FOX Soccer Exclusive
England, Germany get kind draw
A full three months before the 2014 World Cup will kick off, the course to qualification for the 2016 European Championships has already been charted for UEFA’s 54 members. The hosts France qualify directly, while the other 53 will spend 14 months trying to qualify for the remaining 23 spots starting on Sept. 7, 2014.
Germany probably got the easiest assignment with Group D, as it was drawn with Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia and first-timers Gibraltar. England got lucky too, and was handed Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino on a silver platter in Group E.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, got a raw deal in Group A, getting paired with the Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland and Kazakhstan. Portugal was also given a tough task in Group I, getting lumped in with Denmark, Serbia, Armenia and Albania.
Two-time defending champions Spain were put in a most manageable Group C with Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg.
Group B will consist of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus and Andorra. Group F is Greece, Hungary, Romania, Northern Ireland, Finland and the Faroe Islands. In Group G, Russia will play Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova and Liechtenstein. And, lastly, Group H comprises Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Malta and Azerbaijan.
In yet another convoluted draw ceremony – they seem to be proliferating and growing ever more perilous to public health – centering around former goalkeepers, for some reason, the new, equally convoluted format was laid out. The tournament has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams for this edition, a political move by UEFA president Michel Platini that will arguably only dilute the quality and excitement.
Nevertheless, the new spots have to be parsed out, and so the 53 aspiring qualifiers were split into nine groups – eight of six teams and one of five. They will play each other twice, once on each side’s home turf. The best two of each group will qualify directly and the best third-place team will join them. The eight remaining third-placed teams enter a playoff for the final four spots. However, since one group doesn’t have an official sixth member, games against each group’s sixth-place finisher will not count towards the final tally, so as to make up the numbers.
And in another wrinkle, France, the automatically-qualified hosts, will be fit into the five-team Group I, headed by Portugal. They will play a regular qualifying schedule as the sixth entrant into that group. But their games, described as “centralized friendlies,” will not count either. The hosts often have trouble scheduling quality friendlies in their preparations for the tournament, and this scheme of Platini’s offered up a solution for the home country.
There was an awkward chuckle or two when Gibraltar and Armenia were drawn with the very teams they have refused to play against. Having broken away from Spain politically, it was pre-arranged that if drawn together, Gibraltar would be moved to another group. And as misfortune would have it, Gibraltar was indeed drawn into Spain’s Group C with Spain. So instead, it was dropped into Group D with Germany with Luxembourg travelling in the opposite direction. Azerbaijan and Armenia, caught up in a territorial conflict, were paired in Italy’s Group H. So Armenia was reassigned to Group I, getting swapped for Malta.
The games will be scheduled in a “week of football” format, with teams playing their games in pairs on a Thursday and a Sunday, a Friday and a Monday, or Saturday and a Tuesday, with all games from each group played on the same day.
With the tournament’s size swollen by 50 percent, more than half of the 53 teams in qualifying will either qualify directly or reach the playoffs. The purists cry foul anytime a major tournament is expanded, but the question whether Europe has enough strong countries to make a 24-team tournament sufficiently enticing at the early stages weighs heavily. The Euro’s charm, after all, was always its exclusiveness – it never fielded weak teams. And only an outright sporting calamity will prevent the major powers from qualifying, robbing the process of any real tension.
This expansion, just two decades on from the decision to double the tournament from eight to 16 teams, smacks of a brazen play for money and power. More games will further raise revenues. And by inviting more teams to the party, Platini may well broaden his political support in a potential play for the FIFA presidency down the line.
Whatever the case, the admittedly straightforward task has been laid out for those aspiring to playing in France in the summer of 2016. And whatever its size, the 15th European Championships promises to be compelling. Probably just not quite as compelling as the last few times around.