Euro 2016: Stick, Stretch, Switchback or Twist? – The UEFA European Championships format debate

UEFA’s decision to expand the 2016 tournament to 24 teams provoked much debate pre-tournament, so has it been a success and could an alternative format work better? Richard Pike explores the topic.

UEFA Euro 2016


Tournament format change, for a now 45 year-old who started following football aged 7, their first major international football tournament would have been the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina which was a 16 team format and their first European Championships would have been Euro 1980 which comprised of 8 teams. Since then, the World Cup has expanded from 16 teams to 32 teams and the European Championships has expanded from 8 teams to 24 teams. For me, until Euro 2016, I had only ever known the European Championships as having 16 teams, (Euro 96 was the first to feature 16 teams). Likewise, I have no recollection of the World Cup containing anything other than 32 teams as the first I have memories of was 1998 which was the first to contain that number.

I confess, upon the expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams for 2016, I was critical of the format change and feared that the quality of the tournament would suffer. However, the qualification phase which saw some smaller nations qualify for the very first time without the need for a play-off (meaning that even under a 16 team format they would have qualified on merit) made me temporarily take back the initial doubts and reserve judgement on the format change until we approach the end of Euro 2016. As we now approach the conclusion, I will analyse whether or not this format has been a success and whether or not an alternative format would work better.

Format 1 – The Current Format – Option Stick

Number of Teams – 24 (6 groups of 4) with top 2 teams in each group and the best 4 third placed teams progressing to the knockout round.
Number of Matches – 51

Positives – My initial fears about an expansion to 24 teams was some of the smaller teams who qualified via virtue of the expansion would be outclassed and that we would see many one-sided score-lines, which you want to try and avoid as few happened in the 16-team format. However, the likes of Albania and Hungary have dispelled those fears, the former achieving an excellent win against Romania, and also being in the game against both Switzerland and France, losing by only one and two goal margins and the latter winning their group which included a draw against Portugal and a comfortable victory against pre-tournament dark horses Austria. In addition, some of the scepticism of the expansion contained comments along the lines of “It is basically just guaranteeing that Big Nation X will never miss out on qualifying as the safety net of the play-offs now extends down to 3rd place in the qualifying groups.” However, whilst the large established European nations did by and large prove this theory correct, you can remove the “never” from the quotation above due to the Netherlands failing to qualify for Euro 2016 after finishing below Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey in qualification. The Dutch’s disastrous qualification campaign and the performances of the likes of Albania and Hungary are proof that there are a sufficient number of good quality international teams to justify an expansion from 16 teams.

Negatives – With an expanded format to 24 teams, the transition from group stage to knock-out stage was going to mean a return to the format used in FIFA World Cups between 1986 and 1994 where the top two placed teams in each of the six groups would progress to the last 16 alongside the best four third-placed teams. A worry pre-tournament was a return to third place teams qualifying from the groups would result in some dull group matches. Sadly, these fears have been realised, the Switzerland v Romania game was an example, once the Swiss got their deserved equalising goal, they showed very little intent to push on and attempt to get a winner. Because of their opening win against Albania, a point against the Romanians took the Swiss to 4 points, which barring a complete freak set of circumstances under this format is enough to get you through to the last 16 as either a Group runner-up or at minimum as one of the best third placed teams. The minimum expectations for the Swiss would have been a last 16 spot given they reached the last 16 of the last World Cup and because under this format it was easier than ever before to achieve this objective, the equaliser took the sting out of that game and dulled the occasion as a result.

Furthermore, another disadvantage of this format is the possibility of reaching the final without actually having to win a game in normal or extra time as a team could draw all three of their group matches and then get through their remaining matches on penalty shootouts. Whilst Portugal’s extra-time victory against Croatia in the last 16 put to bed the possibility of this happening at this tournament, it has happened before at a major international tournament in 2011 when Paraguay reached the Copa America final by drawing their 3 group matches, qualifying for the knockout stages as one of the best third placed teams and then beating both Brazil and Venezuela on penalties in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. Because of the possibility of this occurring in a 24 team format, it can result in teams employing negative and defensive tactics throughout a tournament.

