Euro 2016 expansion a UEFA sellout

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after defeating the Czech Republic in their Euro 2012...

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after defeating the Czech Republic in their Euro 2012 quarterfinal soccer match at the National stadium in Warsaw, June 21, 2012. (REUTERS)

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:12 PM ET

KIEV - If UEFA is ever put in charge of the Louvre its first move could well be selling off the Mona Lisa in small, heavily sponsored pieces.

No one is saying Euro 2012 has been of uniform Da Vinci quality, but frequently the games have been brilliant in their intrigue and competitive edge and at times they have also glowed with the quality of the soccer. Unfortunately, you just cannot get out of your mind how shockingly the tournament will be enlarged and thus wrecked when it reappears in 2016.

There was widespread dismay among the cognoscenti of the game when UEFA president Michel Platini announced that the next tournament, a gift to his native France, would be stretched to 24 competing nations from 16.

Now it is dawning on a wider public that an outrage has been committed.

It may not be quite as revolting as FIFA's decision to hawk the World Cup to the gay-bashing plutocrats of Qatar -- but then it is quite hard to imagine anything matching such money-grubbing squalor.

The UEFA decision, however, is also sickeningly representative of the grimy machinations of soccer authority. Certainly there is no reason to regret UEFA's bad luck that the decision is gaining attention just as Euro 2012 is approaching the final few games.

UEFA, though, will have had quite enough to answer to.

The morally hopeless disparity between the fine administered to Denmark's Nicky Bendtner for flashing his heavily logo-ed underpants and the wrist-tapping administered to Croatia for the vicious racism directed toward Mario Balotelli by its fans is one example of a failure to grasp what in the real world constitutes the difference between right and wrong.

Even if Platini's advocacy of the Fair Play Financial Regulations initiative is commendable enough -- and also in line with the practices of the popular North American professional sports -- there has to be considerable doubt about how effectively the new rules will be enforced. The delay by FIFA and UEFA in bringing in technology, even on the goal-line, is certainly not encouraging.

For the moment, though, it is the impending destruction of the 16-team formula that has worked so brilliantly that is creating the sharpest edge of anger.

There will be eight more teams competing in France and all of the extra contenders will resemble the hapless Republic of Ireland -- the one team to look completely out of place here -- instead of nations such as Russia, Croatia and Ukraine of emerging superstar Andriy Yarmolenko who didn't make it through to the quarterfinals but nevertheless made significant contributions to the weight and colour of the competition.

The dilution of such spectacle is inevitable.

The group action will remind us of the formalities of group play in the hugely overpopulated Champions League. When the draw for the groups is made you hardly need to be a soccer aficionado to make a decent shot at anticipating the makeup of the knockout phase. And it will be for what purpose? Not the enhancement of the world's second most important soccer tournament but simply more jam for all and especially the freeloading men in the blazers for whom there will be so more room at the trough.

It will be the same in the Euros of France as it was in the World Cup of South Africa, when England made such an indigestible meal of the opposition provided by the United States, Algeria and Slovenia. It wasn't a Group of Death by any means. It was for England the Group of Survival pretty much come what may, as it was for the Spaniards. They were irritated but hardly dismayed by their opening loss to the big white wall of Switzerland. Iniesta and Co. could make up the ground on such titans as Chile and Honduras. Of course, these things don't always quite work out for the best of the TV profits, as defending champion Italy managing to finish at the bottom of its group, below New Zealand.

There have been no such imbalances here outside of the deep water in which Ireland foundered. Russia was making a Cossack charge through Group A, with the magnificent young Alan Dzagoev leading the way, before the Greeks dug in and the Czechs reminded us of their days as European champions. England won its group despite enduring the possibility of elimination going into its last group game. Germany and Spain, the masters of soccer, both could have been blown away in their last group games.

It means that we are seeing the last of a certain type of competition, streamlined, taut and also doing some more than filling up the gaping TV schedules.

There is the enticing collision of the separate styles of Andrea Pirlo of Italy, he of the beautiful shifts of direction and timing, and the rampaging Steven Gerrard of England in Sunday's quarterfinal. The matchup easily could have been swept away by the strength and the passion and, yes, the skill of Croatia and a young Ukraine.

This brings still another level of expectation in a series of games all of which are the result of either exceptional performance or, in the case of England, some consistently impressive resolution.

Such values are being almost casually tossed aside by UEFA. It is more than negligence, more than a mere failure of understanding of what is most precious about the world's greatest game, one of unmatchable beauty, even genius when it is given the chance to properly express itself.

Here, against much foreboding, it has happened with a rhythm and a drama that promises an unforgettable climax.

It is sad enough that what we are anticipating with such relish soon enough will be nothing so much as a collector's piece, a victim of not just neglect but a failure to see how soccer can best live -- and how gravely it can be put at risk.


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