Buried deep within the madness of the end of the spring football season last week was the shocking announcement that the Scottish Football Association was cobbling together a late attempt to bid for the right to host Euro 2020. Encouraged by UEFA, the SFA approached its Welsh and Irish counterparts to register its intention to put forward a joint bid, that will be finalized and presented in April 2013.
The only other countries to have declared an interest in hosting are Georgia, which pulled out of a joint hosting arrangement with Azerbaijan to launch a solo bid just before the deadline, and long-time favourite Turkey, which narrowly lost out in the bidding process for Euro 2016. The absence of bids from the traditional European powerhouses who boast multiple outstanding stadia such as Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain, Holland, and Portugal means there is a real power vacuum waiting to be filled. This could present a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Celtic nations. UEFA has unsurprisingly moved the goalposts a little by declaring the bidding process open to any member nation irrespective of the previous May 15 deadline, which may be interpreted as dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of received bids.
Scotland has been down this road before with both its prospective partners - a Scotland/Ireland bid for Euro 2008 received minimal support and was derailed in major part by the failure of the Irish to secure from the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) the use of stadiums used for Gaelic games, as they are traditionally reserved for indigenous Irish sport only - however, this has since been reversed, and in the interim years both rugby, and association football have been played at the 73,500 seating Croke Park. Scotland and Wales considered a joint bid for Euro 2016 but withdrew before the actual bidding process began, as Wales only has one stadium up to tournament standards, and UEFA disapproves of having multiple stadia in one city, a major problem for Scotland, and with Glasgow's dominance of the footballing landscape, that still remains a hurdle.
The expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams from 16 brings both challenges and opportunities for the Celtic trio. While traditionalist opposition to tournaments being held by joint hosts is likely to be intensified by the unprecedented prospect of three teams gaining automatic qualification, this can be countered by pointing out that the proportion of hosts to qualification berths would be the same as this summer's joint hosted 16 team tournament in Ukraine and Poland--one in every eight teams would be a host. With 24 of UEFA's 57 nations qualifying for the tournament fears that more deserving nations will be 'squeezed out' of the 21 remaining qualifying berths should be allayed by the fact there will be more available places in the tournament in real terms too.
The downside however, is that with the increase in teams and games to play, more stadia are required to fulfil the hosting requirements. The Euro 2016 bidding process specified a minimum of two to nine stadia with 50,000 seats, three with 40,000 seats, and 4 with 30,000 seats - and the French, who won the hosting rights, considered using up to 13 stadia before settling on 10. UEFA have yet to confirm the requirements for Euro 2020, but requiring an additional stadium of at least 30,000 seats is a strong possibility. So could the Celtic nations achieve this?
Scotland's problem of too many stadia in Glasgow alone remains a stumbling block, but UEFA's rule about how many grounds from one city can be used is thought to be flexible and dependent on factors such as the availability of accommodation, good public transport systems, good links with airports and other hospitality related factors that Glasgow is sure to score highly on. Despite this, 3 stadia might be a push too far, so lets presume Hampden (60,000 all seater) and Celtic Park (52,000) are chosen for their higher capacity, over concerns about the asbestos outbreak at Ibrox. Murrayfield (67,000) in Edinburgh is the next obvious addition, but this is where the problems begin. The next option is not immediately available, and will require an upgrade of an additional stadium. Financial trouble at Hearts rules out Tynecastle, and renovating either it or Easter Road risks the accusation that the Scottish portion of the Championships is benefitting just Glasgow and Edinburgh. Dundee and Dundee United have categorically ruled out a future groundshare, which leaves the only viable option as an upgrade of Pittodrie (22,000) in Aberdeen. Any upgrade of any stadium in Scotland right now with the depressed state of the SPL and uncertainty caused over the trauma at Rangers is likely to be vilified as a potential white elephant so an option where a single stand is renovated and temporary seating is brought in to bring the stadium up to the 30,000 mark is the only viable option. Aberdeen having an airport and a location outwith the central belt works in its favour too.
Wales can provide the Millennium Stadium (74,500) in Cardiff as an absolute cathedral of sport, but would either need to upgrade Cardiff City Stadium (26,500) or the Liberty Stadium (20,500) in Swansea.