Format 2 – An Extended Format – Option Stretch

Number of Teams – 32 (8 Groups of four teams), top 2 from each group advance to the last 16
Number of Matches – 63

Positives – With 24 teams, it leaves a situation as explained above where you have teams going through to the knockout round by coming third place in the group. To avoid this, you could go to a 32 team format where just the group winners and the runners-up progress to the last 16 in a mirroring of the current World Cup format. Eight more teams would have to be added to the tournament under this proposed format, however, there are some decent teams who did not qualify for Euro 2016. Netherlands, Denmark, Greece, Bosnia, Norway, Scotland, Slovenia and Bulgaria all on paper have teams that are comfortably a match for some of the teams that did qualify. So finding teams would not be a problem. Another positive of this format is with 4 team groups with 2 advancing through, a team cannot simply play for 3 draws or they will barring a miracle exit the tournament, furthermore, 4 points would not guarantee passage through to the knockout stage like it does under the current format. The intensity would remain high throughout the whole of the group stage.

Negatives – One would have to question the whole point of qualification under this format due to the large amount of qualification games that would have to be played to eliminate such a small amount of teams. With the recent admission of Kosovo to UEFA as a full member, UEFA now has 55 members, should this proposed 32 team format ever be voted through, it would mean that 58.18 per cent of UEFA’s members would qualify for a continental tournament. Compare this figure to 16 teams out of 41 (39.02 per cent) qualifying for CONCACAF’s Gold Cup, 16 teams out of 56 (28.57 per cent) qualifying for CAF’s Africa Cup of Nations and 16 teams out of 47 (34.04 per cent) qualifying for AFC’s Asian Cup and the percentage of teams qualifying is far too high. The qualification process under its current guise of 5/6 team groups takes around 14 months to complete, which would be an awful lot of effort just to eliminate 23 teams out of 55.

Furthermore, qualification for a continental competition should have to be justifiably earned. A continental competition represents the highest level of football and the teams that qualify to participate should have played at their highest possible level to merit that qualification. A move to 32 teams would simply just dilute the tournament. Finally, sometimes more is not always better, there is quite a good amount more games to watch on TV with 24 teams than there was with 16 teams, under a 32 game format, there would even more matches. This combined with endless amounts of domestic and European club televised matches nowadays would mean we are in danger of going overkill with the amount of televised matches. Less quantity but more quality is always better than more quantity but less quality. Out of all my proposed formats, I think this idea is the worst, it seems logical at first to mirror the current World Cup format, however, the aforementioned points in the Negatives section far outweigh the positives, which should leave this idea dead in the water.

Format 3 – A Reduced Format – Option Switchback

Number of Teams – 16 (4 groups of 4 teams) Top two from each group advance to Quarter Finals
Number of Matches – 31 matches

Positives – Having experienced 5 previous Championships under this format (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012), personally, I feel that the quality of the groups stages was higher under this format than with 24 teams. Under this format every qualification group has only one automatic qualification place, meaning that qualification truly has to be earned for a tournament. Furthermore, when you get to the main tournament, the potential for “Groups of Death” is far more of a possibility. In Euro 2000, there were two such groups, one contained France, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Denmark, the other contained Portugal, Germany, England and Romania. At Euro 2004 you had the famous group of Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Latvia and in Euro 2008 no one could forget the Netherlands, France, Italy and Romania group. With 16 teams, one or two groups of high quality were always produced and groups like this really launch a tournament and give it a spring of life early doors. With 24 teams, I feel we have really lacked this early spark, Euro 2016 has in my opinion been far from a poor tournament, but it has taken until the Last 16 for it to finally get going with some better quality matches. Finally, with 16 teams, the mathematics are much more simple, the top two go through with nothing for the third placed teams and there is less chance of dull games as teams simply cannot sit and play for 2/3 draws from their 3 group matches. As aforementioned, 4 points and sometimes even 5 points (as Italy infamously found out in Euro 2004) is sometimes not enough to get you through.

