Monday, 16 June 2008


What is it with international soccer tournaments? I've been watching World Cups and European Championships for more than 30 years, and I even took charge of the world feed for the 94 World Cup matches in Chicago, but I've never understood the prediliction for formats designed to maximise either negative play or unfair matchups. With Germany playing Austria tonight, I was reminded of their 1982 World Cup match where they played to a nicely weighted 1-0 win for the Germans, just enough to sneak both past Algeria, who had played earlier in the day. Round robins in groups of four are always going to produce clunkers in the final games, especially in the era of the three-point win, but it's unlikely the round-robin groups will ever be any larger.

But the current Euro format has a crucial flaw: the quarterfinals seed teams was the same groups into the same semifinal bracket...Group A and B have their winners and runners-up cross-paired, with the winners meeting in the semifinal. This creates the possibility, for example, that Portugal, having beaten Turkey 2-0, might have to play them a second time 18 days later to reach the final.

This is particularly unfair to the two teams that escape the so-called 'group of death', Holland, Italy, France, and Romania. Indeed, with Spain being joined by either Sweden or Russia, you could argue that half of the draw is far stronger than the one which boasts, coincidentially enough, both host countries, Switzerland and Austria, and their German cousins.

If I were a Dutch supporter, which would I prefer--Spain or a repeat match with either Italy, France, or Romania? Or would I rather face, say Turkey or Croatia?

Strangely, with Croatia, Poland, and the Czech Republic added to those three, six of the eight
teams in that half of the draw are what we might consider Mittel European, while the other eight traverse most of the continent. Was the fix in? Try to keep those home teams in as long as possible? Make sure Germany has a good shot to stay alive, in case they don't.

Or is it just unthinking complacency to miss the anomalies? It would be a simple thing to mix the second place teams from groups A & B aginst the first place teams from C & D, and fairer by far. But of course, once you put those little cards with the country names on the board during the draw, you have to keep the lines running straight. Or else you'd be offside.

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