With the qualifying for Euro 2012 finishing on Tuesday, football fans can justifiably look forward to a competition that is almost unrivalled in its concentration of quality. With only 16 teams, the European Championships (Euro’s) traditionally features few, if any weak links, and Euro 2000 was a tournament that was able to boast what was probably the pinnacle of international football in the last 30 years.
As we enter into the build-up period for Euro 2012, it’s worth reflecting on UEFA’s decision that the Euro’s should go the way of the majority of tournaments in world football, and be milked for every penny that it’s worth. The decision to increase the size of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams for the 2016 tournament is surely a financial one, based on the simple premise that more games means greater revenue.
The argument used for the World Cup’s expansion was that by doing so, it would bring football to nation’s less exposed to the sport, but when you apply this to the Euro’s, it simply doesn’t wash. All expansion will do here is allow nations of inferior quality to compete in the tournament and dilute its quality. Any decision that unnecessarily facilitates the qualification of uninspiring and middling countries, such as the Home Nations, must be seriously questioned.
If UEFA wants a stark example of what over-expansion can do to a tournament, they need look no further than the Europa League, a competition so devalued that teams actively and openly attempt to knock themselves out. Aston Villa in 2009 is a famous example, and it’s hardly surprising when you consider that this is a tournament in which you can have to play up to 23 matches to win. This season Harry Redknapp has openly stated that this tournament is low priority for Spurs and this has been reflected in Redknapp’s team selections.
In its former guise, as the UEFA cup, this was not the case; it’s hard to envisage now but the UEFA Cup actually used to be a respected competition. Naturally much of that owed to the Champions League being half the size, but even when the Champions League featured 32 teams as it does now, there were some epic contests. Celtic’s run to the final against Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2003 (a monumental game in itself) took in fiercely competitive ties with the likes of Liverpool and Stuttgart.
The effect that the endless expansion of football has had is to further contribute to the growing absence of glory in the sport. It’s hard to justify investing any sort of resources in a competition like the Europa League when playing such a volume of games will inevitably have an effect on a team’s League form.
And when jeopardized league form can have such ruinous financial effects as possible relegation or failure to qualify for the Champions League, then the glory of a cup competition has to be sacrificed. If in May you offered Wigan Chairman Dave Whelan the chance to swap his 16th place with Birmingham’s relegation but Carling Cup glory, he would have laughed at you.
The Euro’s of course will never be overtly sacrificed in the same way as the Europa League, but the tournament’s expansion will add to the sense of fatigue that has blighted the last three World Cups. At a time when international football is in desperate need of a boost, this decision to expand the Euro’s will only serve to heighten the increasing consensus that it is a poor substitute for the Champions League. This move will also add to growing opposition to Uefa’s running of football competitions generally, which was again highlighted this week by the European Clubs Association making noises about a breakaway European club league unless Uefa pull their finger out.
The Champions League incidentally is another tournament that has suffered at the hands of UEFA’s policy of quantity over quality. The decision to have two group stages for the competition between 1999 and 2003 was possibly the nadir for UEFA’s impression of a 10 year old deciding how to run professional football. Fortunately, even when they saw sense and reduced the competition to one group stage for 2003-4, a move which if only partially increasing the knockout element of the competition, has certainly increased the tournament’s appeal.
I found it mildly amusing that on the UEFA website, it states that the reward for winning the Euros is to be entered into the Confederations Cup, perhaps the most pointless competition of all. It seems utterly absurd, but equally unsurprising, that apparently the reward of winning the Euros is not just the glory but the chance to play in a jumped-up World Cup dress rehearsal in Russia.
At a time when football’s policymakers are coming up with ideas like the 39th game and awarding World Cups to countries with little to no footballing pedigree but considerable wealth, next Summer’s showpiece feels oddly austere.
Euro 2012 sees two relatively poor nations hosting a meagre 16 teams in one of the last tournaments played that hasn’t been tinkered to the point of gluttony. I am not opposed to progression and evolution in football, and I do welcome some of UEFA’s initiatives; I’m a big fan of the Champions’ League’s current format for instance, but that in itself demonstrates that less can be more, when compared to the two group stage days.
It seems a baffling decision from a footballing perspective to strip the Euro’s of its greatest virtue, and potentially push it towards the mediocrity of the Europa League, Confederations Cup and, dare I say it, the World Cup.