ANALYSIS-Soccer-Euro-UEFA in danger of dishing up junk-food Euros

GDANSK, June 19 Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:27pm BST

GDANSK, June 19 (Reuters) - Twenty two matches in and with the group-phase jostling almost complete Euro 2012 organisers can justifiably claim that it has more than lived up to its pre-tournament billing.

All the groups have been tightly-contested, there have been many enthralling matches and only been one real thrashing and as fans of Spain and Germany would testify, the fingernails have taken a battering.

Things might not be quite as exciting in four years time, however, with UEFA going against the "if it's not broken don't fix it" mantra by swelling the tournament to 24 teams.

The decision, justified by UEFA president Michel Platini on Monday, may come back to haunt them.

The beauty of Euro 2012, as it was at the tournament four years ago in Austria and Switzerland, is that every match has mattered with the outcome of groups still being on a knife-edge in stoppage time of the final games.

Both the pre-tournament favourites, Spain and Germany, survived to reach the quarter-finals, but they could just as easily been knocked out as final group games against Croatia and Denmark respectively went to the wire.

Others were not so lucky.

Russia were knocked out despite a thrilling performance in their opening Group A demolition of the Czech Republic, a shock defeat by outsiders Greece sealing their fate.

Whether or not Spain go on to retain the trophy, fans at the tournament and the hundreds of millions watching on TV screens around the world, can be satisfied that it is the creme de la creme of the continent's talent they are watching.

Such was the quality of the four groups that there has been little room for error with even the top sides sweating on reaching the business end of the tournament.

Best to enjoy it while it last, however.

France 2016 will no longer be such a lean tournament and some nations will arrive to make up the numbers.

An obsession with super-sizing threatens to turn the tournament form haute cuisine to junk food, with dead fixtures involving the likes of teams like Montenegro and Estonia, both of whom would have probably qualified for Euro 2012 had it been a 24-team competition.

The tournament format has not been decided but it is likely there will be six groups of four, followed by a first knockout round of 16 and it would take a monumentally poor effort by the fancied nations not to survive the groups.

The group phase will be a 36-match marathon at the end of which only eight teams will head home. In all 51 matches will be needed to decide the continental champions.

ENOUGH DEPTH

Platini defended the decision this week, suggesting that the European football had enough depth in quality.

"We can have eight more teams as good as the rest, and also have a fantastic round of 16," he claimed. "It's very important for the (additional) countries that qualify. It is good for the national associations and their development."

However, as the World Cup has discovered, increasing the entries can devalue the very achievement of reaching the tournament. The World Cup was increased to 24 teams in 1982 with a dull format involving a second phase of group matches.

It 1986 it was streamlined to six groups of four followed by a last 16, the same format that was used in Italy in 1990, a tournament widely regarded as one of the worst World Cups ever with some mind-numbingly boring football on display.

Since 1998 the World Cup has become a 32-team monster but, as was clearly evident in South Africa four years ago, the matches end up blurring into a mass of mediocrity.

So for pure excitement, Euro 2012 may represent a high-water mark for the game.

At this tournament, even Germany who began their third match with two wins under their belt, knew defeat in the third game against the Danes could have proved fatal.

Spain, Italy and England, who face Ukraine later on Tuesday haunted by the prospect of a defeat that would send them home, have also been on tenterhooks throughout.

In four years, by the start of the third round of group games, most teams will already have qualified for the last 16, leading to the prospect of weakened sides being fielded, conspiracy theories and blue riband games becoming meaningless like a match between Argentina and the Netherlands at the 2006 World Cup.

Not only that but the qualifying process, long and ungainly as it is, will become a procession with average sides being rewarded with their place in the spotlight. (Editing by Ed Osmond)