A Cautious Welcome To UEFA's Latest Wheeze

It's prudent to be cynical about anything that UEFA does, but Philip Cornwall thinks England might not be the best place from which to judge the Euro 2016 expansion...

Last Updated: 24/02/14 at 11:29 Post Comment

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Some people, at least, were excited by England's Euro 2016 draw: a one-way flight to Tallinn from Gatwick reached £224 by late on Sunday for the Friday before the away game against Estonia in October, with Easyjet's Monday flight back at £185.

But other than groundhoppers (such as me) eager to see the national team's second game in the Baltic state, and the first ones in Lithuania and Slovenia, this was an uninspiring selection. Creative pricing will be required to have Wembley anywhere near full and the FA will have to make good use of the friendly dates to keep the receipts rising.

Generally, the top seeds will find it hard to make a mess of reaching the finals, with two automatic qualification places per group, leading to plenty of dead matches for Germany, Spain et al. If England win in Switzerland in September's opening game then passage will be almost assured. Even a defeat would be far less alarming than usual.

It is sensible to be cynical about anything UEFA does and Roy Hodgson is understandably sceptical about the Thursday-Sunday match combination, which will make preparations for the first game tricky (at least for fixtures more testing than England's sole Thursday, at home to San Marino). The first set of games will be played Sunday-Monday-Tuesday, leaving an empty Saturday, still the natural football day for much of the continent, unless Tuesday teams opt for friendlies that day.

With 24 teams in the finals, there will be more passengers than before, some of them without the off-field contribution of Euro 2012's weakest link, the Republic of Ireland. The preliminary stages of the finals, with four third-placed teams reaching the last 16, will be an unwieldy return for the format of the World Cups from 1986 to 1994.

And yet...

Something needed to be done to bolster international football, which still produces tournaments that captivate the world but which struggles for more regular relevancy in the Champions League era. And the "football week" concept, leaning on the format of UEFA's club competitions but without the "Thursday night, Channel 5" stigma for any of the participants, could just be the thing to do it.

Of course, the Champions League and Europa League have competitors from a nation playing each night, whereas outside the UK's peculiar constitutional arrangements that will not apply and even here it is unclear what level of interest there will be for other home nations' matches. UEFA have at least had an idea, though.

The draw itself was a diabolical example of the genre but, with Poland's Jan Tomaszewski and especially Northern Ireland's Pat Jennings among the goalkeeping luminaries pulling out the balls, it did provide a reminder that there are regular non-qualifiers with more august pasts, who may benefit from the expansion. The smiles from the Celtic nations' managers were broader than usual at this stage, despite the mutually awkward match-up for Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. The play-offs will be far less forbidding territory, too. Perhaps England - despite our frequent struggles and the McClaren debacle, regular qualifiers - is the wrong place from which to judge Michel Platini's scheme.

Football these days is generally organised for the richest - as Euro 2020, with its need for sudden flight bookings from fans battling to leave matches, will be from a supporter perspective. But somewhere, albeit amid a money-making scheme for UEFA and with a plan that may not work, we do have a rare nod towards the less well-off - to which we should give a begrudging, cautious welcome.

Philip Cornwall

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