UEFA certainly took its fair share of criticism when it was announced that the 2016 European Championships would feature 24 teams.
Some argued that having the so-called ‘minnows’ of European football on the grandest stage would belittle the whole competition.
Yet the latest round of qualifiers shows that this tournament remains as competitive as ever.
The Home Nations
A full representation of the British Isles at Euro 2016 is a distinct possibility. England, by hook or by crook, will qualify. A rather fortuitous victory over Slovenia made it four wins out of four for Roy Hodgson’s side. At this stage it is hard to imagine a repeat of the Euro 2008 qualification debacle.
For the other home nations, who have always been in England’s shadow when it comes to qualifying for major tournaments, they seem to be grasping their chance.
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Scotland and the Republic of Ireland’s recent clash showed how both nations will fight tooth and nail to qualify. A narrow 1-0 victory of the Tartan Army was invaluable, yet the Irish remain well placed.
In previous qualification campaigns, games played with the sheer intensity of this one were rarely seen. What has changed? Teams going into the matches feel they have a better chance of achieving something and this has simply brought the best out of them.
Arguably the two ‘smaller’ home nations in Wales and Northern Ireland have also been displaying qualification form.
The Welsh’s battling draw against a Belgian side glittering with talent shows they are more than capable of holding their own in the major tournaments.
Michael O’Neil’s young Ireland side were on the receiving end of a defeat in Bucharest, yet impressive victories over Hungary and Greece see them remain in contention.
Not so long ago, these two nations’ matches were played for pride and very little else. Now, thanks to the expansion, these countries have proved that they are capable of much more than simply making up the numbers.
Success for David and Goliath
Beyond the home nations, there are benefits of expanding the tournament for both the heavyweights of Europe as well as smaller nations. The titans can play without the shackles on knowing there may be a safety net.
Fans can therefore enjoy quality football that is usually reserved for the finals of major tournaments. Equally, the smaller nations seem to have rallied as a result of an extra qualification place. Would the Faroe Islands have defeated 2004 European champions Greece in Athens under the tournament’s old structure?
To those questioning this expansion, kindly recall the World Cup 2014 play-off match between Portugal and Sweden. Ronaldo versus Ibrahimovic. Two exceptional talents locking horns knowing only one would be able to display their skill on the grandest stage.
Hopefully, thanks to the new structure, this won’t be the case again.