Aidan Smith: 24 teams in the Euros is too many

I don't know where Michel Platini will be watching tonight's final given his ban from football but I bet he casts his mind back 32 years to France v Portugal in what was a happier and more innocent time for himself and international tournaments.

Banned Uefa president Michel Platini thinks the 2020 Euros will be 'romantic'. Picture: Getty.
Banned Uefa president Michel Platini thinks the 2020 Euros will be 'romantic'. Picture: Getty.

It was one of those hot and steamy nights in Marseille for the semi-final of the 1984 version of the European Championships. Now, if that sounds like a cliché then so was France promising so much and flopping. They’d lost at the same stage of the 1982 World Cup and it seemed that Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Platini – one of the finest, flair-filled midfields of modern times – were never going to grace a final. Portugal, inspired by their own brilliant playmaker, Fernando Chalana, were just six minutes from victory.

Then France, in their skimpy shorts, equalised. Then – cue the measured murmurings of John Motson – “GOAL! Platini for France! With a minute to go! I’ve not seen a match like this in years!” Les Bleus went on to win the tournament in Paris, a great victory for football after the thuggishness of Germany’s Harald Schumacher had done for France two years previously, and we were all agreed, the eight-team Euros was the ideal format. The only black spot was the pre-Brexit isolationism of British broadcasters who, with no home nations involved, chose to ignore the competition until the latter stages.

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Fast forward to now and another final in Paris. This France are playing with abandon, nearly as much as their illustrious predecessors. Portugal, however, are pretty ghastly and it’ll be a travesty if they win. Meanwhile the competition is unrecognisable from the one that BBC and ITV didn’t let us watch.

Platini is raging that he hasn’t been allowed to be present for Euro 2016, the expanded tournament he calls his “baby”, and that he won’t be in the Stade de France to hang the medals on the winners and, if it’s a home triumph, kiss Antoine Griezmann & Co on the cheeks. But this baby is obese and should be put on a crash diet immediately.

Twenty-four teams is too many. There have been too many games in which too many teams have had too much desire not to lose games – and, given this is supposed to be elite competition, even one is too many. I fear for the Euros now, even if France win tonight with a swashbuckling performance.

Near-perfect a few years ago, the tournament has got too big and flabby and next time it’s going to get lost. There will be no host nation in 2020, the 60th anniversary of its inception. Instead, the games will be spread around. The competition will be everywhere and yet nowhere.

There will be no unifying theme or special flavour. The Beeb department responsible for signature tunes will struggle to find a song to fit. Much more significantly, the fans will hate all the expensive traipsing and being denied the chance to invade, charm the locals, learn quaint customs.

This is another of Platini’s grande idées. He thinks the scattered Euros will be “romantic”. What next? After the too-big Euros and the homeless Euros – which will be just as big – what will happen in 2024? Would teams, at crucial moments, be able to stop a game and summon help from outside – a football version of the “phone a friend” option in Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Or, fancying their chances, have the bench flourish a giant Joker card à la It’s a Knockout?

Thankfully by then Platini will no longer be in charge but the damage has been done. And you can see the Euros getting bigger still, increasing to the 32 countries that compete for the World Cup. Uefa could justify this on the grounds that 32 is a neater number for a tournament, removing the need to invite the highest-placed – or least-worst – third-place teams through to the next phase.

At the highest level, international football is seen as less important, or less self-important, than club football but that’s never going to be changed by making the summer tournaments even more challenging to players’ weary limbs and vulnerable cruciates.

There was an obvious need to expand the Euros from eight to 16 teams following the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia but 24 is too many. Eight teams going straight to knockout – without the need for any of the accoutrements from It’s a Knockout! – was the perfect format. With four of the third-place – or second-bottom – teams also eligible for a party bag this time, the incentive to play attacking football has not been great.

But, I hear you say, there are many different ways to win football matches, all of them valid. Good luck with that – and how many times exactly have you re-watched the DVD of that grim Greece triumph of 2004?

This time, Sweden completed their first two matches without mustering a single shot on target, their only score coming from an own goal by the Republic of Ireland’s Ciaran Clark. In the goalless draw between Germany and Poland Manuel Neuer wasn’t required to make a single save. Even France went through 89 minutes against Albania without registering an effort on target until a last-gasp effort won it for them.

When we take a long, hard look at the quality of the football at Euro 2016 I think we’ll be disappointed. Late goals provided spurious excitement. The brilliant stories of the little teams – Wales, Iceland – masked shortcomings elsewhere. A lot of the top players – or as everyone prefers now, thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson, the top, top players – didn’t produce toppermost performances. The hooligans became the drama for a while, providing a readymade cast of bad guys. And when the first to complain about negativity was Cristiano Ronaldo, those who regard the Portuguese as a petulant, ungracious egomaniac didn’t feel like extending their sympathy. The rest of us looked at Ronaldo’s team and reckoned their constipated performances to be an insult to the heritage of Luis Figo and Rui Costa.

Italy emerged from the groups at the 1982 World Cup with three draws but then flowered spectacularly through Paolo Rossi, Marco Tardelli and Bruno Conti. Portugal haven’t done this, so allez les Bleus.