The New Bloated European Championship Format Is Rife with Problems

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

UEFA President and former French soccer star Michel Platini poses for photographers before a press conference on the preparations for the European Championship 2016 being held in France, in Lille, France, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Michel Spingler/Associated Press

The 2014 World Cup may be the biggest landmark on the horizon of international football, but on Sunday, all attention will be focused on Euro 2016. 

The qualification draw for the next European Championships will be held at the Palais des Congres Acropolis in Nice at 12 p.m. local time (11 a.m. GMT), with some of the biggest names in football turning out to see 54 UEFA member nations divided into nine groups. 

With Euro 2020 set to be held across 13 European cities to "celebrate" the 60th anniversary of the competition, UEFA appear to be bracing us for radical change by revamping the formula of the tournament. 

NICE, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 22: Animations for UEFA 2016  during the French Football League 1 match between OGC Nice and Valenciennes FC on September 22, 2013 in Nice, France. (Photo by Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

Some of the changes are positive. For example, qualification will now be held in a "week of football" format. 

Typically, around 20 to 30 European qualifiers are held on the same evening but in the new system these games will be spread from Thursday to Tuesday, with eight to 10 games per day instead. It also means a greater proportion of matches will be played at the weekend.

This might be the best idea Michel Platini's organisation has come up with in recent memory. It means that fans who would usually only watch their own nation's qualifiers will be able to see a much wider variety of football—imagine the mirth of an English Premier League fan who now gets to see his or her favourite players in action for Germany or Spain, instead of having to swallow just a portion of whatever the Three Lions serve up!

The primary force behind the change, of course, is money, but the knock-on effect of UEFA's coffers getting filled by increased broadcast revenues is that European federations will get more money too.

Nice's stunning new Allianz Riviera stadium
Nice's stunning new Allianz Riviera stadiumLionel Cironneau/Associated Press

The qualification and tournament formats, however, are not uniformly being changed for the better. 

A glaring issue is that hosts France will have their name in the draw on Sunday. Les Bleus will be taking part in qualification, but their place in the tournament is already guaranteed and no points will be awarded to them. Their qualification campaign, therefore, is meaningless, as are the games of the sides who are forced to face them. 

This change comes in response to complaints from Ukraine and Poland that they were unable to organise friendlies against high calibre opposition in the run-up to Euro 2012 (as per The Telegraph). This issue may also have been problematic for Brazil in the run-up to the World Cup: Having had no real competitive matches since the 2011 Copa America, their FIFA ranking slid to a record low and they endured some questionable performances. 

Yet, the solution of allowing the host to take part in qualification in "centralised friendlies" will make an un-level playing field for the rest of the teams. Those who are drawn into France's qualification group will now face the prospect of a dead rubber, when other groups will have a full complement of competitive games.

There is also no guarantee that a European qualification group will provide a better standard of friendlies for the French. Their Euro 2012 group included Belarus, Albania and Luxembourg—hardly continental powerhouses.     

This move could only benefit the hosts and will ensure their opposition are obliged to play meaningless friendlies when they undoubtedly have bigger fish to fry. How convenient that the arrangement will help only Michel Platini's home nation. 

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 17: UEFA president Michel Platini during the EURO 2016 Steering Committee Meeting, on October 17, 2013 in Marseille, France.  (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

Another contentious issue with Euro 2016 is its expansion from 16 teams to 24. The motivation for this change—like the motivation of any change a football governing body makes—is money. But unlike the "week of football," this will have a derogatory effect on qualification and the tournament. 

In previous qualification campaigns, only the group leaders and the highest ranked second-placed teams would have an automatic berth, with the reaming second-placed teams entering playoffs.

Now, the top two teams in each group of six will qualify automatically, and the third-placed teams will take part in play-offs. So, some teams who were only good enough to finish third in the group will make the finals.

In 2012, this would have put Israel, Hungary and Armenia in with a shot. It would be great news if a team of this calibre made the finals, but the knock-on effect would be dull and uncompetitive group games in France when they are inevitably beaten by stronger sides.

This expanded qualification also gives a safety cushion to the bigger sides. In 2008, England's famous defeat by Croatia would have led to a third-placed play-off, rather than "the wally with the brolly" losing his job. 

UEFA are simply giving another lifeline to bigger teams, meaning it is very unlikely that any of them will be excluded. And that could

make qualifying boring. 

Michel Euler/Associated Press

The expanded format will provide similar issues at the finals too. Gone is the simplicity of a 16-team tournament where the best half advanced to the final eight. Now, the top two teams from each of the six groups of four will be joined by the four third-placed teams with the best record.

In 2012, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino admitted that it is "not ideal" for four third-placed teams to make the knockout stages of European football's biggest tournament.

Despite an admission from a high-ranking UEFA official that the change isn't really in the interests of the game, it has been made. That's modern football for you. 

We now have a tournament where nearly half of UEFA's 54 members will be present, which casts doubt on its exclusivity and quality.

The big teams will have a hassle-free route to France and once there, they will potentially get a weaker third-placed opponent in the knockout stages—if they haven't used this route as a lifeline themselves. And, of course, we have a qualification process where one of the teams isn't actually qualifying.  

Here's to hoping that Euro 2016 will be a marvellous spectacle of international football. But UEFA are setting it up to be a bloated, boring and watered-down cash cow with few redemptive qualities.


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