UEFA's 24-carat mistake

Sunday will mark the end of high-quality European Championship football as expanded draw takes place for France 2016.


    UEFA's week will go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

    Tuesday and Wednesday are proud days for European football's governing body. The Champions League returned with slavering anticipation, an open tournament, some fascinating ties, and barely a negative word.

    Come Thursday, the ghastly Europa League usually raises questions over UEFA formats. But this week that day is being replaced by Shameful Sunday.

    The qualifying draw for the European Championships in France in 2016 is something that will be met by quiet shrugs of indifference.

    But it should be considered an utter disgrace, and a sad day for European football. A 24-carat mistake.

    The draw in Nice will be treated by the organisation as an exciting moment of progress, marking the introduction of their new "week of football" concept. We'll see this in qualifiers later in the year when games are staggered between Thursday and Tuesday.

    But what feast will actually be served before the hungry worldwide football audience? Looks like tasteless low quality TV dinners to me.

    The perfect finals format has been scrapped by UEFA. The 16-team tournament has produced the highest quality of football over the course of a tournament finals. Better even than the World Cup, for which weak nations have more chance of qualifying.

    Two-through, two-out meant every result seemed to matter. Good nations sometimes failed to qualify but overall 16 was enough for the wheat to participate, and the chaff to disappear. Or at least it was.


    Now we have Le 24. It might be harder for good teams NOT to qualify. What's the point?

    I was in Kiev in 2012 before the last final, among those challenging UEFA chief Michel Platini on the folly of the 2016 expansion.

    He looked tired and sheepish, a principled man defending the barely logical. He talked of UEFA not being a dictatorship, of the UEFA nations having VOTED for 24 teams.

    Of course they vote it in! Goodness me. Give a national association more chance to reach the finals, with the financial implications that brings, and expect them to turn it down? Such voting is the same principle that has kept certain people in power at FIFA over many decades.

    And it's disappointing that Platini, a football romantic, didn't make more of a stand. Turn the mirror on these people, and let them see their misguided selves.

    Maybe one or two of the smaller nations will genuinely deserve to reach an expanded finals. Competitions should always ultimately provide a path to the top. Iceland were one step from the World Cup finals, for instance.

    But I will never understand why there isn't a pre-qualifying tournament in Europe. Fine to welcome Gibraltar, but a match between Gibraltar and a top nation without them having earned the right is actually bizarre.

    Think about it. At a time when the schedule is rammed and footballers are stretched to the limit, they are obliged to show up for a fixture against a team of part-timers from San Marino or Luxembourg. Enough of this absurdity.

    And the new format will be fairer on a nation like Ireland, always a decent side but who seem to end up in tough groups and be edged out. That said, they could get enough of a bad draw and finish fourth in a group trying to qualify for 2016!

    Ultimately this 'brave new world' (more 'cowardly new Europe') will remove much of the drama and intrigue from qualification. If a big nation suffers a shock defeat in the opening game they will have recovery time. Second chances all the way.

    And when the finals get underway in the summer of 2016 it will showcase what football has become. Never mind the quality...feel that quantity.

    This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.



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