The experiment with a 24-team European Championship, says DW Sports’ Jefferson Chase, has proven that less is in fact more. The additional teams didn’t increase the excitement – they made the tournament more arbitrary.
So, after two weeks of matches, the European Championship has been whittled down from 24 to 16 teams, and we can evaluate what difference the expanded format made. My conclusion: UEFA should have heeded the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Contrary to what some people think, the inclusion of eight additional teams didn’t actually give smaller nations more of a chance. Two of the main underdogs, Northern Ireland and Wales, would have qualified for a 16-team Euro 2016.
The beneficiaries of the expanded format included Turkey, Ukraine and Sweden – all medium-sized football nations that ended up being a bore to watch. Depending on how qualifying was carried out, Albania and Romania might also have missed out.
The “additional” teams that have done well are Hungary, Ireland and Iceland, although everybody’s favorite Viking underdogs could well have also punched their ticket to a 16-team event. That’s not a good trade-off. Northern Ireland and Wales aren’t in the knock-out phase of the tournament because of the expanded format. Arguably, they progressed despite bigger national sides being given a second chance.
With five of the eight “additional” sides having already crashed out, the group stage went roughly as you would have expected given the qualifiers. Had Euro 2016 been limited to sixteen teams, you would have had more or less the same countries in the event in the round of 16. What you wouldn’t have had was a draw with France, England, Spain, Italy and Germany on one side and Belgium the most fancied team in the other half.
That lopsidedness came after bigger clubs failed to win their groups, and unexpected results, of course, are part of the game. But the imbalance also arose because of the arbitrary allocation of opponents. In the next round, some group winners are facing runners-up, while others play third-placed teams. England meet Iceland – both finished second – while Italy have to take on Spain even though the Italians won their group.
In their final group match against Ireland, there was nothing Italy could do to alter that fate. No wonder they didn’t field their top starting eleven.
No draw is ever completely fair, but by bumping up the participants to a number not divisible by four, UEFA has created an additional level of arbitrariness. Organizers also engineered a situation in which teams that played later enjoyed the advantage of knowing exactly what results they needed to progress.
Did this make a difference, particularly regarding the four best third-placed teams? Maybe. In the dying minutes of Hungary versus Portugal, it seemed pretty clear that both teams knew that they’d go through if the result stood.
Whatever UEFA bosses may have said, the primary reason for expanding the European Championship was to make more money. The result is a tournament that is too long and too complicated and that will pit the top teams against one another too early. UEFA hasn’t opened the door to upsets by underdogs. It has broken something that never needed fixing.
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