| GDANSK, June 19
GDANSK, June 19 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
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.
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
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)