Playoffs have been a part of European qualifying for years. But instead of deciding the four teams that will join the 10 teams already qualified, as will be the case in qualifying for the 2018 World
Cup, the Euro 2016 playoffs decided the four teams that joined the 20 teams already assured of playing next summer. UEFA decided more was merrier and expanded the tournament field from 16 to 24
That's 10 more European teams we'll be seeing in France than in Russia at the World Cup two years later. So instead of eight second-place teams in the nine qualifying groups
playing off in two years -- the worst of the second-place teams will be eliminated -- UEFA qualified all nine second-place teams and Turkey, the best of the third-place teams, and had the other eight
third-place teams play off. Not quite the dregs of the barrel but getting close.
The field for Euro 2016 includes five teams -- Northern Ireland, Albania, Wales, Iceland and
Slovakia -- that have never previously qualified for the European Championship -- and two teams, Albania and Iceland, never qualified for the European Championship or World Cup. The last time Northern
Ireland and Hungary played in a major tournament was in 1986 when they went to the World Cup. The last time Wales went to the World Cup was in 1958.
That's not intended as a criticism of
these teams as several of these teams overcame long odds to qualify on merit. Northern Ireland, Iceland and Albania all were placed in Pot 5 (of six pots) and qualified. Northern Ireland won its
group, while Iceland (which swept the Netherlands) and Albania finished second in their groups. But other teams -- like Sweden, Ireland and Ukraine that clinched playoff victories in recent days --
moved on when in other years they'd have already been eliminated.
The expansion of the Euro field from 16 to 24 teams means the number of games has grown from 31 games in 2012 to 49
in 2016. That 18 more games UEFA had sell tickets for and TV broadcasters can air.
But will the expanded field make for a better competition?
The sixteen teams that will
advance to the knockout stage -- they will include the dreaded "best four third-place teams" -- will be as many teams entered in Euro 2012 played in Ukraine and Poland. Much of the drama of Matchday 3
will be lost.
The fear is that the additional eight teams will simply water down what is already a rather weak field.
Just six European teams were good enough to make the
final 16 at the World Cup in Brazil, and two of them, the Netherlands and Greece, didn't qualify for Euro 2016.
Three of the Euro 2016 seeds -- Spain, England and Portugal -- did not make
it out of the group stage in Brazil, and a fourth team that fell at the first hurdle, Italy, would have been seeded if France was not seeded as the host. Euro 2016 Draw (Dec. 12): Pot 1
*France (host), *Spain, *Germany, *England, *Portugal, *Belgium. Pot 2:
*Italy, *Russia, *Switzerland, Austria, *Croatia, Ukraine. Pot 3
Czech Republic, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Slovakia,
Hungary. Pot 4
Turkey, Ireland, Iceland, Wales, Albania, Northern Ireland.
*Qualified for 2014 World Cup.