With the clock counting down to next summer’s European Championships in France ticking past the year mark last week, Europe is beginning to reap the benefits of UEFA’s decision to expand the 2016 championships to 24 international sides. Six games into the qualification, there has been surprise, intrigue and excitement, with several larger sides struggling and smaller nations on the verge of qualification, as we witness the most exciting qualification campaign for a major tournament in living memory.
The decision to expand the Euros by UEFA and Michel Platini was not without controversy. Germany manager Joachim Loew has distinctly against the idea and Henry Winter, football writer for the Telegraph, described Platini’s decision as “misguided”. The worries were the qualifying campaign would become a complete bore, with more established sides such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands breezing through qualifying with half of their fixture list to spare. Furthermore, at the tournament, there would be several smaller nations who would be taken to pieces at the group stage, rendering the first round of the tournament as a complete non-event. However, evidence from the early stages of qualifying suggests that Loew and Winter were wrong to cast doubt over the tournament, and UEFA may have found the perfect balance.
The greatest factor of the qualification process for the tournament so far is that each group has a story to tell. One of the biggest is that, contrary to popular belief before the start of qualifying, the larger nations have struggled to assert their dominance over the rest of the field; Spain trail Slovakia in Group C; Germany have lost to Group D leaders Poland as well as dropping points at home to the Republic of Ireland; the Netherlands have a tough fight even to achieve a play-off position in Group A, trailing Iceland and the Czech Republic whilst hovering precariously above Turkey. Even sides which have had perfect campaigns, like England, have hardly had it all their own way, facing some tough tests against sides such as Slovenia and Estonia, where they required late winners on both occasions to spare their blushes.
With an increased chance of qualifying for smaller nations, matches against Europe’s elite have suddenly gained much more importance. Points gained against the top sides in the group could mean automatic qualification rather than a play-off, or a play-off rather than another qualification failure. The promise of playing in a major tournament has added an extra incentive to matches against big teams, and has tightened up the qualifying groups as a result.
Not only have the bigger nations struggled in qualifying, but smaller nations have really benefitted from the expansion, particularly some of the home nations. Wales, who have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup are currently top of Group B, ahead of 2nd-ranked Belgium, and are consequently on the verge of cracking the world’s top 10. Northern Ireland sit second in Group F behind Romania, and have a real chance of making a major tournament, which was scarcely believable after just one win in World Cup 2014 qualification. In addition, Iceland, Poland, Austria and Slovakia all lead their groups in spite of recent qualifying struggles which suggested that, at best, they would be fighting for second or third in their respective groups. The expansion of the tournament provided these smaller nations with a realistic chance of qualifying for the European Championships, subsequently raising their performance level and allowing them to reach their maximum potential. These sides now have a great deal of confidence in themselves, and reaching a Euro 2016 will only increase competition for places in future tournaments.
The greater prize on offer has not only had an impact on intermediate-level nations such as Wales and Iceland, but also filtered further down to the micro-states of Europe, who have also raised their level in qualifying. With the exception of new boys Gibraltar, there is not a single country that looks out of place in European qualification. Andorra may not have gained a point but have been much more competitive in Group B than in previous campaigns. The Faroe Islands have defeated top-seeds Greece twice and sit fourth in their qualifying group. Liechtenstein are only three points behind third-placed Russia in the race for Group G’s play-off spot. Even perennial whipping boys San Marino managed to pick up a point against Estonia. The increased level of competitiveness has filtered all the way down to the bottom, making qualifying a much more exciting and unpredictable affair.
Whether the excitement of qualifying will translate to the tournament remains to be seen; there is the possibility that we may see more defensive football in the group stages and the occasional drubbing, but the story of the qualifying campaign thus far suggests that this is unlikely to happen. Each qualifying match, from top to bottom of the group, has gained more importance and therefore a more competitive nature, providing us with a rich qualifying tournament that should transfer to the expanded group stage. Furthermore, the tournament will now have a round of 16, giving us eight extra tense knockout matches with a penchant for drama and even dreaded penalty shoot-outs.
Next summer will also give us the chance to see quality players from smaller countries perform on the biggest stage; Gylfi Sugurdsson, David Alaba, Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale (and, unfortunately, his hair) all look set to grace a major championships for the first time in their careers. Qualifying has so far showed us that Europe has so many more talented teams than the usual few that represent UEFA at major tournaments, unearthing new talent and growing football nations. An attempt to improve the European Championships via the method of expansion had the potential to be a disaster, but the changes have deepened the quality of Europe’s national sides and given us a great qualifying campaign. Change is often met with scepticism, but the criticisms of the growth of the Euros have proved unfounded, with Europe is already benefitting from the expanded tournament.
France 2016 may or may not turn out to be a classic tournament, but it is already all the better for its expanded entry list. At a time where football bodies can do no right in the eyes of the media, UEFA deserve a lot of credit for their decision to expand the European Championships. Bring on next summer!
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