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The European Championships were spoilt and now the World Cup will be too

By Dan Palmer

In 2016, Portugal won a single game of football from seven attempts and were crowned as the champions of Europe.

What would normally be considered a poor run of results was enough to triumph at Euro 2016 in France because of UEFA’s misguided decision to expand the tournament from 16 teams to 24.

Fernando Santos’s side, with Cristiano Ronaldo the undoubted star man, were huge favourites to win Group F but dropped points in all of their matches against unfancied opposition.

They were held to a 1-1 draw by tournament surprise package Iceland in their opening clash after an unconvincing performance, before a 0-0 draw with Austria after Ronaldo struck the post with a penalty.

With two points on the board, the Portuguese had a crucial final group fixture with Hungary to prepare for. Ronaldo, perhaps feeling the strain of being hyped as the best player of the tournament and without a goal so far, snapped and threw a journalist’s microphone into a lake.

The star attraction did get on the scoresheet against the Hungarians – twice in fact – but still his side could not win as the match ended 3-3.

Portugal finished third in the group on three points, with Hungary topping the pile after nearly grabbing a dramatic fourth when Adam Szalai hit the upright. Iceland finished second, and in a sensible tournament that would have been that for Santos’s men.

But no. Due to UEFA’s wisdom of inviting eight more teams, the 24 were divided into six groups of four. The top two in each qualified for the next round as usual, but that left 12 sides and no way of a neat knock-out stage.

As a result, the four best-placed teams in third spot also advanced, and Portugal lived to fight another day.

They advanced because their goal difference was better than Turkey and Albania, who also finished on three points in their groups. Congratulations.

I’m sorry, but if you do not win any of your three group games, then you should be on the next plane home.

You should not have the chance to win the tournament after making such a poor start, with the relief of creeping through perhaps providing a kick up the backside to spur you on to better things. 

Portugal, of course, took full advantage. After a 0-0 draw with Croatia in the round-of-16, they went through after Ricardo Quaresma struck with three minutes left in extra time. The goal was the first effort on target with BBC Sport describing the contest as “abysmal”.

In the quarter-finals Poland were dispatched on penalties after a 1-1 draw and the Portuguese were in the last four without winning a match in the regulation 90 minutes.

They finally won in the semi-finals, 2-0 against a Wales side who had enjoyed a fairytale run to the brink of glory and were heavy underdogs.

The final against hosts France saw Ronaldo limp off injured in tears after 25 minutes in Paris. A dull affair ended 0-0, with the French unable to capitalise on the absence of their opposition’s best player. Unlikely hero Eder rifled in a winner for a 1-0 victory in extra time.

Portugal had won their first international trophy. This column is not intended to be critical of their team itself, but instead the system which they benefited from. If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it.

It was not Portugal’s fault that the tournament had been expanded and they advanced from the group when they previously would have been eliminated.

Of course, they also did not lose a match after proving extremely difficult to beat. The defensive steel they showed in the final, as France probed and pressed, was in particular admirable.

Portugal have since gone on to win a second international trophy under Santos, the UEFA Nations League, and surviving any knock-out stage intact is never to be sniffed at.

But my point is a major event should encourage winning and attacking play, and should not allow a side which finishes third out of four with no victories to stay in contention.

Sixteen teams at the Euros was the perfect number. Eight teams went through to the quarter-finals and eight teams went home. With 24 countries, eight teams still depart after the group phase but 16, or 66 per cent of the tournament, go through. That is far too many.

In my opinion the smaller event also lends itself to a better standard of football and more exciting matches for fans. A quick scan at the opening rounds of previous European Championships reveals several “Groups of Death”.

Europe is a footballing hotbed and when just 16 teams qualify they will all be strong sides. Every group stage fixture consequently looks tasty, and there are no easy games. There is every chance that a major power will get knocked out, and the excitement levels increase as a result.

With 24 teams, top countries will have easier group matches and there will be more straight-forward victories which do little to get the adrenalin pumping. The thrill of an upset or shock result will not mean as much because, in all likelihood, the defeated giant will still get through anyway.

