Full credit to the Portuguese for securing their first ever major trophy but end result of Euro 2016 shows UEFA still have much work to do to clean up corruption and ineptness in the way the these tournaments are staged.
By: Robert Carlo Tucci
The beauty of pro sports is that they are unpredictable, raw and real. In an entertainment world dominated by the rise of reality television over the past decade and a half, sports represents perhaps the purest form of reality television. It is unscripted, it’s real-time, and the emotions it brings out are often unparalleled. Euro 2016’s conclusion came yesterday and the end result; a win by the Portuguese which secured them their first major professional trophy as a football playing nation was definitely a surprise to most.
The Portuguese deserve full credit for the victory. You can debate whether or not their brand of football was aesthetically appealing, the quality of the opposition they had to face along the way, or how many games they won during a regulation 90 minutes. However, the fact that they were able to overcome a superior team in terms of overall talent, on their home-soil, in a final, without their world class offensive player after the 25th minute of play, is a major accomplishment and should be seen as such. They did not win because of a controversial call or by cheating. They won legitimately in a fair and square manner. For that, no one can ridicule or criticize them.
Yet the end result could not have left many fans of football, outside of those who are Portuguese too happy or impressed. While the victory cannot and should not be taken away from them, the Portuguese played an often extremely bland and conservative style which was mostly difficult to watch and lead their opposition by virtue of the scoreline for only 73 minutes of play in total over 7 games (720 minutes). They struggled through what was on paper the easiest group in the tournament, failing to register a victory. Yet in the end became champions. There are facts and numbers which are staggering.
Nevertheless, the reality of the situation is, any vitriol built up as a result of the outcome should not be aimed at the victorious nation who only played the game within the rules that were laid out for them and for all, but towards the tournament organizers themselves who managed to make the world’s second biggest football tournament into a sham and a farcical event.
To add a disclaimer here; As an Italian, it’s easy to dismiss my viewpoint on the subject as biased, as sour grapes, or full of hate. There is no secret that within the city of Toronto there exists a real and very sometimes vicious (albeit childish) rivalry between many Italian and Portuguese football fans. It’s one that I will never be able to fully understand given the closeness in many aspects of both cultural heritages, the many inter-marriages and friendships shared between the two ethnic groups and both crowd’s love for the game. It’s also very unique to the city itself where in most other places worldwide there exists no rivalry between the two nations at all. If you were to take a trip to Italy and ask most people whether or not they are happy that Portugal won this tournament you would probably get mixed responses between; ‘yes’ because it’s nice for them since they have never won it before, to ‘no’ because of the style of football they played, to just overall indifference altogether. I also cannot claim to totally criticize the Portuguese for their style of play, for as all Italians know, few national teams have been criticized as harshly or as often for being defensive minded and boring at times than have the Azzurri.
Yet if you separate yourself from all of that and just look at the result objectively for what it was worth, for what it represented, it underlines a major problem with how the whole tournament was structured.
For starters, the move to 24 teams (6 groups of 4 teams each) from 16 teams (4 groups of 4 teams each) qualifying for the Euro was a controversial one to begin with. Within a federation which has 53 active countries vying for a spot in the tournament, expanding it to 24 and thus allowing 45% of the countries within the continent entry was seen by many as a watering down of the product. There were concerns voiced that this may lead to many blowouts in the first round when minnows went up against top-notch opposition. While others feared this would have the opposite effect and make for many boring affairs as less talented sides would decide to just try and park the bus defensively and hang on for dear life to try and survive for results and qualification for the knockout round. Some saw the move as cheapening the qualification process and nothing more than a money grab to add in extra matches, an extra round of play and gain even more exposure and attention.
What made the decision even more controversial though was that it was pushed hard for by then UEFA President Michel Platini who since December 2015 no less has been served with an 8 year ban from football for his part in a FIFA corruption scandal.
KNOCKOUT ROUND FORMAT:
To add insult to injury, Platini managed to get France placed in Group A by virtue of being tournament hosts. On the surface, this might not have meant much to most people, until you did some analysis of what would transpire as a result of this decision come the knockout phase of the competition.
