I was originally against expanding the European Championship. I thought bringing in “small” (in footballing terms, I intend no disrespect) countries would lead to a bloated, overlong tournament. I was right wasn’t I? Having 16 qualifiers from 24 led to stultifying games where the object was not to lose, rather than to play scintillating football, and an extra round that really wasn’t necessary, except for the money merchants and TV companies.
And yet I was wrong, so wrong. It was the small countries, the ones that wouldn’t have got in previously, who gave the competition its fizz, its sparkle and its interest. Well done the Irelands, Northern and Republic, their Celtic cousins in Wales and, of course, Iceland, one week a frozen food shop, the next worthy victors over the country that claims to have invented the game.
It’s quite possible that some of the Icelandic players will have returned from international duty to find themselves playing in Champions League games. FH Hafnarfjördur are away to Dundalk tomorrow and there has already been an earlier qualifying round. Something clearly does need to be done.
So here’s my plan to shorten and liven up a competition that failed to live up to expectations, apart from those of England fans.
Reduce the number of qualifying teams to 16 by means of two parallel competitions. The “big countries” would produce ten of these qualifiers which, allowing for host nation and holders, reserves four places for the “smaller” countries. Countries which have never had league clubs entering the Champions League later than, for example, the third qualifying round or play off stage would be eligible to enter this competition and four would go through to the finals, one in each of four groups of four countries.
Give these four a point start, or maybe even two points, with the top two teams in each group qualifying for the quarter finals. That way clubs shouldn’t find it pays to hold out for draws.
So that gets us to the knockout stage, which is where it gets really interesting. If teams reach extra time having scored then they have at least made an effort and should be allowed to proceed in the normal way.
But in the event of a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes the teams should be required to play in national dress, as determined by Charlie Hebdo. The Dutch in clogs and holding tulips, for example; the Germans in Lederhosen; the French in smocks, berets and wearing a string of onions.
If those rules were adopted and the England team got through what would they wear in the event of a goalless draw?
I suggest a pinstripe suit and bowler hat, as befits, and please excuse my rhyming slang, a bunch of merchant bankers.