Euro 2020: Expanded Euro format offers pathway to join football’s elite - Ben McKenna

AS North Macedonia’s Goran Pandev wheeled away in delight after scoring at the National Arena in Bucharest on Sunday night, the joy on the pitch and in the stands showcased all the positives of the 24-team Euro format.

Wales' Gareth Bale celebrating after beating Belgium in the UEFA Euro 2016, quarter final match. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.
Wales' Gareth Bale celebrating after beating Belgium in the UEFA Euro 2016, quarter final match. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

The North Macedonians eventually fell to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Austria but the cluster of supporters in the stands, along with those watching back home, got to experience the joyous feeling of watching their nation scoring at the European Championship.

When the 54 member associations of UEFA voted to expand the Euro format from 16 to 24 teams ahead of the 2016 competition, just three countries – two of which were England Germany – opposed the changes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The format means that the top two teams from the qualifying groups automatically book their places at the championship.

Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley celebrates with team-mates during Euro 2016.

That meant that Wales, Iceland, Albania and Slovakia all finished as group runners-up in qualifying but had done enough to reach the finals in France in what was a debut appearance at the Euros for all four nations.

Northern Ireland also made their debut at the championship in 2016 but went there as group winners.

Finland have reached this year’s finals as runners-up, to reach their first-ever major tournament. Wales topped their Euro 2016 group and advanced to the semi-finals following a memorable victory over Belgium in the last eight.

Iceland famously knocked England out in the last 16 phase. These were teams who were supposedly there to make up the numbers and only add more fixtures but they proved their value to the tournament.

Northern Ireland's Niall McGinn celebrates scoring at Euro 2016.

I followed Northern Ireland’s progress at the finals in 2016 and seeing them defeat Ukraine 2-0 in Lyon is one of my greatest memories as a football fan – despite supporting a Premier League club who has enjoyed their fair share of success in recent seasons.

There have been more lows than highs when following Northern Ireland but the expanded Euro format means there is something more to hope for at the beginning of every qualifying campaign.

Coming away from the romance of the 24-team format, the expanded tournament could serve to strengthen the game across Europe.

International football has the ability to unite and inspire in a way that club football simply cannot.

There are valid arguments for keeping the Euros at 16 teams, such as the point that a major tournament should be the pinnacle and that the whole point of sporting competition is that it is the best sides that have earned the right to battle it out on the big stage.

The Euros have slowly expanded since their formation in 1960. It went from four teams to eight in 1980 and then became 16 teams for Euro 1996.

It was proposed in 2007 by the Scottish and Irish FAs to expand to 24 teams, which was met with little opposition.

The latest expansion should be the last, however. There were 55 nations who entered qualifying for the Euro 2020 finals, meaning that any more expansion would see more teams reach the finals than those that miss out.

The current format gives plenty of nations the chance to realistically aim of appearing at a major finals but it still helps maintain the thrilling spectacle of tournament football.