The Peter Corrigan Column: Wanted - a knockout event from the start

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even those whose connections with Portugal or Greece are confined to the odd holiday memory will be looking forward eagerly to today's Euro 2004 final. Firstly, we still cling to the hope that the tournament can finish with a flourish that offers a definitive example of the health of the game across the Continent (fat chance). Secondly, everyone will be glad when it's over.

Even those whose connections with Portugal or Greece are confined to the odd holiday memory will be looking forward eagerly to today's Euro 2004 final. Firstly, we still cling to the hope that the tournament can finish with a flourish that offers a definitive example of the health of the game across the Continent (fat chance). Secondly, everyone will be glad when it's over.

The championship seems to have been with us for a long time. The calendar reveals that it is only 23 days since the first ball was kicked but most of the proceedings have had an interminable feel about them. It proves how slowly time goes by when you are not enjoying yourself.

Not that we have been totally bereft of good football. The Group D match in which the Czechs beat Holland 3-2 was a game fit to grace any tournament. No offence to the hosts or to the Greeks but no one would complain if that was the match being reprised in today's final. Although, in fairness, the Portugal-Greece match which opened the event was a very watchable game and was also the last time the Greeks showed any adventure.

But too many teams fell a long way short of glory and did so in a manner that was so lacking in spirit and ambition that it was like watching a series of cadavers being dragged to a burial pit.

It's an appropriate image because the spectacle led to the death of the international careers of several managers and one or two others also seem to be past their expiry date.

Apart from the finalists, and the Czechs and the Latvians, who performed above expectations, most other competing countries proved themselves to be in need of a complete overhaul of approach and attitude. But nothing about the championship requires more urgent attention than the format of the tournament itself.

The first complaint against it is that it went on too long. Had it been an exciting and bounteous festival of football throughout, its length would have been much less noticeable. But it tugged at the patience of even the most fervent football devotee.

I wonder how many shared my shock on Wednesday evening when I found myself reluctant to switch from watching the Roger Federer-Lleyton Hewitt quarter-final at Wimbledon to the start of the Portugal-Holland semi-final. I did it, of course, but I was ashamed at my hesitation. The reason the championship is vulnerable to outstaying its welcome is the initial stage in which teams are grouped in fours with each playing three games on a league basis. That means two games a day for 12 days - a force-feeding exercise fit to dull the keenest appetite - and the reason why it tends to drag.

It often takes on the aura of a phoney overture and you get the feeling that the event doesn't really get serious until the quarter-finals usher in the knockout stage.

The answer is to make the finals tournament a knockout competition from the start. That's what cup football should be. It would mean fewer games, a shorter timescale and a far more urgent approach to the finals from the outset.

When it began as the European Nations' Cup in 1958-60, the format was simple knockout over home and away legs with just the semis and final played in one country. They didn't change to having a longer finals tournament until 1978-80 when the eight qualifying teams were split into two groups with the winner of each group meeting in the final.

That sort of group system worked because it was imperative you played to win your matches. But they eventually copied the World Cup arrangement of two qualifying from each group, which doesn't encourage early ambition especially among the better teams.

Fifa's insistence on swelling the number of final qualifiers to 32 at the World Cup means that they now have eight groups of four with the top two in each going forward to the final 16. This not only prolongs the tournament but also takes the edge off the opening stages. Teams don't have to try to win every game and very often a draw or two will suffice.

By extending the length of the competition, playing more matches and keeping the hopes of countries alive longer, Fifa are probably increasing their income considerably but I believe the pace and the excitement of the event is suffering. However, the fact that competing nations are coming from all over the world and it wouldn't be proper to send them home too early probably justifies the format.

The same considerations do not apply to the European version. Wherever it is staged, competing countries would never be more than three hours' flying time away so it would not be extreme to introduce a strictly knockout formula that would mean an early exit for some.

Indeed, it would allow you to have 32 taking part in the finals. The hosts and the top seven qualifiers could be seeded, Wimbledon style, and the 16 first-round matches played over four or five days. The finalists would play five games compared to the six Portugal and Greece will have played by tonight and every game would be vital.

If they insist on persisting with the group system then they should make it that only the winners go through. That'll cut down the initial shadow boxing.

What the present format has done, at both World and European levels, is allow teams to take negative thoughts to these finals. Some countries I don't need to mention would take negative thoughts whatever the format but that's all the more reason to discourage them from that approach.

The accepted dictum at present is not to lose your first match, and even good teams set out their stall accordingly. That can't be right. And the stronger teams also tend to use the group stage to fine-tune their tactics or, in England's case, to find some.

There was only one team out of the 16 in Portugal, the Czechs, who won all three of their group matches. In Group C nobody won more than one match. Sweden, Denmark and Italy each won once and Italy went out on a goal count-back. The Italians are still not convinced that the 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark that put them out wasn't contrived. I'm sure it wasn't, but it has happened in the past and that such arrangements are possible is another weakness in the system.

Many reasons have been offered for the poor performances of many of the major powers. Fatigue, jadedness, an arrogant belief that they can make it up as they go along - to these, perhaps, can be added the folly of trying to make a lazy entrance into the competition.

There's nothing like sudden-death to bring a tournament to life. You have to arrive with your A game ready to be put into action immediately with minds freshly focused on the urgency of the occasion. I'd get rid of penalty shoot-outs, too, and find a way of rewarding the team that play the most attacking football, but that's another argument.

Perhaps we'd be thinking differently if England had managed to beat Portugal and still be a presence out there. If Wayne Rooney hadn't been injured, who knows what would have happened?

But the fact remains that Euro 2004 has only one game left to rescue its memory from the mediocre bin. The long-term solution lies in the format - as the FA Cup, the world's supreme knockout tournament, proves year after year.

Comments