England handed kind draw but must beware Euro 2024 trap

The Three Lions avoided a tough draw for the tournament in Germany next summer, while Scotland will play the hosts on the opening night

Miguel Delaney
Sunday 03 December 2023 09:39 GMT
Gareth Southgate: England must keep evolving

Yes, yes, yes. It might not have been worth some of the curious noises heard during the draw but the groups of Euro 2024 look satisfying for Gareth Southgate, exciting for Scotland football, and potentially Wales, while thrilling for anyone watching Spain and Italy’s group.

The furthest the England football team manager himself would go was describing it as “interesting” when Denmark came out and potentially “dangerous” with Serbia, as he also admitted he heard “something” on stage.

Most in the auditorium at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg heard noises that sounded like pornography. Uefa are investigating what actually happened.

The nature of a modern 24-team Euros, where it is harder to get knocked out of the group stage, means this didn’t have that same frisson. There isn’t that same pressure, even for smaller nations. Former Arsenal defender Sylvinho, now the manager of Albania, may well dispute that. His side were thrown in with Spain, Italy and Croatia which is where everyone’s eyes were drawn.

It is the only group filled with traditional powers. Before that, the focus had largely been on France and England. When Serbia manager Dragan Stojkovic came over to speak, the first thing he said was “Jude Bellingham!”

“At the moment he is very close to being the best, and he is going to be the best.

“England is one of the very, very serious candidates to get the trophy. Let’s be honest, it has fantastic potential with a great coach and players and mentality.”

This was put to Southgate who was as diplomatic as ever.

“There is still a bit to do,” he said. “But we are very happy to have those players. We feel the squad has been building for a period of time and England are going to be competitive for the foreseeable future as you look at the young players coming through, and when we started at St George’s Park it is what we wanted to happen. If you are continually in those latter stages, most teams that win go close and then get there.”

The Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand, meanwhile, smiled ruefully about how the Euro 2020 semi-final at Wembley still causes him to “wake up at night thinking about that match”.

“That one hurts.”

It will bring edge to their meeting in Frankfurt but the fact four third-placed teams go through means it might not even have the same stakes by then. Such circumstances might even ruin that prospective “group of death”. There is the danger that Albania are beaten by everybody, which should mean all of Spain, Croatia and Italy have sufficient points to get through no matter the results against each other. A single win may be enough in this situation.

A similar caveat comes with the fact three play-off qualifiers still have to be decided, meaning not even France vs Netherlands looks like the same sort of game.

Denmark's head coach Kasper Hjulmand and England's football manager Gareth Southgate

That is the trouble with this asymmetrical competition, and why such a draw just doesn’t have the same importance as a World Cup anymore.

Only a third of the field is going out at the first hurdle. Hence it’s hard to talk too much about what this draw means for the chances of particularly dangerous sides like Portugal, who do have an awkward group.

The flip side of that is it affords a greater number of smaller nations the chance to be involved, and none of this will dampen their excitement.

Albania’s coach Sylvinho was still actually beaming. He had joked to English media beforehand: “I hope to stay far away from you guys!”

Unlucky for him in who he got, but also maybe inspiring. Scotland will very much feel the same. They have the worst possible opening game against the hosts but the fact it is the opening game of the whole tournament means they are involved in the sort of event that you can only be thrilled about. It may offer momentum for the exacting and evenly-matched games against Hungary and Switzerland. This is what it’s all about.

It just might take a while to feel that way given the odd timing of the draw.

If the sense was that most of the summer’s prospective audience were focused on the Premier League rather than this, you wouldn’t have guessed it from the scene around the Uefa hotel. That was the Atlantic, which overlooks the Elbe, and was used in the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. You can make your joke about that. It otherwise meant Uefa officials and the present legends like David Silva and Gigi Buffon were greeted by images of Pierce Brosnan and Teri Hatcher when they went to the toilet, with Bond tunes piped in.

Port workers in Hamburg stack containers with flags of the Euro 2024 teams in accordance with the draw

It was a real who’s who in the Uefa lounge, despite the freezing weather playing havoc with travel plans. A lot of flights were cancelled. The Football Association delegation sat on the tarmac for two hours. New German manager Julian Nagelsmann’s solution to this was to drive 800km from Munich.

The morning’s executive committee meeting still ran relatively smoothly, with no real overriding themes. “It was quite boring,” in the words of one federation executive who rolled his eyes. The major decisions were on the expansion of the Women’s Champions League and the distribution of Euro 2024 prize money, with every participating team getting €9.25m.

That added a bit more edge for those play-off teams present, including Wales, who have the carrot of potential matches with Netherlands, Austria and France. Many of the smaller nations subsequently went up to Uefa to literally beg for more money, as they lobbied for solidarity money to be increased. That is how some of this gets done.

The executive committee of course involves a presence from the biggest clubs, with European Club Association and Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser El-Khelaifi present and glad-handing the room. Just behind him, Dutch manager Ronald Koeman was sat quietly on his own until greeted warmly by David Silva, who was one of the legends conducting the draw.

His own country, who beat Italy in the 2012 final, now have one of the hardest groups. The nature of the tournament means it may not be the hardest of routes when all is said and done.

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