This summer, international football took one giant leap towards becoming that much more inclusive with the staging of the first 24-team UEFA European Championship (‘Euro 2016‘). The new format – essentially identical to that which produced four of the best-ever FIFA World Cups (1982-1994) – saw previously anonymous teams like Iceland and Wales create a profound impression on what is probably still solidly the number two international tournament in global soccer’s pantheon.
But fairytales aside, the general expert consensus is that Euro 2016 was a competition that failed to inspire. Most of the blame has been laid squarely at UEFA’s door, with critics citing the expansion of the finals to include nearly half the confederation’s total membership as chiefly responsible for engendering a mediocre standard of play. However, after some reflection, we at Mediolana think that there are in fact four other reasons which explain why this tournament will not live too long in the memory:
- A lopsided draw. The processes that UEFA chose to determine the Euro 2016 finals draw ended up producing too many four-team groups that were either ludicrously weak (England, Wales, Slovakia, Russia) or improbably strong (Croatia, Turkey, Spain, Czech Republic); moreover, this pattern was replicated in the knock-out stages. This resulted in too many average teams gaining easy passage to the competition’s latter stages, while an awful lot of talented sides fell at the first or second hurdle.
- Creative destruction. Following on from the first point, many of the most creative teams and players were prematurely banished from Euro 2016. Zlatan Ibrahimović’s Sweden could not get out of a Group E featuring Italy and Belgium; Turkey (Emre Mor, Hakan Calhanoğlu) faced a similarly difficult predicament in Group D; and Croatia (Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić) faced Portugal in a match-up befitting the final, rather than a round-of-sixteen tie. Stifling tactics also proved all too efficacious in eliminating stylish exponents of football, the standout case being the conquering of Xherdan Shaqiri’s Switzerland by a penalty shoot-out-happy Poland.
- Absent friends. Notwithstanding the tournament’s expansion, several of the better and/or more exciting teams still somehow managed to miss out on qualifying altogether. In particular, Holland, Bosnia and Herzegovina (who headed to Japan and won the Kirin Soccer Cup without many of their stars), Serbia and Denmark were all sorely missed. Additionally, the mystifying omission of FC Barcelona’s Alen Halilović from the Croatia squad robbed the watching public of the pleasure of witnessing one of football’s great emerging talents on a prominent international stage.
- Cancel the festival. With France still in lockdown following a succession of surreal and tragic terrorist events last year, Euro 2016 was in spirit a world away from the previous tournament held in the country, the 1998 FIFA World Cup: the panic-stricken restrictions on public screenings; the alarmingly regular clashes between regular fans (not just hooligans) and the police; and the general security-state atmosphere not only detracted from the overall value of the competition as a cultural phenomenon, but also set a horrible contemporary precedent for future sporting contests.