I do enjoy a draw for an international football tournament. The intrigue, the hypothetical draws beforehand, the pointlessly long introductions which will doubtless include some stereotypical dance/music/drama of the host nation(s).
As it was, the draw for the last 16-team European Championship, to be held next year across 8 cities, 4 each in Ukraine and Poland, produced its usual – 2 groups which contain some of Europe’s elite and in which the sides who claim the top two spots may not be instantly obvious, and two in which the candidates for first and second are perhaps a little clearer.
Group A is certainly the weakest of the four, with Poland, Greece, the Czech Republic and Russia. I’m thinking Poland and Russia should get out of this one – Poland because at least one of the host nations has to qualify for the knock-out stages (hopefully), and Russia because they are probably the classiest act in the group. Greece will no doubt bring as much insipidity to the table as possible, while the Czechs are, notwithstanding their easing past Scotland in qualifying, not the threat they were in 2004.
Group B is a cliche waiting to happen, but as Andy Brassell said it’s hard to associate a section this mouth-watering with death. The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Portugal will face off in this one, and I think I have to go for the obvious. As decent as Denmark are, and for all Portugal’s attacking strength, I can’t see past the Dutch and the Germans. That game will be one to seriously look forward to – Germany only seem to be improving on their wonderful performances in South Africa, with additions like Götze and Hummels to their talent-ridden squad.
Group C is further potentially cliche-tastic, with Spain and Italy the two obvious qualifiers, and Ireland and Croatia likely to be bringing up the rear. Dealing with both Spain and Italy seems too difficult for the two underdogs in the group (who are also likely to cancel one another out given Ireland’s propensity for the 0-0 draw), despite history being in Ireland’s favour in terms of having previously beaten both in finals tournaments. And notwithstanding my love of Slaven Bilic, I don’t think his Croatia side have enough in them either, though having said that neither of the two “underdogs” will provide an easy ride for their opponents.
Group D shouldn’t spring any surprises. England will qualify along with a rejuvenated France, who seem to continually threaten to perform but haven’t quite managed to do so yet. One certainly hopes they react rather differently to tournament football in 2012 than they did in 2010. Sweden and Ukraine are the final two sides here – Ukraine will have the backing of either 70,000 or 50,000 home supporters in Kiev or Donetsk respectively, but I can’t see either blue-and-yellow-flagged team make it past their more illustrious rivals, though again neither will give the big guns in the group an easy time of it
. Roll on 8 June (and expect a more thorough preview just before kick-off in Warsaw).
As well as providing the third international tournament of my lifetime which’ll start on my birthday (previous ones were Italia `90 and Euro `96), Euro 2012 will, almost as historically, be the last European Championships to go ahead with 16 teams. Euro 2016 in France will see the advent of a 24 team tournament.
Now, on the one hand, this is a good thing, in that Scotland will probably (probably) have a better chance of qualifying if there are more spaces.
For me, however, this is where the advantages of switching to a 24-team tournament begin and end. There are a number of flaws.
Firstly, there are only so many countries with the stadia/infrastructure to host supporters and teams from 23 other nations. Increasing the number of participants dramatically decreases the number of potential hosts. A joint effort like Poland/Ukraine and the previous Austria/Switzerland bid will be largely impossible in future, and the tournament will circulate around the usual suspects of France/Italy/Germany/England/Spain/Russia for evermore.
Next, the 24 team format was brought in for the 1986 World Cup, and disappeared by the time the 1998 World Cup came around. Why? It simply didn’t provide much of an incentive to sides to go out and win matches. The fact that of the 24 teams who qualify, 16 get into the knockout stages almost makes the groups seem largely pointless – 3 draws could be enough for qualification. It also just doesn’t look right, a third placed side getting the chance to progress.
Finally, and most tellingly for me, the quality of the play will be seriously diminished, and the tournament proper (much like the Champions’ League) won’t begin until the knockouts begin. The Euros are brilliant because they are different from the World Cup – 16 top quality sides, some of whom are often drawn into groups in which every point is hard to win. One only has to look at previous tournaments for evidence of how good a competition can be when the best sides are mixed in from the off: Euro 2008 saw the Netherlands, France, Italy and Romania grouped together; Euro 2004 saw the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Germany and Latvia (maybe less so Latvia), Euro 2000… well you get the point. Although the so-called “group of death” can still happen in a 24 or even a 32 team tournament, it can’t provide the same intensity of competition as the current Euro format provides. Plus it’s all over in three weeks rather than the month a World Cup takes, making it a slightly snappier tournament than its international behemoth counterpart.
In all, I can’t wait for Euro 2012 to begin – the European Championships seem to have an intensity and quality about them that the World Cup, particularly in its early stages, can lack. Disappointingly, this might be the last Euros at which that early intensity and quality will be demonstrated.