Are you a fan of the official Euro 2016 anthem? You’ve heard it by now, probably in the form of a “special goal celebration music edit that will be played in stadiums every time a goal is scored”. The lyrics are quite optimistic, Zara Larsson insists that “We’re in this together…We stand strong together/We’re in this forever”. Unfortunately the voters of the United Kingdom seem to fundamentally disagree, as does Cristiano Ronaldo. Following Portugal’s 1-1 draw with Iceland in the group stage, he was caught complaining that “When they [Iceland] don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.” Proving that Ronaldo has a talent for soothsaying equivalent to his recent ability to take successful set pieces, Iceland last night recorded the first real shock of the tournament, eliminating England in the Round of 16.
The concept of being “in this together” is particularly relevant to this European Championship, the first with an expanded format featuring 24 teams. Supporters of the change were of the opinion that the introduction of extra nations would bring a breath of fresh air and boost interest and enthusiasm across the continent. Now that the Round of 16 is complete, it’s possible to take a quick look at the success of this. Wales and Iceland are unfamiliar faces at this stage of the competition but both finished second in their groups during qualifying and also finished first and second respectively in their groups at the main tournament, so haven’t benefited as much from the new format as might first be assumed. Hungary were an unexpected success in the group stage but crumbled at the first sight of strong opposition and both Irish teams played bravely but ultimately lacked quality.
So if UEFA count success by participation, then this tournament has definitely delivered. If they want to judge this format by the quality of football that it’s delivered then there’s still a way to go. To see how this might be improved, it might be instructive to look at what happens between now and the quarter final round kicking off. Because far away from the media glare in France, eight teams are beginning their Champions League campaigns, a mere 31 days after Real Madrid lifted the trophy in Milan. In spite of the success of the national team, Wales’ national club champions the New Saints have to undergo the ignominy of a first round qualifying tie against the Sammarinese club Tre Penne. Iceland’s representatives FH have another two weeks to prepare for a second round tie against Dundalk at the 4,500 capacity Oriel Park – again a far cry from the exploits of their international colleagues, who play their next match at the 80,000 capacity Stade de France.
If UEFA is serious about improving the standard of football across the continent, they need to do more to allow club sides from Europe’s less illustrious leagues to compete against the big clubs on a more regular basis. The opportunity for national sides to feature at the European Championships once every four years isn’t going to fundamentally alter the quality of football on show, instead an improvement in the relevant domestic leagues would have a far greater effect. For this to happen would require a massive redistribution of wealth and also a radical restructuring of UEFA’s European club competitions to allow greater exposure for leagues with lower coefficients. A possible solution would be to return the “champions” aspect to the Champions League, limiting access only to league winners with limited pre-qualifying to whittle UEFA’s 55 domestic champions down to a 32 club group stage. This would have the dual effect of increasing the appeal of the Europa League as it would feature stronger clubs who hadn’t won their respective leagues. The old Cup Winners’ Cup format could be revived to provide a further avenue for smaller clubs to play their bigger counterparts.
Unfortunately, the sway of money and TV demands means that revamp of the magnitude required is highly unlikely to happen. Indeed the rumblings from UEFA seem to indicate that the format of the Champions League will be further altered to suit the big clubs. And while it’s true that initially there may be a few mismatches and less desirable fixtures, imagine a future where we could contemplate an Icelandic club team toppling an English one in the Champions League Round of 16. It would be worth it for the commentary alone.