Rory Smith On Soccer
Given the depth of quality in Europe, a small expansion (and a simpler format) could make for a much better tournament.
LONDON — Thomas Vermaelen’s header hit the ground first and then rose before colliding with the post near the corner where it meets the crossbar. As the ball spun out, sideways toward the middle of the goal, Lukas Hradecky, the Finland goalkeeper, was still turning around. It was all happening in the blink of an eye. Instinctively, Hradecky reached out a hand to try to swat the ball away. In that instant, on his fingertips, a substantial portion of Euro 2020 hung.
Had Hradecky been able to claw the ball away from his goal, away from danger, Finland might have been able to hang on, to keep a vaguely interested Belgium at bay, to qualify for the knockout stages of the first major tournament it has ever reached. Denmark, playing simultaneously in Copenhagen, might have been sent home.
That he could not, though, affected far more than the games in Finland’s group. That all Hradecky could do, in fact, was push the ball back over the line and into his goal had ramifications that extended far beyond Group B. That single goal effectively set the course of almost half the teams in the tournament.
It meant, first of all, that Denmark would qualify for the knockouts — despite losing its first two games, despite enduring the trauma of seeing Christian Eriksen collapse on the field — as long as it held on (as it did) to beat Russia. It could reach the knockout phase only if Finland lost. Vermaelen’s goal broke its rival’s resistance.
But the goal was also good news for Switzerland. It had finished off its initial slate of games the previous night, and was waiting to discover if it had done enough to remain in the tournament. Belgium’s winning — or, more accurately, Finland’s losing — meant it could relax.
In Group D, a Finnish defeat meant that both England and the Czech Republic had made it to the round of 16, too. Their game, the next day, would be an administrative exercise, establishing which of the two had the dubious pleasure, given the draw for the knockouts, of finishing first in the group. Croatia and Scotland knew, too, that whichever team won their game would be guaranteed to join them in the last 16.
It did not stop there. All of a sudden, despite having a game left to play, Sweden and France were through, too. Portugal and, most likely, Spain would join them with only a draw in their final match. Ukraine’s hopes, meanwhile, were left hanging by a thread, reliant on someone else’s capitulating to remain in the tournament (Slovakia would later oblige). All of their fates had been decided by a single goal.
Monday night’s conclusion to Group B was a masterpiece of slow-burn drama. The names involved — Finland, Denmark, Russia — might have been less glamorous, but it was no less enthralling than the hour and a half of chaos staged by France, Germany, Portugal and Hungary in Group F a couple of days later.
Between them, the games were a better advertisement for the tournament’s 24-team structure than UEFA, which runs the event, could have possibly hoped. It is, the competition’s organizer admits, a somewhat arcane format: one in which 36 games are played to eliminate only eight teams, and in which not only do the group winners and runners-up qualify, but also four teams that have finished third.
It can, at times, play out spectacularly. Of the final 12 games in the group phase this month, only one — the Netherlands’ win against North Macedonia — had nothing riding on it. Only England’s meeting with the Czechs did not carry at least some threat of failure. That was down, in short, to the existence of the back door: Almost every team went into the third round of games with some chance of qualifying, some risk of not qualifying, with something at stake.
As tempting as it is to idealize the more traditional formats — read: the ones we are currently used to, and therefore think are “normal” — both the 16-team blueprint previously employed for the Euros and the (conceptually identical) 32-team structure familiar from the World Cup can be pedestrian. Neither is immune to the dead rubber. Neither has a flawless record of producing enthralling group stages.
But both have one substantial advantage on the system that has played out over the last two weeks. It is not just that, because 16 of 24 teams qualify for the latter stages, there is too much reward and too little risk (though that is not nearly so pronounced as it is in this year’s Copa América, in which the entire group phase is just a front for eliminating Bolivia and Venezuela).
It is that one game, as Finland-Belgium on Monday night rather neatly proved, can wield an influence on almost every group. By beating Finland, Belgium accidentally settled half a dozen issues before they had chance to play out. The format brings with it a necessary shortage of jeopardy; this time around, Group B burned almost all the supply.
Then there is the issue of a divergence between accomplishment and meaning. Switzerland had won its final game on Sunday evening, comfortably beating Turkey in Baku. But whether that would be enough to reach the knockouts may not have been clear until Wednesday evening, when the final round of group games was played.
