When UEFA president Michel Platini decided to expand the European Championship finals from 16 to 24 countries, starting in 2016 in his homeland, the purists threw their collective arms up in the air, screamed “Zut alors” – or far worse – and accused the Frenchman of being seriously misguided.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, went the argument, suggesting Platini, the self-styled visionary who is not averse to splitting opinion, had gone one step too far.
While the Champions League provided such classy entertainment, the critics said, Platini’s expansion plans for the Euros simply wouldn’t work, devaluing the finals and making a mockery of the qualifying competition which runs until October next year, followed by November playoffs for the best third-placed teams.
Yet take a look at the current group tables after three rounds. What a surprising picture we see.
Gone is the boring predictability of much of the campaign, replaced by a series of results that have seen world champions Germany beaten by Poland and held by the Republic of Ireland, World Cup semi-finalists Holland twice humbled by supposedly inferior opposition and once-mighty Spain still struggling to restore past glories despite easing past Luxembourg.
Group A is topped by Iceland with the Netherlands languishing in third spot; group B by Wales, with star-studded Belgium third; group C by Slovakia who are looking down on Spain; Group D by Poland, with the Germans needing to make up ground; group F, after three straight wins, by Northern Ireland who have shot up in the world rankings; and Group G by Austria.
It is, of course, still early days and there is plenty of time for the cream to rise to the top. But there can only be one reason why so many perennial also-rans of European football have made such a strong start: the motivation of having a genuine chance of reaching the finals in two years’ time.
True, having France in the draw simply to make up numbers and give the hosts some proper tests since they don’t have to qualify seems a curious — some might say useless – exercise. But apart from that, Platini and his team seem to have made a good call.
A couple of weeks ago, his right-hand man, Gianni Infantino, justified giving so many teams an opportunity, insisting the quality was not being reduced. “Of the top 32 teams in the world, 20 are European,” argued Infantino. “One of the criticisms is that some of the games in the qualifiers become uncompetitive but we saw from the very first series of matches something that we didn’t expect. The fact that 24 teams in the finals can qualify gives a chance to almost all the teams and this has brought a whole new dynamic to the qualifying competition because everyone, at least at the beginning, believes they have a real chance of playing in the finals.”
It’s a fair point when you look at the current landscape. Suddenly, the new structure may not be quite as bad as the doom merchants feared. All those complaints about a packed qualifying programme throwing up meaningless games and disrupting domestic leagues don’t begin to ring quite so true.
Indeed, the buzz generated in many of the continent’s so-called lesser footballing lights has been there for all to see and this, of course, was precisely the point of UEFA changing the format: to energise the vast majority of nations and prevent them getting ruled out of contention early on.
Traditionally, give or a take a few notable exceptions, most of the major powerhouses tend to make it through. That, ultimately, might happen again a year from now. But the fact that virtually all nine qualifying groups already have a element of intrigue about them is surely what it’s all about. In fact it’s hard to recall a set of qualifiers as compelling as those we’ve had so far.
Not that UEFA always gets things right. Far from it. Indeed there have been a couple of examples in recent days where the word misguided does apply. Pairing Serbia and Albania in the same qualifying group was always likely to end in tears – though not quite as explosively as things transpired. It seems inexplicable that UEFA, usually so sensitive to political tensions, decided to take the risk.
UEFA, of course, have given us their reasons, insisting none of the specific criteria for separating teams applied in this case. Yet away fans were barred from Belgrade, surely an obvious indication of how touchy the fixture was likely to be.
On balance, UEFA’s sanctions delivered today against both sides looks to be a fair compromise though they should never have got themselves into such an awkward situation in the first place.
Another highly questionable decision, this time of a purely footballing nature and not politically significant though a game-changer nonetheless, occurred in the Champions League this week in Gelsenkirchen.
Platini has banged on endlessly about the effectiveness of having two additional pairs of eyes in terms of officiating. Yet right under the noses of such officials, Schalke were awarded the mother of all unfair penalties for a stoppage-time handball that never was. It wasn’t even close yet it was exactly the sort of thing the additional assistants are supposed to spot.
No doubt Platini will argue that human error is part of the game but tell that to Sporting Lisbon who had fought back from two goals down with 10 men, only to be dealt an appalling injustice which in all likelihood will end their interest in the competition, with the prestige and financial rewards that go with it.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org