Negatives – The major weakness of the 16 team format is that there is the potential for more teams being eliminated after two matches, which turns some final group games into “dead rubbers”. This happened in Euro 2000 when Czech Republic and Denmark played each other in a final group match with both teams already having been eliminated after two defeats to France and the Netherlands. At least under a 24 team format with the possibility of getting through in 3rd place remaining open, two defeats does not mean elimination. At Euro 2016, only Ukraine were eliminated going into the final group matches and the more teams that have a chance of making it through going into the final group matches, the better. With 16 teams, you could get the possibility of 8 teams being eliminated going into the final group matches with the identities of all the Quarter Finalists already being known. Finally, as aforementioned, the improved performances of the medium-ranked UEFA members in recent years has justified an expansion from 16 teams and with only one team qualifying automatically for the tournament in the 5/6 team qualifying groups, the potential for more dead rubber qualifiers is higher.

Format 4 – A Tweaked Format – Option Twist

Number of Teams – 24 (6 Groups of 4 teams with the top 4 ranked Group winners going through automatically to the Quarter Finals. The worst 2 ranked Group winners would then enter a Quarter Final play-off round with the six group runners up with the four winners from the play-off matches completing the Quarter Final line up)
Number of Matches – 47

Positives – Every group game is incentivised under this format, teams who had already won their group by virtue of winning their first two group games would not take their foot off the pedal in the final group match to ensure you would finish as one of the best four group winners and thus get a bye into the Quarter Finals. I disliked Italy’s decision to make eight changes to their team from their victory against Sweden to their eventual defeat against the Irish. Had this proposed format been in place, there would have been no letting up from them and they would have by and large kept together the same side that won their opening two matches barring the odd one or two changes here and there. Furthermore, in a North American sports league like the NFL, teams that are ranked highest in their conference at the end of the domestic season are rewarded with a bye in the opening week of the playoffs. This rewards their efforts and even if a team has sealed a play-off spot with 3 or 4 games of the domestic season remaining, their players stay focused and keep giving their all to ensure that they finish in first place to seal a bye, which can be an advantage when it comes to keeping players fresh for the end of season run-in. Finally, because players of an already qualified team don’t ease off the intensity, it is fair on all teams across all groups/conferences. A game between team A, who has already qualified for the play-off stages of a tournament and team B who is fighting to get into the play-offs of a tournament will also have an impact on whether team C in a different group/conference who is also vying for a place in the play-offs gets in ahead of team B or not.

Negatives – With four sides getting a bye into the Quarter Finals, there is the danger that the Quarter Finals could become one-sided with the 4 sides that have had a longer rest period all triumphing over the 4 sides who came through the Quarter Final play-offs (some of which could go to extra-time and penalties).

The Verdict – A Tweaked Format – Option Twist

Having weighed up the current format and the three proposed alternatives, I believe that a tweak to the current 24 team format is the best way forward for future European Championships in 2020 and beyond. The most important reason is the aforementioned reason for wanting to maintain a high intensity to all group stage matches. I don’t wish to knock Ireland’s achievements in reaching the last 16 following Robbie Brady’s winner against the Italians, but they were certainly given a helping hand by Italy making so many changes from their previous match and essentially experimenting after already having secured top spot in the group.

Immediately after the match had finished, one of ITV’s pundits, former Man City, Aston Villa and Ireland defender Richard Dunne stated “Even if Italy had put out their full side tonight, I still think we would have beaten them.” Whilst I can understand a little bit of passion and patriotism in his comments, I personally thought they bordered on arrogance. Italy did not need to put out their strongest side as the game was a dead rubber, if qualification for the last 16 was riding on the result in the match against Ireland for Italy, not only would they have put out their strongest side, but equally, they would have had a much more focused mentality. In such a circumstance, I really just don’t see Ireland beating such a tournament team like Italy no matter how much effort and endeavour they put into it. Under my proposed tweaked format, Italy would also have put out their strongest possible side as winning a group with 6 points would not guarantee a side one of the byes to the Quarter Finals by virtue of being one of the best four ranked group winners, however, winning the match against Ireland would have gotten Italy to 9 points which would have meant they are much more likely to be one of the best four group winners.

