Big Lang Theory: In praise of the 16-team European Championship


As anyone who has ever watched American travelogue/eating challenge voyeurism-a-thon Man v. Food will know, bigger isn't always better. For the uninitiated, the show usually runs as follows: every week, our charismatic but visibly unhealthy host travels to some corner of the USA to sample local fast food delicacies, before attempting to eat a meal of scarcely-believable size in order to beat some challenge enshrined before the concept of obesity even existed. It's a fun enough show, as it goes.

Handily, it also illustrates the folly behind one of the most fundamental recent reshuffles of football: UEFA's decision to expand the European Championship to 24 teams from 2016.

The current 16-team format is the perfectly formed opening half of the show, wherein viewers are encouraged to revel in the regional differences on offer. The European Championship does not outstay its welcome; in fact, its allure lies precisely in the fact that it leaves you wanting more. While the World Cup remains the glamorous prom queen of the football world, the Euro is its aloof, Camus-reading sister - more intense, more challenging, cooler.

The 16-team European Championship also allows the perfect balance between favourites and outsiders. The same handful of perennial competitors - and England - are usually present, and often shoved together at the group stage. Rarely does a World Cup provide as many stand-out first-round clashes as we saw this year. Yet its condensed format also allows for shocks - just ask Greece.

Fat cats, however, are fat for a reason: they always want more. Why eat a plate of food when you can eat four? Why settle for 16 teams when 24 can be crammed in?

The decision to expand the European Championships was ostensibly based on the concept of inclusion, designed to spread the bounty of the tournament among more parties. This would be seen as laudable, I suppose, if our trust in football's governing bodies hadn't already been eroded to zero. Rather, the move smacks both of cynical politicking ("You would never have qualified for previous tournaments, Albania. Don't ever forget who pulled the strings...") and of shameless coffer-filling (sponsorship opportunities over 50-odd matches presumably trump those currently on offer).

Then there are the more practical concerns. Does a team that finishes third in a group of four really deserve to reach the knock-out stages of a tournament? Would the teams beaten in the play-offs for Euro 2012 (I'm looking at you, Estonia) really have improved the tournament itself?

In 2016 and every four years thereafter, we are likely to presented with a bloated behemoth of a tournament that we will slog through more out of duty than enjoyment. This is Man v. Football, and it looks like football has lost. Again.