Behind the World Cup, the next best international soccer tournament is the European Championships. You may think that’s an opinion, I think it’s a statement of fact. The Euros used to seemingly be perfect, there were 16 teams, half the number that are in the World Cup. Four groups of four teams gets filtered down to eight teams for the knockout rounds, everything is perfect.
But then UEFA decided to get greedy and expand the tournament to 24 teams. Immediately fans and pundits were upset. Why mess with something perfect? The new format would allow four third place teams to qualify for the knockout rounds. The 24 team group stage would only knock out eight teams before the 16 team knockout round, that doesn’t sound good.
But it’s actually really good, and there’s a whole bunch of reasons why.
First of all, more teams means more games. That’s a good thing for fans as the eight extra teams tacks on about a week to the tournament length. That’s a great thing considering that when this tournament ends in July you’re in the absolute dead of the sports calendar. There’s nothing going on and you sit around waiting for the preseason to start. Well good news, most teams will be starting up their pre-season around two weeks after the Euros end. This way you won’t even realize soccer is gone before it comes back.
The expansion also naturally means more teams, which means more teams that don’t typically qualify for major tournaments are getting a chance. This benefits everyone, but especially the smaller countries who are now getting international exposure. The best stories in this tournament so far have come from teams like Iceland, Hungary, or what about the fans of Northern Ireland who never would have gotten this chance if it was 16 teams?
There was a fear that the smaller teams would dilute the competition and get blown out but that’s not what happened. With four third place teams advancing it was believed that a glimmer of hope would be given to some countries to qualify for the round of 16 but as it turns out they didn’t need it. Small countries like Hungary and Wales topped their group. Iceland finished second. Only Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland got in through the third place entrance, and both came out of very difficult groups.
Of course expanding to 24 teams will have it’s drawbacks, notably that the chances of the one of the big boys going home early were drastically reduced. That’s true and the big teams knew that, which caused them to alter the way they played. There was a bigger margin for error, leaving them content with taking a point in games where they usually would go for all three. That attitude came back to bite them as we’ve now ended up with Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and England on the same side of the bracket for the knockout round. That’s not what any of those teams wanted.
The other argument against the format is that since all it takes to get through is three points it encourages negativity. This is somewhat true but it can also be a good thing. Portugal were the only team to go through with three draws and they arguably played a more attacking style in their three group games then any other team in the tournament. This is also a major benefit as it means that going into the last group match, virtually everyone would still be alive. How is that bad?
Sure this group stage was a bit of a letdown as many teams played a little too defensively, leading to a lot of low scoring games but this was also the tournament where everyone was going to get their feet wet with the new setup. Four years from now it will be different. The big teams won’t be taking games off as they will be looking to go all out to win their groups and avoid a situation like this year where they’re all on the same side of the bracket.
This kind of change takes some time to really show the benefits. This was the first one. The next one will be better.