The decision made by UEFA to expand the 2016 European Championships from 16 to 24 teams will mean, in my eyes, the tournament will lose that real intense, short-term high-end competitive edge that sets it apart from the World Cup, writes Will Sparrow.
As England begin their qualifying campaign in Switzerland, we can look forward only to a tournament in which lower-quality teams and a longer schedule will see it lose some of its appeal – an extra 20 matches will be played over an extra two-week period.
You could argue the quality of some nations at World Cups is questionable and that it takes a month to complete; however the attraction of the World Cup is bringing together teams from across the globe and watching the different styles and cultures meet on the pitch and on the streets.
In line with a greater number of teams at the Euros, the qualifying process has also changed – 23 teams will qualify (France qualify as hosts) from the 53 starting the qualification process.
From the nine qualifying groups, the top two from each group will qualify, alongside the best third-placed team across all groups. The remaining eight third-placed teams will enter the two-legged play-off process with the four winners completing the qualifiers.
Once the tournament itself gets under way there will be six groups of four teams with the top two qualifying from each group.
In addition the four best third-place teams will also qualify – so only eight teams will not reach the knockout phase, which leads to a disjointed process for the last 16, with some group winners playing third-place teams, some winners playing runners-up and some runners up playing other runners-up.
UEFA’s argument will be by increasing the amount of teams qualifying it will be give more incentive to lower-ranked teams who will have the best chance they’ve had to reach a major tournament or even a play-off.
However, I firmly believe a two-tier qualification process should be put in place based on rankings, then a second sister European Championship can run alongside the main tournament allowing smaller nations to play in a tournament that would be fiercely competitive. This will bring confidence to these teams and allow them to play a more attacking style of football – the opposite of what we see on a regular basis from lesser nations.
A promotion/relegation format could be set up in every four-year cycle, allowing say the top three from the sister tournament to replace the bottom three teams from qualifying for the main tournament.
The overall long-term aim is to increase the competitive edge within Europe, leading to increased performance on the world stage by European nations.
In the meantime, let’s just hope that Hodgson and Co ARE one of the 23 qualifiers for France...
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