Gianni Infantino, UEFA General Secretary, beamed in January of this year that the new format for European Championship qualifying was “great news for football fans and for football,” and it would improve the “the quality and appeal of national team football.”
The recent international break was the first time UEFA’s new “Week of Football” programme was showcased, and for the most part, Mr. Infantino was proved correct. The idea itself is a simple one. Matches will now be played on days spread out throughout the eight-day window and at times staggered during the evening. This departure from the previous system of homogenous kick-off times and defined football days means that now only eight to ten fixtures happen on any given day, as opposed to 25-30.
In practice, it meant that it was possible for a British football fan, with access to Sky Sports (or a fast internet connection and the ability to type “Germany vs Scotland live stream”) to watch live coverage of England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland without the need for recordings or channel hopping. And speaking as a man who did just that, I would have to agree with Mr. Infantino’s bold assertions, as for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed an international break.
Much has already been written criticising the decision taken by UEFA President Michel Platini to expand the size of the 2016 tournament to a bloated 24 teams, with fears especially being aroused that it would further devalue qualifying. For example, Switzerland hosted England with both sides safe in the knowledge that regardless of the result on the night, only a monumental mess up of fixtures with Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and San Marino would stop them from booking their places at the finals in France in two years’ time.
This conclusion, however, overlooks the wide number of ‘middle-tier’ European nations, who feel that they have finally been given a chance to perform at the highest level of international competition. For the first time in living memory, there is a genuine chance that Scotland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, fresh from a stirring 2-1 away win in Hungary, could all qualify alongside England.
Although Scotland were the only side not to win their opening fixture, the display by Gordon Strachan’s men away at World Champions Germany in defeat was hugely heartening. Not only did they display all of the passion and pride that has long been their hallmark, but they continued the trend under Strachan of attacking with intelligence, precision and timing. Ikechi Anya’s goal took advantage of the German injury crisis in the full-back position, whilst defensively Scotland were forceful when they needed to be. Obviously there are only limited positives that can be taken from a defeat, but with the assumption that all teams will leave Germany empty-handed, Scotland fans should still allow themselves to be excited.
In the same group as Scotland, the Republic of Ireland started with a resolute win in Georgia, although Poland’s expected hammering of Gibraltar (playing their first competitive qualifier) means that the picture remains cloudy. Given Germany have one spot sewn up, Scotland, Ireland and Poland will be competing for two remaining places. Poland boast a handful of genuine stars plying their trade in the top leagues of England and Germany, but are far from unbeatable.
Here reveals the true excitement in both the qualifying for the 2016 tournament, and the Week of Football with which fans can enjoy it. Scottish and Irish fans know that each game has real importance and can keep track of all the other results in their group as they happen. This pattern is repeated throughout the process – Welsh fans will be well served to watch the games of Bosnia, Cyprus and Israel – which all together means that more games have more relevance.
And this is exactly what Mr. Platini was hoping for, and Mr. Infantino was bragging about, when their Week of Football was devised. Yes, a 24 team tournament will mean that for the continent’s biggest nations, qualifying should be a nerveless procession, but in truth, this is has been the case for the past couple of decades. Between them; Spain, Italy, France, England, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany have only not been present at major tournments three times in the past twenty years.
The top table of European football is well set, and looks as if it will continue to be for the forseeable future, but what Euro 2016 does is it allows for those developing nations to also experince tournament football, to compete with these heavyweights. For Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic, qualifying should present possibilities.