As it happened, the Swiss had to wait only 24 hours — thanks to Vermaelen’s header — but Ukraine had to wait far longer. It only discovered that it had a place in the round of 16 after all on Wednesday night, after Slovakia’s heavy defeat against Spain. Two days earlier, it had lost to Austria. For 48 hours, it was neither in the tournament nor out of it.
UEFA accepts that is a shortcoming of the structure as it stands. Logistically, it is less than ideal: Several teams only discovered the final identity of their last 16 opponents, and the locations of their games, when Group F concluded on Wednesday. That made preparing for games, and planning travel, far more complex than they would like.
But the bigger problem is less pragmatic. Sports are drama; a game is a self-contained narrative arc. The covenant between performers and viewers is that the former will provide the latter with a resolution. A win means three points, or qualification for the next round. A defeat means no points, or elimination.
A win that might mean progress or might not is unsatisfactory. A resolution that is played out behind a curtain is a breaking of the covenant. Drama cannot just be lost to the atmosphere.
It is this that provides the most compelling argument to accept the direction of travel and declare that it is time for the European Championship to grow still further, to expand the finals to include 32 teams.
There is sufficient quality within UEFA’s ranks to invite more teams without diluting the standards of the tournament: Serbia, Norway, Romania, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Greece, Iceland and Bosnia (the eight best sides not present this year, according to FIFA’s deeply flawed ranking system) would add, rather than subtract, to the competition.
To do so responsibly, however, UEFA would have to commit to a major reshaping of the way international soccer works. Elite players are already being asked to play far too many games, both by their clubs and their countries. FIFPro, the global players’ union, has repeatedly warned that burnout will lead to a surge in injuries, a belief shared by a number of leading coaches and, increasingly, by players themselves.
For the Euros to expand, then, something would have to give: namely, the laborious and predictable process of qualifying. Rather than forcing the major nations to jump through hoops for two years before reaching the finals anyway, it would make more sense to guarantee each of them a place.
For the sake of appearances, perhaps that could be dressed up as a spot for all those nations that have won a major tournament: Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece and Denmark. Russia and the Czech Republic could be included, too, despite technically winning the Euros in another life, and under another name.
They would be joined by the five highest-ranked teams not to have won an honor: currently Belgium, Switzerland, Croatia, Wales and Sweden. Those 16 teams would be exempt from qualification, but rather than stand idle for two years, they would be drafted into a version of UEFA’s successful Nations League concept: four divisions of four teams, with the winners of each playing in a biennial, weeklong tournament, as they do now.
The remaining 39 teams in UEFA’s ranks, meanwhile, would be arranged into seven qualifying groups of five teams, plus one group of four. The top two in each would earn a place at the Euros. They, too, would benefit from one of the lessons (that should have been) learned from the Nations League: that games between closely matched countries are better than an endless succession of blowouts.
There is, though, one twist to this plan. Over the last couple of months, soccer has made it abundantly clear that it does not have much truck with entrenched status quos; it is integral to the sport’s identity that nothing should ever be closed. That should apply to the Euros, too: Those 16 “automatic” qualifiers should not be granted that status in perpetuity.
So, instead, all of those precious spaces would be open, refreshed every four years: The 16 teams that made the knockouts of the Euros would be the 16 teams that are assured entry to the next tournament. If the Italians fall at the group stage, ousted by Serbia one year? Fine, no problem. They have to qualify next time.
There would, of course, be drawbacks to a 32-team Euros. A repeat of Monday — in which six teams qualified because a goalkeeper could not react in time — would be impossible. Each group would be a self-contained unit, as in the World Cup, with only the top two advancing.
But they are outweighed by the benefits: fewer meaningless games for the traditional powerhouses; more balanced games for the countries for whom international qualifying is currently a futile torture; more cause to celebrate for more teams; more recognition that attainment is relative. Monday night was exquisite. But it would be better, for everyone, if more teams could decide their own fate, rather than having it set for them by the bounce of the ball.
The ideas in this piece were workshopped with Tariq Panja, but he should get, at most, 30 percent of the credit for them. He can be the man who helped the man who saved the Euros.
For a brief moment, Scotland hoped. Just before halftime, Callum McGregor drew his team level with Croatia at Hampden Park, and the specter of the country’s Holy Grail — a place in the knockout rounds of literally any major tournament — glimmered into view. It was, as ever, an illusion: Croatia, it turned out, is actually far better at soccer than Scotland, and it spent much of the second half emphatically proving it.
