“We have 24 very good teams, so this tournament can be a success…24 teams will be as good as 16 teams.” These are the thoughts of UEFA president and deputy laughing stock (to Sepp Blatter of course!) Michel Platini, unfortunately it is a view almost universally rejected by fans and administrators across Europe. Sure, an expanded and bloated European Championship opens up qualification to more teams and allows for greater TV revenue and ticket sales, but the quality of the qualification stage and even the early rounds of the tournament itself have been seriously jeopardised.
The draw for the qualification stage, which took place in Nice at the weekend, was the usual UEFA fare of bloated, confusing and sometimes toe-curdlingly embarrassing interactions between great past players, struggling through in broken English. This time however, we couldn’t even rely on the draw itself to bring any excitement to the occasion. With 24 teams qualifying, it now means that the top two teams in each of the nine groups will automatically qualify alongside the best third place finisher, then the remaining eight third placed teams will contest a play -off stage for the final four places -results against a sixth placed team being dismissed… of course. Keeping up? This is without mentioning that the hosts, France, will actually be in Group I alongside five other teams but their games won’t count for any points. This bloated and frankly ridiculous qualification system has sucked all the joy out of these games – the fact that the top two teams will definitely qualify means that most average teams will only have to see off the likes of Andorra, Gibraltar and Moldova to advance into the tournament proper. This cannot be good for the integrity of European football; surely what we all want to see is a high intensity tournament where the top 16 nations in Europe have to fight hammer and nail just to get to the group stage itself.
With regards to the draw itself, the home nations will all be reasonably happy with the outcome. England have been handed what appears to be a ludicrously easy passage to France, although when it comes to England, the supporters have learnt never to take these things for granted. The Three Lions have been drawn in Group E alongside Switzerland, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania and San Marino. It would appear that the only threat comes from a well organised, if unadventurous Swiss side currently ranked at 6 in the world, and with top two going through anyway, England could in theory have two disastrous results against the Swiss and still cruise through to Euro 2016. England fans will be familiar with San Marino after facing them in qualifying for Brazil and many still remember the 7-1 game in 1993 when Davide Gualtieri scored for the minnows after just 8 seconds. Estonia are a mostly unknown force but did manage to reach the play off stage for Euro 2012 before crashing out to the Republic of Ireland – they’re currently ranked 91st in the world. Lithuania may seem like a step into the unknown but manager Roy Hodgson led his Fulham team there in 2010 to take on FK Vetra (a tie the Cottagers won 6-0 on aggregate) – it is however the first time England have met the Baltic state in international football. Slovenia will provide a reasonable test for Hodgson’s men, especially away in Ljubljana where the crowd can be aggressively partisan – the sides last meeting was at the 2010 world cup where England were unconvincing 1-0 victors.
The only major headline to come from Group E, is the return of Roy Hodgson to his former team; Switzerland. Hodgson led the Swiss from 1992-5 and guided them to the last 16 at World Cup 94 and also qualified for Euro 96. He is fondly remembered by fans in Switzerland for producing one of the best teams the country had seen since the 60’s and the match in Switzerland next September is sure to be an emotional one for Hodgson.
The draw has also been logistically kind to England, the destinations, while perhaps not top of the tourist trail, are comfortable and modern and the flight time will be considerably shorter than recent trips to Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan. This should mean even less excuses for Hodgson’s men, the pitches will be of greater quality and so should the stadium facilities. However failure to gain results away to Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia will leave the team wide open to criticism.
The apparent lack of quality opposition during the qualifying stages may also hinder England’s progress in the tournament itself, unless friendlies against top nations are organised, England run the risk of being massively underprepared for a major tournament. Of course, even if these friendlies are arranged it is unlikely that they will be played at anything like the intensity of a qualifying match.
There have even been calls in some parts for the FA to take the show on the road again; as it did from 2001-7 while the new Wembley Stadium was being built. It is a compelling case; a full 30,000 seater stadium would be a far better atmosphere than a half full Wembley – especially if the games went to the new areas (North East, South West and Wales).
It’s also worth mentioning Group D, where both the Republic of Ireland and Scotland have been drawn alongside Germany, Poland, Georgia and Gibraltar. It is arguably the strongest of the nine groups, with four sides harbouring realistic ambitions of making it into the top two. Both Ireland and Scotland will be thinking that if they pick up easy points against Georgia and new boys Gibraltar then a victory against the other home nations would all but guarantee them at least a play-off spot. This may be the most realistic path for Scotland, but Rep. of Ireland will be hoping that strong home support in Dublin could help propel them into the top two – home matches against Germany and Poland will be vital if this is to be the case.
The entire idea of a 24 team European championship seems flawed to me, it’s gearing up for a flat qualification campaign followed by a procession of a group stage in the tournament proper. But, of course, if England can do their usual trick and stumble against lesser teams then I’m sure the nation’s imagination will be captured at the prospect of desperately needing a point on a wet Tuesday night in Tallinn.