And so, UEFA continue to bambozzle the footballing world. They have two fantastic products: the Champions League and the European Championship. The former, despite its high quality in the knockout stages, is overblown and destroys UEFA’s ugly child in the attic, the Europa League. The latter is a 16-team, optimally-sized finals tournament that is arguably stronger than it’s FIFA big brother.
While the Champions League could do with some pruning, the Euros merely needed to come up with a better and more discerning qualifying tournament. But no, UEFA take the first steps in replicating their blue riband club competition across the international arena. At the same time, they may well have placed the first dagger in the heart of the very enjoyable European Championship.
Actually, it’s the second dagger, because Michel Platini and chums have already set about the destruction of the Euros by expanding it to 24 clubs in 2016. You couldn’t ask for a more awkward or unwieldy number for a tournament, as the World Cup demonstrated when FIFA tried it. It’s 16 or 32, and if you have 32 in a European competition, you may as well dispense with the qualifiers.
In fact, the qualifiers will be consigned to “friendly” status if we’re not careful. They are already tedious because of the number of below-par teams entering – witness Gibraltar.
If Platini doesn’t destroy the spirit of the Euros in 2016, he will certainly achieve that objective by 2020 with the ridiculous format of a Pan-European finals. The beauty of competitions like the World Cup and the European Championship is that they bring “festival” to the host nations. Having seen this first hand in Germany (2006) and Austria (2008), I can vouch for the joy it brought to these locations. And if you want further proof, just recall what the Olympics did for Britain in 2012.
If UEFA think a Pan-European festival, right across the continent, will work, they are deluded. Part of the reason why it works on a one or two-centre basis is that there is ownership of the competition – “it’s our games..our World Cup”, and the nation responds accordingly. It will fail miserably if nobody feels the competition “belongs”.
By this time, UEFA’s new “Nations League” concept will have got underway. The idea of some sort of measurement of quality is good and friendly games have long been a la mode. The danger is that it’s a competition too far for UEFA and it will devalue other games being played. Why would a game featuring England and a minnow like, for example, San Marino appeal when you might have England v Germany to look forward to?
There are options to reconfigure. Why not use the Nations League to determine qualifiers for the European Championship? This would require some complicated methodology, but UEFA – and indeed FIFA – are experts at complexity. The structure they suggest, with mini-leagues within leagues, is neither fish nor fowl. If you want a league, then make it a league. In other words, run it over two years and have everyone playing each other once. That’s seven games over two years.
Or use the Nations League as a qualifying tournament with a pre-1996 or even pre-1980 version of the European Championship to follow. Again, slide-rules might be required to ensure that the minnows get a chance.
Alternatively, just dispense with the European Championship altogether.
Is the agenda really just about TV? I think it might be, because the Champions League has shown what can be achieved with intense marketing, corporate backing [love the Gazprom ad…] and the right branding. The European Championship, which on the pitch has been far more satisfying than any recent World Cup, doesn’t quite have the commercial appeal of the Champions League, which says a lot about the slow decline of international football. The Nations League will certainly raise the stakes, making England v France or Spain a more attractive TV product than a friendly with Denmark or Peru.
Something has to give, though, and I think in the long run, it will be the European Championship. If that is the case, the decision to create the Nations League may be one UEFA regrets.