When UEFA decided to expand Euro 2016 to 24 teams, there were those who sneered scornfully and predicted another eight teams would diminish the tournament. Too many minnows, not enough quality, meaningless games, a purely money-making exercise.
Yet with the first group stage of the tournament now moving into its final phase, there is a strong case for arguing that the decision – driven, it has to be said, by the now-banned Michel Platini – was more than justified.
OK Northern Ireland froze somewhat in their opening game against Poland but their follow-up performance against Ukraine disproved the theory that Michael O’Neill’s team, having punched above its weight in qualifying, would quickly be sent packing when the crunch came.
With four of the six third-placed finishers qualifying for the last 16, O’Neill’s team have a realistic chance of survival whatever the outcome of their somewhat scary-looking final group game against world champions Germany on Tuesday.
His team have already exceeded expectations and even defeat in the French capital would not definitely rule them out of a place in the knockout stage. “We wanted to make sure we went into the last game with something to play for,” says O’Neill. “Now we have a realistic prize.”
What Northern Ireland have proved, as have Wales to a certain extent (Gareth Bale notwithstanding), is that you can do a lot with lower-league players who rarely make headlines for nine months of the year if you possess a collective mentality.
Albania, another country expected to be lambs to the slaughter, may have been beaten twice but anyone who watched the heartbreaking last-gasp defeats to France and Switzerland cannot fail to have been impressed by the Albanians’ never-say-die approach.
Form, in fact, seems to have counted for little so far. Austria, considered dangerous dark horses coming into the tournament, were humbled by Hungary who haven’t been in a major finals for 30 years.
The group stage means little in the scheme of things of course. It’s the knockout rounds where the real business begins. But what Euro 2016 has already proved is that with prodigious homework, a bit of luck and a good dose of canny tactical planning, anything is possible. You can have all the individual stars in the world but if you don’t put it together as a team, you will inevitably struggle. Just ask Belgium.
If there have been few standout games, that has more to do with teams taking a typically cautious early approach rather than too many mediocre sides taking part. No country has epitomised justifying expanding the tournament more than Iceland, the smallest country ever to take part in the competition with a population of just 330,000.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s churlish comments after the teams drew 1-1 in St Etienne last week drew widespread condemnation. Yes Portugal had 27 goal attempts – ten on target – to Iceland’s four. Yes on the balance of play they should have won easily. But what were Iceland supposed to do? They are not the first team to defend deep and snatch a goal on the counter-attack. Didn’t Greece do likewise in 2004 and go on to win the tournament?
“Iceland didn’t try anything,” whined the Portuguese captain afterwards. “They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable.”
No it wasn’t. Iceland, supported in the stadium by around 2 per cent of their entire population, simply played to their strengths: endeavour and organisation. And in case Ronaldo had forgotten, Iceland reached the finals with two games to spare and in the process ensured that the Netherlands, one of the giants of European football, missed out. The fact is that the gap is narrowing, in Iceland’s case largely because of a highly effective coaching setup back home that is the envy of more established footballing nations. “Our defending was fantastic: we were really organised and worked really hard. Apart from one or two situations, we were really focussed and it was a total team victory for us,” said Icelandic joint coach Heimir Hallgrimsson whose team managed to rein in Ronaldo just as the Republic of Ireland had done with another galactico, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 24 hours earlier.
“You can’t ask one player to stop guys like Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s unfair to put a player to mark him, so it has to be a team effort. There were a lot of players that were responsible for Ronaldo, and luckily he didn’t have many chances.”
And that’s what it’s all about – teamwork. Gavin Hamilton, editor of World Soccer magazine, agrees that fears over the tournament expansion to 24 teams have not yet been realised. The established elite were meant to stroll into the knockout stages as lesser nations enjoyed 270 minutes of mainstream air time – and then left things to the big boys. Instead, the so-called “underdogs” have adopted the Leicester syndrome: self-belief allied to team spirit.
“There were doubts beforehand that the quality would be diminished,” says Hamilton. “The worry was that expanding to 24 teams would also dilute the whole experience. But actually what has happened is that, by increasing the number of teams, you have improved that experience.
“There is absolutely no evidence so far of a decline in standards. There was a fear that the format itself would lead to more defensive games but until Germany’s draw with Poland that was not the case. And they are hardly minnows.”