Andy McGeady: Luck of the draw will play little part in Euro 2016
Hosts France have an immediate advantage due to the tournament’s 24-team structure
France have already been given the top slot in the best-positioned group for progress in Euro 2016. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
In spring the chief executive of World Rugby said he hoped England would not exit the Rugby World Cup at the pool stage. Some took umbrage: even the perception of a team being favoured in tournament play can bridle.
What, then, of the host team at Euro 2016 being handed its best possible position?
On May 12th, 1985 at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel seven sealed envelopes, each containing the name of an NBA team, were placed in a transparent plastic sphere. The “Frozen Envelope” conspiracy theory alleges the envelope with the New York Knicks in it had been placed in a freezer beforehand, or creased, or in some other way specially treated.
Why? So the number one pick in the draft would go to the Madison Square Garden franchise, along with the right to pick Georgetown college basketball star Patrick Ewing. The theory holds that the NBA would smile upon this; the draft’s most valuable commodity heading to a market badly in need of a superstar. And Ewing would indeed become a Knick.
Chris Ballard, in a superb piece for Sports Illustrated 30 years later, called the draft lottery footage “the Zapruder film of sports, watched and re-watched on YouTube and dissected by conspiracy theorists”.
Ahead of the 1994 World Cup, might Fifa’s draw engineer a favourable group for the USA in an effort to keep the hosts involved for as long as possible? It would not have been an entirely mad thought. After all, for the 1990 tournament Fifa had openly placed each seeded team in a specific group in advance of the main finals draw. England – and their fans – were placed in offshore Cagliari. Italy would play in Rome and, importantly, in Group A. We’ll come back to that.
Broadening the European championships from 16 to 24 teams did not just dilute the sporting quality of the event, it also set a challenge of finding a finals structure that would ensure fairness. Sixteen teams makes for simple maths: four groups of four, followed by four group winners playing four runners-up in the quarter finals. With 24 teams things are not so clean.
Fifa ran four 24-team World Cups from 1982 to 1994. The first, in Spain, had the second round and quarter-finals merged into a round-robin affair. The one in 1986 heralded the arrival of the now-familiar “Round of 16”, but the structure has a flaw: it is inherently biased towards Group A.
The winners of groups A, B, C and D are all guaranteed to face third-placed sides in the second round while the top teams in E and F will play runners-up (and not even the lowest-ranked runners-up). Move through the scenarios and the inequality compounds itself.
One result is that Group E is a bum draw: no third-placed opponent for the winner while the runner-up plays the winner of Group F (a group notable in perhaps having no real incentive to finish top as both the first- and second-placed side will face a runner-up).
Group A is at the more insulated end of the scale where the winner, like that of Group D, is guaranteed to play a third-placed team in the second round followed by a runner-up in a quarter-final (see Italy’s route in 1990). A misfiring top seed will also have a further cushion as Group A’s runner-up will play a fellow runner-up in the second round.
With the symmetry of the 16-team tournament lost it is doubly sad to see a draw where the odds of progressing deep into the competition can be affected simply by the letter of the group. Uefa, when asked by The Irish Times about the fairness of Euro 2016’s structure, declined to comment.
In these times of football’s administrative unravelling it’s not unusual to consider that a major football tournament has been set up in a manner that seems oddly beholden to a particular nation. This time, however, it has nothing to do with Sepp Blatter. Uefa had since 2008 to figure out a better way for Euro 2016 – and failed.
Bonne chance, mes amis!