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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Expansion of the Euros to 32 teams

This post was written shortly after Euros 2012

There has been a little bit of hoohah about expanding the Euros to 24 teams. People were praising the quality of this tournament, saying that there hasn’t been a dull moment (except when England is playing) for this entire tournament. And they pointed out that the World Cup, after it got expanded to 32 teams, turned out to be dull, dreary affairs with a lot of defensive playing. Unfortunately, the world cup 2010 turned out to be a very dull affair, but that was mainly down to the lousy quality of the ball. USA 1994 turned out to be the last best world cup for quite a while. But I think we have to look forward. What’s happened since 1998 is that Asian football has been on the rise. In 1994, we expected them to be the whipping boys. In 2002, due to a combination of a better than average team and extremely fortuitous refereeing (maybe they sent some Korean chicks to entertain the referees) South Korea reached the semi-finals. Japan were unfortunate not to get to the quarter finals of the world cup after they lost to Paraguay on penalties. Turkey reached the semi-finals once. Ghana would have reached the semi-finals if Luis Suarez hadn’t got himself sent off, although you had to say that that Uruguay team deserved to reach the semi-finals. And the Uruguay team itself would not have qualified if not for the expanded format.

Then there was the 2002 world cup, which in retrospect represented the changing of the guard. Of the teams which reached the quarter finals, only Brazil, Germany and maybe England could be considered to be a great power. The Spain side was still the Bad Old Underperforming Spain. It wasn’t a fantastic World Cup, but it showed you that World Cups aren’t just about the traditional powers.

The thing is, when the tournament expands, there will be a period of time when a lot of teams that don’t deserve to be there turn up. But after that, when more countries have the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, they’ll see an improvement in quality.

Second, Europe is probably the only continent which can regularly produce around five sides which are regular contenders for the World Cup. For the rest of the continents, there will always be one or two giants which dominate. For Asia, for many years it was always South Korea and one other Arab country. For South America, Brazil and Argentina will always qualify. For North America, it’s always USA and Mexico. Perhaps Africa are the other continent where it’s never clear who dominates football. You’d think that Egypt and Ghana would be powerhouses, but they don’t qualify often enough.

If you expand the number of countries playing in the World Cup, some of those countries which are in the shadow of these giants would get a shot. True, New Zealand’s football is really not exciting to watch, but they were the only team in 2010 which never lost a match, which sounds like a great achievement until you remember that they didn’t win any matches either and crashed out of the first round. Unfortunately for Asia, Australia, Korea and Japan will always be qualifying for the World Cup, so if you have only 4/5 berths, that only leaves room for 1 or 2 more. The issue is, you’d need the Asians and the Africans, and maybe USA to be qualifying for the quarter finals more often in order to justify the inclusion of more teams in the World Cup. I think that the number of teams in the World Cup will be 32 for quite a while while these other continents strive to keep up.

At the same time, there are a higher number of Asian players which feature for top European sides. We already can name Park Ji Sung, Shinji Kagawa, Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinsuke Nakamura as players who are not merely there to make up the numbers, but are vital squad members for top European teams. As of now, Arab football is on the wane, but sooner or later there will be a few Arabs playing in top European sides, and not just Ali Al Habsi of Wigan.

At the same time, the non-European leagues are with varying degrees making their presences felt. MLS is rapidly becoming a “retirement” destination for former big stars, just as its predecessor was a place for the Indian summers of Pele, Cryuff and Beckenbauer. It already has Beckham, Henry and Robbie Keane. Shevchenko could be next. Chelsea Football Club used to be called “the pensioners” in the first stage of its revival from washed up former great club, and later on, on the back of Roman Abramovich’s billions, it went on to become great. So it’s not that shameful to start off as a retirement home. Leagues in Qatar and UAE are getting former stars to play for them as well. Most notably, Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba are in Shanghai and one wonders if they will have a big impact on Chinese football. China has a great population, and are even more keen on football than the Americans. But they don’t have good players. Elsewhere, in recent years Russia and Turkey have found success in the Europa League.

As for Europe expanding into 24 teams, the reasons are more dodgy. When you had 16 teams, it happened a few years after the Cold War, when a lot of new nations were formed. “Yugoslavia” suddenly became 6 teams (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and I don’t know whether Kosovo will ever become a new state). Czechoslovakia split into two. “Europe” has expanded to include many new states from the old Soviet Bloc, like the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Estonia. So it became a large federation. There are a lot of teams which would probably qualify when there are 8 new berths, such as Finland, Estonia, Bosnia and Turkey. Romania, Israel, Slovakia, Serbia and Bulgaria would have chances to play. There are a fair number of competent, if not great sides which could conceivably give a good show at the main tournament. So I was a little surprised when people blasted the plan to expand the Euros.


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