Monday, July 2, 2012

Euro Expansion and Part 2 of Why Platini should not be FIFA President

The 2012 Euros are over.  All in all, it was a fantastic competition, won in emphatic style by one of the greatest teams ever.

The next edition, to be held in 2016 in France, will see an increase from 16 teams to 24.  I can't help thinking this is another mistake by Michel Platini.

For most people, the major concern is that the quality of the tournament will be diluted.  There will be more average teams mixed in with the stronger teams, resulting in an increase in games that are either one-sided or where teams will 'park the bus' to try to salvage a point.  There is also bound to be an increasing number of matches where the product is of a lesser quality than is desirable for a showcase tournament.  This is a genuine concern, although there is also a chance that some of the less-fancied nations would cause a pleasant surprise.

Personally, I am more worried about the format of the tournament and the effect that will have on how teams approach their matches.

With sixteen teams, the format is clearcut.  Four groups of four, with the top two from each group going on to the quarter finals.

With 24 teams, it becomes messy.  The last time a 24-team format was used in a major competition was in the 1994 World Cup Finals.  The format used then is expected to be the format used in 2016.  Six groups of four, with the top two and the four best third-placed teams moving on to the last 16, at which point a straight knock-out system begins.

This leads to numerous logistical problems.

In the past few tournaments, the last group games in each group have kicked-off simultaneously, in an attempt to prevent teams from colluding with their opponents to their mutual benefit and at the expense of the other teams in their group.

The major catalyst for this was the disgraceful match between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup, when, after the Germans scored early, neither team made any attempt to score, knowing that they would both progress to the next round at the expense of Algeria, who had earlier won 3-2 against Chile.

But using the accepted 24-team format, teams coming third in their group will now be in direct competition with each other.  This means either that all twelve final group matches must kick off simultaneously, or an increased possibility will exist for skullduggery.  The first option is impractical; the second unacceptable.

Another concern is that some teams are likely to progress with one win and two losses, which is hardly a record worthy of a team that deserves to move on to the next round.  Sure, it was possible under a sixteen-team format for this to occur, but actual instances are almost unheard of.  In the 24-team format, this scenario is very likely.

Even worse, we may see a scenario like that of Uruguay in 1986, who progressed to the last sixteen of the World Cup on the back of two draws and a 6-1 hammering at the hands of Denmark.

In my opinion, allowing teams with records such as this to continue to the next round, cheapens the competition.

Michel Platini has tried to justify his decision to increase the number of competing teams by arguing that it will allow more teams the chance to play in the Finals, reduce the number of coaches who lose their jobs for not qualifying, and allow host cities to hold four games instead of three.  

This last point is a little strange, because he announced a few days later that the number of host cities should be increased from eight to twelve or thirteen.  This means that instead of having 31 matches split between eight cities (or just under four games per city on average), we would see 51 matches split between thirteen cities (again just under four per city on average).  Hmm.

Taking Platini's arguments to their logical conclusion, it could be argued that all 53 UEFA member nations should qualify for the finals.  Instead of holding a series of qualifying matches over eighteen months or so, the first round could consist of a number of groups where teams play a home-and-away round-robin format over an extended time period.  

At the end of this, the top fourteen or fifteen teams could qualify for the second round, along with one or two host nations that would receive a bye in the first round.

The last sixteen could then be split into four groups of four with each team playing the other teams in their group once.  The top two from each group would qualify for the quarter-finals.

The advantages of this system would be that every nation gets the chance to play in the finals.  Furthermore, coaches in danger of losing their jobs could argue that they qualified for the Euro Finals.  And dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cities, could host Euro Finals matches, while still allowing for an atmospheric last sixteen for the fans based in eight host cities in one or two countries.

There's no reason to doubt that Platini might consider increasing the number of teams in the World Cup Finals, should he become the next FIFA President.  After all, if there are 24 worthy teams in UEFA, it seems fair to suggest that there are probably at least 24 more worthy teams from the rest of the world.

Next time - how to organise and run a successful 209 nation World Cup Finals.

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