European football’s governing body, UEFA, has put the seal on the reported change in the way it approaches hosting for its flagship international football tournament. UEFA Euro 2020 will not be held in a single host nation or even a pair of joint hosts, but across the continent in a selection of otherwise unconnected host cities. They’re calling it a EURO for Europe – I’m calling it a Euro for UEFA, because I’m cynical like that.
The arrangement is – for now at least – ostensibly a one-off to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships. Given my naturally negative view of powerful organisations made up of old white men in grey suits it’s difficult to shake off the nagging prospect of UEFA edging towards a Champions League for international football.
Still, who doesn’t love a Wembley final? The Champions League has another this season, and the Football Association has wasted no time in bidding for the final of Euro 2020.
There are many in favour and there are also those who don’t really think this is a big deal – as ever, Richard Whittall has put his version into words better than most, and within his article he points out that there are ways in which some of the problems with this new approach can be mitigated. In truth, it can probably be made workable. Broadly speaking, my issue is that I don’t think they should even be trying.
Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of a pan-European European Championships is that the continent’s economy is – to put it delicately – b*llocksed. Spreading the cost of hosting or not enforcing the high cost on one single nation would be a noble motivation if only there were any evidence that it had anything to do with UEFA’s decision.
There’s not much proof or even suggestion that the struggling economies of Europe were the genesis of this idea, nor has it been used by UEFA particularly prominently in its justification of this move.
Could it be that nobody wanted to host the competition? Turkey’s bid might have been scuppered by Istanbul’s status as the favourite to host the 2020 Olympic Games, and theirs is thought to be the only concrete bid.
However, I find it impossible to believe that no country would have competed with Turkey to host the competition in eight years’ time. There was supposedly a joint bid in the pipeline from some of our nearest neighbours, for one thing, and it won’t have been out of the question that England made a bid of our own. Again, the lack of bids is not UEFA’s public reasoning.
In any case, we have to ask ourselves why so few countries are unwilling or incapable of hosting the European Championships, knackered economies or not. The next competition will take place in France and the finals will be played between 24 teams for the first time. And, bluntly, whose fault is that?
Whether we like it or not we now have a 24-team tournament and a small group of potential solo hosts, meaning that Euro 2020 can be seen as an opportunity for UEFA to take the competition and its matches to otherwise ineligible smaller nations and cities without the need to build infrastructure or fork out for stadium improvements or new builds. But let’s wait and see where the host cities really are. I have little faith that anything other than commercial factors will decide the cities involved.
Debating imminent change often comes down to ‘why’ or ‘why not’, but in my opinion the latter is a lazy stance that allows some people in life too much unchecked influence. Either way, it’s hardly a strong justification for altering an established and most importantly popular existing state.
We need to consider what motivates a decision like this. I don’t like saying “if it ain’t broke…” because that’s an uninspiring, staid and frankly boring state of mind.
But when the likes of Michel Platini start fixing things that ain’t broke, we should at least ask why. The journalist Henry Winter has posited today that there will be plenty of happy Football Associations around Europe, and it’s worth noting that Platini is thought to fancy the job of one Sepp Blatter at FIFA.
My opposition to a pan-European Euro 2020 is mostly down to my being a miserable traditionalist who believes that the game is being taken away from the real supporters that made it what it is. Nevertheless, there are genuine reasons to complain, and they’re just as valid as the arguments in favour.
Is there not value in the buzz of a tournament? The sense of occasion is unrivalled when it comes to a World Cup or European Championships, and there’s a feeling of football coming together. But it goes further. By coincidence I happen to be reading Mark Perryman’s book ‘Ingerland’ at the moment, and one theme that comes through very clearly is that travelling to a tournament – to a competition located in a specific place – is of enormous cultural value for travelling fans.
The expense of the competition and the logistics of getting from one host city to another are not my concern here. I fear that much of the inherent fun, uniqueness and curiosity of a concentrated tournament will be lost, and I’m certain that it will be missed when it’s gone even if you’re watching it all on television.
This is a plan with plenty of potential to be a logistical nightmare for organisers even if it might not be for the fans, who will be herded onto budget airlines. I don’t know exactly where it might go wrong but whatever we think of this concept one has to admit it’s ambitious. The margin for error is incalculable.
For all that, my biggest fear and the possible outcome that makes me more angry than the others, is that supporters will be priced out of an increasingly gentrified tournament. ‘Ingerland’ proves that the most determined and resourceful fans will find a way to follow their team, but there’s little doubt that they’ll have to pay obscene money to do so.
That’s because the commercial possibilities for a tournament of this kind are extremely impressive. In addition to the potential decentralisation of some elements of sponsorship, UEFA will have on their hands a competition in which the corporate ticket allocations could be bigger than ever before. That won’t have escaped the attention of UEFA’s Executive Committee, and it won’t have a positive effect on ticket prices for the travelling supporters.
But the real problem, the nub of the whole matter in my bitter mind, has nothing to do with how – or whether – Euro 2020 will work.
It’s that this is yet another example of a largely faceless governing body fiddling about with the game without ever asking the supporters what they think. We have it with the Premier League, with UEFA and with FIFA, and it should be a source of great embarrassment that we sit back and just let happen whatever Platini, or Blatter, or Richard Scudamore want to happen.
This article first appeared on The Stiles Council.
Chris Nee is the author of The Stiles Council, a website about the England national team.