The advantage of being placed in Group A for France was that if they won the group, they would be one of four 1st placed teams to draw a 3rd placed team as their opponent come the knockout round of 16, while the other two 1st placed teams would have to play 2nd placed teams. Interestingly enough, the advantage did not just stop there. By virtue of their group positioning, if France managed to win their round of 16 encounter, they would be one of only two victorious round of 16 teams who would get to play the winner of a match featuring two 2nd placed teams in the quarterfinals. All of this basically meant that if France performed to expectation there was a very good chance they would not have to face a 1st placed team from any of the groups until at earliest the semifinals.
By contrast, a team like Italy, who were placed in Group E, would have to play a 2nd placed team had they won their group in the round of 16, and then had they emerged victorious from that encounter, face either the 1st placed team out of Group C or a 3rd placed team in the quarterfinal. Potentially a much tougher path if things were to go according to expectation based on the quality of sides in the tournament. UEFA had just set up a system where the French would get an advantage twice (in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals in terms of their opposition) over a team like Italy if both were crowned group winners.
This format instantly reeked of imbalance and unfairness. To make matters worse, once a couple of upsets happened (Wales topping England for first in Group B and Croatia topping Spain for 1st placed in Group D) the bracket became even further slanted to one side. As a result of the all of the matches played within the group stage, traditional powerhouse and household name football nations like Germany, Italy, Spain, France and England occupied 5 of the 8 spots on the bottom half of the bracket. By contrast, the best sides on the other half consisted of Belgium, Croatia, Portugal and Poland joined by minnows or also-rans such as Wales, Hungary, Northern Ireland and Switzerland.
The stage was now set for the potential of chaos and the rewarding for teams who finished lower in their groups to advance deep in the competition while others who emerged as group winners to face incredibly tough paths to a potential final.
As an illustration of this comedic turn of events, a team like Italy who ended up winning Group E would have to play defending European Champions Spain in the round of 16, followed by most likely defending World Cup Champions, Germany in the quarterfinals before facing the likelihood of a semifinal against either the host nation France just to reach to the tournament final.
France instead, would face Ireland in the round of 16, followed by Iceland or a very underwhelming England in the quarterfinals before potentially coming up against a real bruiser in Germany, Italy or Spain in the semis.
The top half of the draw was even more farcical as Belgium who finished runners up to Italy in Group E would get to play Group F winners Hungary in the round of 16 followed by the victor between Wales and Northern Ireland in the quarterfinals. Portugal on the other hand, would face the talented Croatians who knocked off Spain in the group stage but lacked their level of experience or pedigree in the round of 16 before a potential matchup with one of Poland or Switzerland, two second placed teams in the quarterfinals.
To make matters even worse, the Portuguese would also be seeded as third best amongst four 3rd placed teams to qualify for the knockout stage, over Albania who were sent home. Both the Portuguese and Albanians finished level on points, with 3 points from three matches, but while the Albanians actually won one of their matches 1-0 against Romania, the Portuguese settled for three successive ties against Iceland, Austria and Hungary; 1-1, 0-0 and 3-3 respectively. However, the tournament organizers decided to rank goal differential ahead of wins and losses as the first tiebreaker between 3rd placed teams advancing and therefore the Albanians were forced to pack up and head home from their historic first ever European finals appearance despite having played a pretty decent brand of football in their three matches.
WHY THE FORMAT WAS FLAWED:
Anyone who knows anything about football or the nature of these short tournaments quickly understands that games are not simply played on paper. As much as we all know who the more talented side is going into a matchup, so many different factors and variables mean the difference between winning and losing. This is only compounded when you have a series of one-off matches over the shortest of sample sizes. Everything from who a team is drawn against, to what order they face teams in, to when they face them, to poor coaching decisions, to the health of their squad and injuries, to potential absences due to card violations or suspensions, to a bad call made by an official at an inopportune time can all make the difference between winning and losing. Sometimes just even pure luck plays a role, as the saying goes, ‘the ball is round’. As such, a more difficult path to navigate severely cuts down a team’s chances to emerge victorious in the long-run as it increases the odds that they run into any of the potential problems listed above.
