Football: England home to 16 nations in 1996 finals

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The Independent Online
SIXTEEN nations will take part in the European Championship when the tournament is staged in England in 1996. The executive committee of Uefa, the ruling body of the game in Europe, decided at a meeting in Istanbul yesterday to double the number of teams competing in the tournament.

The decision should provide a great stimulus for the English game. Eight grounds, instead of the original four, will now have to meet European Championship standards for a tournament which will provide three weeks of top- class international football. The competition will start with four groups of four teams, with two from each group qualifying for a knock-out contest.

However, the decision may put Uefa in conflict with Fifa, the world governing body, as a 16-nation European Championship could be seen as upstaging the 24- nation World Cup.

The World Cup has been criticised in some quarters for being too big and lasting too long. In contrast, places have been at a premium in the European Championship. Leading teams have frequently failed to qualify for an eight-nation tournament, Italy having been the most notable absentees from this year's championship in Sweden.

The break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, plus the recognition of smaller countries such as San Marino and the Faroe Islands, are the main reasons for the change. Thirty-three teams competed in the qualifying competition for the 1992 tournament (as the hosts, Sweden did not have to qualify), but as many as 46 could be involved in 1996.

'Changes had to be made because the huge changes in Europe mean there are a lot more member federations,' Gerhard Aigner, Uefa's secretary-general, said yesterday. 'This is a logical step. With this new formula all the best countries will be present, so there will be more interest.'

He added: 'We are not trying to overshadow the World Cup. I hope Fifa will welcome our new changes positively.'

The Football Association had always been in favour of enlarging the tournament. David Bloomfield, an FA spokesman, said last night: 'We were able to stage a 16- team tournament when we won the World Cup in 1966. We should be in a much better position to stage a 16-team tournament 30 years on.'

The FA's most pressing task now will be to nominate the eight grounds that will stage the 31- match event. They must be all- seated, with a capacity of at least 30,000. Wembley, Old Trafford and Villa Park had originally been earmarked, with Elland Road the favourite to fill the fourth vacancy.

The four additional grounds are likely to be Goodison Park, Hillsborough, Selhurst Park and either St James' Park or Roker Park (or indeed Sunderland's proposed new stadium). The FA is keen to have the venues in as many different parts of the country as possible, which explains why some stadiums have apparently been discounted.

The biggest losers in this respect are likely to be Arsenal, whose Highbury home is considered to be too close to Wembley. Selhurst Park, because it is situated in the south of the capital, is therefore seen as a better choice for a second London venue. Other grounds that could come into consideration are Bristol City's Ashton Gate and Nottingham Forest's City Ground.

A profit of pounds 10m had been forecast for an eight-team tournament and that is expected at least to double with the increase to 16 teams. All the stadiums must be all-seated and a considerable amount of improvement work is likely to be necessary at most of them, but it is hoped that the Football Trust will provide much of the funding.

Uefa is to propose that its former president, Jacques Georges, fill the vacant post of Fifa vice- president. The vacancy was created by the recent death of Hermann Neuberger.

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