I’ve got three framed photos hanging in my study of me posing with a great footballer. They’re all positioned together in one spot and, though I’m no card player, I call them ‘the great prile of P’s’.
There’s one of me with Puskas in his later years, sharing a couch, his belly bulging forward like Falstaff’s; there’s another of me with Pele in his office in Sao Paolo; and the third shows Platini and me with a glass of wine each, chatting together at a conference in Cannes, over a decade ago. It’s great because it looks like he’s laughing at a joke I’ve just told him.
These three players would surely get into any top ten all-time greats list; as a fan I loved them in their playing days, and warmed to them as people when I got a chance to spend some time with them in their later years.
But Platini was considerably younger than the other two; bright as a button and ambitious to get involved in the administration of football. I remember thinking how good it would be for the game if men like him could gain some real traction in those corridors of power haunted by so many over-fed footballing nobodies.
Well, Platini certainly has penetrated those corridors in the last ten years; currently the President of Uefa, and touted as a possible candidate for the Fifa Presidency next year. But his remodelling of the European Championships, starting with the next one in his home country France, in 2016, involves a disastrous series of innovations.
Just as happened with the World Cup progressively, the once vibrant Euros has been re-modelled by political forces into another national competition over-stuffed with no-hopers and irrelevant early rounds. The majority of World Cup matches have been poor quality for years. The Euros were one football competition where fans really looked forward to every match – and virtually every one of them counted in importance.
The sixteen best nations in Europe are a very good bunch of footie teams; once you raise the number to twenty four, it’s the equivalent of pouring a third of a pint of water into your pint of beer. It won’t taste any good and you’re going to have to work hard to get happy.
This will first become apparent to many football fans when the draw for the qualifiers takes place in four weeks time. There will be nine groups of six teams, with only the top two of each group guaranteed to go to France, 2016. But that only gives you eighteen nations in the Finals.
Now, it gets complicated: the third placed team with the best record (compared with their counterparts in the other groups) will also qualify automatically (making nineteen qualifiers); the remaining eight third placers will play-off to produce four; then add in hosts, France, and you’ve got your twenty four.
Then it gets really weird. France will also play in one of the nine qualifying groups! Apparently, Platini’s own nation were unhappy at the prospect of living off friendlies for a couple of years, so they have been accommodated – almost unbelievably – by inclusion in the initial group qualifying stages.
But doesn’t that change the dynamics of the group they end up in? Will France play with the same intensity as they would if they needed to qualify? Will they use their games to experiment with various formations of their squad? What happens if they win that group – or finish second or third? Does everyone else get bumped up?
Whatever happens, there’s going to be a large number of entirely predictable (and therefore boring) games in the qualifiers, and quite a few in the early rounds of the Euros itself.
That’s modern international football for you in a nutshell: from quality to quantity. More money; more politics; more lousy, uncompetitive matches.
Oh, brave new world!
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