European Championship qualifying. How is your team doing? Good, bad, indifferent? Try not to worry, there's always next time. Adam Bate looks to 2016. Buy your tickets now.
It’s a funny business European Championship qualifying.
It shuffles sheepishly into the limelight with the World Cup fresh in the memory and fans appetite for international football already satiated.
Yes, we have embarked on the 15 month qualifying period which will whittle down the 51 entrants to decide which 14 countries will join the hosts Poland and Ukraine at the tournament in June 2012.
With the championships themselves such a distant prospect, apathy often reigns supreme in the early matches. For fans, booing of rival clubs’ players and mild amusement at your own country’s highly successful failures is not uncommon. After all, there is plenty of time for supporters of the top nations to hit the panic button and get behind the team further down the line.
One suspects some of the players themselves may take a similar view.
And yet, for Euro 2016 in France, the UEFA executive committee has unanimously decided in its wisdom to increase the number of participants at the tournament to a record 24.
In effect, this means that the top two in each group now qualify with the teams that finish third going into a play-off. There’s an obvious plus point – at least England, Scotland, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would all have made it to the Euro 2008 play-offs.
However, the negative aspects of the new format are significant.
Qualification becomes a less challenging proposition for the better teams and as such the whole process starts to feel like a ludicrous waste of time. Over 250 games will be played in order to decide which 25 of the 52 countries can’t at least go through to a play-off. 250 games to eliminate Cyprus, Malta, the Faroe Islands, San Marino, Luxembourg … I could go on.
There may be some tense battles between mid-ranking sides such as Austria and Bulgaria but this will surely be offset by the fact that Spain could well secure qualification with a year to spare.
However, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the decision is the damage it does to the European Championship Finals themselves.
The 16 team system is a proven success. The groups enjoy the simplicity of ‘two in two out’ and, by going straight to the quarter finals, the competition retains a certain excitement throughout.
A 24 team system on the other hand, simply fails to lend itself so easily. The structure of the tournament will now see a tortuous 36 matches being played just to eliminate the 8 weakest sides – possibly the ones that wouldn’t have been there anyway?!
Most of the groups will have only one team going out. What a farce. It’s a format that FIFA abandoned for its World Cup after 1994 and this surely represents an unwelcome throwback to those times.
Former UEFA president Lennart Johansson claims “It’s a good thing, both in sporting and economic terms, if more countries have access to the tournament”. Now we are getting somewhere. One suspects that rather than dwelling on the vote-winning matter of inclusivity or lying back and thinking of the cold hard cash, they may have been better served considering the down-side in terms of the rhythm of the tournament itself.
Was it a French philosopher who pointed out that we spend so much time asking whether we could we forget to ask whether we should? Actually, I think it was Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park but the point stands – for UEFA the beauty of a successful tournament seems to be of only peripheral concern.
Of course, it may well be that, as with the World Cup, we are heading inexorably towards a 32 team tournament and a 24 team system is the necessary stepping stone.
Mind you, are we then faced with the dull prospect of two years and several hundred qualifiers to decide which unlucky minnows don’t make it to the 32 team European party?
Back to the drawing board.
Adam writes for the excellent Ghost Goal. You can follow him on Twitter @ghostgoal