x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Euro 2020 vision on host cities is short-sighted

Uefa's attempt to spread the European championship could also mean taking away all the fun attached for the fans.

If it ain't broke, break it. Then fix it.

That seems to be the motto for football authorities these days. And as ever, it is the fans that foot the bill, financially and emotionally.

This weekend brought the announcement that Uefa is planning to hold the 2020 European Championship across 13 cities, a massive departure from the usual practice of awarding it to one host nation, or a joint effort by two.

In these difficult financial times, Uefa reasons, the heavy financial burden of holding the tournament is best shared across the countries.

Not surprisingly supporter groups, as well as bloggers and tweeters, have not taken too kindly to this latest brainstorm.

Michel Platini, the Uefa president, whose idea it is, has gone on record by saying that the new format would "bring the Euros to the fans".

The thing is, most fans want to go to the Euros.

Football fans are creatures of habit. A destination tournament for a Euro (or World Cup) remains an integral part of football's calendar, of its culture.

Indeed, these events work as bookmarks in the annals of football history. Four-yearly festivals that give the fans the opportunity to experience other cultures while following their teams.

Uefa also seem to be ignoring the thousands of neutral fans who travel to these events.

Now, instead of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to mingle with other supporters in a party-like atmosphere, supporters will have to traverse Europe in what is essentially turning into an international version of the Uefa Champions League; endless qualifiers, a small group of top teams guaranteed success.

Even for the armchair fan, tournaments are often memorable because of their hosts.

Those of us from a certain age group were will never forget the ticker-taped Argentina in 1978. Mexico '86 bought us that wave and the last World Cup to be dominated by an individual player in Diego Maradona.

Euro '96, meanwhile, is fondly remembered by many fans for England's revamped stadiums, and perhaps the home team's finest ever performance in beating Holland 4-1 at Wembley Stadium. Curiously, unlike World Cups which we often refer to by the name of the host country followed by the two-digit year (Italia '90, France '98), the European Championships often go by, simply, Euro with the year added on.

With the next Euros already set to be increased from 16 to a bloated 24, having gone up from eight to 16 for Euro '96, the new announcement brings further dilution of the tournament as a supremely competitive, streamlined event.

Uefa will argue that Europe now has, thanks to the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, more nations to contend with than in those Cold War years. Still, the two-year qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 in France will now produce 24 qualifiers from an original pool of 53 member nations, an exceptionally high 45 per cent.

For many of Europe's more established footballing nations, qualifying matches will turn into processions. The days of teams like France (1988), England (1984 and 2008) and Holland (1984) missing out are gone forever.

The one group of people who will happy with Uefa's meddling is its sponsors. Advertising revenues across 13 nations is obviously preferable to just one or two, as is the higher number of matches and all the extra revenues that entails. Hotels and airlines, we suspect, are not unhappy either.

Once again, it is the fans who suffer. Platini insists that supporters would not be asked to travel large distances to follow their own countries, yet again ignoring the wishes of these very fans, and indeed the thousands of potential neutral visitors.

Quite apart from being an economically unsound assertion, it is an astonishingly arrogant claim by Uefa to make on behalf of football fans.

In its latest move, Uefa is going back to the future. Before Italy held the European Championship in 1980, the European Championship was played on a home and away basis until the semi-final stage at which a mini-tournament was held in one country.

That arrangement brought the Gunter Netzer-inspired West German triumph in 1972, and Antonin Panenka's cheeky title-winning penalty for Czechoslovakia in 1976. Surely proof that a continent-wide event can provide a memorable outcome?

The answer, ironically, lies is in Uefa's own reasoning. The early European Championship (from 1960-1976) were contested by four teams only, from a starting group of less than 30 countries.

It is precisely because of the gradual increase in finalists that the fledgling competition was turned it into the ultimate four-yearly festival.

Now Uefa is in essence threatening to shut down the party for the fans. But then again, to football authorities, what do the fans know?

akhaled@thenational.ae

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