Fifty-three countries attempted to qualify for Euro 2016, so just under half were eventually successful. For major countries, it now seems practically impossible not to reach the tournament, with some sides ending third in a six team group and still earning a place in France. This means that the shock of a big side missing out entirely is taken out of the equation, too, and the qualification process becomes dull.

We will also see sides shutting up shop and playing negatively in a bid to finish third in the group and creep through. Going into the last round of group fixtures, teams may previously have needed to attack and adopt a positive mindset. Now, there will be more situations where it will be in their interests to park the bus in front of the goal, and hold on for a goalless draw. This is not in the interest of the vast majority of fans.

I understand the argument that an expanded tournament gives more opportunities to countries which would normally struggle to qualify, and that, at the end of the day, it results in more football matches to watch.

My solution would be a second-tier tournament, with 16 teams, of course, to complement the main European Championships. The sides which just miss out on qualifying for the main event can battle it out for a trophy, gaining tournament experience and giving their fans something to look forward to.

Some may think this event would immediately be given diminished status and would not be seen as important, but I don’t see why this should be the case. The UEFA Europa League, for example, is still eagerly contested despite the continent’s best clubs playing in the UEFA Champions League, and winning it is certainly seen to be a major achievement.

Countries taking part would learn and bolster their chances of qualifying for the European Championships next time. An automatic place in the main event for the winners could also be considered. Yes, the idea could perhaps take one tournament to catch on, but if marketed and treated correctly this shouldn’t be a long-term issue.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) currently adopts this idea, founding the AFC Challenge Cup in 2006 which has now morphed into the AFC Solidarity Cup.

When announcing the expansion to 24 teams in 2008, UEFA, then headed by Michel Platini, called it a “historic” decision and said middle-ranked nations having a better chance to qualify was their main motivation.

This will have gone down well in many countries, and UEFA likely expected their support in return on other issues.

It seems clear, too, that the extra income an expanded tournament can bring in was part of the thinking. More matches means more money for the television rights and more money from sponsors and advertisers. It does not matter if the quality of the tournament overall is devalued.

After Euro 2016, German defender Max Hummels said: “The level at this European Championship was not what we had hoped for.

“There were many teams who didn’t want to do anything with the ball and just packed men behind the ball.”

UEFA are pressing ahead with 24 teams for the multinational Euro 2020, however, which has been moved to next year because of coronavirus.

There has even been talk of moving up to 32 teams, which would eliminate the need for third-place teams going through but would see most of Europe at the tournament.

Maybe this was the plan all along. UEFA can announce that a 24-team event is awkward, and invite a further eight sides along. More countries will be happy with the governing body, and more money will roll in.

Theodore Theodoridis, the general secretary of UEFA, revealed in 2016 that a record profit of €830 million had been generated from the expanded tournament. A lot of this money will be pumped back into the game but is it worth it when the flagship product suffers? With a second-tier event, there would be 32 countries playing tournament football and surely the opportunities for big money would still be high.

“If you ask me about 32, I am confident that we have more than 32 very competitive teams in Europe,” said Theodoridis.

“But a format of 32 would kill the qualifiers so it is balance, you have to consider a little bit of everything.”

You may be wondering why I have written about Euro 2016 more than four years on.

It is because the World Cup, sadly, will also be spoiled in the same fashion from the 2026 edition in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Instead of a neat, sensible, 32 teams, FIFA has opted for a barmy 48 sides and 16 more games, which will reportedly bring in an extra $1 billion.

To accommodate this, a bizarre opening stage with 16 three-team groups has been proposed, with the top two from each going through to the knock-out rounds.

This means some teams will be eliminated after just two matches, which hardly seems worth it. With three sides, there is also the possibility of collusion between the two teams playing the last group match.

The system is, quite frankly, a mess. It would not be a surprise if a 64-team World Cup is introduced at some point in the future.

A lot of criticism has been directed at Qatar, the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, with serious issues raised such as allegations of bid corruption and human rights abuses.

The heat in the Middle Eastern nation means the tournament will take place in December, which will not feel quite right. Anyone going to Qatar and fancying a beer will probably find their options limited, and might need to take out a new mortgage to afford one.

But despite all this, at least Qatar 2022 will have just 32 teams and a sensible format. We should all soak that up in two years’ time, as it seems unlikely that it will ever return.

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