Poor boys in green. Watching Ireland quail and crumple at the sight of Spain's delicate and smothering carousel was the one genuinely depressing moment of football that Euro 2012 has so far served up. According to a stereotype-happy El Mundo "the Irish potatoes rushed into the bag laid out by the Spanish team."; according to every single wit on Twitter, it was "Murder on Gdansk floor"; according to Shay Given, who had as good a view as anybody, Ireland were "ripped apart".
But as well as being far too one-sided a skelping to constitute a decent football match, this was also a harbinger of things to come. The future is mis-matched by design. This is the last time that the European Championships will be made up of 16 teams; the last tournament before it succumbs to the all-swallowing, all-ruining bloat that is busy sucking the significance out of football. Following a unanimous decision of UEFA's Executive committee, France 2016 will be contested by 24 teams.
To give some idea of how a 24-team tournament might look, let's get all hypothetical, and expand this tournament. We'll take the 16 that are already qualified, add the four sides defeated in the play-offs (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Montenegro and Estonia), and then the four best third-placed teams from qualifying (Norway, Hungary, Armenia and Switzerland, once you adjust the groups for size). Shuffle them into pots according to seedings and hosting rights, and you get the following:
1: Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Italy
2: England, Russia, Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden
3: Denmark, France, Czech Republic, Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey
4: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Norway, Hungary, Montenegro, Estonia, Armenia
In the interests of complete authenticity, I employed a glamorous assistant to, er, assist with the actual draw, and shaved my head to get the full Gianni Infantino effect. And Euro 2012+ ended up with the following groups:
A: Poland, Greece, France, Estonia
B: Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Armenia
C: Italy, England, Republic of Ireland, Norway
D: Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Bosnia & Herzegovina
E: Germany, Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary
F: Ukraine, Croatia, Turkey, Montenegro
Which by my count amounts to one Group of Serious Maiming (D), a couple of Groups of Hacking Cough (A, F), and three Groups of Meh. Portugal and Denmark will be nervous, and the two host nations have got tricky company. The rest of the group stage looks processional at best. (And yes, there'll probably be one or two shocks, but that's not the same as the current system, which more-or-less guarantees major bloodshed from the outset.)
It's worth dwelling on the format for a bit as well. The most likely arrangement -- as used in the 24-team World Cups of 1986, 1990, and 1994 -- sees the introduction of a round-of-16 knockout-stage. So after 36 group games, 8 teams are eliminated, and the top two from each group plus the four best third-placed teams proceed. Those commentators that insist on reaching for an abacus -- an abacus, chaps? Really? -- when working out the permutations for the groups as they are now may well find their brains leaking out of their ears. And unless all the groups play their last games at the same time -- and there's no way television would settle for that -- then the teams in each successive group have an increasing advantage, as it becomes clearer what will be required to finish third and go through. What was simple, elegant and fair, becomes contrived, clumsy and skewed.
There's another problem when it comes to working who plays who in the second round. With 16 teams, every team that tops a group plays one that finished second, which is straightforward and has an intuitive fairness. But six groups winners, six runners-up, and four third-placed teams don't slot easily into the eight knock-out ties. As an example, the 1990 World Cup saw the six group winners playing the four third-placed teams and two of the runners-up, while the other four runners-up played each other. Again, the simple and logical is jettisoned in favour of the clunky and ill-balanced.
Finally, to return to my original point, changing to 24 teams means more games like yesterday's: a weak team being bent over the knee of a strong one, and soundly thrashed. Or "a qualifying match", as they're known for the rest of the year. The only people that really enjoyed yesterday are those weird perverts who like counting passes, and Fernando Torres's mother. It'll be nice for the fans of those teams that wouldn't normally qualify to get the opportunity to go to a tournament, yet not only will the achievement of having got there be diminished, but also, as Roy Keane smouldered after Ireland were beaten, what's the point if you're just going for a sing-song?
I'm not arguing that theoretically lesser teams should be excluded from the Euros. Well, okay, I am. But I'm doing so on the basis that such exclusion makes the Euros a better tournament. That's the entire point of having such a thing as a "finals"; involve nearly half the continent, and it doesn't really have the same air of elite footballing achievement. At least you can argue that the World Cup, which has an entire planet to service, needs to be a bit bloated. The current European Championship system -- two years of qualifying where all teams intermingle and the best ones progress, followed by four weeks of as-close-to-perfect-dammit-as-we're-likely-to-get tournament football -- works; think about how good Euro 2000 was, or how much you're enjoying this one. The tournament is sleek and the concept is simple, the teams are (mostly) competitive and the wallchart is straightforward.
What's that, Mr Platini? You think there's more money in having 24 teams? Well, why didn't you say so? Strike the above, all; sorry to have wasted your time. God knows what I was thinking. 20 more games in the tournament? Adidas will be pleased. In the words of General Secretary David Taylor, "National-team football is unbeatable in terms of TV rankings and the interest that it generates -- why not increase the number of teams?"
Why not indeed? Because I'll watch it, and so will you. What else are we going to do? Watching football defines who we are: we watched the extra group stage of the Champions League, we'd have watched Game 39, and we'll all watch the European Super League whenever the clubs get tired of pretending to care about Financial Fair Play. Kick a ball, and we'll salivate. Such loyalty -- such sweet, hopeless trust -- deserves protection from those that might consider themselves stewards of the game, but it rarely gets it, and never when there's advertisers clamouring for more.