For sure there is controversy surrounding the 36-game group stage of the 2016 European Championship. Is it a good sign that football fans around the world are discussing the continental tournament where 24 teams are competing for the first time? Yes and no. What are the conclusions after the first stage of Euro 2016? At least it is always expected that a major competition influences future football tactically and in many other ways.
Some saw boring games and not many goals (only an average of 1.92 per game) as the bigger teams basically only tried to survive the group games without playing to their limits. True in previous tournaments, fans saw duels between big names earlier but wasn’ t it wonderful seeing Northern Ireland, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary and Wales celebrating. Fans and teams full of passion and joy. That is a part of football everyone wants to see. So it has to be positive that there is more than just the elite competing at the European Championship finals in France.
Pundits complain about the quality of smaller football nations playing very defensively and forcing the top-nations to lay siege to the opponent’ s goals like armies did to castles in medieval times. But it is not forbidden to use a defensive style. It is an obligation for bigger teams to deal with it. Austria for instance: Marcel Koller’ s team wasn’ t eliminated because Iceland was a destructive side at 2016 Euro. Austria could not find the appropriate answers.
Football as a game delivers possible answers. One is that many teams, like Germany, have reinvented the center forward. On top: It might be one of the most important conclusions of the group stage of Euro 2016: The return of center forwards like Alvaro Morata and Nolito (Spain), Jamie Vardy (England), Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Olivier Giroud (France), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium) and Graziano Pelle (Italy) have left their mark on Euro 2016. The 30-year-old German Mario Gomez joined them as late as the final match of the group stage.
It is not the smaller teams that are to blame for their style of football. One can find similar systems in the Champions League too – Atletico Madrid might be a good example. After all, the Spaniards made it into the final. Defensively-minded but full of passion. At Euro 2016, Iceland did not make it into the next round where they have been rewarded with a dream encounter with England because they did not score any goals. Take the 1994 World Cup in the US. The same tournament system was used and the best group thirds could make it to the next round. 2.71 goals per game were scored on average meaning the current tournament modus cannot be blamed for less goals.
Considering that, the opinion that the real Euro 2016 will get underway with the first knock-out stage, is a misleading one. Of course, fans can now look forward to big guns like Italy and Spain doing battle, but football, not only in Europe, cannot only be left to the big nations. Football is a game for the entire world. Meaning: To change from 16 to 24 teams was the right decision. After recent World Cups have been played with 32 teams.
The pictures of happy fans from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Hungary have helped secure football’ s future. They help to forget the ugly pictures of rioting fans. It will be one of the challenges for football and the countries behind, to secure safe tournaments in the future.
Looking at the tournament draw all the way to the final on July 10, it is clear that a team that has never won a major title will have the chance to upset the big boys of European football. One out of Wales, Belgium, Croatia, Portugal, Swiss, Poland, Northern Ireland, and Hungary will reach the final while favorites Germany, Italy, tournament host France, England and Spain are all grouped in the bottom half along Slovakia, Ireland and Iceland. Call it a coincidence, but even if it is, it is still a nice part of Euro 2016 we should be happy about. There have been disappointments at 2016 Euro as well. But they were not connected to the 24-team strategy of UEFA. For instance looking at Sweden, it was obvious, one genius like Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not enough if the rest of the team lacks quality and team-spirit. Ibrahimovic in the first place was a weapon for his clubs when having better team mates at his side. Others, Russia for instance, will have to use the next two years ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, to develop a new team.
Looking at UEFA’ s qualification system for the first knock out stage, one complained about the complicated procedure some teams like Turkey or Albania had to go through hard times before knowing whether they had qualified or not as one of the best four group thirds. It might be hard to have to wait, but on the other hand, many of the last group games were thrilling chapters of Euro 2016.