When Uefa president, Michel Platini, announced two years ago that the 2016 European Championship would be extended to accommodate 24 national teams, the footballing public poured its usual cup of hot scorn on Europe’s governing body.
Part of the charm of the European Championship has always been its elite structure. Only the best were allowed to qualify, which meant only the highest standard of matches at the tournament itself.
But what followed has arguably reinvigorated international football. Sure, England made its usual procession through qualifying, but elsewhere the smaller nations had a new incentive. Wales and Northern Ireland both qualified for their first major tournament since 1958 and 1982 respectively, while Iceland – population 325,000 – and Albania, will be present at a summer football tournament for the first time in their histories.
The new format encouraged the smaller nations to play on the front foot rather than sitting back and defending. Teams took on a more positive mentality and reaped the rewards as a result. Northern Ireland, a nation without an away win in four years prior to the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, picked up three in four games under Michael O’Neill in Group F. They are a nation without any standout or marquee players, but thanks to the qualifying structure and an inspirational manager, they are a nation rejuvenated.
Joining them in the finals is Wales, a nation that not only lost its way but also its manager in such tragic circumstances in 2011. For Chris Coleman, his players and the supporters to get over that setback and continue the wonderful legacy laid down by the late Gary Speed is no mean feat. The Welsh have risen above England in the World Rankings and qualified for their first major tournament in over 50 years. While individual brilliance has obviously played its part, the collective effort and spirit amongst the team was also vital.
Wales, England and Northern Ireland will all be present at the Euros next year in France, with the Republic of Ireland looking all set to join if they can beat Bosnia in the play-offs. With Scotland as the only confirmed absentees after Gordon Strachan’s side failed to qualify, it’s looking all set to be a great British party across the channel in France next year.