Alan Pattullo: A bigger Euro 2016 was worth it

Wales, led by Gareth Bale, reached the semi finals before losing to Portugal. Picture: Getty.
Wales, led by Gareth Bale, reached the semi finals before losing to Portugal. Picture: Getty.
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So Euro 2016 has come and nearly gone. At Stade de France tonight the first part of Michel Platini’s grand vision for a competition stretching to 51 games and involving 24 teams will be realised.

How was it for you? Well, for Platini himself, it was a presumably agonising exercise in pretending it was not happening at all, particularly now France have made it to the final.

The disgraced former UEFA president has hidden himself away at his holiday home in the southern town of Cassis, a pariah when meant to be host of a party that reaches its crescendo this evening.

While this feels like his last will and testament it isn’t quite so; this will come in 2020, when an already extended tournament becomes sprawling in a geographical sense. Hosted across Europe, from Dublin to Baku, even Scotland is guaranteed to get a slice of the action with some games already assured to be at Hampden Park.

Platini’s absence will be most marked tonight when UEFA general secretary ad interim Theodore Theodoridis rather than the former French midfield maestro hands over the trophy to the winning captain – either France’s Hugo Lloris or Portugal’s Ronaldo.

At a closing press conference hosted by UEFA in Paris on Friday, Platini, currently serving a four-year ban from holding office in football, was praised for his vision in both bringing the competition back to France and (with the help of Scotland and Ireland) championing its expansion.

The locals were not feeling so appreciative in the opening few days, as thugs ran amok in Marseille, Lille and elsewhere. The spectre of terrorism also hung heavy and led to police issuing advice to avoid being anywhere a large number of people were congregating. This was somewhat difficult when there’s a football tournament going on. Crowds were not only gathering inside football stadiums but also at fan zones in the nine host cities.

Fears seemed well founded although the most high-profile casualties were the tragic loss of two Northern Ireland fans in the first week of the tournament; the first after an accident in Nice and the second following a heart attack during Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win over Ukraine.

It was this victory that set Michael O’Neill’s side on the way to qualification as one of the four best third-placed teams. For some, this was something else with which to excoriate Platini.

After nearly two weeks of football only eight teams from 24 were eliminated. It seemed like a lot of effort to cut a third of the participants. Indeed, it seemed potentially easier for teams to be sent home due to the poor behaviour of their fans.

There were fears some countries might be ejected as UEFA sought to take the hard line as supporters continued to clash, most notably in Marseille before and after the high-risk England versus Russia game. No one was happier than UEFA when Russia were knocked out. The violence did seem to ease after this: England fans, the other main culprits, were bored into submission by their team’s woeful attempt to go through as group winners.

A 0-0 draw with Slovakia set in motion a chain of events that led to England taking on Iceland.

We all now know how that worked out. England’s performances proved how quality is never guaranteed; not even from the team with a 100 per cent record in qualification. But it is probably true that those teams that reached France via the play-offs proved why they took qualification to the wire.

Ukraine were the first country to be eliminated while Sweden were not much better. Republic of Ireland’s last-16 appearance owed everything to an admittedly lively win against a much-changed Italy. Hungary proved the exception by finishing top of Group F, ahead of Portugal.

When it comes down to producing enduring memories – and ear worms in the case of their fans’ songs – so-called smaller nations Wales, Northern Ireland and Iceland take the honours.

Not that any of them should be patronised or applauded for doing better than expected. Northern Ireland and Iceland topped their qualifying groups, while Wales finished runners-up. They were not in need of a leg-up from the new expanded format in order to qualify.

But Northern Ireland were aided by the tweak that four of the best third-placed teams qualified for a new round-of-16 phase. It is an adjustment Austin MacPhee, the Northern Ireland assistant coach, understandably welcomed.

“Play-offs are regarded as good in a domestic league environment because they take things right to the end of the season,” he observed. “The [third place chance] change took the groups right to the end; Italy made eight changes [against Republic of Ireland] because they qualified but there was still something riding on that game, likewise all the others.”

The Northern Ireland assistant coach, pictured left, was back in his Fife homeland this week after more than a month away with the team. He savoured the chance to finally reflect on a memorable period for both him and his adopted country.

“Now you have the chance to reflect. It was wonderful but because we played every four or five days the intensity meant you didn’t have the chance to appreciate you were at Euros,” he said.

“It is only when you came back to Scotland and watch on BBC and ITV and hear people talking about the tournament you were both at and had a direct role in it that it becomes a case of: ‘oh I was part of that’.

“We played against two of the semi-finalists in Wales and Germany. It was interesting to contrast how Belgium tried to deal with Gareth Bale compared to how we did it. And to see Germany completely dominate the first-half v France in the semi-final makes you feel a little better that we did not get out of our half against them either!

“It dawns on you then that you were operating at the highest level of football. That makes you proud.”

MacPhee believes the main criterion for UEFA when assessing the success or otherwise of an expanded tournament is if the smaller nations were humiliated on the pitch. “Clearly they weren’t,” he said. “And Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland all brought the most supporters. The Republic and Northern Ireland were supposed to have over 30,000 there. Iceland had over 30,000 as well, Albania too.”

In terms of growing the game, and leaving a positive influence, MacPhee is certain UEFA have got it right. “Look at Northern Ireland. You hope the biggest thing that will happen in terms of the legacy of qualification, and how well we did over there, will be little boys or girls of the community are now aware Northern Ireland has a good football team.

“They don’t now want to play for the Republic – they want to play for where they were born.”

Even if this was the only positive impact – and it wasn’t – a bigger Euro 2016 would have seemed worth it.