Like most football fans, I approached the initial presentation of Michael Platini’s extension to the UEFA European Championship Qualifying format with great scepticism. In the modern age we have become accustomed to the meddling’s of UEFA and FIFA tyrants, implementing their dictatorship-esque stance on the beautiful game. The extension from 16 to 24 countries to one of the most compelling football competitions simply appeared as a broadening to UEFA’s all-encompassing dominance and a plentiful contribution to their already bulging wallets. In essence more countries correlates with increased ticket sales, increased television contracts and increased sponsorship.
Conversely, the early evidence of Platini’s ‘brainwave’ is one of rejuvenation to what was morphing into a relatively predictable, tedious and tiresome format. Previously, the first-place teams qualified along with one second-place team with the most points to join the host nations. The final four places were then decided in a two-game playoff between the remaining second-placed teams.
Alternatively, both the first and second-placed teams will now qualify to France in 2016 while the third-placed teams resort to a two-game playoff. Admittedly, in a continent of 53 footballing nations, the opportunity of close to half of Europe qualifying for, arguably the next best international football competition appears charitable.
Yet, for many of the no-hopers of European football this has open unparalleled opportunity- no longer are the likes of Wales destined to middle and lower table mediocrity but instead hold a serious chance to break through the major tournament ceiling for the first time in 56 years. And the early results are representative of countries seizing the realistic dream of qualification.
We have already witnessed Northern Ireland break their own fruitless history and win three consecutive games to comfortably rest second in their group; in a challenging group Scotland sit third having narrowly lost to Germany by a single goal and Wales are second after three qualifying games. Outside the British waters, Slovakia have ensured that Spain’s post-World Cup hangover even exceeds that of a Wednesday LloydsShack through a 2-1 victory; the invincible Germany of the summer lost out to Poland and the Netherlands, who were only denied a World Cup final place by penalties, are slumped in third in their group having lost to both the Czech Republic and Iceland.
In what is becoming synonymous to this new format, the latest round of qualification (14-15 November) further inflicted shock: after 61 consecutive defeats San Marino secured their first point in European Championship qualifying history as they drew with Estonia; after a 1-0 away victory fellow minions the Faroe Islands submerged considerable pressure on former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri as the nation that reached the knockout round of this year’s World Cup slump in last place in Group F.
England ensured they remained one of only four teams with an 100% success rate after a 3-1 victory over Slovenia in Wayne Rooney’s 100th cap while Gordon Strachan described Scotland’s 1-0 win against the Republic of Ireland as ‘a mesmerising spectacle’. Results were less positive for Northern Ireland who suffered a 2-0 defeat in Romania. However, that didn’t distract from the marvel of Roy Carroll, Manchester United goalkeeper-circa early noughties, playing his second game in twenty hours as he flew into England in the early hours to keep a clean sheet for Notts County against Coventry. All while the likes of Raheem Sterling grumble about tiredness.
The ardour of Carroll is representative of the prospect the expansion of the European Championships has brought. For a vast amount of countries, the prospect of playing in a major finals tournament is no longer a pipeline fantasy but a potential vivid reality. Of course, when the finals arrive the historical European football elite will dominate but the wildcards who have benefited from this new qualifying format may cause a few shocks along the way. In the economics-centred bubble of UEFA headquarters the finances of such an expansions are positive but in a paradox to footballs usual nature it is a financial incentive that enhances fan experience. The European Championships will never parallel the alluring, exotic, romanticism of the World Cup but the chance of qualification for eight extra countries has created a wave of anticipation and optimism. Plus the prospect of several extra hours of football in the summer of 2016 is very welcome.