Euro 2016: The toughest tournament to win

They might not have been eye candy, but Greece's 2004 win was very impressive.
They might not have been eye candy, but Greece’s 2004 win was very impressive.

IT DOESN’T have a Brazil or Argentina, but the European Championship is now the strongest international tournament in the world. This might prompt protest in Zurich and from Mr Infantino, but the fact is, it is harder to win the Euros than it is the FIFA showpiece.

UEFA are in danger of killing this stone dead with their plans for 2020, and it is arguable that a 24-team competition is already too many nations – 16 teams was just about right.

The World Cup has the razamatazz, the huge TV coverage, the irritating presence of so many global corporates that have no interest in the game other than extracting as much value as possible (try taking a bottle of water into a World Cup game…), but for many, the quality of the European Championship is much higher than your average World Cup. And it is also possible that the UEFA Champions League, in its latter stages, is more of a spectacle than any competition involving national teams.

The concentration of better-ranked teams make a Euro tougher to win than a World Cup. There are no weak Asian teams, no make-weights from Central America, no inconsistent African sides. In normal service, 16 teams from Europe made for a better field.

Let’s look at both the World Cup and European Championships since FIFA launched its ranking system.

Brazil won the 1994 World Cup by beating Italy, Sweden, Netherlands, USA, Cameroon and Russia. They met Sweden twice. Of their seven games, the combined FIFA ranking of the respective nations was 92. That’s an average of 13.14 – with the Dutch ranked 2nd, Italy 4th and Sweden 10th. Russia were 19th, USA 23rd and Cameroon 24th.

Two years on, Germany’s six-game run to triumph in Euro 1996 (again using FIFA rankings) came in as an average of 16.83 with Italy 3rd and Russia 5th.

So, you might argue, comparing these two title-winners results in Brazil having a harder run than Germany. It has not always been the case, however. The lower the number, the tougher the passage to glory has been.

Year Comp. Winner Av. Opponent Highest ranked opponent Lowest ranked opponent
1994 World Cup Brazil 13.14 Netherlands – 2 Cameroon – 24
1996 Euro Germany 16.83 Italy  – 3 Croatia – 41
1998 World Cup France 19.57 Brazil  – 1 Saudi Arabia – 34
2000 Euro France 11 Czech Republic  – 2 Netherlands – 19
2002 World Cup Brazil 24.14 Germany  – 11 China – 50
2004 Euro Greece 9 France – 1 Russia – 18
2006 World Cup Italy 24.14 Czech Republic  – 2 Ghana – 48
2008 Euro Spain 15.67 Italy – 3 Sweden – 30
2010 World Cup Spain 17.71 Portugal  – 3 Honduras – 38
2012 Euro Spain 11.17 Germany  – 3 Rep. of Ireland – 18
2014 World Cup Germany 14.43 Brazil – 3 Ghana – 37

Although FIFA rankings are not always the best barometer of the relative strength of national teams, the above table does show what an astonishing achievement Greece’s 2004 European Championship win was. Greece didn’t do it the easy way, by any means, meeting Spain, Portugal (twice), Russia, France and the Czech Republic. It also demonstrates that France’s 2000 win in the Euros was very merited and that Italy, as World Cup winners in 2006, did have a relatively easy run.

Other Euro winners, in the pre-FIFA ranking world, that deserve mention are: 1976 – Czechoslavakia (QF to final):  USSR, Netherlands and West Germany 1992 – Denmark: France, England, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany

Of course, the World Cup and the European Championship are different competitions and the reason that the eventual winner will meet some weaker teams is a consequence of a larger number of competitors and also the desire to have a broader geographic spread of finalists. Winners when the World Cup was smaller had a greater concentration of stronger teams on their fixture list. There’s a distinct lack of “minnows” on the list of World Cup winners’ between 1958 and 1978.

1958 –  Brazil: Austria, USSR, England, Wales, France, Sweden
1962 –  Brazil: Czechoslavakia, Mexico, Spain, England, Chile, Czechoslavakia
1966 – England: Uruguay, France, Mexico, Argentina, Portugal and West Germany
1970 –  Brazil: Czechoslavakia, Romania, England, Peru, Uruguay and Italy
1974 –  West Germany: Chile, Australia, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Poland
1978 –  Argentina: Hungary, France, Italy, Brazil, Poland, Peru, Netherlands

The World Cup is still better attended than the European Championships. Here’s the average attendances from the last five of each:

  Host Average   Host Average
1998 France 43,517 1996 England 41,157
2002 Japan/S.Korea 42,269 2000 Holland/Belgium 36,220
2006 Germany 52,491 2004 Portugal 37,306
2010 South Africa 49,670 2008 Austria/Switzerland 36,803
2014 Brazil 53,592 2012 Poland/Ukraine 46,481

This year’s European Championship has 24 teams, which will mean that the winning average will surely be higher than in the past. I would add, the FIFA rankings are just one way of looking at the strength of tournament winners.

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