James Lawton: It's been a great Euros – so now Uefa will ruin it with 24 teams - News & Comment - Football - The Independent

James Lawton: It's been a great Euros – so now Uefa will ruin it with 24 teams

An enlarged tournament just proves that sickening greed can win the day as Platini and Co toss aside tradition again

If Uefa is ever put in charge of the Louvre, its first move could well be selling off the Mona Lisa in small, heavily-sponsored pieces. No-one is saying these European Championship finals have been of uniform Da Vinci quality, but frequently they have been brilliant in their intrigue and competitive edge and at times they have also glowed with the quality of the football. Unfortunately, you just cannot get out of your mind quite how shockingly they will have been enlarged and thus wrecked when they re-appear in 2016.

There was widespread dismay among the cognoscenti of the game when Uefa president Michel Platini announced that the next tournament, a gift to his native France, would be stretched from 16 competing nations to 24. Now it is dawning on a wider public that an outrage has been committed.

It may not be quite as revolting as Fifa's decision to hawk the World Cup to the desert, gay-bashing plutocrats of Qatar – but then it is quite hard to imagine anything matching such money-grubbing squalor.

The Uefa decision, however, is also sickeningly representative of the grimy machinations of football authority. Certainly there is no reason to regret Uefa's bad luck that their act should be caught in the light of gathering fascination at the approach of the final in the Olympic Stadium here on 1 July.

Uefa, though, will have had quite enough to answer to even before the last act of a tournament which is ever more clearly being seen as the victim of official vandalism.

The morally hopeless disparity between the whopping fine administered to Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner for flashing his heavily logoed underpants and the wrist-tapping administered to Croatia for the vicious racism directed towards Italy's Mario Balotelli by their fans is one example of a failure to grasp what in the real world constitutes the difference between right and wrong.

There was also the gratuitous action against the behaviour of a group of England fans who briefly contemplated a pitch invasion following their team's remarkable recovery against Sweden – a threat considered so lacking in menace it was not included in the referee's official report.

We do not need to resurrect the details of Uefa's consistently feeble reaction to racism so crudely expressed on such occasions as England's visits to places like Bratislava and Madrid to know that this is an organisation in desperate need of a moral compass. Also required, we have to say now, is some understanding of how best to protect a game that at the high end of its administration appears to have taken its status as the world's most popular utterly for granted.

Even if Platini's advocacy of the Financial Fair Play initiative is commendable enough – and also in line with the practices of the hugely popular North American professional sports – there has to be considerable doubt about how effectively the new rules will be enforced. The delay by Fifa and Uefa in bringing in technology, even on the goal-line, is certainly not encouraging.

For the moment, though, it is the impending destruction of the formula that has worked so brilliantly here these last few weeks that is creating the sharpest edge of anger.

There will be eight more teams competing in France and all of the extra contenders will resemble more closely the hapless Republic of Ireland – the one team to look completely out of place here – than nations like Russia, Croatia and, finally, the Ukraine of emerging superstar Andrei Yarmolenko, who didn't make it through to the quarter-finals launched by Cristiano Ronaldo last night but nevertheless made significant contributions to the weight and the colour of the competition. The dissipation of such spectacle, the inevitable dilution, is plainly inevitable.

The group action will remind us of so much of the formalities of group play in the hugely over- populated Champions League. When the draw for the groups is made you hardly need to be a football aficionado to make a decent shot at anticipating the make-up of the knock-out phase. And it will be for what purpose? Not the enhancement of the world's second most important football tournament but simply more jam for all and especially the freeloading men in the blazers for whom there will be so much more room at the trough.

It will be the same in the Euros of France as it was in the World Cup of South Africa, when England made such an indigestible meal of the opposition provided by the United States, Algeria and Slovenia. It wasn't a Group of Death, by any means. It was for England the Group of Survival, pretty much come what may, as it was for the reigning European champions and World Cup-winners elect Spain. They were irritated but hardly dismayed by their opening loss to the big white wall of Switzerland. Iniesta and Co could make up the ground on such titans as Chile and Honduras. Of course these things don't always quite work out for the best of the TV profits, defending champions Italy managing to finish bottom of their group below New Zealand.

There have been no such imbalances here outside of the deep water in which Ireland floundered. Russia were making a Cossack charge through Group A, with the magnificent young Alan Dzagoev leading the way, before the Greeks dug in and the Czechs reminded us of their days as European champions when they kept the company of fine Slovakian players, defeating West Germany in 1976 after reaching the final of the World Cup against Brazil. England won their group despite enduring the possibility of elimination going into their last group game. Germany, imperious Germany, and Spain, the masters of football, could both have been blown away in their last games.

It means that there has to be more than a mere whiff of poignancy here at the prospect of a classic final duel between the beauty of Spain and the relentless counter-attacking of the Germans. It means that we are seeing the last of a certain type of competition, streamlined, taut and also doing some more than filling up the gaping TV schedules.

There is the enticing collision of the quite separate styles of Andrea Pirlo of Italy, he of the beautiful shifts of direction and timing, and the currently rampaging Steven Gerrard of England in Sunday's quarter-final. The match-up could so easily have been swept away by the strength and the passion and, yes, the skill of Croatia and a young Ukraine.

This brings still another level of expectation in a series of games all of which are the result of either exceptional performance or, in the case of Roy Hodgson's England, some consistently impressive resolution.

Such values are being almost casually tossed aside by Uefa. It is more than negligence, more than a mere failure of understanding what is most precious about the world's greatest game, one of unmatchable beauty, even genius when it is given the chance to properly express itself.

Here, against much foreboding, it has happened with a rhythm and a drama that promises an unforgettable climax.

It is sad enough that what we are anticipating with such relish will soon enough be nothing so much as a collector's piece, a victim of not just neglect but also a failure to see how football can best live and how gravely it can be put at risk.

 

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