Lee Wellings: Something for everyone is the ‘pleasing’ new Euro motto


So Michel Platini will be staying at UEFA.

And it might be just as well there’s nothing to divert his attention from an important revamp, in which his General Secretary Gianni Infantino has been instrumental.

UEFA’s brave new world of international football has arrived. Qualifiers spread over three consecutive days in September and in October SIX consecutive nights of European qualifiers. Designed to be a feast of international football that will get more people watching across the continent and beyond.

Television is a crucial part of this, as it has always been for the hugely successful and influential Champions League. The 54 associations of UEFA are now all in this together, with packages being sold, rather than individual associations distributing rights.

This makes perfect sense, giving stability and equality to members and raising the hope that watching qualifiers will become less of a nationalistic experience, enabling more matches to be seen and more narratives across Europe to be followed.

So a treat in store for football fans?

Well here’s the concern and it’s a big one.

The plan comes into operation to coincide with a decision that feels misguided. The expansion of the finals from 16 to 24 teams.

Previously in this column I have paid tribute to the 16-team European Championship. In its short 16 year history it has been the perfect football format. The closest thing football gets to the Ryder Cup in quality and symmetry with no ballast.

Four groups of four, quarter-finals, semi-final, final. Few weak teams though you are pleased for those that have qualified because it is always deserved. I’m thinking Slovenia 2000 or Latvia 2004. These smaller nations far from disgraced themselves. And you can argue there were no weak teams on paper in Euro 2012.

I suggested the quality of a European Championship is as good as it gets. In that unlike World Cups, magnificent entertainment as Brazil was, there is quality in the vast majority of finalists. (Euro 2000 being the highest quality football I’ve ever seen).

But this is about to change. 24 teams will be able to contest France 2016. TWENTY FOUR teams. Consider some of the nations for whom qualification is a realistic impossibility – and there is a worrying percentage – such as San Marino and Luxembourg and you realise it is becoming harder to FAIL to qualify.

I’ve said for many years that these tiny nations obviously deserve a chance to qualify but they should have to play pre-qualifiers. The amount of pointless and embarrassing thrashings handed out to minnows wastes the time of great club players in an already packed schedule and makes no sense. But this seems further away from UEFA’s thinking than ever.

So the curious thing about the ‘product’ being offered by UEFA is the quality and the drama. Is the quality of matches going to generate and sustain interest? And crucially – and this is my main point – will the tension be removed from qualifying.

I can tell you now that despite their mediocrity at the highest level, England will qualify comfortably. So will others at their level. So imagine how easy it’s going to be for Germany. Should it be this predictable?

I admire Michel Platini’s clear wish that smaller teams and nations have opportunity where possible – one of the reasons the Champions League qualifying was tweaked – but I remember him being challenged on the 24-team idea before the 2012 final in Ukraine. He talked of the democracy of UEFA and the fact it was the national associations who voted in favour.

Of course they did!!!

Ask a group of schoolchildren to vote on whether they want to be included in an “everyone-gets-a-biscuit club” and what kind of response will you get?

Ask 53 (as it was) national associations if they want a place at the party and do you think they will consider the quality…or their potential slice of the pie? It’s sad really.

UEFA are not the only organisation that can suffer when apparent democracy is actually self-serving. There are one or two others based in Switzerland I can think of.

And ultimately criticism is futile. The acid test is whether people – in stadiums and on TV – actually watch the qualifying matches. International football is precious and needs protecting. So I wish them well.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1634529840reeza1634529840jla@s1634529840gnill1634529840ew.ee1634529840l1634529840. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport