A few weeks back England crashed dismally out of the European Championship in France at the expense of the tournament minnows Iceland who, we were repeatedly informed during the television coverage of the match, had a population of just over 300,000 people, the same as Walsall or something. The consternation in the TV studio from the presenter and pundits seemed mildly elitist. While I was disappointed at England’s exit as a fan, I was also quite proud of Iceland and their team spirit, hard work and confidence. If truth be told Iceland were the better team and deserved to progress.
What was all the more newsworthy about the defeat was the fact that Iceland had never reached a major tournament before. In the build-up to the tournament much was made of the expansion of its format to include more qualifiers.
Previously, the format for the Euros involved 16 teams in 4 groups of 4, with the top 2 going through to a quarterfinal stage. This year saw an expansion to 24 teams, which led to the need for more of the group-stage teams to go through.
According to the pundits and former players against the expansion, this resulted in a weaker qualifying-group round as more teams could qualify, and a weaker tournament due to the minor teams’ presence and the resulting best third-place teams going through. Clearly, to the pundits this is all a bit too liberal. Their argument is that the games are less competitive and therefore less exciting, and also more defensive due to the weaker teams.
Now on one level I sympathise, as some of these points hold some merit. But it is important to weigh those against the potential benefits of the expansion. Firstly, it gives a number of smaller countries and teams more incentive and experience of a higher level (see Iceland, Albania, Hungary, Northern Ireland). While this can often lead to defensive football, it seems contradictory to use that as an argument when many of the best teams are highly praised for their defensive play, especially as it tends to get results (see José Mourinho – while not a defensive manager per se, his reliance on a defensive base is his greatest strength). Equally, as Neil Lennon correctly pointed out while summarising a different match, what do you expect the smaller teams with less experience and talent to do, come out all guns blazing and get beaten 10-nil? We would then call them highly naïve! When many teams play Barcelona, Real or Bayern they tend to be slightly defensive and this is understandable even if it is less exciting for the spectator.
However, in football winning is everything, as is so often repeated throughout the game – it doesn’t matter how you do it (i.e. defensive or offensive), just win! So it seems unfair to level that criticism at the small teams.
You can’t get experience if you never get to play!
Also, in football as in life, you only learn and improve through experience, and if expanding allows more teams and countries to experience international tournament football and learn from it, they will only improve over time. And this improvement over time will also have benefits for the game as a whole by increasing the level of competition. This has already happened over the last 20 or so years since I have been watching football. I remember the 1990 World Cup and the fuss made of Cameroon and the shock at how well they did.
But football is a game and it can be mastered by any group of people regardless of colour, class or creed, as long as they play as a team with skill, desire and hard work. Iceland again are a perfect illustration of that. Chris Waddle likened their play to football in the 80s (with emphasis on long balls and set pieces), and you can see where he is coming from. But again, its use followed its practicality for getting results against better teams. Either way, giving the small teams like Iceland the chance to participate gives them experience which will improve them and football as a whole.
Smaller team = boring football?
Lastly, one of my biggest bugbears is that as somebody who has watched a lot of tournament football (Euros, World Cup, Champions League) over the last 20-odd years, I don’t believe that taking smaller teams away makes the games considerably more exciting. Yes, the big teams may keep the ball better, but many of the games between them have been just as dull and defensive as those involving the smaller teams. So for me the expansion of the tournament and the inclusion of the smaller teams actually increases the excitement because it makes games less predictable, as has been borne out by the results.
Iceland, Hungary, Albania, Northern Ireland and Wales have all done their nations proud and performed impressively, proving that it isn’t about the size of your nation, it’s about your organisation, hard work and passion for the game. If these are maximised, alongside a commitment to the team ethic, then the bigger teams can be beaten, as Iceland showed.
While undoubtedly some of the games at this year’s tournament have lacked quality at times, this is no different from previous tournaments where the smaller teams were excluded. Moreover, the tournament has arguably been more exciting and unpredictable, in part due to the inclusion of these smaller teams. But overall the main point is that expanding major tournaments if possible is a great idea because it encourages inclusion and bucks against elitism, where ‘only the best are allowed’. You only have to look at the Champions League in the club game to see that such elitism comes with its own problems which are arguably worse than the fallacious arguments against expansion. Wales reached the semifinals, and Iceland the quarterfinals, and this showed the world that it is not about your size or history, it’s about how you play the game, and in the game nobody should be excluded or marginalised.