Successful format to change at Euro 2016
Every fan should have watched every game so far at the European Championship, if only because this is likely to be the last time they will have it this good.
Euro 2012 will continue on its sparkling, merry way for another week and then some. But this will be the last one played under the tight 16-team format that has delivered a big punch every day, with many of the best teams in the world playing each other in meaningful matches throughout the group stage.
Next time around, at France in 2016, there will be 24 teams, diluting the quality, adding games and complicating qualification.
This year, from the thrilling opener between Poland and Greece until the controversy-laced group closer between Ukraine and England, the 24 games had great goals, tight results and tense drama right up to the final whistle.
UEFA called the group stage ''mouth watering,'' and President Michel Platini said that ''for myself, I'm very, very, very, very happy.''
So why change?
The simple 16-team tournament has been such a success that everybody wanted in - a practical impossibility. Ireland did make it to the tournament this year, but it was only the second time in its history. Five years ago, it joined up with another smaller federation, Scotland, to make sure they would be able to reap the financial and sporting success more easily by pushing for a format expansion.
Since most of the 53 member associations are small nations, too, it was easy to see why the expansion was approved in 2008.
''It is a matter of the democracy,'' Platini said.
The drawbacks, however, are obvious.
It will likely be run under the dreaded rules that turned the World Cup from 1986 to 1994 in a bureaucratic challenge only accountants could love.
Now, it is four groups with the top two finishers in each through to the quarterfinals. And even that can be complicated enough with teams like Italy and Portugal pondering countless possible results and options ahead of their third and decisive group games before going through.
Under a 24-team system, those options multiply since an added second round must arrive at 16 teams. The whole group system will be played to eliminate only eight teams, something that often provided a horrific yawn during the first two weeks of competition for any neutral viewer.
This year, Group B had four teams in FIFA's top 10 ranking, providing such cracking games as Germany's 2-1 win over the Netherlands and Portugal's 3-2 victory over Denmark.
If you look at the current makeup of UEFA's top 24 nations, such smaller teams as Slovenia, Slovakia, Wales, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Hungary could well fill slots. Instead of one lovable underdog like Ireland, there would be a slew of them. Often, they are teams whose only chance at winning is deadening the game with stifling defense.
And the tension of seeing teams like Spain and Italy having to fight until the last second to qualify would also largely evaporate since instead of eight, 16 teams would advance.
''It is less dramatic,'' Platini said. ''But then you have a round of 16, it's ... knockout.''
Beyond the enjoyment of the television viewer, there is a lot more at stake. And, suddenly, Platini starts using words as ''sponsors'' and ''investment.''
Fly over Lviv, Ukraine, at night during the championships and the freshly expanded airport and new stadium that hosted games of Germany and Portugal literally stand out as beacons in the dark, testimony of the economic impact Euro 2012 is having.
For Lviv, all for just three games.
''How can we ask to a city like Lviv to build a network, to build a big stadium, and after three games it's finished,'' Platini said. ''If we have 24 teams, we will have more games in the stadiums; and then the investment, it will be better ... Because it is not easy with a crisis to build some stadiums, and to build some airports because we have to welcome the Euro.''
And the game of football, too, will profit. The game always picks up when a nation qualifies and the federations can cash in with bigger sponsorship interest, allowing further grassroots development.
On top of that, UEFA thinks it can sell a 51-match Euro for much more than a 31-match format, even though Platini realizes that there could be drawbacks.
''Perhaps there is another system, I don't know,'' he said. ''We can look at what is more attractive.''