente Del Bosque’s peerless team had just registered the biggest winning margin in the final of a European Championship, but the shades of history that wrapped the Chelsea man’s goal were nostalgic rather than triumphant, melancholic rather than joyous.
For Mata scored the final goal of the last European Championship as we have known it since 1996 – when it was expanded to 16 teams – in four years time in France the Henry Delaunay Trophy will be contested by 24 teams from the Old Continent, following another controversial decision by UEFA president Michel Platini.
It was another Frenchman, after whom the trophy is now named, that decided European teams should battle it out on the pitch every four years, away from their South American and African counterparts but the then General Secretary of UEFA never saw his dream coming true as he died five years before the first tournament, comprising of just four teams, was held in 1960.
For 16 years the final phase of the tournament consisted only of semifinals and a final before being expanded to eight teams in 1980 and to 16 under the Wembley Twin Towers 16 years later.
For all the World Cup glitz, glamour, and worldwide circus it has been the European Championships that for over half a century have provided football fans with some of the most thrilling and captivating football ever witnessed, with moments that will forever be etched in the fans’ memories.
Following its expansion to 32 teams in 1998, the World Cup has rarely offered interesting match-ups before the knockout stages as the teams are spread over eight groups preventing the opportunity of having a real “group of death” – England and Argentina in 2002 were perhaps the only notable exception in recent years – and the same applies to the Champions League where big teams spend the months between September and December trying to negotiate their way out of groups filled with teams who lack quality and make up for it with adverse weather conditions to level the playing field, while they wait for the round of 16 draw.
The European Championships were, until this year, a fantastic difference with their convolute format often throwing up groups that saw European’s football crowned heads going face-to-face from the first game.
Just look at Group B at Euro 2012′s that contained the teams ranked 2nd, 4th, 5th and 10th in the world as Holland and Denmark embarked on outbound flights from Poland and Ukraine earlier than they would have liked.
Thinking England’s group was testing this year? Compare Ukraine, Sweden and France with their opponents in 1988, when the Three Lions bowed out after three defeats against Holland, the Soviet Union and Ireland.
Ireland, ironically, are one of the teams that will benefit from an expanded tournament as they’re likely to have more opportunity to reach the final stages with eight more teams being allowed in the competition (Sorry Irish fans but you are only as good as your last tournament and Euro2012 was no USA’94).
But at the same time, the performances of the men in green this year offered food for thought ahead of France 2014, when about a third of the teams are likely to be good enough to qualify but simply not up-to scratch with the demands of what use to be such a competitive tournament.
16 teams and a month of quality and unpredictable results or 24 participants, with a third of those team’s fans destined to end up traveling for what Roy Keane would call a “singalong every four years”?
For everyone except Michel Platini the answer seems obvious but, as laudable as his view to expand football beyond his normal boundaries is, diluting the European Championships’ quality might be the wrong one altogether…long live the Euro.
What is your view on the Euro Championship expansion – another dumb ass move from Pratini or is it the taking part that counts nowadays? Quantity not quality? Leave your comments below. Make sure you follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the best football news, gossip and banter around.