Tight groups, matches show 24-team format working, says UEFA
By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - The decision to increase the number of teams for Euro 2016 has been justified with nearly all sides still able to qualify for the knockout stages and games proving closer than in previous tournaments, a senior UEFA official said on Monday.
Europe's soccer governing body opted eight years ago to expand the European Championship from 16 to 24 teams as it sought to give a chance for some of the continent's smaller nations to make it to the elite competition.
With the final group games concluding on Wednesday, only one fixture for the final 16 will be decided beforehand, leaving everything to play for in the upcoming matches.
Albania, for example, who finished third in a group featuring the hosts and Switzerland on Sunday, will have to remain in France until Wednesday before they know whether they will advance or not.
"It's been a positive surprise," Giorgio Marchetti, UEFA’s director of competitions, told reporters. "We have had so far a tight and intense competition.
"All the groups are open to any solution with even all four teams able to qualify and (in some cases) even able to get first position."
On paper Marchetti is probably right. After two-thirds of the way through the group stage, few games have been one-sided. One-goal margins or draws have made up the bulk of game results and some 13 goals after the 87th minute have shown sides battling to the dying seconds.
The so-called smaller teams have shown they can hold their own. Iceland have held Portugal and Hungary, Albania took France to within minutes of a 0-0 draw, Northern Ireland beat Ukraine and nobody has made fools of themselves.
"From a competition perspective it is maybe the best we've had," Marchetti said. "As you know there were a lot of question marks about the format, but as we saw in the qualifiers, during which the competition was better than expected, we are having an open and competitive tournament."
But critics say a lot of small and middle-ranking teams are playing in a similar way by packing their defence and using spoiling tactics against their more illustrious opponents.
Compared to the two previous tournaments, where 60 and 57 goals were scored after 24 games, teams have only found the back of the net 47 times.
Marchetti said that while every soccer fan wanted to see goals, there was less interest and excitement if games finished by three or four-goal margins.
"Yes, less goals, but for me if more goals means more matches ending in 4-0 or 3-0, then the interest is not really there," he said.
"Personally, I've found these 0-0s and 1-0s very exciting with teams fighting to the end. With the pattern of late goals changing games in the last minute, this is one of the successes of the tournament."
(Editing by Julien Pretot)