Expanded Euro 2016 could be a blessing, not a curse

June 23, 2012

During a so far excellent Euro 2012, there have been rumblings of discontent over the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams in four years’ time.

The big football nations of Europe will in all likelihood dread playing an extra game en route to the latter stages of what will be a month-long Euro 2016, if they don’t get knocked out by one of what will be a pack of success-hungry underdogs. 

In contrast, there is little doubt that second and third tier teams were purring with delight after UEFA President Michel Platini boldly announced the tournament’s expansion from the present 16-team format. 

The likes of Scotland, Belgium, Slovakia, Romania and to an even bigger extent Wales, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Finland, as well as a myriad of other limited teams which qualify once in 20 odd years or never, have suddenly been given a real chance to appear regularly on the big stage, as have their fans who are largely confined to watching the Euros on television.   

Yes, it means some “junk food” will be served along with the caviar and champagne as my colleague Martyn Herman eloquently described it, but when Platini made the decision he probably had in mind that at least some of the unloved many should be given the chance to dine with the chosen few every once in a while. 

Yes, the expansion runs the obvious risk of producing a plethora of drab games and phoney wars in the group stage between the big guns, with four out of six third-placed teams progressing to the last 16 along with the winners and the runners-up being the most likely scenario for the 24-team event in France. 

On the other hand, if some 24-team World Cups like the 1986 event in Mexico are anything to go by, it could be a blessing in disguise. 

Belgium’s 4-3 extra time win over the Soviet Union in their memorable campaign which ended in a 2-0 semi-final defeat by eventual winners Argentina has stuck in my mind as one of the most entertaining games ever seen in the knockout stage of a major tournament.  

Purists and elitists will plausibly claim that the 16-team competition is ideal for the usual suspects who can almost take for granted qualifying for each European Championship.  

But what about those teams who are not good enough to mix it with Europe’s elite on a regular basis despite looking stronger than some South American and Asian sides who make World Cups.   

Should they be perennially left on the sidelines of a 16-team event or given the opportunity to improve by playing more regularly in a 24-team competition and perhaps one day become tougher nuts to crack?  

Having 24 teams still means less than half of Europe’s football federations will be invited to the party while it generates the possibility of involving more world class players who would otherwise hang up their boots without ever tasting the adrenaline-pumping atmosphere of major international events.  

Did anyone say Ryan Giggs?  

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