Thursday, June 23, 2016

Why I'm Not a Fan of the Expanded Euros

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the 24-team Euros format.

Some people are decrying the 36 matches required to eliminate just eight of the 24 teams, the overall low-scoring matches and emphasis teams have placed on being hard to break down knowing that in most cases gaining three points (out of a possible nine) will be enough to progress to the Round of 16 and the lack of fairness in the schedule.

Others have chosen to focus on some of the positives, notably the performances of some of the teams making their debuts in the competition and the excitement that was generated on the last day of matches as teams fought for the final few spots in the knock-out rounds.

There is merit in both arguments.

The tournament has been lengthened with an extra match required to be played by the two finalists. Whereas in an eight-team tournament the finalists played five matches and in a sixteen-team tournament the finalists played six matches, this latest expansion requires the finalists to play seven matches. There is no doubt that this will cause a little extra fatigue for the players and either reduce their summer breaks after they have just gone through a long domestic season or require them to report for pre-season training later than their club team-mates.

It also requires fans who are following their teams to stay longer and attend more matches, adding expense in terms of both accommodation and in paying the inflated ticket prices.

Some teams and their fans, such as Albania’s, had to stay in France a few extra days after their last group game to see whether they would be moving on or going home. It must have been difficult for the players to be fully motivated in training knowing that in all likelihood they would probably be eliminated and could be sitting resting on the beach.

The format also gave teams playing on the last day a huge advantage over teams who had already finished, knowing exactly what they had to do to qualify for the Round of 16. Had Ireland played Italy three days earlier would they have gone all out for a late winner or would they have settled for a draw? We will never know. But it is probably no coincidence that both the groups that played on the last day saw their third-placed teams qualifying for the next phase.

Of the 36 matches in the group stage there was arguably only one classic, the 3-3 draw between Hungary and Portugal. A number of the other 35 matches had late drama where a match that had been fairly pedestrian and sterile for 87 minutes or more saw a team grab a late winner or equaliser. And then there were some truly awful offerings like England versus Slovakia and France versus Switzerland, where everyone knew before the matches started that a draw would comfortably send them through to the next round.

But what about the heroics of tournament debutants like Iceland, Albania and Northern Ireland?

Iceland, no doubt, have been a wonderful story, although in all likelihood after beating the Netherlands both home and away in the qualifiers they would have been present in France even without the expansion to 24 teams.

Albania scored their first ever goal, thus gaining their first ever win, in their final group game, but ultimately it proved to be too little, too late. It was nice for them and their fans to qualify, of course, and they didn’t look out of place, but in truth the real reason they earned an automatic spot in the finals was the three points they were awarded by UEFA when Serbian fans invaded the pitch in the qualifying match between the two political rivals in Belgrade. A loss for Albania in that game would have seen Denmark finish in second spot in the group and Albania playing-off for a place. To be fair they drew with the Danes in both qualifying matches between the two teams and won their opening away match 1-0 in Portugal, so they certainly would have had a chance if they were forced to qualify through the play-off route.

As for Northern Ireland, they won their qualifying group and would have qualified under the sixteen-team format. They began the tournament losing 1-0 to Poland in a match in which they were out-shot by 18-2, played well and deservedly beat a poor, seemingly dispirited and disinterested Ukraine team, and then lost 1-0 to a Germany team in a match in which they once again had only two shots, while their opponents had 26, nine of which were on target. Northern Ireland knew coming into the Germany game that a narrow defeat would probably be sufficient to move on with the less than stellar record of one win and two losses. This is by no means meant as a criticism of Northern Ireland. They aren’t responsible for the tournament format. They just did their job professionally to ensure they did enough to move on. You have to congratulate them for that. They now face Wales on equal terms in the next match. I wish both teams well.

Of the five teams that won play-off matches to qualify after finishing third in their qualifying groups, Ireland and Hungary have progressed to the last sixteen, while Turkey, Ukraine and Sweden were all eliminated, the last two with barely a whimper. Hungary, of course, picked up just one point against a badly under-performing Greece in the qualifying matches, and won two hard-fought wins by one-goal margins against the Faeroe Islands, but came good in France when it mattered (or perhaps Austria and Portugal disappointed when it mattered.)

I’ve never liked 24-team World Cups that used this formula, especially the one in 1986 that saw Uruguay move on after two draws and a 6-1 loss to Denmark, so perhaps I’ve cherry-picked my arguments to support my pre-tournament view that the expanded tournament would not overall be a success, but after the completion of the group stage I really have no reason to change my mind.

It is a cumbersome format, gives an unfair advantage to the teams that play on the last day, and does little to encourage teams to set out to win all their group matches, which, not surprisingly, no team managed to do. Why would the top teams expend unnecessary effort at the start of the tournament when they can progress by playing a cagey defensive style?

And it’s not like all the teams that won their groups were rewarded as things turned out. Arguably Switzerland, Poland and Belgium were better off finishing second than France, Germany and Italy, the winners of their respective groups.

Some of the group winners are now rewarded by playing teams that finished third in their group, such as Wales versus Northern Ireland and France versus Ireland, while others play very strong group runners-up in the next round, such as Italy versus Spain and Hungary versus Belgium. It’s all a bit of a lottery but the overall feeling is that e format isn’t quite fair.

The increase to sixteen teams in the sudden death phase means that the good teams are now given an extra opportunity to slip up before the Final, which for me just lowers the overall integrity that little bit more, making this even more of a cup competition rather than a league competition with all that implies about the likelihood or not of the ‘best’ team winning the tournament.

My strong belief is that any sort of ‘Finals’ should use a fair format, encourage teams to play to win, allow for the occasional upset while still seeing the best teams progress for the most part and not allow so many teams to enter that it loses its currency as an elite event.

And for me that is why this format has failed so far.

Those arguing that this tournament is great despite its obvious weaknesses, merely because some new teams have competed for the first time and scored their first goal or picked up their first win, in tandem with the excitement of finding out which teams progressed on the final day of the group stage, are somewhat missing the point.

I could devise a 43-team tournament where some teams play one more game than others, a weird mathematical formula is used to determine which teams move on to the last 32, numerous teams such as Georgia, Finland, Armenia, Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Israel, Montenegro and, why not, even Scotland qualify and score some goals and win some games.

Think how great that would be!

An extra 19 teams would get the chance to play in the Finals and make history!

The final day of group play would be a roller-coaster of emotions as every goal scored changes which teams would qualify as the calculators confirm each team’s coefficient to three decimal places!

Sixteen more teams would have the chance to make history and progress beyond the group stage!

An extra sixteen of those exciting knock-out matches would be played!

There would be a whole extra month of football, increasing revenues for everyone and improving all the important business metrics!

It would be a win, win, win, win, win. What’s to dislike?

Plus, best of all, every UEFA member would vote for me for UEFA President.

I rest my case.