Euro 2016: Will it be a mouth-watering banquet or an overstocked buffet? | Paul Wilson
An expanded 24-team format is good for the likes of Wales and Iceland but runs the risk of stretching the tournament to boring breaking point
A month-long feast of football is on its way, if you blinked you just missed the close season. Those fond of complaining football is never off the television had better shutter up their sets for the duration of Euro 16 in France, or take a lengthy vacation somewhere in the southern hemisphere.
The forthcoming, World Cup-sized tournament is Michel Platinis gift to his home country and to the pan-European game; a parting one, it would now appear. Even before the former Uefa president became stigmatised through association with Fifa and Sepp Blatter, his plans to radically expand the European Championship were also proving unpopular. So much so that the English and German football associations voted against them, only to be overruled, as Platini always envisaged, by the number of smaller nations who spied an increased opportunity to participate.
Just as Blatter built up a power base by appealing to the lesser federations and fledgling football nations who otherwise felt neglected by the heavyweights of the world game, so Platini felt confident in ignoring the wishes of mainstream countries and, in some cases, broadcasters because there are more votes in the promise of democracy than the protection of elitism.
Beginning on Friday, we will find out how well it all works, assuming the tournament goes ahead as planned and is not compromised by security concerns. Is big going to prove better, or will this apparent feast turn out to be more like an overstocked buffet, with people only picking at the best bits and leaving the plainer fare to go crispy at the edges?
The one thing that can be said in advance is that Euro 2016 is truly democratic, or at least demotic, since 24 finalists from a total of 54 member nations means getting on for half of Uefas affiliates will be represented at the finals.
In one sense that can only be a good thing, even if it does make the qualifying process somewhat redundant. Ask anyone from Iceland or Wales, or any other of the nations making their tournament debuts, and you will be left in no doubt as to the positives of being able to take part. Three of the four home nations are represented, and the Republic of Ireland too, and when was the last time these islands had anything so jolly to celebrate?
On the other hand European Championships never used to resemble World Cups, and between 1982 and 1994 the global tournament experienced some problems with the 24-team format. The main one was that with only eight teams leaving after the group stage, the big teams had it too easy and the competition only got going from the last 16 onwards. One could see the same sort of thing happening in France. Everyone loves a party but the carnival spirit could be stretched over the first 13 days of the competition. The first rest day comes a fortnight in, and by that stage all that will have been achieved is a reduction to a field of 16, the number that started the last tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Ever since its introduction in 1996 in England, 16 has been considered the perfect number for European Championships. There are usually 16 good teams around Platinis boast that we can have 24 very good teams at the finals always sounded a little hollow and with that cut-off point some decent sides will miss out and the odd minnow make it through. Furthermore, 16 teams allows group and knockout stages to be completed in somewhere between two and three weeks, not the month that Euro 2016 is going to take. That is precisely the sort of streamlined, hit-the-ground-running sort of event that most people are looking for between World Cups. With a 16-team format the Euros became recognised, in fact, for a standard as high, if not higher, than anything else in international football, though rivalling World Cups was never the original intention.
In the early days European Championships were considered the opposite of World Cups. Rather than gathering as many teams together as possible for a protracted jamboree, until relatively recently the qualifying cycle was the main event. Englands third place in 1968 looks impressive until it is remembered that only four teams went to the finals in those days, a system still in place when Antonin Panenka scored his memorable penalty for Czechoslovakia to see off West Germany in the final in 1976.
Similarly, everyone remembers Denmark returning from the beach (they were late entrants due to civil war in Yugoslavia) to win the tournament in Sweden in 1992, an achievement only slightly diminished by the knowledge that just eight finalists took part in that era.
But that used to be the Euros unique selling point. Short and to the point, they barely disrupted anyones summer holidays. Now they look as bloated and slow-moving as any World Cup, and it might have been something of a first when Roy Hodgson was asked at Burton a couple of weeks ago whether he had any specific plans to counter the boredom cabin fever was the expression used of players being cooped up together for three or four weeks. Lets hope it is three or four weeks, came the inevitable reply, with everyone mindful of the fact that Englands last tournament adventure, in Brazil two years ago, came to a sticky end with just two games played in the group stage.
Will they fare better this time? Despite everything, it is possible. Evidently piqued by suggestions that he errs on the side of caution, Hodgson has picked a squad that has at least avoided accusations of being boring. England should be able to pick up points from their first two games, given that Russia and Wales are not quite as threatening as Italy and Uruguay, though Wales will have their own ideas about that and, as ever in a tournament, the opening game tends to set the tone.
Much was made about Hodgsons bold and attacking decision to include five strikers, though that only gives him selection options. He cannot play them all at the same time, and Thursdays friendly against Portugal perfectly demonstrated the difficulty of finding the right forward line. Not to mention bringing the best from Dele Alli, who surely needs to be moved up the pitch. Hodgson has run out of practice games, but unless Premier League evidence is a complete lie there are goals within the England squad. If Hodgson can tap the potential in time to get off to a goalscoring start in what appears to be the toughest game of the group against Russia, England should not find the rest of Group B too daunting.
It is already being suggested that if England can top the group, then a relatively straightforward run to the quarter-finals and perhaps even the last four awaits, though Englands woeful record in recent World Cups should not permit such breezy optimism. This tournament comes, of course, exactly half a century since Englands last (and only) international success, and a manager in Hodgsons position has to factor in what might be termed the 50 years of hurt element. Not that many managers happen to be in Hodgsons position. For a country to have won a World Cup and then nothing else for so long is quite singular, and a solidifying opinion abroad is that, for all the success of the Premier League and the continued production of talented players, England are, quite simply, rubbish at tournaments.
Hodgson has been doing his best to ignore the weight of history dont blame the present players for the sins of the fathers though he would not be the first manager to discover that the weight of the shirt appears to be the problem. If this is the year of the underdog then the Euro 2016 equivalent of Leicester City could be almost anyone from the new intake of teams playing without fear and unworried by failure, yet that is probably not the way to bet. Bookmakers have the hosts as favourites, and it is hard to argue when the last two tournaments staged in France 1984 and 1998 were won by the team playing at home.
While you never quite know what to expect from France, internal arguments are never far from the surface and there are doubts this time about the sturdiness of the defence, backing the home team is never a bad idea. The beauty of this particular tournament is that if you dont fancy the hosts you could go with the holders (Spain), the world champions (Germany) or the side highest placed in the Fifa world rankings (Belgium). One would expect the eventual winners to come from that quartet, with England, Italy and Portugal a sub-group ready in reserve just below them.
Logic suggests that the bigger the tournament and the more protracted the format, the less chance there is of an upset. The imprecise theory of stickability comes into play, a concept easier to define through its absence England did not have it in the last World Cup, neither did France in the one before that than pin down when it is present.
The Germans have such stickability in tournaments it is tempting to back them even when they are not playing particularly well. This is not one of those occasions. Germany still look the side to beat, regardless of Fifa rankings or what recently happened in Berlin.
While it is encouraging to know England can beat the world champions in a friendly, a meeting within a tournament would be a wholly different proposition. Englands competitive record against leading sides is not great, Germanys is sensational, but Hodgson says he does not believe in tournament strategy or stickability.
Football success mostly boils down to winning games, the manager says. I dont think tournaments are any different. Fair enough. Now is the time to go out and prove it.