Ireland can provide Aviva Stadium (51,500) and assuming the GAA approves, Croke Park (76,500 seated, 82,500 total capacity), which are both in Dublin. Finding another two stadia will be tricky because most Irish stadia they are all used for Gaelic games and many have large terraced sections. Stadia being all-seaters, meaning ever spectattor has a seat, is a non-negotiable UEFA requirement. The most obvious candidates are the Gaelic Grounds (35,000 seated, 49,500 total capacity) in Limerick, and Páirc Uí Chaoimh (19,500 seated, 43,500 total capacity) in Cork as both cities have airports, attractive scenic locations, and are just 100 kilometers apart. Therefore, they could be used in tandem during the tournament group stages but both would require temporary seating upgrades and probably lack the number of luxury boxes UEFA would like to see, but these seem like obstacles that could be overcome in 8 years.
Serious work has to be done if the Celtic nations are to provide ten serviceable venues, with two stadia requiring expansion by a third of their current capacities and two stadia rneed to be brought up to UEFA regulations. But the challenges facing other contenders aren't straightforward. Georgia has only one stadium larger than the 30,000 entry barrier and its eighth largest stadium holds just 6,000 people--it seems incomprehensible that they can enter a serious bid that meets UEFA's standards.
Turkey has a strong footballing tradition and some beautiful and iconic stadiums, and there is no question that the Atatürk Olympic Stadium (76,000) that hosted Liverpool's victory over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final is a venue fit to host any event in style. Turkey also has two distinct advantages that make it the frontrunner.
1. Logistically, as a single host it has both a sporting and commercial attractiveness that three nations cannot match.
2. Turkey is one of the few economies in the world experiencing a healthy real GDP growth rate, 8.5% in 2011, the 9th highest in the world, and the highest in UEFA countries by far. Turkey is best placed to absorb the financial practicalities and costs that are now the hallmark of hosting international sports events.
With all this said, its path to hosting is not as easy as it might seem initially. Of its ten largest stadia, four are in Istanbul. With UEFA previously not keen about having more than a single stadium in one city, it's unlikely that this dispensation will be given beyond two per city, which will mean a tough political decision for the Turkish FA choosing between the home grounds of traditional powerhouses Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Beşiktaş.
If this was the case Turkey would be left with only five stadia above the 30,000 threshold and would therefore need to renovate and upgrade another five to meet the qualifying category. This isn't impossible or insurmountable for a country of Turkey's wealth but it emphasises the fact that none of the contenders bids are flawless, and this could prove to be more of an open competition than it appears.
Another complication for Turkey is that Istanbul is bidding to become the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have said that if Turkey were to be awarded the 2020 Olympics, they would have to withdraw from the bidding process for the European Championships, a stance that UEFA agrees with. The host for the 2020 Olympic Games will be announced in September 2013, before the host for the European Championships is announced which means that Turkey may have to withdraw from the bidding process at a late stage, and its attentions will be divided between two separate bids. On May 24, Istanbul was shortlisted alongside Tokyo and Madrid as the three candidates cities, and the Turkish government is known to prefer the Olympic bid to the bid to host the European Championships.
On top of this, Turkey is still embroiled in a corruption scandal that has rocked the country, with 2010-2011 champions Fenerbahçe among those implicated in match fixing and barred from competing in the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League as a result. The investigations and recriminations are ongoing but UEFA has expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the lack of neutrality displayed by the President of the Turkish FA, himself an ex vice-President of Fenerbahçe, who has refused to punish his old side. Against UEFA instruction, the Turkish FA has changed the rules to exempt the teams involved with the scandal from relegation and as recently as of the May 10, UEFA president Michel Platini said that "If you do not relegate the teams, you can not be in Europe". The anger felt at this disobedience is felt within the country too, as supporters of other sides feels that punishments is not being doled out equally.
UEFA openly chastising of the Turkish response, coupled with the direct encouragement give to the Scottish FA to lodge a bid, and the subsequent repealing of the deadline in an effort to attract more bids from across Europe can be interpreted one of two ways.
1. UEFA is not happy with Turkey almost being awarded the European Championships by default while Turkey is involved in this scandal and would like to see another contender challenge for the right to host.
2. UEFA would want to use the challenging bids from contenders such as the Celtic nations as leverage against the Turkish FA to enact reforms - i.e.; we want to award you the Euros, but if you do not enact reforms and comply with our regulations, we will give our support elsewhere.
As previous bidding processes for both European Championships and World Cups have shown, politics plays as much of a role as merit in determining the outcome. The ridiculous decision to allow Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, and Michel Platini's role in awarding the 2016 European Championships to his home nation of France are two such examples of the corruption and gladhanding that permeates football's rotten institutions--and the Celtic nations should be aware that they risk being a pawn on a loaded chessboard. Nevertheless, 2020 represents a chance that comes around once in a lifetime to host a major tournament and we can but dream of a balmy night in Hampden in July 2020, in what would surely be the pinnacle of Scottish football since its inception in the 19th century.