There were a lot of smiling faces in the corridors of Geneva this week, and many of them were owned by members of the SFA, because it was they that had put forward the plan to expand the number of finallists in the European Championships from sixteen to twenty-four with effective from Euro 2016. On the surface (and particularly from a British perspective), this may seem like a great idea. No longer will Scots have to spend their summers with just England’s inevitable defeat to lift the gloom of their perennial non-involvement in such matters. Wales might finally stand half a chance of qualifying for the finals of a major tournament for the first time in two generations. On the other hand, though, the likelihood is that all that will happen as the result of this expansion will be a lowering of quality of the football on display, a chaotic system structure that will leave most people scratching their heads and qualifying rounds that will become little than processions that eliminate the weak and feeble.
The reasoning behind it isn’t difficult to work out. Everyone, within the game, is a winner. If Kosovo are accepted into UEFA, it will have fifty-four members. The chances are that there will be twenty-two qualifying places up for grabs for Euro 2016 (the expected two hosts will, of course, qualify automatically), with ten groups of five and one group of four making up the qualifying stages. From the perspective of the bigger nations, they need never particularly worry about not getting through – indeed, with such weak groups, the chances are that you’ll be seeing second-string teams representing the very biggest countries. For those in the middle, the outlook is similarly superficially bright. England probably won’t have to worry too much about not making it through to the finals of the European Championships, while Scotland and Ireland will be able to kid themselves into believing that they are amongst the elite of European football. Obviously, with more teams qualifying, there are no losers. It becomes a bit easier for absolutely everyone. Once there, the likelihood is that the teams will be split into six groups of four, with the top two qualifying from each group and the two best third placed teams going into one of those curiously-named “Group Of Sixteens”.
How, then, will this improve the quality of fayre on offer at the finals of Euro 2016? Let’s take, as an example, Ireland – one of the teams that will definitely benefit from this expansion. They will go from being occasional finallists for the European Championships to being near-certainties to qualify. What will they bring to the table? Well, Ireland have played sixteen games in the finals of major tournaments. In those sixteen games, they have scored twelve goals, and have been involved in as many goalless draws (four) as they have won matches. Scotland have scrambled through to the finals of eight major tournaments but have still never got past the opening group. Decimalisation was still a pipe dream the last (and only) time that Wales got a team to the finals of a tournament. England might not bring much to the table in terms of quality, but they’ll be perennial qualifiers under the new system. The likes of Israel (who haven’t qualified for anything since they’ve been UEFA members) and Finland, who have never managed to qualify for the finals of anything apart from the Olympics will benefit from it. Remember the Norway team that stank out the 1994 World Cup finals? They might be back, too.
Ultimately, the limited resources of the teams that would scrape through under a system that had increased finallists would only act the the detriment of the competition as a whole. Weaker teams tend to play as defensively as possible. Expect a large number of games with one team putting eleven men behind the ball in the hope of sneaking a 0-0 draw or even, with a little luck, a 1-0 win. Euro 2016 might end up resembling Euro 2004, except with nine Greece teams rather than just the one. There is also the small issue of the proportion of teams involved. A World Cup with a similar proportion of the teams entering into it getting through to the finals would have over ninety teams taking part. The fact of the matter is that if you can’t make it into the finals of the European Championships with sixteen entrants, the fact of the matter is that you simply don’t deserve to be there, and that won’t change just because the number of entrants has been expanded from sixteen to twenty-four.