For the tournament in France in 2016, the European Championships is expanding from 16 to 24 teams. It is already being suggested that it will be too many – it will make the European Championships the same size as the World Cup was as recently as 1994. My initial thinking is that Europe doesn’t have 24 teams good enough to ensure competitive football. Indeed, with only 16 teams there’s been a few cases of teams being outclassed – Spain v. Rep of Ireland being the obvious case – and that will only increase when eight, ostensibly worse teams, qualify. Of course, Poland and Ukraine qualified for this tournament as hosts. Their FIFA rankings are 52 and 62 respectively, so including them in the calculation, the 24th best team in Europe would be Wales, ranked 38th in the world.
What I want to do with this post is to have a look at the eight teams in that number who didn’t qualify for Euro 2012 – the ones we could reasonably assume would be most likely to qualify for the next tournament and see how they have fared against the teams who DID qualify – the teams who are the best 16 in Europe (inclusive of the Czech Republic, despite being ranked 27th, below Switzerland (21) and Norway (26) – and the two co-hosts). Although there’s an obvious problem with it – Switzerland haven’t played France since 2006, a 0-0 draw – in that you can’t judge too much on past results like that, it should give a vague overview as to whether the increase from an Elite of 16 to 24 is anything to worry about, and whether the quality will be maintained.
The teams I will be looking at, then, are Switzerland (World Ranking 21), Norway (26), Bosnia-Herzegovina (29), Slovenia (30), Hungary (31), Turkey (33), Serbia (34) and Wales (38); worth noting that, in UEFA’s defence, I can well remember occasions when all of those countries (at least when they constituted Yugoslavia) were all playing in major tournaments, except for Wales, who are undergoing a slow-burning revolution at the moment.
Well, in a certain way, they do. Above is a graph with wins/draw/losses drawn on it. Its admittedly skewed in favour of losses, but not as much as I thought it might. Only 3 of the 8 have lost more than 50% – Slovenia (36%, but have only played 14 qualifiers), Bosnia-Herzegovina (30%, with 0 wins, but only from 10 games) and Wales (40% – including a win against France that was in the mid-80s). That would seem to suggest that allowing another eight teams to compete wouldn’t harm the overall level of competition too much.
The problem is that allowing an extra eight ‘lesser’ teams in would make life in the groups easier for the better teams – provide them with less of a test than they currently face. This next table is a little tenuous, but it illustrates that point quite well. It’s the last meetings of the 16 Euro 2012 teams against the eight teams above, but represented in PPG (as if points were awarded for all games); there’s two positions I would consider anomalous in it (highlighted) but its not far off splitting the 16 teams into eight top-table teams and those of a slightly lower grade. Italy are punished because they draw too many games – Gianluigi Buffon hinted at it recently, about how their games are always close – something I might look at in the future; Poland’s over-performance seems to just be a happy coincidence.
In expanding the tournament, then, UEFA are getting the PR benefit of opening the European Championships to more countries, but it means the standard of football – particularly in the group stage – will be less enthralling; UEFA themselves admit it is “not ideal” to be working with 24 teams, Gianni Infantino suggesting we will almost certainly be looking at 6 groups, with 2 qualifiers from 2 groups and 3 qualifiers from four groups. That clunkiness means that 67% of the qualifiers will get past the group stage (the current 8/16 is 50% and the World Cup’s 16/32 is also 50%) – and we lose the purity of group winners playing second placed teams – something which fits very well into this format.
It all seems to be working in favour of the higher-ranked teams. Not only will their groups be weaker, but one of their games will be against one of these lesser eight teams as discussed above, and they’re more than likely to win it, and qualify as a result. Above is that same graph as before, but only considering the eight outsiders’ results against the ‘top’ eight. On the basis of that, I can only really see an argument for Switzerland and Serbia being likely to upset the apple-cart and both of those teams rank higher than the current co-hosts, and wouldn’t be unlikely to qualify for a 16 team tournament; indeed, both qualified for World Cup 2010.
All the information points, so far as I can see, to 2016 having group stages that will be quite predictable, and the action only really hotting up once we get to the perilous stages of the knockout games. I don’t understand why governing bodies can’t see that what makes football exciting is teams trying to conquer their own balance of reward/elimination, and ensuring that teams need to do their damnedest to ensure the former over the latter. Ensuring a number of easier games for better teams is a sure-fire way of having games played that people don’t want to watch, as ‘going through the motions’ is not fun.
I have to admit, I am writing all this as a spectator, not as a player and not, particularly, as a fan. It is certainly possible that if I was playing for, or supporting, Armenia, I would be very in favour of a development that would be more likely to see my team play at a major championship. With that rationale, I can see why UEFA have brought about this change, but I wrote this from my point of view. I do not play for Armenia. I do not wish them ill, but I do not support them either (Good luck in World Cup Qualifying, though, Armenia – though that’s a nasty, nasty group)
Post Script. Its worth mentioning, as well, that there’s a few countries who one would imagine will be higher ranked than they are now at some point in the near future, as well; Belgium, certainly, Montenegro, probably. I know what you want now. You want a bar graph showing the rankings of all the UEFA members, don’t you? It reads left to right, so Spain are the very first blue stripe – if you really zoom in you can see the rankings underneath, but the graph is there so you can see the ability spread of the UEFA teams. There’s lots of very good teams, then a gap, then the mediocre teams are scattered. Then a big gap. And before you ask, its Andorra and San Marino. Enjoy.