UEFA’s rush to confirm a ‘Euro for Europe’ – well, it wouldn’t be for Africa or Oceania, would it? – has created more questions than it answered. At least it offers the European federation an opportunity, if it should so wish, to row back beyond that from the contentious expansion to a 24-team, single-venue tournament in France in 2016.
The original European Championship finals, from 1960 to 1976, comprised a quartet of teams playing two semi-finals, a third-place play-off and the final in the country of one of the last four.
The staging award was thus made late in the day – far later than would be possible now with all the organisational and administrative demands for state-of-the-art infrastructure, security etc.
Italy in 1980 saw eight finalists with two first-round groups then it was up to 16 in four groups with standard knock-out rounds from England’s Euro 96 onwards. Just about everyone in football knows that a 16-team formula is perfect in terms of size, quality, time and quality threshold.
FIFA, for example, has turned the World Cup into a financial giant by going to 24 then 32 teams; but that vote-winning expansion has come at a sporting cost.
The more teams, the lower the quality quotient. The world federation created a Task Force of old players, rather than professional observers and analysts, to come up with ideas of making the finals ‘more attractive’ and the project ended in predictable money-wasting failure.
Also, the more teams the greater the complications in finding a tournament venue. In the current economic climate, very few single nations are interested in the expenditure required when spending on priority social, educational, scientific projects is under pressure.
As UEFA has also discovered, the number of realistic co-hosting options is limited. The Nordic nations have blown hot and cold over the years on a joint bid while Ireland-Scotland-Wales and Azerbaijan-Turkey ‘expressed an interest’ in 2020 but without enthusing UEFA president Michel Platini & Co.
Platini, whose nose for vote-securing competition tweaks remains as sharp as ever, came up with the pan-European concept at a meeting of the UEFA executive committee this past summer. The idea harks back to the original European competitions and makes practical sense – albeit the devil will be in sorting the detail.
The suggestion approved on Thursday, a month earlier than expected by UEFA’s executive, is for 12 cities to play host with one city staging the semis and the final.
Wembley will be among the favourites while Germany has pondered semis in Hamburg and Munich and a final in Berlin. Turkey, the only grumpy dissenter, will also press its case but it has its own political considerations in mind.
UEFA now needs to find a mini-leagues formula which works. Presumably the finalists will emerge from an earlier qualifying tournament but how many?
Will the finals comprise home-and-away matches or will the qualifying group winners be the ones guaranteed home matches?
Will all finalists be guaranteed a match?
If not, would fans in Lisbon – for example – turn out to watch a one-off tie between, say, Ukraine and Switzerland?
The benefits are clear: no single host (or co-host partnership) would be burdened with major staging expenditure while fans should be guaranteed a couple of ‘easy-travel’ home games.
The cautionary evidence of Poland and Ukraine this past summer was that fans are becoming more resistant to inconsiderate host award diktats from on high.
Platini and general secretary Gianni Infantino have both insisted that the 60th anniversary tournament is a one-off.
But who knows? A Euro for Europe has a lot going for it.
Keir Radnedge is one of the foremost observers of international soccer. He has reported at every World Cup since 1966 and is a regular contributor to TV, radio, newspapers and magazines worldwide. He is editor of KeirRadnedge.com and is chairman of the Football Commission of the International Sports Press Association (AIPS). Visit www.KeirRadnedge.com for further information. Follow him on Twitter for more sports industry updates.
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