European Championships extended to 24 teams


Soccer: A joint proposal by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) the Scottish Football Association (SFA) to expand the European Championships from 16 to 24 teams has been rubber-stamped by Uefa today. The qualification process will remain largely the same, with groups consisting of five or six teams, and the new format will be introduced for the 2016 finals.

The tournament will consist of six groups of four teams that will be followed by a round of 16 before quarter-finals, semi-finals and the decider.

The top two from each group will qualify for the last 16, as will the four best third-placed sides.

It means the tournament will comprise of 51 games, as opposed to the current format which consists of 31.

"I am very glad that our proposal has been approved by Uefa," said FAI chief executive John Delaney today. "A lot of hard work was done to promote this within Uefa and it is great to see it come to fruition. This has huge relevance for Irish fans as it gives middle tier countries like Ireland a better opportunity to qualify."

The hosts of the 2016 finals are yet to be decided.

Uefa are also expected to announce in December that Wembley will host the 2011 Champions League final. The British Government said in May there will be an exemption to tax rules for players appearing in the final and the decision should be rubber-stamped by Uefa's next executive committee on December 16th.

Meanwhile, Lansdowne Road in Dublin is believed to be a frontrunner in the race to host the 2011 Europa League - the old Uefa Cup - final. The competition is being relaunched as the Europa League from next season and beaten FA Cup finalists will no longer be allowed into the competition.

Lansdowne Road is currently under construction but is due to re-open in the autumn of 2010 with a view to hosting the final in May 2011.

The new-look league will have 48 clubs in 12 groups of four, with the top two in each joining the eight third-placed clubs from the Champions League in a 32-club knock-out stage.

The decision was taken at an executive committee meeting in Bordeaux and also ruled beaten cup finalists will no longer be eligible even if the cup winners have qualified for the Champions League - as has been the case with Millwall and West Ham in recent years.

A Uefa spokesman said: "The new format will result in many teams from all over Europe contesting the new Uefa Europa League, with teams from emerging countries or lesser-known teams challenging the "old" order of established European clubs."

"It is exactly this special character that the new identity will seek to capture."

The competition will have TV rights sold centrally in the same way as the Champions League, which should increase income to clubs.

In a busy period for the European governing body Uefa president Michel Platini today also warned Poland and Ukraine they could still lose the Euro 2012 finals if their preparations in their capital cities fall behind schedule.

Platini said that in January work had fallen to a standstill but there had been progress in the last six months though it was "neither uniform nor constant".

The Uefa president told a news conference in Bordeaux: "It's not about the stadia, it's about the infrastructure, hotels and transport.

"We were promised new airports and we will not have new airports, we were promised new roads and we are still waiting.

"Both host countries must continue to make the necessary efforts as any slackening could put in doubt the organisation of this tournament in these countries.

"Warsaw and Kiev are the key issues. We cannot organise a European competition if the capitals are not participating."

Uefa's executive committee said the Euro 2012 decision was "final" but this could still be challenged if progress was not made in the two cities.

Uefa also gave the go-ahead for a six-man special investigation unit to target match-fixing and corruption in football, and revealed they are looking into 15 matches from last season and 10 Intertoto Cup and Uefa Cup qualifiers this season.

Corruption of referees and players, and match-fixing related to gambling, has become an increasing concern and Uefa have handed a report to Interpol detailing suspicions that 26 matches in the Champions League, Uefa Cup and Intertoto Cup had been fixed. Of these, 15 are still under investigation.

Uefa general secretary David Taylor said: "We will be setting up a special investigations unit to look into situations reported to us in terms of irregular betting. This is a danger in our game, we will not allow our sport to be destabilised  by those who wish to manipulate it for their own monetary games.

"We are employing extra people and strengthening our early warning systems to fight the war against illegal betting and corruption."

Taylor said talks would be held with national associations with a view to forming a Europe-wide system covering all football competitions.