When greedy and corrupt bureaucrats get involved in conditioning the potential outcome of events like this everyone loses. When a system is created that actually awards teams for placing 2nd or 3rd over placing 1st and winning their group something is off. When a tournament organizer or director is able to arbitrarily make rules about where a team should be placed to try and give them a helping hand to advance deeper into the tournament that is corruption of the highest order. We all know that a lot of money is involved in sport and that because of that there are many vested interests at play. There are favorites that people would like to see advance to satisfy various agendas.
Both Fifa and Uefa have very long and well-documented histories of corruption and scandal associated with their awarding of tournaments to countries, bribes and potential match-fixing efforts. But in an era where both organizations have come under so much fire and both struggling to emerge from the shadow of scandal and prove to everyone that they can be honest and fair a tournament like Euro 2016 did nothing to dispel people’s disgust or list of major concerns. From an outsider’s perspective, events such as these don’t do much to sell the game to casual observers who view the spectacle as more ‘Mickey Mouse’ than ‘top notch’.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE GOING FORWARD:
Provided that the Euro will now stay a tournament comprised of 24 teams as opposed to 16 (which in all likelihood it will) the only logical thing to do to going forward is to reseed teams based on their performance in the 1st round of matches. Ranking teams 1 through 16 accordingly based on some sort of formula that takes into account factors such as total points garnered, wins , losses and ties, goal differential and if need be for tie-breaking purposes perhaps even FIFA ranking (although that last one could be viewed as a bit controversial in of itself) seems the only real fair way forward to ensure that teams are rewarded for their play and that we get the absolute best matchups as teams advance deeper into tournaments with only those truly worthy of their position being there. The farce that is placing a host team like France into any group that would give them a fair advantage after the first round needs to be put to an end and the reseeding after the first round would also potentially help to quash that.
In addition, some other cosmetic changes will be needed.
First off, the switch to having the two semifinals played on different days (Wednesday and Thursday) which started in 2012 as opposed to them playing on the same day (Wednesday) needs to be put to an end as well. As much as tournament organizers want to put both games in primetime, the reality is, the team which emerges victorious from the Thursday game is put at a substantial disadvantage with 24 hours less rest heading into the final and having to play their biggest match just 3 days later. Both Italy and France clearly paid some physical price as a result of featuring in the later semifinals in 2012 and now in 2016 and to be fair to anyone going forward that needs to amended.
Secondly, the ridiculous yellow card rule that was adopted where a yellow card does not clear from a player’s record until after the quarterfinals needs to also be looked at seriously and changed. To expect players to go through an entirety of 5 games without picking up 2 bookings is very difficult. Especially when you consider how cheaply some officials hand out a yellow in some instances. When teams go up against tougher opposition, primarily in succession, the heightened risk of being carded only increases and hence this seems a very unfair practice to continue on with. What is the solution? Either allow players to accumulate up to 3 yellows prior to facing a suspension (to be wiped out after the quarterfinals) OR wipe the accumulated cards out after the group stage of matches and then allow 3 yellows per player for the remaining matches.
The saddest thing about the way that Euro 2016 played out was that a team which played such a negative brand of football and struggled mightily just to survive into the knockout round was ultimately rewarded for their style of play. Because team sports are so much of a copycat exercise, you can bet that this will only cause more countries to try and employ the same sort of tactics in an effort to try and survive and get lucky. That is not good news for observers of the game and fans who want to see an entertaining or engaging product. While stories like Iceland, Hungary and Wales are neat and historic in their own ways, the fact of the matter remains that their brand of football and overall talent level do render themselves to moving the needle or providing an appealing product for those who are true football aficionados. For these reasons Euro 2016 will not be remembered as a great spectacle but rather a mostly boring affair, bereft of much high level play and ruled by conservative play.
Only UEFA has the power to change things here. So far though they are dropping the ball and if substantial reforms aren’t made to how these tournaments are set up and run, more results like we saw play out on a Sunday afternoon in July will continue to happen going forward; fun for the victors, a loss for everyone else.