Standing as we are in the middle of the desperate doldrums of the international break, in a bid to fight the stifling ennui, the talking heads of the football media have begun to shoutily express their disdain for the expanded Euro 2016 competition. Europe’s premier international tournament is set to grow from 16 to 24 teams. When it all kicks off in France in two years time, the shock of the new will have no doubt worn off, and opinions will be being expressed much less obnoxiously about the new format. But for now at least, why not get into it?
The insufferable Craig Burley of ESPN FC has been one of the least articulate dissidents. In a show a few nights ago, he reiterated his scorn for the decision to allow the middling European nations a better chance at qualification, spouting that the overall quality of the competition would suffer as a result. “I’m glad Platini doesn’t make wine” he sneeringly jested, “because all he would do would be water it down”. Burley received chuckling congratulations from his co-pundit Paul Mariner, “Not bad, not bad” said Paul. Come on Paul, I’ve eaten mandarins more pithy than that tedious quip. Burley’s comedic shortcomings aside, the show had just had the rather eloquent Derek Rae explain the compelling reasons to have an expanded Euros. Rae had calmly pointed out that for one thing, since 1990, there have been 21 new European nations, many forming as a result of the disassembling of the Soviet Union. He stated that close to fifty percent of the countries who strove to qualify for the 1986 Euros did in fact qualify, a percentage similar to the one that Burley and company have bemoaned as being far too high for Euro 2016. Burley, in the face of such intimidating logic, pretended to be asleep on the pundit’s couch next to Rae, a fairly juvenile piece of slapstick. Rae, a guest on the show, was forced to nudge Burley out of his faux-slumber, and plead with him to pay attention to what he was saying because it was, in fact, interesting, which indeed it was.
Rae’s subsequent points were equally compelling. This new injection of nations has created an footballing underclass, countries that are incredibly young and unestablished compared to the European footballing aristocrats of, say, Germany, Italy, Spain and (don’t laugh) England. This underclass, a lot of them still reeling and healing from the bloody separations that forged them, are at a disadvantage they can’t hope to overcome on their own. Burley argues that lending them this helping hand and expanding the qualifying devalues not just the tournament proper, but the qualifying rounds as well. But it’s not like the European juggernauts have ever really been threatened with non-qualification under the current system. Germany have qualified for the last 10 consecutive tournaments. Spain, the Netherlands, France and Italy all have records of consistent qualification stretching back at least 5 tournaments. When England failed to qualify for the 2008 tournament, the footballing world was stunned by their failure, such was the unexpectedness. It’s already largely a cakewalk for the Euro giants, so the argument that this new format devalues these pre-tournament qualifiers is a nonsense. There is no downside to allowing countries like Wales, Israel, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, or indeed like Burley’s own Scotland, a slightly improved chance to make the finals. The real amateur teams will still be weeded in qualifying. Andorra, or San Marino, or Gibraltar (particularly Gibraltar, who are playing in their first qualifying stage ever) will finish last in their groups and will not be lining up in France in 2016. This is not a restructuring that will allow any old tinpot team to get through.
The slightly elitist argument of “well, if they were good enough to get to the finals, then they should have been able to do it under old system” ignores the inherently imbalanced status quo that the large nations are keen to perpetuate. The same elitists point to Greece winning in 2004, or Denmark in 1992 as evidence to show that the old system allowed for fairy tales to happen, so no change is necessary. But the triumphs of Greece and Denmark were incredible because of how utterly anomalous they were. Of the 14 Euros that have been played under UEFA, which is since 1960, only on 3 occasions has the tournament not been won by a nation considered a footballing superpower, or at least, a superpower in Europe generally. Spain has won it 3 times, Germany and France have won it twice each, and Italy, the Netherlands and Russia once each. Czechoslovakia, Greece and Denmark are the exceptions to the rule, and today it seems harder than ever for teams like these to beat the odds.
But let’s think selfishly. There are individual players who play for these underdog nations that can only improve the tournament. What football fan wouldn’t want Aaron Ramsay and Gareth Bale in the 2016 finals (or would have loved to see Ryan Giggs in a Euros, when he was playing for Wales)? Or Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic? Or some unknown diamond who’s yet to be discovered, currently toiling away in some obscure European league? These are the things that make the big competitions as much of a spectacle as seeing Mesut Ozil glide around the pitch, or Mario Balotelli score a belter. Rae made another good point on the same ESPC FC show, about how every South American country goes to the Copa America, and then we wonder why comparatively tiny nations like Chile, Colombia and Ecuador do so well against middling European opposition. As Rae explained, they are battle hardened, improved simply by being involved in the business end of a continental tournament.
Craig Burley listened, just as I did, to Rae’s thoughtful and fair assessment of the failings of the current system. His response: “I…still disagree”, cue the old monologue. His refutations were based on nothing, bolstered by the tiresome opinion that the opportunity for elite football should be only offered to the established powers and that any influx of the fresh, the unknown or those in need of a little assistance could only be a sign of football being, as he put it, “watered down”. His is a thoughtless argument, one that wilfully ignores the obvious imbalance that exists. Voices like Rae’s should be broadcast more often by popular shows like ESPN FC. “We are strengthening the already strong” Rae said in summation. Variety is the spice of life. The segment before Rae’s on ESPN FC had been spent bemoaning the fact that Sepp Blatter has decided to stand for another term as FIFA president. Ironically, Burley denounced the very idea of a 5th term for Blatter, complaining that “the way the rules are set up there’s nobody that can really run against him!”. That’s right Craig, structural change in football is needed, in more than one area.