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'Minnow' nations have strengthened Euro 2016

It might have been all about the money, but including more nations in Euro 2016 will be good for the game. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Expert
21st June, 2016
28

When UEFA announced it was going to expand the Euro 2016 from 16 teams to 24, there were not too many fans ecstatic about the idea. Money was once again dictating football.

Five-goal routs were envisaged, embarrassing scenes of teams woefully out of their depth, struggling to put up a fight against the passing superiority of heavyweights Spain, Germany and France.

It was feared that the strength of the Euro – it’s competitiveness in the group stages, as opposed to the World Cup – was in danger of disappearing.

However, most teams have been competitive on the pitch, in fact more competitive than we have seen from smaller nations at previous tournaments.

Last night at the Euros
» Czech Republic vs Turkey
» Croatia vs Spain
» Ukraine vs Poland
» Northern Ireland vs Germany

There is a case to be made that expanding the Euro has allowed federations to pour more money and resources into their national teams, increasing their competitiveness with the added carrot of lucrative compensation for qualifying.

Whereas in previous qualifications teams would have simply turned up, capable of an upset here and there but not truly in the running for a spot at the big show, now they have a genuine chance to progress. It has, in turn, allowed quality football to develop in countries that previously had little motivation.

We have seen the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland top their qualifying groups, with Iceland, Wales and Albania securing an automatic spot in second. Those latter four nations, plus Slovakia, are making their Euro debut.

In 1996, four teams debuted as the Euro was expanded from eight to 16 teams – Bulgaria, Croatia, Switzerland and Turkey. Three of those nations can now be seen as regular participants in the World Cup, let alone just the Euro. Perhaps we can see nations like Hungary return to the world stage, or even Iceland.

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The expanded format has given incentive to the smaller nations to up their game, and they have not disappointed.

The underdogs have shocked their more illustrious opponents and watching the scenes in France from just a few hours away has made me increasingly jealous.

More than eight per cent of Iceland’s 330,000 population cheered as their team heroically held off Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The infectious Will Grigg’s on Fire doing the rounds from the lairy but good-willed Northern Irish contingent has been just as special as their 2-0 victory over Ukraine.

Watching Gabor Kiraly sprinting to join his celebrating Hungarian teammates as they slotted home a killer second against the much-fancied Austrians. Or witnessing the spirit of the Albanians as they almost held hosts France to a draw, and then seeing that disappointment turn to joy as they secured their first ever goal and first ever win in a major tournament.

It’s been brilliant, even from the outside view of a television screen. Those scenes are enough to surely swing anyone’s perception about the expanded format.

Yet following England’s goalless draw with Slovakia, there was an inevitable outcry (as usual) on social media about how the new format was making for dull football. Slovakia knew that four points could be enough to progress out of the group and played with a counter-attacking mindset.

Cue comments suggesting teams like this should not be in the tournament and the fact that third-placed teams can qualify makes the competition stale.

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First of all, Slovakia would have made Euro 2016 if the guidelines for previous tournaments had been applied. Secondly, their strength is their devastating counter-attack, and they likely would have implemented a similar gameplan had they needed victory.

In fact, while England passed up a number of opportunities, in classic England style, Slovakia also threatened in patches. England can almost count themselves lucky that Slovakia did not need a win…

There have been some drab displays of football, no doubt. Yet the main culprits have been more established football nations, those with large populations, such as Turkey and Russia and to a degree Ukraine.

Admittedly, only one of those sides would have had a chance to qualify under the old format, so there is indeed fodder for those still against the increase from 16 to 24 teams.

Under the old format, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Spain, Germany, England, Northern Ireland, Austria, Italy and Portugal and of course France as hosts would have automatically qualified. As would have Slovakia as the highest second-placed finisher.

The Czech Republic and Northern Ireland would have been two teams used pre-tournament as an example of the stupidity in expanding the tournament. Austria and Portugal would have been accepted with open arms. Yet the former have competed just as strongly as the latter.

Indeed, Austria and Portugal could head out of the Euro 2016 after the group stage.

Iceland, Wales, Poland, Switzerland, Romania, Russia, Croatia and Albania would have entered the playoffs. So we could have missed out on the delights of Wales, who are the tournament’s surprise top scorers, and Croatia, who have dazzled with their exceptional midfield only to be outdone by protesting fans.

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The teams that really slipped through were: Turkey, Ukraine, the Republic or Ireland, Hungary and Sweden. Admittedly, only Ireland and Hungary have impressed, with the others performing below par.

Though how many people lamented the inclusion of Sweden, with the star power of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as an example of the expanded competition’s follies?

Of course, the real test of the new format comes in the round of 16. While it is fantastic seeing new nations competing in a major tournament, the qualification of four third-placed teams is a bit farcical.

It is uncertain how else they could have fit 24 teams into a better knockout system, but it doesn’t really sit right. Regardless, as we have already witnessed, the teams that sneak through will put up a fight.

The added vibrancy off the pitch and the surprising performances on the pitch from some of these ‘minnow’ nations outweigh the negatives. These teams have shown they can compete with the big boys, “small mentality” aside (hey, Cristiano?).

The tournament has not been filled with blowouts, as many predicted. In fact, goals have been hard to come by. Prior to the final Group C and D matches, there have been just 1.8 scored per game. Only Wales and Spain have managed to score more than two goals in a game, and those victories over Russia and Turkey have been the only blowouts.

You could blame that on overly defensive tactics from some of the smaller nations, but that does not pull down the quality. Quite the opposite, this has been a tournament based on teamwork, rather than star players. And in a team sport why shouldn’t that be the case?

None of the big names have produced, Gareth Bale and Andres Iniesta the only two living up to their reputation while Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Paul Pogba, Thomas Müller, Eden Hazard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have fallen flat.

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Those after goals, look away. Those after contrasting styles of football, revel.

Team spirit, determination, desire, and tactics, ultimately, have won out. Unlikely heroes, such as Iceland’s Birkir Bjarnason and Hannes Halldórsson, Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley and Albania’s Armando Sadiku have emerged.

Leicester City’s unlikely English Premier League triumph, along with the exploits of Greece and Denmark in previous years, have surely made an impression on these players.

Even if the tournament was expanded for the wrong reasons, it should remain as it is for the right ones.

Money may have been the overarching factor in UEFA expanding the competition, which still irks, but the added value of seeing ‘minnow’ nations revelling in a tournament atmosphere has been worth it.

And in a country where six out of ten teams make our own A-League finals system, we cannot really throw stones from our glass house anyway.

The minnows have proved their worthiness, embrace the expanded format and let it continue.