No country in Europe outperforms its expectations quite so much as Croatia. In the last 23 years, it has reached one World Cup final, one World Cup semifinal and the knockout rounds of three European Championships. It has a population of just over four million people, and yet it consistently churns out generations of players talented enough to take on the overweening, industrialized superpowers of Western Europe.
Scotland, on the other hand, does not. In the same period, with its larger population, it has reached the finals of two major tournaments — this was its first brush with the biggest stage since 1998 — in the men’s game, and only one in the women’s. And yet, it is far closer to average for a nation of its size than its conqueror earlier this week.
The recent records of nations like Hungary, Norway and Serbia — all similar in population, if divergent in wealth — are far more similar to Scotland’s than they are to Croatia’s. Hungary has been to two major championships, as well, performing slightly better when it got there. Norway has not reached one since 2000. Serbia has played in four, but only once did it get out of the groups.
That is not to say Scotland could not do better. It could. Its youth development programs have long lagged behind those of other nations. The endemic short-termism that has dogged the Old Firm clubs has held the country back. So, too, has the disappearance of an increasingly international (in soccer, not in anything else) England as the most willing market for its talent.
But expectations for how the Scots should do seem unreasonably high. In part, that is because of the country’s historic significance to the game. In part, it is because history, in terms of soccer, is often written by the English, and the English find Scottish failure funny. And in part, it is because we tend to look at nations like Croatia and assume they are the rule, rather than glorious, improbable exceptions.
This week in things that are so blindingly obvious that nobody should have to read them: The best two games of the round of 16 are on Sunday and Tuesday, as Belgium faces Portugal in Seville and England takes on Germany at Wembley. Did you know that England and Germany are “old rivals?” Did you know they once played each other in a major final at Wembley? If you didn’t, expect to hear a lot about it over the next few days.
The prize on offer this time, though, is rather grander than some sort of vague and meaningless revenge for what happened in 1990, 1996 and 2010 (in England’s case) or 1966 and 2000 (in Germany’s). When the dust settles on Tuesday night, the winner will look at the path ahead to the final of this tournament and decide that the greatest obstacle has already been overcome.
In the quarterfinals, either nation would expect to beat Sweden or Ukraine. In the semifinals, the greatest threat would come from a Netherlands team that has no little talent but a distinct shortage of balance. France, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Portugal are all arrayed on the other side of the bracket; they are, for now, out of sight and out of mind. Things have worked out nicely for England and Germany. Well, no, that’s not quite right. Things have worked out nicely for one of them. For the other, they have not worked out at all.
A question from Peter Griffith, although I should note he is not the first to ask it in recent weeks. “You have two countries playing, and a referee from a third country,” he wrote. “When the players remonstrate with the referee, what language do they speak?”
I would not claim to have a definitive answer to this question. I am tempted to say “soccer” and leave it at that: The hand gesture for “I got the ball” is the same the world over. That’s only semi-sarcastic — my guess is that there’s a sort of basic Esperanto made up of things like “no foul” and “corner.” Other than that, I’d have said it’s English most of the time, or whichever alternative is most obvious: If, say, the referee is Italian and there are players who ply their trade in Serie A, then they will revert to that.
Ian Roberts has a friend — in Maryland — who is following the curious story of Jamie Vardy investing in the minor-league Rochester Rhinos. “Good on him to try and revive the team,” his friend wrote (to Ian, who passed it along). “Isn’t it ironic that British footballers come to the U.S. and try to build the game up, while American businessmen, with no knowledge of the game, are trying to ruin it over in the U.K.?”
My response was different, I have to admit: I wonder whether Vardy will find that navigating a new soccer culture is more challenging than he’s expecting. We’ll find out either way: I believe the story has already been earmarked for the documentary treatment. If they don’t call it “Vardy in the U.S.A.,” I am refusing to watch it.
Tim Wyatt, meanwhile, expects the “gulf between club and international football to widen in the coming decades, mostly because of the lack of coaching in international football. All future development in club football will probably continue to be driven by data and tactics and coaching (and oceans of cash), leaving international football with its three or four weekends a year unable to keep up.” This is true, Tim, and it is why we’re best accepting that it’s the flaws that make international soccer special. If you want quality, wait for the Champions League.