In the aftermath of Euro 2008, the UEFA executive committee voted to expand the tournament from sixteen teams to twenty-four, starting with the 2016 Championships. The decision was criticised by many in the media at the time, who argued that financial considerations had outweighed the negative impact a greater number of teams would have on the quality of the football. This, they felt, was of great concern, especially considering the consensus developing at the time that the champions, Spain, had ‘saved’ international football from itself with their highly technical performances en route to victory. Writing in the Guardian, Kevin McCarra suggested that ‘Four years ago there was the same total of 77 goals at a European Championship but the astonishment at the triumph of Greece then was qualified for neutrals by regret over the stifling means that had to be employed to pull off such a coup. There was little of that grimness at Euro 2008’. Clearly, then, there was a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way of winning trophies.
Often, our memories of major tournaments are coloured by the nature of the team that ultimately emerges victorious. Euro 2004 tends to get bad press because Greece’s success was tempered in the eyes of many by the fact that they won by sticking to a scrappy, defensive template. I watched that final in a pub in Dublin with two Portuguese housemates and an Irish friend. At the final whistle, my compatriot turned to me and remarked ‘this is a crime against football’. The sentiment was shared by many. Euro 2004 was seen as a particularly low point for international football, where wealthy players, exhausted and indifferent after long, lucrative domestic seasons, simply turned up in the hope that this burden of a tournament would pass them all by and they could get back to enjoying the millions they were making with their clubs. This narrative was in widespread use at the time, providing some sort of explanation, to those who felt they needed it, for Greece’s abhorrent and undeserved victory . Four years later, however, this grim entropy was halted, and indeed reversed, by gallant armies of brave, heroic individuals giving their all for their nations. At the end, the best team won, and journalists everywhere rejoiced at the fact that they could now go away and write fawning articles about Xavi’s metronomic passing.
There are certain flaws in these narratives, the main one probably being that they are completely and utterly divorced from the realities of the tournaments they seek to explain. While Greece’s performances were rarely spectacular, there was a certain beauty in the quality of their defending, and their ability to neutralise the attacking threats of teams that were considered far better. Conversely, Spain were indeed worthy victors in 2008, but not even their most fervent acolytes would argue that their performances in the semi-final and final were ones where the quality and breath of positive, attacking football shone through.
Behind all this lies a certain unease at the emergence of new forces in European football. I have read many articles decrying the expansion of the Euros, but I have not been convinced by a single one. Why? Because these tournaments are about so much more than the quality of football on show. In his brilliant article revisiting Italia ’90, Rob Smyth quoted a comment made about the tournament on another piece; “Italia 90 was a great event just spoiled by the football.” Looking at that World Cup in particular, the Republic of Ireland and Egypt contributed little to the quality of the overall play, and the Cameroon side that won the hearts of neutrals everywhere while crushing the limbs of their opponents brought little to the table in terms of tactical awareness or structure. But surely their presence brought its own value to proceedings? If there had been fewer teams at Italia ’90, would we have witnessed Roger Milla, 106 years old, dancing at the corner flag? Or World Cup winner Jack Charlton smashing his head off the dugout as the tension surrounding Ireland v Romania began to claw away at him?
Football is about so much more than the best side winning all the time. It’s about drama, passion and controversy as much as it is about technical ability. No one remembers the finals of a major championship for the 100% passing accuracy of the winning team’s midfield orchestrator. They remember it for crazy Russian sides tearing the Netherlands apart in the most unexpected manner. They remember Turkey overcoming all the odds to beat a brilliant Croatian side. For this reason, the more teams that play in these championships, the better for the observer.
Posted by Flann MacGowan