LIAM MACKEY: Misadventures in the Eurozone

One small problem with Uefa’s vision for Euro 2020 – it lacks 20-20 vision.

In focusing on the big picture, Michel Platini has lost sight of the small but vitally important detail.

The FAI were coy this week about over-playing their hand in response to the news that the tournament in eight years time will be spread across the continent. But with the impressive facility of the Aviva Stadium at their disposal, the association clearly has grounds for feeling quietly confident that Ireland will get a slice of the action.

And, from an entirely parochial perspective, you can understand why this would make Euro 2020 a welcome if radical departure in the history of the continent’s premier international tournament. Not so long ago, the idea that Ireland could host tournament football on this scale would have been an absurd pipedream; now it has moved one step closer to reality. Should it come to pass, it would be quite a fillip for the image of the game in this country, not to mention a significant boost to tourism among other economic benefits. Throw in the possibility of a real glamour game (or games) ending up in Dublin and, again from an Irish perspective, it’s easy to accentuate the positives of Michel Platini’s grand plan..

But you can only do that, I would argue, if you’re prepared to put self-interest ahead of the interests of the game as a whole.

Traditionally, the big tournaments have been hosted by one country or, at most, two. Extending the Euro finals to anything from 13 to 20 hosts will not only make life infinitely more complicated for fans – even if fixtures are clustered on a regional basis – but, more alarmingly, threatens to detract from the incomparable experience on the ground of, as the sage George Clinton might put it, one nation under a groove.

I’ve been lucky enough to cover a handful of World Cups and European Championship finals in my time and, notwithstanding the lack of Irish involvement, by far the most memorable was the glorious Mundial in Germany in 2006.

It helped that the football overall was good and it helped too, of course, that the hosts embarked on a thrilling run all the way to the semi-finals, but what really turned the tournament into something uniquely special was the way the entire country became entranced by the experience of hosting the football world’s greatest event. I travelled extensively throughout Germany over the course of that month and, from homes to hotels, from small bars to packed fan-zones and from train stations to the throbbing stadia themselves, the sheer joy of having the football world in for a visit was ever-present and genuinely uplifting.

When I say you had to be there, I’m not simply indulging in cliché. The reality of the way big tournaments have always been run up to now is they have given rise to two distinct but mutually supportive experiences: the tournament as it is experienced on the ground and the tournament as it is experienced in the rest of the world via television.

And I’m certainly not belittling the latter – after all, it’s through the box in the corner that the vast majority of the world’s football fans, myself included, get to enjoy such big events. Indeed, if your team is going well on foreign fields, the effects at home can be almost as intoxicating – hence, Con Houlihan’s famous observation that he missed Italia ’90 because he happened to be in Italy.

The point is that, as in Germany six years ago, you get the best of both worlds when a single host nation is partying on its own turf and, at the same time, calling out around the world.

Remove the former and you end up with something more like US ’94. Yes, that was a single host nation but, because of the low profile of the world’s most popular sport in America, the reality on the ground was the tournament virtually ceased to exist once you were out of earshot of the stadia themselves. Nothing of which impinged even remotely on the experience of the global viewing audience, of course – as Irish people back home who rejoiced in the defeat of Italy will attest – but, as someone who covered both World Cups, I can confirm that, as a festive event, US ’94 might as well have taken place on a different planet, never mind continent, to Germany ’06.

Unhappily, my gut instinct about Euro 2020 is that it will more resemble the former than the latter. Nor am I comforted by assurances from Uefa this week that this multi-tentacled giant octopus of a tournament will be a one-off. If television and sponsors and national associations are beaming at the end of it, then the pressure will be on to retain or at most tweak the format in years to come, especially since an extended 24-team competition – beginning in 2016 – appears to be here to stay.

For now, Uefa are spinning Euro 2020 as a gift to the whole continent, even though the idea really arose out of problems with Turkey’s original bid and the absence of credible alternatives.

A ‘Euro For Europe’, they’re calling it.

Hmm, rings a bell that. Don’t we already have one of those? And that’s worked out really well, hasn’t it?


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