UEFA’s decision to expand the European Championship by eight teams to a total of 24 for the first time was originally met with sceptisism, but it will become apparent in the coming weeks that this will bring a breath of fresh air to the competition.
To some extent, it has taken shape in that sense already. Romania, Albania, Wales and Northern Ireland, (who between them had qualified for just four Euros before this summer – all of them by Romania), have been involved in entertaining contests in their opening games and the likes of Iceland and Hungary are still to come. It is in the latter stages though where the true positive nature of the re-birth will take shape.
Back in the days of yore, a 16-team Euros led to its fair share of dead rubbers, however with four of the six third-placed teams now getting a spot in round two, practically every match has something going for it. This is perhaps best illustrated this year by Group A.
Group A is occupied by two teams that could definitely be considered stronger than the other pair – France and Switzerland have significantly more successful histories and better squads on paper than their Romanian and Albanian counterparts. In matchday one France beat Romania while the Swiss saw off Albania and in the second set of games the hosts face Albania while Switzerland take on Romania.
Football is far from a slave to bookies’ odds, however, if the favourites both triumph this would leave France and Switzerland on six points each with Romania and Albania on zero going into the final round of games.
Pre-2016, that would lead to a fascinating winner-takes-all clash between France and Switzerland, but Romania v Albania would be practically unwatchable. Not anymore. Three points and a positive goal difference should be enough to make it through to the last 16 so one win for the lesser nation could be all it takes to make history.
And that is what we, the fans, want. Football, and sport, attracts us with its unpredictable nature and the potential of a person or team triumphing against the odds.
The only problem the inclusivity this Euros brings is the difficulty of picking which crucial last group game to watch.