Having 24 teams is unwieldy but Euro 2020 is a step up in quality on France

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Robert Ghement/AP</span>
Photograph: Robert Ghement/AP

A little over a decade ago, John Delaney, the infamous then president of the Football Association of Ireland, approached Sepp Blatter and outlined his proposal to expand the Euros from 16 teams to 24. A little later, having thought about it, Blatter came back and told him he thought it was an excellent scheme, saying: “You should be honoured the president of Fifa said it was very good.” Blatter, notoriously, was a man who had 50 ideas a day, 51 of them bad.

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And yet Uefa, not just following Delaney, went ahead with the expansion. This is the way of modern football. Everything must be bigger: more games means more money, and more competing nations means more votes for whoever introduces it. What is good for the sport itself, for the players, for those watching, is ignored.

So we have this bloated European Championship with its awkward format, too big now to be hosted by any but the largest nations or awkward collaborations. It’s not just that it takes 71% of the games to eliminate 33% of the teams; it’s that having best third-place sides go through is an awful system.

Imagine Denmark had held out against Belgium, so every team in that group had won and lost one match. Then imagine the final two group games were drawn: each team would have been level on four points. The fourth-placed team, Russia, would almost certainly then have been eliminated with more points than a third-placed qualifier.

Groups should be discrete; if you start comparing between them, anomalies occur. Imagine Team A beat B and C so, having already qualified, rest players against D, who have lost 1-0 to C and B. D win 2-0 as a result and so qualify as a best third-placed team ahead of Team Z, who in another group have been involved in a series of full-blooded dingdongs against the full might of W, X and Y, twice losing 3-2 and once winning 3-2. Z have in effect been punished for B and C’s failure to take points from A and for D’s good fortune in facing a weakened A last. It’s absurdly arbitrary.

Perhaps there are fewer dead rubbers this way (not that there are many in a four-team group), but if the trade-off is teams with mixed incentives meeting in meaningful games, that may not be the benefit it initially appears.

At France 2016, the first expanded Euros, much of the group stage felt like games for the sake of games. The glib response was to point out the progress of Wales and Iceland, but that was irrelevant: both would have qualified for a 16-team tournament. They reached the semis and quarters not because they were the recipients of Uefa’s charity but because they were good: 15 of the best 16 sides in qualifying reached the last 16. Euro 2016 featured 36 games spread across two weeks to swap Hungary for Austria.

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There has been less futility this time, which may in part be because, thanks to Covid, an additional year has passed since qualifying and so form has fluctuated. But credit should be given also to a tweak in the qualifying system, opening a path for four sides through the Nations League.

What that does is offer an opportunity for a team from a smaller nation that suddenly find themselves in a period of rich form, who might otherwise be stymied by a series of tough qualifying draws as they slowly improve their coefficient. While North Macedonia’s defeats to Austria and Ukraine may not have offered the sort of vindication Uefa might have hoped for and there would probably be no place for them in a 16-team setup, they have probably added more to the tournament than another mid-ranking nation looking to grind their way through.

The other play-off winners – Scotland, Slovakia and Hungary – have been a mixed bag, despite two of them having home advantage, but the four other sides with the lowest points-per-game record in qualifying (and, yes, that is comparing across groups arbitrarily, but Uefa started it) – the Czech Republic, Wales, Austria and Finland – have all taken at least three points from their opening two games. There is far less sense of quality being diluted this time round.

Patrik Schick celebrates scoring against Scotland
Patrik Schick celebrates scoring against Scotland. Czech Republic, Wales, Austria and Finland – four other sides with the lowest points-per-game record in qualifying– have all taken at least three points from their opening two games. Photograph: Robert Perry/EPA

For all that, 24 teams is an unwieldy number. France’s win over Germany was an obvious step up from the rest of the first round of games, two sides packed with talent tearing into each other, but even then you wondered whether Germany might have been more urgent in the closing stages had they not had the safety net of best-third-placed teams to fall back on.

Quite apart from that lack of jeopardy, there is a basic issue of the integrity of the competition. Teams in Groups E and F will know exactly what they have to do in their final games to qualify: if they have three points and a -1 goal difference and that is enough to get them through, they can stick rather than risk exposing themselves, whereas a team playing earlier in the week may be tempted to chase an extra point or goal; conversely, if they know that will not be enough, they can attack in the knowledge they have nothing to lose.

Which perhaps leads to a wider point: what is a tournament for? It’s clearly not just about determining the best team: if it were, home and away fixtures would be played on a league basis. As the determination in pressing ahead with the Copa América despite Covid running rampant through South America demonstrates, tournaments are about generating revenue.

They should be festivals, for fans, players, coaches and journalists to gather, have fun and exchange ideas. They should also be about stimulating growth, encouraging the spread of the game in countries and regions without a great history of success or even participation.

But there’s a balance to be struck. Nobody should be sniffy and demand only the traditional elites compete, but equally tournaments shouldn’t become the equivalent of a sports day at a right-on school with prizes handed out for taking part.

As so often, though, a very clear answer emerges if political and financial concerns are placed aside and the question posed is a purely sporting one: what makes football sense? It’s certainly not this format.