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Euro 2016

New format has revitalized qualifying, but Euro’s 24-team field must pass its final test


Wolfgang Niersbach, the current president of the German Football Association, was surprisingly combative in the wake of Germany’s 3-2 Euro 2016 qualifying victory over Scotland, a victory that severely damaged the British nation’s qualifying hopes. “They [Scotland] are the ones, with Ireland and Finland, that wanted 24 [European championship] spots, but they still won’t make it. I asked them if they’ll request 32 spots now.”

Niersbach’s snide remark may be off-putting to some (and by some, I mean Scots), but the statement is laced with contempt for the polarizing decision to expand the tournament. Still, it’s an expansion that, for better or worse, has greatly affected the qualifying process.

In 2008, when UEFA president Michel Platini confirmed plans to change from a 16- to a 24-team European Championships, many pundits debated the practicality of it all. The Euros, long regarded by experts as the most competitive international tournament, seemed perfect as is. With only 16 out of the 54 confederation’s members surviving the rigorous qualification campaign, the final tournament was often a highly competitive affair; the high-pressure matches spanning from the commencement of the group stages to final.

This level exclusivity has always been tethered to the Euros; thus, we’ve seen glaring absences every tournament.

  • In 2000, just two years after shocking the world with their third placed finish at the 1998 World Cup, Croatia failed to qualify, finishing third in their group.
  • In 2004, Turkey, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland — three teams that impressed a couple years prior in the 2002 World Cup — failed to make it to Portugal.
  • In 2008, we famously saw England fail to qualify for the Euros for the first time since 1984.
  • And the last edition, the 2012 Euros saw a young but talented Belgian side miss out on the final tournament.

But expanding the tournament would, some argued, strip away that elite feeling – in essence, the biggest appeal of the tournament. Yet, as we currently stand with only two match days remaining in qualifying, an interesting tale is being told through the nine group leaders: Iceland, Wales, Spain, Germany, England, Northern Ireland, Austria, Italy and Portugal. Of course, this list includes some of the more traditional giants of European football, but look at some of the others: Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Austria.

These are teams that would previously find themselves out of contention far earlier in the campaign, yet here they are, not only doing well but leading their groups. In fact, these teams would all qualify under the rules of the 16-team tournament. Yet it can be argued that they may not have found themselves in this same position had the tournament remained shackled at 16 teams.

And that’s down to a combination of factors:

1) “There are no more easy games in international football.”

The famous quote is often repeated ad nauseam by pundits, and while the definitiveness of the statement is debatable, it does hold some weight here. Many of the traditionally “smaller” nations have made massive strides in the past decade, developing the kind of philosophies and tactical strategies that have undoubtedly manifested itself on the pitch.

A casual fan may look at Gareth Bale’s fantastic qualifying campaign for Wales and chalk his nation’s success down to his ability, but Wales are far more than a one-person team. Manager Chris Coleman has built an extremely solid, defensively sound and consistent outfit that can hold their own against almost anyone.

Yesterday Austria secured their qualification after manhandling Sweden 4-1 away from home, while earlier in the campaign Slovakia even managed to pull a 2-1 victory over titleholders Spain.

But none have compared to Iceland, a nation that’s emerged as the darlings of qualifying after romping through their group to the tune of six wins, one draw, and one loss. This is a team that drew with Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands just a few years ago. With a population comparable to Santa Ana, Calif., Iceland has become the smallest nation to ever qualify for the Euros. Their previous World Cup qualifying campaign showed early signs that Lars Lagerback, their Swedish coach, was able to change the culture and, eventually, the results on the pitch.

SEE MORE: The Baird dilemma: Should referees stop play whenever there’s a card?

Iceland lost in 2013 to Croatia in the World Cup qualifying playoffs, but it was a necessary stepping-stone. They’ve now been pegged as one of the dark horses for next summer’s tournament.

2) Hope as a commodity

Hope alone is a platitude, never a viable strategy, but it would be remiss to ignore its impact. The expansion has limited the number of “meaningless” games and given impetus for smaller teams to go out and attack their bigger rivals rather than sitting back and defending. Consequently, the middling teams, now with the belief they may be in with a shot of qualifying, have played with a never before seen confidence.

In the past, a match between the likes of Slovenia and Lithuania may have been nothing more than a dead rubber. Now it’s an incredibly important tie, as both sides still have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs.

Overall, the soccer been more entertaining. There is a flipside to this, however….

3) The nonchalance of the experienced.

This format promotes false security for slow starters to rest on their laurels, knowing that qualification would be somewhat inevitable. The Netherlands are testing this strategy to the fullest, mind you (only Andorra, Gibraltar, Malta and San Marino have been behind for more minutes than Holland in these Euro 2016 qualifiers), but for some of the bigger more-experienced nations that took qualifying for granted, they’ve been blindsided by upstart minnows.

The problems with the Dutch are likely to do with the odd chasm between their established stars and their rising talents.  It’s one of the realities of international soccer. The two-to-four year cycle means that every now and then, odds are you’ll end up with a mismatched generation of players.

SEE MORE: Quitting Netherlands job was the correct decision for Hiddink.

But to view Holland’s failures in a vacuum, while the likes of Turkey, Greece, Sweden and Serbia have endured campaigns ranging from disappointing to disastrous, would be shortsighted. Of course, none of these teams planned this. Purposely playing down to the level of your opponent is rarely, if ever, an explicit strategy. Still, the illusion of safety is insidious, and it can render traditionally strong teams unfocused, and perhaps too experimental.

In essence, it’s a two-headed monster converging in the middle. The expansion has had the ultimate placebo effect. The same rules which invigorate teams on the cusp of qualification, spurring them on to create history for their respective nations, also adversely affect the giant teams, squads that perhaps begin to erroneously see qualification as a foregone conclusion.

The true test of the 24-team format, however, will come next summer. Remember, this is a system that was panned after four World Cups for producing an almost ritualistic group stage with little at stake. Games were played knowing two-thirds of the teams would qualify for the knockout rounds. The group stages become 12 days of soccer to eliminate only eight teams, with four out of six third place teams advancing to the next round.

Furthermore, the attacking mindset exhibited during the qualification campaign may morph into the exact opposite, due to the third place rule in particular. Now, there will be even more incentive for weaker teams to park the bus and hope for a draw. The goal will be to survive until the knockout stages where, as we know, all bets are off.

There’s a fine line between dilution and competiveness and while the qualification has been a success, next summer will reveal exactly where those demarcations fall. There’s also more at stake, as well. Rumors of a 40-team World Cup have already been gathering steam over the past couple of years and while I do think it’s inevitable, the success of next year’s Euros could serve as a test model.


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