With the international break about to come to an end, and this being the last such break before March 2015, Anirudh Bhatia (most of you might know him as Pal) looks at the relative value of the revolutionary 24 – team format being followed by UEFA for the 2016 showpiece in France.
To discuss the merit of changing the format for the finals that has been followed since 1996, it is important to take a minute to understand the new format, establishing a base for the discussion on its consequences. In the finals, there will be six groups of four teams each (A – F), compared to the traditional four groups, with the top two teams in each group qualifying to the knockouts. However, the four best third – ranked teams will also qualify for the knockouts, meaning 16 out of 24 teams will reach the knockouts, while only 8 will be sent back home. This also means that there is an added round of knockout games, with teams qualifying to a pre – quarter final/round of 16 stage, instead of directly to the quarters. In total, the tournament will consist of 51 matches, whereas till Ukraine 2012, there were only a total of 31 matches.
The obvious argument for this change is the increase in the level of representation, which was the argument that saw the format change from 8 to 16 teams in 1996, and it is an argument that operates on several stages. On the face of it, there is obvious merit in having a higher representation of countries from across Europe, and a country such as Belarus entering the qualifying fold for the first time since its affiliation with UEFA, and even surprising the world with a 3 – 2 victory in the friendly against Mexico, a side ranked 17th by FIFA, 89 places above them. The argument goes deeper, however, with traditionally average countries who, by virtue of the limited allocation given to the confederation at the World Cup, never really get a chance to represent their country at the highest echelons of international football, now having a chance to qualify for the finals in France, and have a realistic chance to go beyond just the group stages. We saw with Costa Rica at the World Cup in Brazil this summer that surprises and unexpected results are a given at such tournaments, and once a team qualifies for the finals, all bets are off (Read: Greece at UEFA Euro 2004). Maybe if this had come into operation before, we could have seen a player like Ryan Giggs, who never got to represent his nation at an international tournament of such size and importance before the 2012 London Olympics, where he was one of the over – age players picked to represent the Great Britain men’s football team.
The second reason for this format to be considered beneficial is the increase in revenue for all national associations, both in the qualifiers and the finals. This much was admitted by Michel Platini himself, who said that all the associations would leave the tournament “significantly richer”. UEFA itself is said to earn somewhere between $550 Million and $625 Million from the showpiece in France, compared to the $380 Million generated in 2012, an increase of nearly 50%. What this means is that there will be a significantly bigger pool of prize money for the tournament, compared to the $245 Million prize money distributed last time, and even though there are a greater number of teams dividing this pot, chances are that each team, from the winners to those ranked 24th at the finals, will take home a significant amount for their respective associations.
“Our aim is to develop football in Europe, and by expanding the European Championship, we will allow more nations to grow. If you take a look at the FIFA rankings, it is common to see at least 20 European teams in the top 30 in the world, so we will have a very strong tournament in 2016” said Michel Platini, just after the end of last season’s UEFA Champions League. Growth and evolution have been Platini’s mantras for a while now, and he sees the 2016 tournament in France as a stepping stone to his real aim of expansion, UEFA Euro 2020, which is set to be hosted in 13 different cities in 13 different countries across Europe, in a one – and – a – half month footballing bonanza. The biggest detractors are those, some believe, who are never comfortable with change.
Although the above arguments do represent a certain value, it is important, also, to take into consideration the demerits of this format, before coming to a conclusion. The strongest argument against this move is one that has been made at several different points with regards to UEFA’s decisions on the format of the Champions League: dilution of competition. Given Germany and Spain’s recent dominance on the international stage, it is quite obvious that they would have qualified regardless and, to that extent, England, despite their mediocrity at the international level for the last decade, will also end up strolling through the qualifiers. With upto 24 teams qualifying, however, and with upto 3 out of 4 teams qualifying for the knockouts from each group, it will be a relative cakewalk for countries to reach the round of 16, and the real competition will not start before that. It has been argued that this is just a move to make the qualifying process even easier for countries, with the top 3 countries automatically qualifying for the finals from each group, and the 4th team coming up for a play – off. There is very little chance that a repeat of Spain crashing out of the World Cup this summer at the group stage, itself. Every once in a while a Denmark comes along, led by Peter Schmeichel, or a Costa Rica comes along, qualifying top of a group consisting of Italy, England and Uruguay. It seems, however, that Platini and UEFA are trying to make this occurrence as rare as possible.
The second problem is that of the re – enforcement of the seeding system, problems with which had been iterated vociferously at the World Cup draw, and the qualifying system for the knockouts making it more difficult for teams to significantly affect their co – efficient with their performance in the tournament. For example, we see that the top four third – placed teams in the group stages will also qualify for the knockouts. However, since there is no head – to – head to take into consideration, in case of a points and goal difference tie – breaker, their position in the UEFA national team coefficient ranking system will be considered, significantly diluting an underdog’s chances of qualifying to the latter stages of the tournament. Although the merits of the system of coefficients itself is worth discussing, it is part of another debate, and the immediate problem is the inclusion of a greater level of competition being a sham.
In the end, it becomes a ‘quality v quantity’ argument, with most proponents trying to pass off a greater number of matches as a justification of expansion, but not thinking about how many people in the UK would really want to watch Andorra and Albania play in the ‘week of football’, instead of getting to support their favourite clubs in the different tiers of English club football. The format itself is something that might work once the tournament comes around, but at the moment, all signs point to the contrary. Most see this format as something merely being used by Platini to make sure the top nations continue to be happy with him, and the middling nations see him working towards their cause for inclusion. He says he plans to bring international football “back into the limelight”, let’s hope it’s not for all the wrong reasons.
- Anirudh Bhatia