Euro 2016: Expansion to 24 teams will be litmus test of quality of European football

To some it was a welcome step that acknowledged the game’s growth and would help to consolidate the progress already made, while to others it was a move that would instantly dilute quality and diminish the spectacle.

Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty poses for photos at Windosr Park before leaving for France to participate in Euro 2016. Clodagh Kilycoyne / Reuters
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One of Michel Platini's most significant acts as president of Uefa, European football's governing body, was to expand the European Championship to 24 teams, a divisive decision that seemed to provoke as much condemnation as it did commendation.

To some it was a welcome step that acknowledged the game’s growth and would help to consolidate the progress already made, while to others it was a move that would instantly dilute quality and diminish the spectacle.

The upcoming competition in France will be the first to feature two dozen nations, and it is easy enough to understand the arguments from those on both sides of the divide ahead of the big kick off next week.

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Proponents of the expansion contend that the old 16-team tournament was no longer reflective of the state of the game in Europe today.

That latest edition of the Fifa world rankings, for example, shows 23 European countries in the top 32, which would suggest football on the continent is booming.

The standard has clearly improved in many areas of Europe: Turkey’s recent narrow 2-1 friendly defeat by England shows how far they have come since two 8-0 thrashings to the same opponent in the 1980s, while countries such as Belgium, Iceland, Austria and Switzerland currently possess either their strongest squads of all-time or at least their best in a generation.

Furthermore, the last quarter of a century has seen the emergence of multiple new participants, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia.

Thirty three teams competed for eight places at Euro ’92, with 47 battling it out for 16 spots four years later. 53 sides took part in qualifying for this year’s tournament, and given that most are much stronger now than they were 20 years ago, there is an argument to be made that retaining the 16-nation format would have been both unfair and unsuitable to the football environment in 2016.

On the flip side, though, there are concerns that the European Championship could lose much of what made it so attractive in the first place.

There were rarely any dead rubbers or meaningless matches in the old 16-side structure, with each nation having already proven their quality by booking their place at the finals as either one of the first-placed teams in their qualifying group, or by finishing second and winning a play-off.

The maths does not really add up, either: a 24-team tournament means four third-placed sides will advance from the group stage, a feat that could be achieved with a single win or even a pair of draws.

That in turn has an impact on the last 16, which could contain a handful of teams who are clearly not good enough for the knockout rounds.

The whole issue essentially boils down to the question of where on the line between representation and quality the marker should be placed.

Finding that balance is a tricky and often subjective matter; nobody would argue that a single place for the whole of Africa and Asia at the 1966 World Cup was a fair arrangement even if the Europeans and South Americans had better teams, but it is also possible for the pendulum to swing too far the other way.

Ultimately, the success or otherwise of the tournament will do much to shape opinion on whether the increase in competitors was a positive or negative move.

The so-called smaller countries may step up and challenge, as many did in qualifying after being emboldened by the expansion, or alternatively the rise in the number of matches could lead to a frustratingly sluggish first couple of weeks.

Either way, it will be intriguing to watch the action – and the reaction to it – unfold.

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