Michel Platini won’t be there but the eyes of Europe and much of the rest of the world will be fixed on the Palais des Congrès in Paris on Saturday when the draw for Euro 2016 is made. UEFA’s president has had his 90-day suspension from all footballing activity upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, meaning he will be unable to attend the star-studded event in France’s capital.
But his mark will still be felt. It was Platini’s pet project to increase the field for the European Championship to 24 teams, up from the 16 that had been in place since 1996. The plan was initially met with plenty of derision. One of the most attractive aspects of the European Championship was that, in comparison to the World Cup, there was all wheat and no chaff. A 16-team field was ultra-competitive, with no straightforward matches, even for the biggest teams.
Paradoxically, the format also allowed for plenty of surprises. Helped by a swift tournament and fewer victories required for glory, unfancied sides Denmark and Greece have lifted the trophy in the past 25 years.
But so far Platini’s proposal has paid rich dividends. Rather than the qualification formula, which offered a spot in the finals to nearly half of UEFA’s members, providing a procession for the continent’s major powers, it instead reinvigorated the competition. Lesser nations, having previously believed they had little chance of reaching a major tournament, suddenly seized their opportunity with relish. Four teams -- Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales -- have qualified for the European Championship for the first time, with Albania and Iceland having never previously made it to any major tournament.
Meanwhile, some bigger nations will be watching Euro 2016 from home. The biggest casualty was the Netherlands, European champions in 1988 and third-placed finishers in the World Cup just over a year ago. But former winners Denmark and Greece will also be absent.
The teams that are there will be divided into four pots based on their UEFA coefficient -- their performance over the last two-and-a-half tournament cycles -- and drawn into six groups. France, as hosts, and Spain, as holders, are automatically placed into Pot 1. And it is they, along with world champions Germany, look set to start the tournament next June as the favorites to take home the trophy.
All three, though, also have questions hanging over them, which could open the door for an outsider. England, the only team to go through qualifying with a 100 percent record, and Belgium, sitting top of the FIFA rankings, will surely be confident.
Italy, runners-up in 2012, and Austria, having dropped just two points in qualifying, will be two of the teams to fear from Pot 2. In Pot 3, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden and Robert Lewandowski’s Poland are dangerous lurkers. And even in Pot 4, Wales, led by Gareth Bale, have shown they can mix it with the best.
Fortunately for those involved, the expanded format means that the odds of making it through the group stage have also increased. The top two teams from each of the six groups will progress to the Round of 16, along with the four best third-placed teams.
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) November 17, 2015
Time: Noon EST
TV channel: ESPN2
Live stream: ESPN3