My case for a tweaked 24 team format for the Euros is further strengthened by more comments made in ITV’s post-match analysis of the Ireland v Italy game by Germany legend Lothar Matthaus who remarked on Italy’s eight changes to their starting line-up “This is what I don’t like to see in a tournament like this, it was nice for Ireland but poor for Turkey.” Some may cry “negative”, “spoilsport” “dampen the party” etc towards Matthaus’ comments, however, I thought they were 100 per cent correct. Turkey went into their final group game against a Czech Republic side who had one point from their first two matches and alongside the Turks, still had a chance to progress to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. Whereas Ireland had a match against an Italian side for whom the match resembled an international friendly as nothing was at stake and who changed nearly all of their strongest starting eleven.

One does feel for Turkey in this situation, people might argue “Turkey lost their first two games, therefore they have only themselves to blame for having only secured a weak hold on one of the best third-placed spots before the Irish played Italy.” Fair comment, but Ireland themselves had only one point from their first two games and were not exactly in a strong position to qualify themselves. If the boot had been on the other foot and had Turkey beaten a weakened Italy and progressed ahead of Ireland, I guarantee that ITV’s pundits would be furious at the way Italy approached the game and would be screaming for a change to the format and justifiably so.

Finally, incentivising the group stage of the tournament by offering byes to the Quarter-Finals of the tournament for the four best-placed group winners could provide more entertainment in the group phase. How so? You would see teams trying to score more goals to try and improve their goal difference. You would have seen a very different mentality from the Swiss in their 1-0 victory against Albania where the second-half became very dull as the Swiss resorted to keeping things tight and not conceding against 10 men had my proposed tweaked format been introduced. Knowing full well that a potential group win could come down to the result of their final match against the French, Switzerland would probably have used the Albania game as an opportunity against 10 men to score two or three more goals or to try and score another goal to win the match against the Romanians rather than simply settle for a narrow win in the former game and a draw in the latter game. This would mean going into their match against the French that whilst Switzerland and France might both be level on 6 points, Switzerland could have a better goal difference, which means a draw against France would ensure they would win their group and thus increase their chances of getting one of the best 4 group winner spots.

One criticism of tournament football is that the first two of the three group matches are very defensive and that there is a lack of goals due to some teams not wanting to lose their first game and some teams just wanting to get three points on the board in a narrow one-goal victory in order to kick-start their tournament. With four Quarter Final bye spots available, teams would want to do everything possible to ensure that they are the recipients of one of those bye spots, after all, at the conclusion of the group stage, in 5 of the 6 groups, there could be a situation where all the group winners have 9 points from 3 games. In this scenario, you would feel gutted if you were the team that missed out on a precious opportunity to rest your best players by earning a bye if you only had a goal difference of +3 after winning your three matches one-nil when other teams who were more positive, showed more attacking intent and scored more goals got that bye ahead of you.

Conclusion

Euro 2016 will go down as a tournament of the underdog, impressive overachievement from unfancied teams is proof that UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament was correct. However, the events outlined above that took place in the group stages shows that the 24 team format is still in a teething stage. The Option Twist modification of allowing the best 4 group winners the opportunity to have a bye to the Quarter Finals will encourage more attacking play and mean every game for every team has an added edge to it. Furthermore, it eliminates the murky and controversial element of the best four third-placed teams qualifying.


Written by Richard Pike.

Richard Pike

Richard Pike

Keen fan and season ticket holder at Wigan Athletic in League One. Football addict who has been watching the beautiful game since the age of 7 with the first memories of the sport being the Euro 1996 Championships in England. Interested in all leagues and teams both domestically and on the continent with a particular interest and focus on upper-middle ranking European leagues such as the Russian, Portuguese and Turkish Leagues.
Richard Pike