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Opinion

How UEFA softened the European Championships

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Roar Rookie
15th April, 2020
17

Shuffling hastily through my action-packed schedule amid COVID-19 self-isolation regulations, I’ve found a few spare moments to relive the glory of UEFA European Championships from years gone by.

From the pirate ship that was Greece in 2004 to the Spanish dominance of 2008 and 2012, the European Championships have always been a showcase of international excellence during what is usually a football-free period.

Of course, COVID-19 makes Euro 2020 an impossibility. On March 18, UEFA announced the postponement of Euro 2020, proposing a June 11, 2021 commencement date.

While this comes as a huge disappointment – along with the indefinite postponement of basically all global sports – it has given me the opportunity to give my thoughts on what has become of the tournament.

Perhaps FIFA President Gianni Infantino best sums up my thoughts. When discussing the new 24-team format in 2012, which includes six groups of four teams, Infantino simply described the format as “not ideal”.

After nine tournaments consisting of four and then eight teams, we arrived at a perfectly balanced tournament between 16 nations starting with England’s hosting of Euro 96. A precise and intense festival of football, the European Championships created a sense of urgency from the very first kick-off.

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With eight additional teams, a safety net has been added to the group stage in order to accumulate an even sum for the knockout rounds.

As seen with Euro 2016 – the first implementation of a 24-team event – the third-placed team has a chance of progression. And it can hardly be considered a chance, more of a straight-up bail-out.

Take eventual winners Portugal, for example. They won a total of zero group stage games – drawing all three – and finished third in a group containing Hungary, Iceland and Austria. They were not eliminated from the competition, as they were one of the four best third-placed teams. Or they were one of the four least-worst third-placed teams, in a group with four teams.

Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo

(Photo: Reuters)

Get your head around that logic. What a way to reward achievement!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see smaller nations get their chance on the big stage. Wales’ run to the semi-finals was one of my favourite footballing memories of 2016. But additional teams plus the third-place rule removes a huge chunk of prestige and importance on group stage matches.

As much of a 3am-waking football maniac as I may be, there’s only so many times I can arise from slumber in near-total numbness from the icy reality of a June dawn to engross myself in the mayhem of Albania versus Romania and not hate myself.

It’s just hard to get excited seeing the groups for Euro 2020 knowing how the new rules work. Look at Group F, which contains Portugal, France and Germany. It’s the group of death. Normally, I’d look at that group and think ‘Wow! A big team is definitely going to get eliminated!’ Whereas now I think, ‘Wow! I wonder who the fourth team will be to serve as fresh meat for these three qualified teams.’

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The cluster of nations almost completely eliminates the chance of a big team missing out on the tournament – and I say almost because the Netherlands still managed to miss out in 2016. Although you may not have enjoyed seeing England’s ghost hover over Euro 2008, the previous format meant even qualifying for the tournament was an achievement in itself, as opposed to the open invitation that UEFA have now essentially handed out. And that’s before talking about the Nations League.

Will I be watching Euro 2020 (or 2021)? I will. But to paraphrase a song from Green Day, just remember to wake me up when the group stage ends.