Once upon a time, and for numerous initial years, the finals of the European Nations Cup, now more grandiosely known as the European Football Championship, consisted of just four teams, contesting the semifinals, third-place match and finals in one of the surviving countries. The first of these mini tournaments took place in France — where in their latest swollen form, they are now to take place again — as long ago as 1960. Russia won it, which was somewhat ironic, given that they had reached the last stage with a bye, only because Spain, who were due to meet them in the quarterfinals, were forbidden to do so by their Fascist dictator, General Franco. The formula seemed to work pretty well as I can testify, having reported a number of those finals.
It was not always plain sailing. Least of all in 1968, when the finals were staged in Italy. England, the World Cup holders, lost their bruising semifinal in Florence to a harsh Yugoslavia team, who, however, were manifestly cheated in the final in Rome when the referee Herr Dienst, who had officiated at the 1966 World Cup final, refused them a blatantly obvious penalty and would later be accused of being bribed by the late, notorious fixer, Italo Allodi. So that final was drawn but an exhausted Yugoslavia team was beaten by Italy in the replayed final.
There were still only four teams involved when, in Brussels, one watched a powerful West Germany team inspired by Franz Beckenbauer, easily brush aside the Russians with a 3-0 victory; though later Beckenbauer would smilingly say to me that the level of that tournament, by comparison with the World Cup which followed two years later, was not too demanding. All a little bit too good to be true, you might reflect and you would be right.
Gradually, the complement of teams grew bigger and bigger until as many as 16 teams were contesting the finals, which still had their romantic and unexpected moments. Such as the Denmark team coming almost literally off the holiday beaches when Yugoslavia, plunged into civil war, were forced to drop out, won the tournament in fine style. Or when, subsequently, a wholly unconsidered Greek team had the enterprise and drive to beat all their supposed betters.
But now? You might, if you wish, call it the curse of Platini. Now disgraced and cast out of football for four years — two successful appeals had the sentence cut down from an initial eight — the once great France star has bloated the tournament finals from 16 teams to a massive 24. Of this, Gavin Hamilton, the editor of the respected World Soccer magazine, has written: “It’s easy to have sympathy with people who believe the expanded 24-team European Championship is an unnecessary bloated distortion of a perfectly good tournament. Certainly, there is a strong case for arguing that a 16-team finals — with eight teams going straight into the quarterfinals — is the ideal format. With four of the six third placed teams at EURO 2016 qualifying for the knockout stage, there is little incentive for teams to play attacking football.”
Moreover, the 24-team complement can’t even make mathematical sense, as the senior competition, the World Cup itself, discovered when the disastrous Joao Havelange increased the numbers to this unmanageable 24 teams. Since then, of course, the World Cup finals have been enlarged yet again to an arguably excessive but more easily managed 32 teams. No doubt that will, alas, lie in the future of the European tournament, rather than the complement to being diminished to what it once so much more manageably was.
Havelange has arguably been the evil genius of international football, indeed of football at large. When, with the crucial support of the bribed African delegates, whom he flew into the 1974 Frankfurt presidential election with money procured from the finds of the Brazilian football federation, they and their countries had to be further placated. Which they were when the complement of the World Cup finalists was boosted to 24.
What one cannot insist is that too many footballing minnows can now swim through the broad meshes of the net. The astonishing and laudable Greek victory of twelve years ago is a powerful reminder of that. You might even, I suppose, compare it with the astonishing victory of Leicester City in the latest Premier League tournament. Even in these days of financial immensity, there is still blessedly room for the resilient outsider. As editor Gavin Hamilton writes in World Soccer , “With debutants like Albania, Iceland and Wales the capacity for romantic storylines is increased.”
Ah, Wales! Wales in 1958, when they got into the Swedish finals by the backdoor having already been eliminated in the qualifiers, but sneaking back in via two playoffs against little Israel, when the Arab countries refused to meet Israel in the qualifiers. The three other British countries had all qualified on merit, yet it was Wales which did much the best. I’ll never forget seeing them give the mighty Brazilians such a run for their money in the Gothenburg quarterfinals. Had only big John Charles been fit to put his head to a number of early wasted aerial chances, who knows?
And now the Finals drag wearily on till the final itself on July 10. French striking workers always permitting.
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