And just at that moment a nation cried in unison: “Shearer! With your gruff punditry! And your snobbishness over what a centre-forward should be! Not forgetting your vast wardrobe of horrible shirts with piping and seamwork which even Spandau Ballet would reject for being too outlandish! Quit it with the slagging by implication!”
Did he mean us? I think he might have done. Certainly teams like us, stuck in big-tournament oblivion for so long, who must be fancying they’ll get to run across the drawbridge for an expanded competition. And that’ll be great, won’t it? Back among the elite, with the chance for our boys to be interviewed in atmospheric semi-darkness just like the Ronaldos and the Van Persies. Great for us, for sure, but would it be great for the Euros?
At the moment, the competition is perfect. Not too long or too big or too slow to get going. The games come quick and they’re all meaningful. Lose your first one and you’ve barely time to catch your breath before the next and it’ll be mega. A lean, mean, fighting tournament, that’s been the Euros thus far, with none of your World Cup flab or Champions League excess.
It took a long time to get to eight teams. Twenty years. Only 17 took part in 1960’s qualifying rounds and the finals proper, in France, began with the semis. That’s not so much lean as anorexic. But by 1980 we had two groups called, quaintly, Group 1 and Group 2. Original refusniks England and Italy were overcome by Belgium who lost in the final to West Germany. The Germans, too, had earlier scoffed at the concept of a Europe-wide tourney for international teams.
Start modest, stay modest. This has been the Euros’ way. As opposed to starting as a beautiful idea (the World Cup, the European Cup) and becoming unwieldy with too many boring matches in the early stages. Wives and girlfriends may resent football dominating the TV schedules but when it’s the Euros, “fat” and “predictable” are not accusations which can be hurled at the tournament (so she must mean you slouched on the sofa, old chum). Next time, though, they probably will be. I know Europe has got bigger – that half a dozen teams now represent the old Yugoslavia, runners-up in 1960 and 1968 – but a gathering of 16 doesn’t seem too small; rather it sounds like just the right number for a tight, absorbing contest.
After two games, with the exception of Ireland, well beaten in both of theirs, every team at Euro 2012 was still involved. With respect, a 24-team competition will mean more Irelands, makeweights in an admittedly tough group who seem out of their depth. Now, is this the sort of tournament in which we want to see Scotland?
Bring it on, you’re probably thinking. We’ve been so long peeking through the fence at festivals of fitba that you fancy donning the kilt and a jauntily-angled glengarry once more, to swagger round foreign capitals laden with foaming pints reminding everyone that there really are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make. Fans from all lands like to draw attention to themselves now, but you could politely point out that the Tartan Army were first to plant that flag. And you could add: “See how Spain have been playing without a striker? Another great Scottish invention!”
I’m torn. I want Scotland at the Euros but I don’t want the competition to go the way of the others and become a monster, and an out-of-condition monster at that. A 24-team tournament will mean some qualifying from the group stages in third place. This happened at three successive World Cups until that competition got even more bloated and went to 32 but, really, should you be allowed to progress when technically you’ve only managed to finish second last?
Reminds me of an old Billy Connolly routine, a typically rambling story about a Hogmanay house party full to bursting because every chancer and hanger-on had persuaded the host: “Jimmy said it’d be OK ... ”
So yes, 24 teams: it’s probably our kind of thing.