Euro 2016: Farcical format

Euro 2016: Farcical format
Michel Platini’s new format means that Portugal still have a good chance of qualifying despite falling to Bekim Balaj’s (No. 19) wonder goal.

As Michel Platini knew so well when he was one of the world's most elegant footballers, timing is everything.

In a French jersey, he was a gifted, unflappable, balletic midfielder. In a Uefa suit, he comes across as a clumsy, incorrigible meddler.

His latest brainwave has turned one of the world's most entertaining sports tournaments into a bloated bore.

In terms of its excitement value, the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is shaping up to be somewhere between watching replays of Portugal's performance yesterday morning (Singapore time) and a washing machine's spin cycle.

The Uefa president's decision-making has been challenged before, but his saving grace was always timing.

He swopped the jersey for a shirt and tie and entered the shadowy world of suits at a time when football's administrators were treated with the kind of public disdain usually reserved for HDB burglars.

Platini's greatest success was not being Sepp Blatter.

He was Darth Vader to the Fifa president's Emperor Palpatine; the lesser of two sharks in a sea of corporate suits. So he survived one dubious decision after another.

His Financial Fair Play regulations have more holes than Manchester United's back three and he voted for Qatar 2022. Blatter didn't.

For good measure, Platini's son, Laurent, also became the chief executive of Burrda, a Qatar-owned sports company. The two may be entirely unconnected, but the coincidence never particularly troubled the Frenchman.

Nothing stuck to his polished shoes, while Blatter was left with a Qatari stain that he still struggles to scrub away in a bid to preserve his legacy.

But there is no Fifa wall of corporate dung to hide behind this time, no stench to distract from what's cooking closer to home.

Euro 2016 is a mess entirely of Platini's making.

Just consider Portugal. Paulo Bento's men were stunned 1-0 by Albania yesterday morning, partly because they have failed to regenerate since their golden generation reached the Euro 2004 final, but mostly because they missed Cristiano Ronaldo.

TINKERING

Officially, he was recovering from injury. Unofficially, Bento suspected he could prevail without the world's greatest player and, even if he couldn't, Platini's unnecessary tinkering was on hand to help him.

Uefa's decision to expand the Finals from 16 to 24 teams means that the flabby qualifying campaign will allow the top two teams to qualify from each group; plus the best third-placed team; plus the hosts France; plus the four winners of the third-placed play-offs from the other eight groups.

For most half-decent European nations, qualification is about as complicated as celebrating a birthday. Be patient and it'll come round eventually.

There is still plenty of time for Ronaldo to ride into town and save the day for Portugal.

Platini's simplistic claim, that increasing the number of teams allows smaller nations to share the spotlight, undermines the process.

Professional sport is not school sport. Validation comes from victory rather than mere participation. Darwinism dominates the game's elite, not democracy.

If a tournament is padded with mediocrity, it can devalue genuine achievement.

Besides, Platini's supposedly Corinthian ideals will never come to fruition in any case. The poorer sides will still be eliminated. There will just be more of them.

Like Portugal, the better nations are now granted further opportunities for safe passage.

With either two or three teams qualifying, the big boys will have flights booked to France long before the 268-game campaign slips into a coma.

IMPOSSIBLE

One of the reasons, surely, why Roy Hodgson wasn't fired following the World Cup failure was the realisation that it is nigh on impossible for England not to qualify for Euro 2016.

Their Group F opponents are Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. Three of them will get out of the group.

Even if the Three Lions stick with Hodgson, a rigid 4-4-2 and lump long balls up to an isolated Wayne Rooney throughout the qualification process, a safe passage still seems assured (though we really shouldn't be encouraging Hodgson to regress any further).

Platini has taken an attractive model and added an unsightly layer of fat that will be tough to watch as it wheezes its way across Europe for months on end.

After backing Qatar 2022, the Uefa president has again demonstrated an uncanny ability to fiddle with a successful formula. If it ain't broke, don't ask Platini to fix it.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 9, 2014.
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