I grew up in an era when the European Championship finals consisted of only eight teams. This, I thought, worked well, making for a tough qualifying process and a short but highly competitive final tournament.
In the first two Euros that I have clear memories of the relatively level playing field made for some absolutely epic football. Quality over quantity felt like the right priority. Who could argue that the great Holland side of Van Basten and Gullit didn’t deserve to be crowned their continent’s best, winning every match after a narrow opening defeat to the Soviet Union, including beating the hosts Germany in front of their own fans and then the USSR again in the final? There were no walkovers and few meaningless group games and every game was a titanic battle. Four years later, in Sweden, it would be the underdogs of Denmark who had to overcome a group of England, France and Sweden and then one-off games ties against Holland and the mighty Germans. It was a quite remarkable triumph.
When the tournament was expanded to sixteen teams in 1996 I was too excited by the finals being played in England to object. Taking place in the summer after my first year at University, the tournament provided me with a feast of football to fill a long, alcohol-fuelled summer. With the Internet very much in its infancy it provided the opportunity to see relative unknowns like the Czech sensation Karel Poborsky in action. There was a mystery about it which was previously reserved for the World Cup, except this time the exotically named foreigners were playing in my country. I was living in Birmingham at the time and the city was suddenly overrun by the Dutch, Scots and Swiss. We found a couple of Swiss lads one night wandering around near our flat looking for a bar or club to drink in. With little else to do we took them for a night out and made two good friends. With the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union perhaps the expansion to sixteen teams wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
The tournament stayed at sixteen teams for a decade and a half, until UEFA announced before the qualifying stage for this summer’s Euros that twenty four teams would qualify. The top two in each qualifying group would progress plus some of the third placed teams through the playoffs. I wrote at the time that I thought that this dilution would be catastrophic, turning qualifying into a tedious procession and creating a finals tournament where the group stage would be almost pointless. There would be, I predicted, mismatches galore and the fact that as many as three teams from one group could progress to the first knockout stage devalued the first two weeks of matches. We would endure a fortnight of patchy quality and meaningless matches to shed the tournament of only eight teams, while an extra knockout round would further dilute the fun and place extra strain on the bodies of players already tired after long, draining seasons. Basically I was a big, stinky party-pooper.
And yet as soon as the qualification process began it became apparent that rather than groups being formalities the smaller nations were energised by the opportunity to compete at a major tournament for the first time. In the first round of matches Slovakia produced a stunning victory over Spain, while Holland found themselves struggling in a group soon headed by Iceland. Perhaps most heartening for a Brit was seeing Wales excel. So often in the past the Welsh had come so close to qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since the fifties, but had always just fallen at the final hurdle. It seemed so cruel for a small nation which had produced so many fine players in the modern era. Northern Ireland played in two World Cups in my formative years but had failed to qualify for a major tournament since Mexico ’86, and yet they were soon making light work of higher-ranked sides like Greece, Hungary and Romania. A host of smaller European nations suddenly felt like they had something to play for and it made for an intriguing and exciting qualifying process.
Still, the fear was still there that once qualified the diluted quality would lead to mismatches at the Euros themselves and yet quite the opposite has occurred. Five match days and twelve games have now passed, with every side having played once, and yet no team has scored more than twice or been outclassed. Romania ran hosts France incredibly close in the opening game and tiny Iceland secured a famous point against Portugal, prompting a sour Cristiano Ronaldo accusing them of having a ‘small team mentality’. Given that that is exactly what they are, who can blame them?
The Real Madrid player’s comments have been widely criticised and he has spectacularly misread his audience. He has a natural talent and personal drive and work ethic which have made him one of the finest and most productive footballers ever to walk to face of the Earth. His greatness is unquestionable. But he has never had the greatest self-awareness. It is always all about him. The disappointment on his face when a teammate scores or a game finishes in victory but without the Portuguese netting reveal a fierce self-absorption. His comments betray the fact that he has totally missed the point, as I did three years ago when the changes to qualifying and the tournament itself were announced. This is the tournament of the underdog, the relative minnow, a return to the days when these events were filled with players many had never heard of playing for obscure teams in their homeland, still looking for their break in the game or relishing a rare opportunity to represent their nation in front of a huge world-wide audience. This is the tournament where we have been introduced to the extravagant gifts of young Pole Bartosz Kapustka of Cracovia, to the team spirit of Iceland and the resilience of Hungary. Not only that, but the way the tournament is now organised, with as many as three teams progressing from groups, interest will be maintained into the final round of matches. And once they have been concluded we have another 15 glorious matches to enjoy.
I therefore no longer pine for the elitism of the tournament of my youth, or even the sixteen team incarnation of the Euros, because the expansion to twenty-four nations has energised a tired qualifying process and created new interest in the finals themselves. Intrigue has awoken from its slumber in France and the players and fans of some of Europe’s smaller nations are enjoying a rare summer in the sun. For Ronaldo, engrossed in his own personal battle to push himself on to further glory (and by extension, but purely coincidentally, his teammates too), the whole thing is irritating, those pesky, insignificant Icelandic upstarts fighting to the last in what for them are a series of finals. But what he has failed to appreciate is that Iceland have a small team mentality because they are a tiny nation. What else did he expect? Perhaps Ronaldo is taking his anger out on them because the alternative is introspection and a realisation that he and his teammates were not good enough. Iceland, on the other hand, gave everything they had and won a historic and well-deserved point which moves them a step towards qualification from their group. How wonderful to see their fans and those of the likes of Wales, Hungary and Northern Ireland deliriously happy to be competing at this level and doing themselves proud.
The expansion of the Euros looked like folly, but has ultimately re-energised international football in the region. In an era in which football’s international governing bodies have demonstrated themselves to be self-serving, this is one decision that UEFA and its then President Michel Platini got right. A 24 team Euros is wonderful and I can’t get enough of it.